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State lawmakers OK measures to increase voter participation

ALBANY – New York residents will find it easier to register to vote and to cast their actual votes after the State Legislature Monday passed a series of election law changes designed to improve voter turnout for elections at all levels of government.

Chief among the changes are provisions to open polls more than a week before election days, including on weekends, as well as a “no excuse” vote-by-mail option for residents who can’t – or simply don’t want to – cast their votes at a polling place.

The package of bills, which passed both the Senate and Assembly Monday, also took a first step toward placing New York among 17 other states and the District of Columbia that allow residents to register to vote as late as Election Day. That will, however, still require a separate constitutional amendment referendum via voters statewide, which cannot occur at the earliest until 2021.

The measure to permit absentee voting by mail also needs a change in the constitution for it to be effective. The others all become law effective this year if signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has already signaled his support for the package.

Teens starting at age 16 can become preregistered, such as when they obtain their driver’s permit, so that they are automatically registered to vote when they turn 18.

Making it far easier to register and vote has been hailed by some government watchdogs as a key way to improve New York’s longtime reputation as among the nation’s worst when it comes to voter turnout. But some critics have said the measures will make it too easy to both register and vote – situations that could make voter fraud also simpler.

But Democrats who now control both houses of the State Legislature dismissed the talk. “As elected leaders, we should not fear making it easier for those who are eligible to vote. We should welcome it," said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester County Democrat.

The package also includes closing a loophole that for more than 20 years has permitted limited liability companies to be treated as individuals – thereby with far higher donation limits – than corporations, which can’t give more than $5,000 in total in a year to state candidates in New York. The law will still permit LLC owners, say real estate developers with multiple projects, to create multiple LLCs that could donate.

Importantly, however, the LLC measure will require such business entities to annually report who owns them, giving a peek into such groups that now is nearly impossible in New York.

The two constitutional amendment measures, to become law, need to be approved by legislators in two, separate sessions. That means the two initiatives would need passage again in 2021 by the Assembly and Senate, statewide voter approval that fall in order to be effective for 2022.

Cuomo’s signature is not needed on constitutional amendment resolutions. Cuomo, who is to unveil his 2019 budget plan on Tuesday, has already signaled that he wants other election law changes, including a ban on corporate donations and aligning voting hours so that most residents upstate don’t have six fewer hours to vote on primary days than downstate residents. Cuomo also wants to make Election Day a state holiday and automatically enroll residents to vote when they interact with state agencies, such as motor vehicles, unless they affirmatively say that they don’t want to register.

The bill package OK'd Monday also ends New York’s sole status in the nation that last year saw federal and state with local elections held during two separate days. Now, a single, statewide primary date will occur in June.

“We’ve seen other states around the country make efforts like the ones we’re going to undertake today, and they’ve had good results. We’re optimistic that this is going to get people to the polling place, make it easier for them to vote and participate in their democracy,’’ said Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat.

The early voting bill has been opposed by some groups for a variety of reasons. A trade group representing New York counties has raised the unfunded mandate argument: Albany is imposing a cost of nearly $10 million on localities without providing funding. Lawmakers say ending the different dates for holding federal and state primaries will save counties to blunt the impact of early voting cost hikes.

Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, a Chautauqua County Republican, said Democrats in control missed an opportunity.

“Unfortunately, we have a whole package of election law bills that don’t do anything to reduce fraud and corruption," Goodell said. He said Democrats failed to deal with campaign finance problems that were highlighted in last year’s Buffalo Billion bid-rigging trial that saw executives make timely contributions when they had major business pending before the state, such as the $750 billion solar plant contract awarded to LPCiminelli at Buffalo’s RiverBend complex.

“There’s nothing to prevent pay to play even though we know it’s a horrific problem," Goodell said. He called the measure to legalize voter registration as late as Election Day “an invitation to fraud.’’

Asked on the floor by Sen. Catharine Young, an Olean Republican, why early voting is needed, Sen. Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat, said New York joins only 11 other states without early voting. “Texas has early voting. New York does not. Louisiana has early voting. New York does not," he told Young.

Young cited a number of studies, however, that showed early voting has depressed voter turnout in some places. “I am familiar with the long lines when I went to vote last November," Myrie said of the notorious breakdowns of New York City’s voting system.

The early voting measure lawmakers approved Monday requires at least one polling location for each of 50,000 registered voters in a county. Localities could open more if they choose, and the polling places have to be open starting two weekends prior to an election. Early voting would then conclude two days prior to Election Day. Early voting polling places would have to be open at least eight hours per day during weekdays and five hours on weekend days. Places offering early voting would have to be identified by May 1 each year or 45 days prior to primary or special election contests.

Also approved Monday was a measure to consolidate a voter’s registration across county and state lines; currently, a voter moving from one county to another must register to vote in their new home county. The measure will require the state elections board to transfer a person’s voter registration to wherever a voter moves in the state.

Though Republicans in the Senate blocked the measures for years, each of the seven pieces of legislation approved Monday did so with at least a handful to more than a dozen GOP votes in a couple of cases. The two houses promptly sent the bills to Cuomo on Monday night, starting a 10-day clock for him to sign the bills.

"It's historic. I could not have been prouder to preside over voting reforms that have languished for years,'' said Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who presided from the Senate rostrum during most of the floor debate over the bills.

"We are a progressive state but in this one area we're actually embarrassed by the low number of people participating, and we realize the importance of breaking down the barriers at the ballot box,'' Hochul said of New York's low rankings among states in voter turnout rates.

Sloth-like at times in its ways, state legislators are determined – with a single political party now in control of the two chambers – to show it can move quickly on measures long stalled at the Capitol when the Senate was dominated by Republicans.

Except at the end of session and when the budget is adopted, the two houses rarely move on the same days on the same measures. That appears to be changing, at least in the early part of 2019.

On Tuesday, both houses are expected to pass the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, which adds gender identify and gender expression to state laws, including hate crime and human rights statutes. A separate bill will bar health professionals from using therapy to try to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of minors.

Next week, lawmakers say they plan to adopt measures to protect and expand abortion laws and the DREAM Act, a measure to provide state college financial assistance to children of undocumented immigrants.

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