With primary elections coming up in New York on June 28 and August 23, it’s coming time for New Yorkers to check their voting registration status again and to make plans to vote. Issues like disenfranchisement and voter suppression are populars terms nowadays, but they’re usually looked at by New Yorkers as something that happens in states on the other political side of the country like the strict voter ID laws in Texas that prohibit voting age Texans from voting if they do not have a state identification card.
“Voter suppression comes in many forms — statutes that make it harder for certain people to vote, such as stringent ID laws, reduction in polling places [to] prohibitions on civic groups assisting the voting process,” an election lawyer named Jerry Goldfeder told me an email. “There are also lawyers and activists ostensibly acting as poll watchers but really intent on slowing down the process or intimidating voters,” he added.
While New York doesn’t have voter ID laws and has been working to increase the amount of time polls are open for voters through early voting, Goldfeder said that residents of the state still encounter unnecessary obstacles to voting.
“It happens in New York in insidious ways — such as making absentee and mail-in voting more difficult than it needs to be, continuing certain practices that create long lines; having multiple election days,” Goldfeder said. “Almost all of the suppression occurs in other states.”
One of the most talked about voting regulations lately has been regulating absentee voting – the state legislature in New York had passed an extension to the pandemic’s “no excuse” absentee voting, which had expanded voting opportunities for people who don’t have the time to vote in-person, struggle to get to their assigned polling sites or who feel uncomfortable being in crowded locations due to COVID-19. But politicians in Albany haven’t successfully revisited the idea of making no excuse absentee voting permanent in New York elections.
In November 2021, two state constitution amendments were proposed which would have established a permanent no excuse absentee voting and same-day voter registration had failed to be passed following a referendum. As a result of that failure, state Democrats had vowed to give the two amendments another shot through a multi-year amendment cycle this year. But those amendments were ultimately not introduced during the legislative session, meaning New Yorkers should not expect either of these amendments to be part of the state constitution anytime soon.
Amendments aside, the legislature has been working on several bills that deal with voting and elections reform, including the state’s John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York, sponsored by a Brooklyn assemblymember named Latrice Walker and state senator named Zellnor Myrie, also from Brooklyn, that would increase the availability of demographics and election data, which could be used to back future efforts to get more people to vote. The law would also require pre-clearance from the attorney general’s office before there can be any changes to voting policy in regions of the state that have a history of voter suppression, which includes neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx.
The state passed the bill on May 31 and the assembly did the same and in early June. The governor has yet, however, to sign it.
Another voting rights bill that did the same deals with the “wrong church” provision of election law that requires voters to vote at assigned polling centers and disqualifies ballots that were cast at incorrect polling locations. Usually when a voter shows up to the incorrect polling place, they’re handed a provisional affidavit ballot instead of being told their correct assigned poll. As a result, many times their affidavit ballot doesn’t actually get counted. Voters leave the polls thinking they voted when in actuality they didn’t.
The version of the bill that passed both houses would change the law so that the votes on affidavit ballots for top-of-ballot races, like presidential and gubernatorial race would still be counted, so long as the voter cast the ballot within the correct assembly district, even if it’s not the correct polling site. Votes for races that are district specific, however, won’t be counted since there’s no way to confirm that the voter is within the correct district when they cast an affidavit ballot. It, too, is still waiting to be signed by the governor.
A number of other voting bills are in even deeper limbo, having been passed in the Senate but not yet by the Assembly. One such bill that is aimed at enfranchising more voters would allow ballots that have stray marks on them to still be counted if the voter’s intent is clear. Current voting regulations make it so any mark made on a ballot other than filling in the bubble for a vote leads to the entire ballot being discounted, even if it’s just a small, accidental pen mark. In these situations, voters think their votes are being counted, while their ballots are actually just being tossed.
A voter suppression bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Andrea Steward-Cousins passed the Senate on May 31 and would make voter suppression and deception a misdemeanor crime. A similar bill that passed the Senate on May 31 would also make interfering with elections electronically a misdemeanor. Both bills remain in still in assembly subcommittees.
Another bill that’s also waiting for approval from the rest of the assembly was passed by the state senate last month and would ostensibly try to legislatively improve the professionalism of employees who work for the New York City Board of Elections, namely by reducing the number of commissioners there from 10 to two, who will be chosen by party leaders and approved by the City Council and would more clearly outline their duties, among other things. Supporters of the bill point to cases where 200,000 voters were purged from the voter rolls by the board in 2014 and 2015.
Of these 200,000 voters, half were removed because they hadn’t voted or updated their registration since 2008. The other half were removed because the board suspected they had moved outside of the city. But critics say the board did not follow proper state and federal protocol for then removing the latter group of voters from the rolls. After giving the voters the initial notification, the board was supposed to wait for two full federal election cycles to pass before removing them. Instead, the board removed the voters after 30 days.
A large number of these voters didn’t even realize they were removed from the rolls until the 2016 presidential election rolled around. Then-Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a lawsuit against the board, which was settled with a consent decree in November, 2017. The decree required the board to review every voter registration cancellation from July 1, 2013 until Nov. 1, 2017 in order to determine which were done improperly and then reinstate them. It also required the board to overhaul its voter registration and list maintenance procedures, to better train staff and to submit to regular monitoring of voter registration for the sake of increased transparency.
Some in New York feel that, even if voters aren’t removed from the rolls and is still able to show up to the polls, they could face voter suppression just by waiting in line to vote.
The 2020 presidential election brought long lines that wrapped around the block at polling stations across the five boroughs, with voters saying they had to wait hours to even be let into polling centers, let alone receiving their actual ballots. It was the first presidential election in which the city had allowed in-person early voting — and New Yorkers came out en masse to vote before Election Day.
Those who could not commit to waiting in the long lines would often leave and come back another day or time, in hopes of finding a less crowded time. Other miscommunications led to instances of voters thinking polls opened earlier than they actually did or not realizing that their early polling site was different from their regular Election Day site.
But those weren’t the only setbacks, in September, nearly 100,000 incorrectly addressed absentee ballots were sent out. Voters received ballots with the wrong name and address on the return envelope, rendering those ballots unusable. The board of elections later sent corrected ballots to the voters, but damage to their faith in the board to handle the election was already done, leading more people to choose to vote in-person during early voting and on Election Day and contributing to the long lines.
Once the long lines have subsided, even getting through the polling site door can be unachievable for some New Yorkers, as not all of the city’s polling locations are handicap accessible. New York City has 1,231 polling sites, according to NYC Open Data. A call to the New York City Board of Elections to ask how many of those sites are genuinely handicap accessible did not yield results.
A 2021 Primary Election Poll Site Accessibility Survey conducted by the Office of the Borough President of Manhattan and the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York, however, found that more than half of surveyed polling locations in Manhattan were handicap inaccessible.
“CIDNY and the Borough President’s observations during the June 2021 primary found, once again, barriers that rendered polling places inaccessible,” the survey’s report reads. “This is in addition to a similar survey conducted following the April 2016 primary election that also found barriers to voting for people with disabilities.”
Another problem is odd year elections, which are just what they sound like – elections held in odd number years when there are no big ticket presidential or congressional elections. On odd years, there are often elections for city-wide offices, like mayors, city council members, district leaders and judges.
The problem with odd year elections is that they have a resoundingly low voter turnout. Voters are more likely to show up at the polls if there’s a federal or gubernatorial race happening, than for just local races. In 2018, 1.5 million New Yorkers across the state voted in the September primary election for governor. In New York City alone, 855,087 people voted in this race. That’s compared to the 480,569 people who voted in the New York City mayoral primary race in 2017 and to the 791,329 people who voted in the 2019 general election for public advocate, a city council seat, city civil court and supreme court — both odd years that had clear lower voter turnout than the even 2018 election year. All elections after 2019 were impacted by the pandemic, which impacted in-person voter turnout while increasing absentee voting.
Some advocates argue that holding elections in odd years suppresses the vote of the thousands of people who generally only vote in even-year elections that have federal races for the presidency and Congress. If local elections were only held in even years when more people go out to vote, those races would receive more votes as well, enfranchising the people who would have otherwise not gotten to have their voices heard on those races.
A bill sponsored by assemblymember Amy Paulin and senator James Skoufis would make it so that most town, village and county elections outside of New York City are held during even-year elections, alongside bigger races. The law would excludes elections for sheriff, county clerk, district attorney, family court judge, county court judge, surrogate court judge and town justice elections.
“New York’s current system of holding certain town and other local elections on election day, but in odd-numbered years leads to voter confusion and contributes to low voter turnout in local elections,” the bill’s authors write. “Studies have consistently shown that voter turnout is the highest on the November election day in even-numbered years when elections for state and/or federal offices are held. Holding local elections at the same time will make the process less confusing for voters and will lead to greater citizen participation in local elections.”
This bill has faced opposition from New York Republicans, like New York State’s Republican Party Chairman Nick Langworthy, who calls it an effort to hurt Republicans’ chances at winning elections.
“[Democrats] are once again on a mission to illegally seize power and upend our entire election system in this great state,” Langworthy said at a rally outside of the Capitol building in Albany in late May.
Closed primary elections in New York are also seen as a way to suppress voters who aren’t registered with one of the two major political parties in the country. In New York, the effect of the closed primary system is that 28% of the state aren’t able to vote in primary elections because they are registered with a third party.
“Closed primaries hamper our democracy,” the advocacy organization Open Primaries’s mission statement reads. “They produce elected officials more accountable to their party than to their constituents. They restrict participation and reinforce division. They exclude independent voters, the largest and fastest growing sector of the electorate. And closed primaries make it more difficult for the American people — voters and elected officials alike — to come together across ideological lines.”
A more recent concern has been ranked choice voting. Ranked choice voting is a type of ballot that allows voters to vote for more than one candidate in a particular race. New York City adopted ranked choice voting for municipal special elections and primaries after 73.5% of voters supported it as a ballot measure in 2019.
Supporters of ranked choice voting cite the new ballots as giving voters the opportunity to vote for more candidates than ever before and have more of a say in elections. Even if an individual’s first place candidate doesn’t win, their lower votes could still help their second, third, fourth or fifth choice candidate win the election.
Opponents, however, do not think so.
“It is sophisticated voter suppression, but it is voter suppression,” former Queens city councilman named Daneek Miller said last year. When he was in office, Miller went so far as to sponsor a failed bill that would have repealed ranked choice voting from the City Charter until November 2021.
But there’s evidence that ranked choice voting did not disenfranchise average voters. The mayoral and council primary elections last June saw a 29% increase in voter turnout, according to a political science professor who talked to a local journalism blog call the City. In fact, about a million New Yorkers voted in that election, and only 15% of those ballots ended up “wasted” – which is when a voter votes only for candidate who didn’t make the top two spots of the race. In the 2013 mayoral primary, that number had been 33%.
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