By Carl Unegbu, Rachel Landy, and Jarret Berg
This year’s Black History Month celebrations coincided with some remarkable developments in New York law that have a genuine potential to enhance access to the democratic space and improve civic engagement and political participation. And, needless to say, they are of significant interest to the Black community and should interest all minority communities.
This past January in Albany, with the Democrats newly in control of the state senate, the legislature passed (and the governor signed) a number of significant measures designed to improve voter registration and turnout in New York. These measures include:
- ~ Nine days of early voting (including evenings and two weekends);
- ~ Youth voter pre-registration 16- and 17-year-olds;
- ~ Statewide registration portability, so that existing New York voters stay registered and eligible to vote when they move within New York State;
- ~ Consolidating separate state and federal primaries, saving time and money.
There are several reform bills in the pipeline. Some will take several years to implement and require amendments to the state constitution, like permitting same-day registration (allowing for one-stop registration and voting), and universal access to absentee voting (currently a statutorily valid excuse is required). Other proposals awaiting enactment will modernize registration (like AVR) and others are designed to safeguard the franchise by preventing foul play. These include bills to impose NYS Attorney General preclearance of certain voting regulations and criminal penalties for engaging in deceptive election practices and voter suppression tactics.
Significantly, these initiatives have been matched by a big push by voting reform advocates. During this year's Caucus Weekend in Albany (February 16 -17) NYDLC's Minority Voting Rights Committee, CLE Committee, and Legislative Affairs Committee collaborated on two interactive CLE-accredited voting rights workshops during which panelists that included lawmakers, voter protection attorneys, and civic leaders discussed what went wrong on Election Day 2018 in new york and explained the new voting reforms, implementation concerns, and their practical ramifications.
To be sure, these reforms are long overdue in a state like New York. In terms of voter registration and election turnout, New York's record is, in one word, embarrassing. Despite being one of the richest states in the country, estimates from just before the 2016 elections show that around 2 million voting-age New Yorkers were not even registered to vote.
The potential impact of these voting reforms cannot be overstated, especially in black communities and for vulnerable populations in New York State who have historically had ballot access and political participation challenges. Communities of color make up a disproportionate chunk of those New Yorkers who neither registered nor voted in 2016. Both willful acts of voter suppression and antiquated election policy can raise real barriers to voting.
However, success is not a foregone conclusion: the implementation is yet to come. And, as always, the devil is in the details. In the near term these initiatives must be funded adequately, and in this regard, time really is of the essence. The early voting program is scheduled to kick in for this November’s general election. The logistical requirements here are considerable and the time is now for the funding to be provided to administrators on the ground in the various locales. Without ample state budget funding, the attainment of these important objectives will be foreseeably frustrated.
Doubtless, the enactment of new voting reforms, along with the elections of an African American Senate Majority Leader, Assembly Speaker, and City Public Advocate helped make Black History Month in New York a more exciting celebration this year. But without question, “a government of the people, for the people and by the people” cannot long endure in good health if the self-governors are prevented, by omission or commission, from taking an active role in the selection of their leaders, the shaping of public policy, and the public agenda.
NYDLC has a comprehensive agenda of voter access reforms that are critical to enact because they collectively help ensure that ALL eligible voters can exercise the franchise. NYDLC's full NYS voter access reform agenda can be found here and NYDLC's national voting rights agenda can be found here.