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Editorial: Governor must take lead in changing anti-democracy rules

Third in a series of editorials

New York has a problem with democracy. It begins with burdensome voting policies and ends with voter apathy. The consequence is disengagement. Fixing those problems lands squarely in the lap of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who recently won a third term as the state’s chief executive.

Here’s a measure of how bad it is. In last month’s midterm election, when voters across the country were energized, New York had its highest Election Day turnout in 24 years. It was still only 49 percent.

Think about that: It was a historic event, yet just under half of voters bothered to show up. Some of that is apathy, of course, and possibly ignorance. Some people will never do their civic duty and still complain about government.

But there is more to it than that. Other states do better than New York. Minnesota, as it has in the past, led the nation in turnout, with 64.25 percent of eligible voters casting ballots. Montana had 62.1 percent.

New York needs to do better and it can take steps to accomplish that. One has already been taken — maybe. Voters in 2014 approved a state constitutional amendment meant to prevent politicians from gerrymandering district lines when they are redrawn after each census.

If it works — and there are skeptics — it could make elections more competitive and, in a left-leaning state, give Republicans greater hope of winning. Or, put another way, what is the incentive to vote if you think the fix is in, anyway?

Other actions New York should take to encourage voter turnout:

• Early voting: Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia allow voters to cast ballots before Election Day. The amount of time varies among them, but they have concluded that they can encourage greater participation by making voting easier.

New York, which likes to think of itself as progressive, has stubbornly refused to offer this benefit to its citizens. It should do so promptly.

• Similarly, New York’s rules make registering to vote more difficult than necessary. Forty-nine states require voters to be registered before they can cast ballots. In North Dakota, however, voters merely have to show up with the required identification.

The best course for New York: Automatically register voters, as done in 15 other states; permit voters to register at the polls on Election Day; allow 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister so they can cast votes once they turn 18.

• New York should also combine election days, instead of sprinkling them around the year. In a presidential election year, for example, voters could be faced with three primary election dates — the presidential primary in April, other federal primaries in June, and the state primary in September — before ever getting to the general election in November. And one more: school board elections fall in May.

It’s a crazy system, one that is bound — some might say designed — to confuse and discourage voters from taking part. After all, New York has long manipulated voting rules to protect incumbents, at one time even insisting on the color of paper that candidates must use in gathering petitions.

Responsibility to increase voter turnout goes beyond state government. In particular, schools should return a robust civics education to the classroom. Students should learn early on that they have a stake in the governments that influence their lives. Fortunately, state educators have recognized that fact and are working to emphasize the duties of citizenship.

In the end, that is the idea that must drive Cuomo and the Democrats who will soon control both chambers of the State Legislature: Democracy is better off when the greatest number of citizens take part in it. And at its most fundamental, taking part means voting.

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