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New York voters have their say on expanding access to the ballot

New York ballot measures would authorize lawmakers to enact same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting.
Kaz Fantone for NPR
New York ballot measures would authorize lawmakers to enact same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting.

While a number of Republican-led states have moved this year to restrict voting access, even more states have approved expansions of ballot access.

New York is among the latter group. And Tuesday's election could pave the way for additional reforms.

It's a notable transformation.

Despite being one the bluest states in the nation, an academic study hadranked New York's voter access laws below states like West Virginia, Louisiana and Nebraska.

But that began to change after the 2018 midterms, when Democrats took control in both houses of the state legislature in Albany and began a multi-year effort to expand voting access. Some of the reforms sought require amending the state constitution, a lengthy process that includes voters approving any change via a ballot referendum.

New York's 2021 ballot includes five measures, two of which could directly affect how the state's voters participate in future elections:

  • Proposal 3 would authorize lawmakers to pass a law for same-day voter registration.
  • Proposal 4 would allow them to enact no-excuse absentee voting, joining dozens of other states that offer it. (A temporary expansion of no-excuse absentee voting was put into place for the 2020 election because of the COVID-19 pandemic.)
  • If approved, neither proposal would automatically result in the implementation of those policies. They would instead remove language in the state constitution that currently prevents no-excuse absentee voting and same-day registration.

    Brianna Cea, a Brooklyn-based political organizer, founded Generation Vote, an organizing network aimed at mobilizing younger voters. She said dropping a registration deadline would raise voting rates among students, immigrants and communities of color.

    In the lead-up to the 2020 election, Cea recalled that student organizers encouraging their peers to vote ran up against New York's current registration deadline of Oct. 8. That left many who were unaware of the deadline frustrated that they could not participate.

    But she also noted that expanding absentee mail voting could raise electoral participation among voters she has met from the more rural, conservative communities in Upstate New York.

    "They said, 'I wish I could make it to the local board of elections, but that's like a 35-, 40-minute drive, and I don't have time to drop off my ballot,' " Cea recalled from outreach work done in the Binghamton area.

    Democrats in favor, Republicans opposed

    Democrats and voting advocacy groups likeCommon Cause and theLeague of Women Voters support passage of both measures.

    And although the amendments hadlimited Republican support in the state legislature, the party is now firmlylined up against them.

    At arecent event on Long Island, GOP state Chair Nick Langworthy launched theJust Say No campaign to mobilize opposition to the two proposals, which are located on the backside of ballots.

    "You vote on the back of that ballot, flip that over and no, no, no, no," Langworthy urged, surrounded by local Republican officials.

    The campaign launch has been followed by abarrage of similar stops around the state.

    Without citing evidence, Langworthy called the ballot measures a "red carpet for fraud" and deployed a now-familiar GOP tactic for opposing expanded voting access: raising debunked questions about the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election.

    The appeal included the type of racially tinged, vague warning about the erosion of conservative voting power that has become common among the Republican base.

    "They are trying to change New York," Langworthy said. "They are trying to change our country by changing New York."

    Some in the GOP have raised more nuts and bolts concerns about the extra cost of administering same-day registration and expanded mail-in voting.

    Dustin Czarny, election commissioner in Onondaga County and chair of the Democratic Caucus of the New York State Election Commissioners Association, said he does not think that will be an issue.

    "Participation in our elections is a good thing," Czarny said in an interview. "And yes it will take more resources, but I will note that the New York state budget gave us funding to prepare for the eventual passage of this amendment."

    Czarny's Republican counterpart, Commissioner Erik Haight of Dutchess County, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

    Why Republicans could be harming themselves

    While conventional wisdom suggests that increased voter turnout benefits Democrats at the expense of Republicans, some political scholars are rethinking that notion.

    In fact, a new theory holds that opposition to expanded voting access could ultimately harm the GOP.

    "Their argument is that the party that's favored by the short-term issues in a campaign are favored, rather than always the Democrats," explained Harvey Schantz, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.

    The idea echoes former President Donald Trump's strategy of expanding his base, rather than appealing to persuadable independent voters. Although Trump was ultimately unsuccessful in the 2020 election, record voter turnout produced Republican gains in the U.S. House and state legislatures across the country.

    Schantz notes that when it comes to increasing turnout, same-day registration has the greatest impact of so-called convenience reforms to the voting process, which also include early voting and access to voting by mail.

    Who benefits from higher turnout ultimately depends on which voters are mobilized in the final weeks before an election. As Schantz notes, if the demographic is white voters without a college degree, Republicans could be the party that gets a boost.

    Before the New York GOP's recent push to defeat the ballot proposals, they had been paid minimal attention. The state Democratic Party has been largely quiet on the measures, and didn't respond to a request for comment.

    Democrats have a so-calledtrifecta in the state capital of Albany, controlling the governorship and both houses of the legislature, currently with super-majorities in both chambers. If voters approve amendments to the state constitution, it would free that majority to expand voting access ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

    Copyright 2021 NCPR

    Ryan Finnerty is producer on Hawaii Public Radio's local public affairs talk show The Conversation where he reports on local and state politics, business, economics, science, and the environment. Before coming to Hawaii Public Radio, Ryan was an officer in the U.S. Army stationed at Schofield Barraks on Oahu. He graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in economics.
    Ryan Finnerty