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Letter to the Editor: The Sad State of Voting in New York

This week, New Yorkers voted again – for the third time in six months – in primary elections. Every other year, New Yorkers vote in, and pay for, two primary elections, and this year a Presidential primary as well.

And people wonder why New York’s voter participation rates are so low.

The existence of multiple primaries is just one example of a rigged system–– one that functions for the benefit of the established candidates of the two major parties, and not for the public’s best interests. Adding insult to injury, running two separate primaries wastes millions of taxpayer dollars that could go towards funding higher education or many other underfunded causes.

There are several other examples of voting roadblocks. For instance, Voters wanting to switch parties for last April’s Presidential primary would have had to switch by October 9, 2015 – 193 days before the primary and the earliest such deadline in the nation– in order to vote. In addition, New York prohibits citizens from registering to vote a full 25 days before a general election – one of the earliest deadlines in the nation.

The stories go on and on: from the purging of over 100,000 voters in Brooklyn, to writing with tiny fonts on the ballot, to policy gridlock at the state Board of Elections (which is run, incidentally, by the two major political parties), the efforts to make voting a difficult process seem endless.

Restrictions like these have a severe impact. New York ranks near the bottom, nationally, in voter participation. In the Presidential primary, despite there being two prominent New Yorkers on the ballot, New York had the second lowest turnout. In the 2012 Presidential Election, the Empire State also ranked 43rd nationally in voter eligible turnout.

Why does a state that prides itself on openness have some of the nation’s worst voting laws?

Part of the problem rests with politicians themselves. Newly registered voters are political unknowns and could introduce risk into a candidate’s campaign. New York legislators have benefited from noncompetitive elections that perpetuate the status quo. Despite the fact that the public claims to be upset with the status quo, if politicians keep getting reelected with low participation – why would they feel the need to change the rules?

Given that dismal picture, what should be done? The most obvious step is to encourage widespread voter participation. The jolt of this year’s Presidential primary season is helping. The New York City Campaign Finance Board says its spring registration effort was “very encouraging,” noting a spike in interest. Before its drive to register eligible 18-year-old high school students, there were 16,000 18-year-olds registered to vote. The drive yielded around 8,500 new voters, about a 50 percent increase. “These students are willing and hungry to get involved,” the Board said, “but they simply want to be asked to participate.”

The rest of the adult voting population has to be asked too.

Policy changes are needed. Voter registration is a right, not a privilege. Democracy sometimes operates like a work-in-progress, and it is our responsibility to vote and help it improve. Public policies should center on making it easier, not harder, to vote. Allowing all New Yorkers to register online and all eligible 16 and 17-year olds to pre-register would be a start. Updating ballots for ease and clarity would help as well. Enacting other reforms such as automatic and same-day registration are no brainers. Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers must do a lot more to fix New York’s voting crisis.

Nathaniel Butler, NYPIRG at Brooklyn College

718-859-7177: Brooklyn@NYPIRG.org

Additional Voting Information:

For those who are not registered, forms are available online at the state Board of Elections website (see http://www.elections.ny.gov/NYSBOE/download/voting/voteform_enterable.pdf). If you want to register, you must do so before October 14th. You can download and print the form and mail it in or complete an online form.

Registered voters can verify their registration and find out their polling place through the Board’s website: https://voterlookup.elections.state.ny.us/votersearch.aspx. Click “look up voter information.”

If you’re not sure who your state or federal representatives are, the Board has information on that too at http://www.elections.ny.gov/district-map/district-map.html. More background on each legislator is available on the website of the New York Public Interest Research Group through the “legislative profiles” option (available at http://www.nypirg.org/goodgov/2016_Legislative_Profiles/).

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