Gov. Andrew Cuomo claims the time has come to make it easier to vote.
For residents in places like Kingsbridge or North Riverdale — where voters suffered angst-inducing ballot blunders on Election Day last November — that’s probably welcome news.
Yet, even voting reform proponents believe there are a few caveats to consider.
Despite its reputation as a pinnacle of progressivism, New York also has been labeled a land of voter suppression by some civil rights advocates for its antiquated election laws — some of the most restrictive in the nation. But if Cuomo has his way, according to published reports, that could change in 2019.
The governor announced Dec. 17 he’d like to revamp the state’s maddening election laws to make them more voter-friendly, calling for automatic voter registration, easing voting-by-mail restrictions, and expanding the number of days residents can vote. He even wants to make Election Day a state holiday.
Meanwhile, 38 other states already allow early voting. Here, Cuomo and fellow Democrats will control the state legislature starting in January, which could bode well for his proposals, according to reports, although some would require voter approval before they become law.
The governor and Democrats in both legislative chambers have sought to overhaul the state’s elections for years, only to be squelched in a Republican-controlled senate, despite a professed desire to boost wretched voter turnout. In fact, New York consistently ranks low, according to published reports.
In the November 2016 election, the state had the eighth-worst voter turnout among states, when 57.2 percent of people voting age went to the polls, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. Before 2016, New York has ranked in the bottom half of states for voter turnout in all but one election during the last two decades.
Historically, poor turnout has helped Republicans prevail, even with an enrollment disadvantage.
But state Senator-elect Alessandra Biaggi, who made voting rights and ballot access a key tenet of her campaign to unseat former Independent Democratic Conference leader Jeffrey Klein, claims they’ve been under attack for some time. Which takes a pernicious toll, particularly on low-income residents in struggling working-class neighborhoods like Kingsbridge Heights.
“One of the most alarming things about New York state, which most people think is this progressive beacon for the rest of the world, is that when you peel back some of the layers on almost any topic — not just voting rights, but women’s health, immigrants’ rights, jobs and education — you’ll find things that just make no sense,” Biaggi said.
The most recent general election, for example, yielded uncharacteristically high voter turnout, especially for a non-presidential race.
Yet voting machines in Kingsbridge, North Riverdale and citywide malfunctioned, causing agonizingly long lines.
“Long lines are not indicative of a healthy democracy,” Biaggi said. “The fact that we had real challenges when it comes to accessing the polls, that’s one of the first things we have to change,” which could include implementing early voting.
Another issue some voters faced in last September’s primary included purged voter files, Biaggi said. “All of a sudden, their voting record wasn’t there. If you don’t know to ask for a provisional ballot, you don’t know what your alternative is.”
As for Cuomo’s proposed reforms, Biaggi calls them a step in the right direction — but just a start.
“We didn’t have to be last” on early voting behind so many other states, Biaggi said. “But we were because we weren’t able to make a persuasive case to the other party in the senate chamber of why it was important.”
Cuomo added $7 million in funding in his 2018-19 state budget proposal for implementing early voting, according to published reports. The governor had proposed early voting in the past, but never called for state funding to be used to support its implementation.
Cuomo’s executive budget plan estimated the cost of adopting early voting at $6.4 million. Biaggi claims “it’s a very low cost for a very high benefit.”
Northwest Bronx Indivisible founder David Knapp also applauded Cuomo’s proposed revamp. But, “the devil is in the details.” Like with early voting, which should include weekends and evenings, Knapp said.
Knapp’s Indivisible also is fighting for automatic voter registration and easier ability to change parties.
“Right now, we’re the only state in the country that makes people wait a year before they’re actually able to switch parties,” he said.
They’re also demanding pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, and a “legislative fix” for voting while on parole. Although Cuomo signed an executive order last April restoring the right to vote immediately following release for most former inmates on parole for felonies, Knapp claims Albany needs to double-down.
“We want (Cuomo’s executive order) to actually be enforced,” Knapp said, adding he’d like to see every potential voter — including those who still are incarcerated — enfranchised, “no matter what.”
Yet, the main question remains — how, exactly, will Cuomo implement reform?
“It’s great the governor wants this,” Knapp said. “But is he actually willing to put funds to make this happen?”
While some Democratic leaders may be quick to point fingers at Republicans for the state’s voting ills, they’re not the only ones to blame, said Margaret Groarke, political science professor at Manhattan College.
“People often think that only Republicans are interested in limiting the franchise,” Groarke said. “Certainly, it’s a very significant Republican election strategy over the last six years,” but some Democratic elected officials also seek to limit participation. Groarke calls it “incumbency protection.”
“People who’ve been elected know that they won in the system that currently exists,” Groarke said. Even entrenched Democratic incumbents might question whether greater turnout could help or hinder their re-election prospects.
If implemented, Cuomo’s proposals probably wouldn’t ignite cataclysmic change, Groarke said. “But each one of these has a small but measurable impact on participation. It also makes it easier for candidates and other organizations who want to mobilize people to vote.”
Which is crucial, said Samelys Lopez, a resident and activist pushing to expand voting rights.
“The governor has been inconsistent when it comes to this particular issue, but there’s hope,” she said. “There’s a progressive, fresh energy in the air.”
To that end, Cuomo’s reforms could help.
“But for it to stay on course, it’s really up to the grassroots to put the pressure on,” Lopez said.
The grassroots includes residents like Ruth Heller, who experienced firsthand ballot scanner mayhem plaguing North Riverdale on Election Day while working the P.S. 81 Robert J. Christen School polling site. While Heller doesn’t know much about Cuomo’s proposals, to her they sound like a good idea.
“Anything that would make (voting) easier would be great,” Heller said. “I’m not an expert, but I think (voting access) could very well be better.
“Just make sure that the equipment works properly.”