Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address will include a call for the Legislature to enact some bills on voting. But Democrats in the state Senate aren’t waiting to hear the details of his suggestions.
As Democrats begin their first session with a supermajority in more than 170 years, their first order of business will be to pass a package of election-related reforms. It has become something of a tradition: When Democrats assumed the majority in 2019, their first regular day of session was spent passing a package that dealt with topics such as the establishment of early voting.
“I always like to start off paying homage to the process that got us there,” said Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. “There are states where people are trying to overturn the decisions of the voters, and I think that’s a terrible message as it relates to our democracy … It’s a great signal for New York to be sending, because we want to be leaders and we want to be leaders in the most positive way.”
Monday’s session will focus mostly on bills that aim to improve the way absentee ballots are handled.
That will include legislation to permanently allow people to request their ballots online (rather than by mailing or faxing the request to a board of elections, as was the case before 2020), create an online portal where voters can see if their ballots have been received and counted, and establish ballot drop-boxes throughout the state.
One bill from Deputy Leader Mike Gianaris would have boards start counting absentee ballots prior to Election Day.
“We still have an unresolved congressional election into the New Year,” Gianaris said, referring to the undecided race between Anthony Brindisi and Claudia Tenney in the state's 22nd congressional district. “There are important congressional votes happening as we speak, and an entire congressional district in New York state is unrepresented because of how painfully slow the absentee counting process is … If we had been a swing state in the presidential election, this would have been a national scandal.”
Another would say that ballots in which "the express intent of the voter is unambiguous” should always be counted.
“We’ve seen in some races here in New York that certain ballots were cast aside because they had stray marks or some other technical deficiency, and we’ll be passing a bill that says if the voter’s intent is clear, that vote should count,” said Elections Committee Chair Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn).
On Tuesday, the Senate is also expected to pass a number of constitutional amendments that first passed in 2019 and 2020. Once they are passed by the Assembly, they’ll be slated to appear on the ballot as referenda in November.
They include an amendment to let the Legislature authorize voting by mail. That’s currently allowed only in instances where a voter is physically disabled, traveling outside of their county, or due to “illness” — the illness proviso was used to justify allowing widespread absentee voting in 2020, although that was obviously tied to the highly unusual and hopefully temporary circumstances of a pandemic.
Another would allow people to register to vote up to Election Day. And a third would make changes to the way district lines are drawn, reducing the ability of Senate Republicans to block Democratic-drawn maps, removing archaic language from the state constitution, and making it easier for the state to conduct its own census.
This week will probably not be the end of election-related activity in the Senate during the session. Myrie is promising to have a hearing later this month to explore more ways to “make the process better.” Democrats argue that given recent events, there’s no more symbolically important issue with which to start off the session.
“We had a domestic terrorist event in our nation’s Capitol that was based on fraudulent accusations of election irregularities and an election being stolen,” Myrie said. “We conducted a free and fair election, and in the face of that and expanding our democracy, there have been those who have responded with violence … So it is with great pride that this majority is once again starting off the session with expanding our democracy and making it easier to vote.”