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Rod Watson: End voter suppression? New York is a good place to start

After watching recent voter suppression efforts in other states, residents in "progressive" New York probably feel pretty smug.

After all, Georgia had a purge of voting rolls and an "exact match" signature provision that drew national attention.

In Florida, so did the disappearance of some 3,500 votes between the initial tally and the recount.

And Alabama’s photo ID law, implemented under the guise of fighting non-existent voter fraud, was transparently onerous.

Yet despite its reputation as a progressive bastion, New York consistently ranks among the worst-performing states when it comes to voter turnout – something good-government groups attribute in large measure to how difficult it is to vote here.

If you were among those who meant to vote Nov. 6, but whose work and family obligations meant you couldn’t even catch your breath before 9 p.m., or you got to your polling place and were told you weren’t registered, you already know how hard it is to vote here. That current-day reality is built on a sordid history of trying to keep some people from the polls.

"New York, unfortunately, has been a leader in the past in voter suppression," said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/New York, one of the groups pushing the "Let NY Vote" reform package to bring the state out of the electoral dark ages.

Lerner outlined the reforms for about 60 people in Westminster Presbyterian Church recently, after describing more than two centuries of efforts to keep people of color, women, immigrants, non-land owners and other disfavored groups away from the polls using everything from outright prohibitions to citizenship tests to stringent registration restrictions.

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That last problem could be addressed through automatic voter registration in which residents are automatically registered or have their information updated any time they interact with a government agency, a reform already in place in 15 states and the District of Columbia – but not here – according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

The center notes that in addition to increasing the number of registered voters, the constant electronic updating of records – rather than relying on paper forms – means voter rolls are more accurate and there is less chance of someone being erroneously turned away.

And while critics complain about states that cut back on early voting, Lerner notes that New York is among only 13 states that don’t allow early voting at all. She regularly hears from people who move here and are shocked that they can’t vote early, when it better fits their schedule and they don’t have to stand in long lines.

Colorado, she noted, mails every voter a ballot, which can be mailed back or turned in at an early voting center, or a resident can vote in person on Election Day. It’s a system that provides maximum flexibility to make voting as easy as possible – the very opposite of what occurs in New York.

Concerned about young people not being engaged? Pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds when they are applying for learner’s permits and driver’s licenses and are talking about government in their high school classes could pull them in early.

"It’s the perfect time to capture that information and invite young people to be part of society," Lerner said, noting that 13 states and the district already use pre-registration.

The district and 16 states also restore voting rights after felons have paid their dues, which helps integrate them back into society. While Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order last spring restoring voting rights to felons on parole, the change needs to be codified in law. After all, who has a greater interest in electing people who will improve a less-than-perfect criminal justice system than those who have experienced its inequities?

Future generations will look back on New York’s current rules the same way we now look at poll taxes and literacy tests. How bad is it here? A couple of years ago, CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin wrote in The New Yorker that, "New York’s voting procedures have become a talking point for Republican-led states in defending their own regression on voting rights."

New York’s Democratic leaders have long voiced support for voting reforms, at least in principle, which should make passage guaranteed come January when they control all three branches of government, right? On the other hand, now that passage is possible with no Republican-led Senate in the way, Democrats who got elected under the current system may not want to do anything to change the electoral status quo.

That’s why the Let NY Vote coalition of community organizations and good-government groups is holding meetings around the state to keep the pressure on and let politicians know that this is a priority.

Ironically, as relatively hard as it is to vote here, the results of this year’s elections – which saw some big-name state and national incumbents toppled – could be the key to making sure Democrats don’t get amnesia about the reforms they backed before.

Or, as Lerner put it after the meeting, "There is nothing like seeing your incumbent colleagues being voted out in the primaries to stiffen your spine."

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