NY Primary Problems Bring Call To Change Voting Laws

Apr 21, 2016

Voters lined up on Tuesday for New York's presidential primary.
Credit Monica Sandreczki / WSKG News

New York’s restrictive voter access rules came under scrutiny during Tuesday’s presidential primary, and some are saying there’s a need for changes. 

The potential disenfranchisement of over 125,000 voters in Brooklyn, first reported by WNYC on primary day, has led to probes by the state Attorney General and the New York City Comptroller. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said entire blocks of voters and buildings were missing from the rolls. Election officials said they were merely catching up with a routine cleanup of outdated voter lists.

Blair Horner with the New York Public Interest Research Group, said the purge is just the latest sign of a voter access system in New York that is one of the most restrictive in the nation.

“New York is really notorious in terms of having difficult obstacles for voters to surmount in order to vote,” said Horner. He said the rules contribute to New York having one of the “lowest voter participation rates in the country."

People around the nation who watched coverage of the recent New York primary might have been surprised to learn that New Yorkers who wanted to switch parties or join a party to vote in the primary had to have done so by last October. New voters had to sign up by March 25th. Horner said it’s likely that many state voters were also stunned to find that out.

“That’s what contributed massively to the confusion that was happening at the polls,” Horner said.

NYPIRG, as well as other reform groups, support same-day voter registration, which is the law in many other states. They don’t have a position on whether parties can require an earlier date for party affiliation in order to vote in a primary. Still, Horner said six months is far too long; two weeks or 10 days would be more appropriate.

Horner’s group also backs automatic voter registration: when a resident gets a license with the Department of Motor Vehicles, or interacts with social services agencies, they are automatically signed up. If they don’t want to register to vote, they would have to choose to opt out. Governor Cuomo, in his budget proposal this year, proposed a limited form of automatic registration at the DMV. The legislature rejected the proposal.

Finally, Horner said a lot of the problems with inaccurate voter registration data and polling location could be solved if the Boards of Elections were run by professionals, instead of the current system of patronage hires by the two major political parties.

“We don’t think there should be a cabal of just Democrats and Republicans running the elections for all 20 million New Yorkers,” said Horner.

So far, there has not been much interest in the legislature in passing laws to allow same-day or automatic registration, or even professionalizing Boards of Elections. But Horner said the outcomes of the investigations by the Attorney General and New York City Comptroller into the Brooklyn situation could change that.