Fostering A Vibrant Democracy Through Elections Reform

May 6, 2009

Voter turnout in 2008 tells the story of the state of registration and election laws in New York. According to data compiled by George Mason University, New York’s 58% turnout rate of voting eligible population for the 2008 general election was 43rd in the nation—or 7th worst.

New York’s laws governing voter registration and casting a ballot are among the most restrictive in the nation.  The deadline to register to vote is 25 days before an election, even though the limit under the state Constitution is 10 days. Unlike New York, 31 states offer early voting and a similar number allow no-excuse absentee voting.

Voter registration and other election-related laws matter because they have a direct impact on voter turnout, the lynchpin to a vibrant democracy.  Yet, as noted in The Right to Vote by Alexander Keyssar, a professor of at Harvard’s Kennedy School, voter registration laws at the turn of the 19th century were crafted in some states as a means to disenfranchise segments of the population that included minorities, the less educated and the poor.

Today, states with the most progressive registration and voting laws—Minnesota, New Hampshire and Wisconsin, among others—consistently rank among at the top of the list of turnout. More than 70% of eligible voters cast ballots in those states, with Minnesota topping out at more than 78%.

New Yorkers deserve similarly progressive election laws that make it easy for them to be a part of the democratic process. The New York State Senate, under the leadership of Senator Joseph P. Addabbo Jr, Chair of the Standing Committee on Elections, is tackling this issue.

Earlier this session, Senator Addabbo announced a series of hearings aimed at election reform. Public hearings in April in Buffalo and New York City contemplated registration reform bills (video of hearing is available at the links). Hearings in May will address laws governing casting a ballot and polling places. Bills aimed at campaign finance reform will be heard in late May in Rochester and early June in Albany. Finally, following session in September and November, the Elections Committee will take up election code reform and oversight of the Board of Elections and the election itself.

Elections fuel our democracy. Reforming the way we conduct them is one more important step in returning government to the people of New York.