Despite New York’s long history of political engagement, the Empire State has struggled to combat consistently low voter turnout in recent years. Following the 2016 general election, a report from Nonprofit VOTE found that New York ranked 41st in the nation for voter turnout, with barely 57 percent of eligible voters casting ballots. New York’s ranking in the 2012 general election was even worse, at 44th in the nation.
This week, the recently-reunited Senate Democrats introduced a number of proposals designed to increase voter participation in future elections. The proposed reforms are based on a recent survey of the voting patterns of New York’s eligible voters, and they focus on making it easier for people to vote.
“Our survey found overwhelmingly that most people want to vote,” said deputy Democratic leader Jeff Klein.
Many of the survey respondents said that they were unable to make it to the polls because they couldn’t find child care options during voting hours, for example. Others were unable to vote because they had to work late. Some people simply weren’t aware that an election was taking place.
With these findings in mind, Senate Democrats have proposed three key changes to the state’s voting laws:
Provide Early Voting Options
First, the proposed bills would allow voters to cast their ballots at designated polling sites up to two weeks prior to a primary, special or general election. This provision would make it much easier for many voters to avoid scheduling conflicts that might prevent them from getting to the polls on the day of an election.
“Why does it have to be that you can only vote on the second Tuesday of November?” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). “That doesn’t make any sense in the modern age.”
Extend Primary Polling Hours
Senate Democrats also want to extend primary polling hours in upstate districts so that voters can cast their ballots anytime between 6am and 9pm. Currently, primary polling hours run from noon to 9pm. Furthermore, the state’s Boards of Elections would be required to notify voters of upcoming special elections.
Offer Flexible Absentee Voting
The third reform would broaden the state’s absentee voting options, giving voters the opportunity to cast mail-in absentee ballots for any reason. Under the terms of New York’s current voting laws, voters can only cast absentee ballots if they have a specific reason, such as overseas military postings or out-of-state business trips on election days.
Many states have adopted similar reforms in the past, but the Senate Democrats may still face opposition from their Republican counterparts in the chamber. Ultimately, the decision could hinge on the vote of Senator Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who has chosen to caucus with Senate Republicans in the current legislative session.
To learn more about how you can increase voter turnout at your next election, check out our earlier blog entry here!