ALBANY – New York State's record for voter turnout has historically been one of the worst in the nation, which has been attributed to laws that have made it difficult to vote.
If the newly-powerful Democratic leaders have their way, that is about to change.
In its first major act designed to show partisan unity in the state Legislature, the Democratic-run Senate and Assembly on Monday will pass a multi-bill package designed to improve New York State’s voter participation rates.
The measures will include allowing early voting, voter “preregistration” of 16- and 17-year-olds and ending a 1996 loophole that permitted limited liability companies to get around annual political contribution limits.
“It’s an amazing first step. It’s a huge first step," said Jennifer Wilson, director of program and policy at the New York State League of Women Voters. "These bills alone are going to change how New York State votes and will raise our voter participation levels."
The bills set for approval Monday at the Capitol include:
- Requiring localities to open some polling sites 10 days before elections, including both weekends prior to Election Day in an effort to have New York join 34 other states that have early voting.
- End New York’s only-state-in-the-nation status that has separate dates for federal and state primaries. The bill set for approval moves the state and federal primaries to a single date in June. Officials say the cost-savings for localities will help pay for the early voting plan, which is estimated to cost about $7 million.
- Changing the state constitution to permit residents to register as late as Election Day; the constitution now states registration must end for voters at least 10 days before an election.
- Enacting a constitutional amendment to permit “no excuse” absentee voting so that residents don’t have to attest in writing that they can’t vote in person for a specific reason, such as traveling out of the county or a permanent or temporary illness.
The package also includes ending the LLC loophole by limiting donations by such entities to $5,000 per year. Real estate developers, in particular, have used the rule to drive millions of dollars annually to Albany politicians through the creation of multiple LLCs, which have far higher donation limits than companies. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a supporter of the loophole closing, has been a major beneficiary of LLC donations.
The package will also permit 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote, for example, when they get their driver’s permit. Upon reaching age 18, they then are automatically registered to vote. Also, the bills will include universal transfer of voter registrations between counties and from other states so that new residents to a county don’t have to reregister.
“The point is by reforming the election laws we’re going to combat the apathy we see in voters across the state who think there’s a foregone conclusion that their voices don’t matter," said Sen. Timothy Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat.
In 2016, a presidential election year, New York’s 57.2 percent overall turnout was the nation’s fourth lowest, according to the United States Elections Project, a nonpartisan organization that tracks turnout. In November, 45.2 percent of the total eligible voters came out to vote; only six states were worse while the nation’s overall rate stood at 50.3 percent, the group said.
But Mike Long, chairman of the state Conservative Party, said most of the measures are designed by Democrats to boost Democratic turnout in a Democratic-led state. He said lawmakers should embrace voter identification cards and other steps to make the voting system more secure.
Long said permitting same-day voter registration “will only add to corrupting the voting system and allowed people to be pulled off the street to get them to vote. It will add to unsecure elections."
Closing down the LLC loopholes will create an unfair playing field by restricting employer-interests that will end up boosting the power of organized labor in the nation’s biggest labor state, the Conservative Party leader said. And legalizing “no-excuse” absentee ballot will “create chaos," he said.
“I think voting is a privilege and it should remain in fact that you understand it is a privilege. It shouldn’t be made simpler," Long said.
But freshman Sen. Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat, said he saw through a candidate’s eyes last fall the notorious problems that occurred last fall at New York City voting places, where large numbers of voters found their registrations purged and voting machines broke down.
This week, Myrie began his new job as chairman of the Senate elections law committee, which will be reporting out the package of election law bills his chamber will take up Monday afternoon.
“As much as we like to fancy ourselves a progressive state, we really are at the bottom of protecting our constitutional right to participate in our democracy," he said Thursday.
Richard Azzopardi, a senior Cuomo advisor, signaled Cuomo will sign the measures since he also has proposed that those measures get approved this session. He said Cuomo still wants to see bills enacting public financing of campaigns, making Election Day a state holiday and banning corporate donations.