New York prides itself as a beacon of progressiveness. Yet in one crucial respect the state is notoriously retrograde: on voting reform.
When it comes to voter participation, New York is less a shining beacon and more a black hole. In 2016 it ranked 41st for voter turnout, with just 57.3% of eligible citizens casting a ballot. For those who did make it to the polls, there were all manner of procedural and technical obstacles that frustrated the exercise of their democratic rights.
Last year’s Democratic primary, for instance, was plagued with voting issues – from polling sites not opening on time, to poorly-trained election workers.
Some activists have had enough. “Back in November, the polls were a complete mess,” says Kim Moscaritolo, 38, a transmissions coordinator and Democratic District Leader for the 76th Assembly District, Part B, in Manhattan. “There were lines for two to three hours, machines were breaking – it was immensely frustrating. People were leaving because they had to go to work or to pick up their kids. I had the idea on that day that we needed to do something about it,” she adds.
And do something about it she did. Moscaritolo held a meeting in late March to educate activists on the laws being worked on at the city and state level to make voting in New York faster and easier, and to share ideas on what city residents could do to chivvy these initiatives along.
New York politicians are not short on ideas on how to improve things, but they need help getting their proposals into law. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman introduced the New York Votes Act in February, including provisions on early voting, automatic voter registration, so-called “No-Excuse” absentee voting, consolidated election days, and improved training for poll workers.
It’s sponsored in the State Assembly by Michael Cusick (D-Staten Island), the Chairman of the Election Law Committee, and has support in the State Senate from both Democrats and members of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC). This eight-strong group of Democratic Party breakaways may yet tip the balance in favor of the Act in the Senate, where previous voting reforms have died at the hands of the Republican majority.
Moscaritolo’s group of activists is lending its weight behind efforts to get the Act passed. “One of the most effective [things we can do] is lobbying. It’s tough especially here in NYC because by and large the majority of our state representatives are actually very supportive of all of these reforms. It’s really a matter of getting the folks who are further upstate to agree with it.”
Automatic voter registration (AVR), one part of the reform package, is a cause that has been enthusiastically taken up by advocacy group Tally Up NY, co-founded by Brett Edkins, 33, a freelance writer. AVR would allow New Yorkers to become registered to vote whenever they apply for a driver’s license, disability or other public benefits, join the National Guard, or enroll as a CUNY or SUNY student.
It’s a common-sense reform that’s already been introduced in six states – Oregon, California, Alaska, West Virginia, Connecticut and Vermont – as well as Washington, DC. Oregon implemented AVR in January 2016, and reported 300,000 added to the voter roll as of September that same year – at least 75% of whom got there through AVR.
“AVR is the single most impactful way to change the make up of the electorate for 2018 and 2020,” says Edkins. Around five million New Yorkers are currently not registered to vote, a full one in three of the electorate. Many of the disenfranchised are either young, poor, or from an ethnic minority – or all three.
“These are exactly the kind of people who need their voices heard in government,” Edkins adds.
Voting reform may not be the most eye-catching of issues, especially in this new era of political activism where progressives are in the fight of their lives against an unprecedented enemy in the form of the Trump administration, but Moscaritolo insists it is one the liberal left must get behind.
“Voting is not a privilege, it’s a right, and it should be as easy as humanly possible to do. We are a progressive state and we should be doing better,” she says.
Edkins adds that all the issues progressives care about – from Obamacare to protecting a woman’s right to choose – are under assault because they lack political power, which can only be gained at the ballot box. He sees AVR, and other voting reforms, as a means to get more people involved in the political process as the first step towards changing who is in power.
“Protests are great but they don’t mean anything if our state legislature and congress look exactly the same as they do today,” he says.
Making registering to vote simpler and more accessible would enfranchise millions of New Yorkers who currently do not have a say on who will represent them, from City Council all the way to the White House. Increasing voter participation would also force elected officials to be more responsive to their constituents and enact policies in line with their consensus opinion, rather than pandering to a narrow base of ideologically hardened political activists who can be relied on, in low turnout elections, to push their candidate over the line of victory.
Those who oppose reform are, unsurprisingly, those who benefit from low turnout elections: incumbents and ideological firebrands who can count on a hardcore voter base and ignore the rest.
“No politician wants to see the make-up of the electorate that got them elected changed [so] there is a political incentive to stop this period,” says Edkins.
Yet the New York Votes Act seems to be gathering a head of steam, thanks in no small part to the activism of people like Moscaritolo and Edkins. If more New Yorkers joined their ranks, who would bet against voting reform making the statute books by the end of the year?