By Eric T. Schneiderman
The right to vote is absolutely essential to our democracy. Yet the voices of New Yorkers continue to be silenced by state voting laws and procedures that are cumbersome, confusing and keep too many people from voting.
During the April presidential primary, my office was flooded with calls from frustrated New Yorkers who were facing a range of barriers to voting, including long lines, broken machines, names left off the voting rolls and shuttered poll sites.
We saw there were clearly systemic problems plaguing voters across the state. In response, my office launched an inquiry into state election laws and procedures. The troubling conclusion: New York’s election system is fundamentally broken.
As we documented in our new report, outdated laws and a patchwork of conflicting local procedures have turned one of the most fundamental rights of citizenship into an obstacle course that trips up far too many New Yorkers. The complaints we received fell into two major categories: problems with registration, and problems with the voting process itself.
New York’s registration system is onerous and confusing. The party enrollment process in particular excludes large numbers of voters from participating in primaries. Since New York has closed primaries, a registered voter who wants to participate in a party’s primary has to switch registration to that party.
Under New York law, a voter has to switch parties “at least 25 days prior to the General Election in the year prior to the primary.” For the April 19 primary, that meant Oct. 9, 2015 – 193 days before the primary. In the primaries for New York state offices, the party registration deadline is almost a year before the election.
Some voters found their polling place had been moved without notice. Others were denied lawful ballots by undertrained poll workers. Optical scanners broke down. Long lines snaked around polling places. The list of problems goes on, but the result is the same: qualified voters from Buffalo to Long Island were routinely denied their most basic right as citizens.
The New York Votes Act, which I plan to introduce at the beginning of the coming legislative session, will make voting easier. Early voting and no-excuse absentee voting will cut down long lines. Automatic voter registration for any eligible voter who comes in contact with a state agency will dramatically increase New York’s voter registration rate – currently among the worst in the nation.
Our absurdly restrictive party registration rules must be reformed, so that voters can choose to participate in a party’s primary weeks, not months, before Election Day. And we should consolidate elections to boost turnout, and redirect the funds we save by doing so to improve training of poll workers and extend voting hours.
Elections shape our world. We can’t afford to be complacent about our broken electoral system. It’s time to make New York a national leader on voting rights.
Eric T. Schneiderman is attorney general of New York.