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AG investigating NY voter access shortcomings

New York’s restrictive voter access rules came under scrutiny during Tuesday’s Presidential primary. And some are saying there’s a need for changes.

The potential disenfranchisement of over 125,000 voters in Brooklyn , first reported by WNYC on primary day, has led to probes by the State Attorney General and the New York City Comptroller. New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio says entire blocks of voters and buildings were missing from the rolls after election officials said they were merely catching up with a routine clean up of outdated voter lists.

Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, said the voter roll purge is just the latest sign of a voter access system in New York that is one of the most restrictive in the nation.

“New York is really notorious in terms of having difficult obstacles for voters to surmount in order to vote,” said Horner, who said the rules contribute to New York having one of the “lowest voter participation rates in the country”.

People around the nation who watched coverage of the recent New York primary might have been surprised to learn that New Yorkers who wanted to switch parties or join a party to vote in the primary had to have done so by last October. New voters had to sign up by March 25th. Horner says it’s likely that many state voters were also stunned to find that out.

“That’s what contributed massively to the confusion that was happening at the polls,” Horner said.

NYPIRG as well as other reform groups, support same day voter registration, which is the law in many other states. They don’t have a position on whether parties can require an earlier date for party affiliation in order to vote in a primary, but Horner says six months is far too long, two weeks or 10 days would be more appropriate.

Horner’s group also backs automatic voter registration, when a resident gets a license with the Department of Motor Vehicles, or interacts with social services agencies, they are automatically signed up. If they don’t want to register to vote, they would have to choose to opt out. Governor Cuomo, in his budget proposal this year, proposed a limited form of automatic registration, at the DMV. The legislature rejected the proposal.

Finally, Horner says a lot of the problems with inaccurate voter registration data and polling location could be solved if the Boards of Elections were run by professionals, instead of the current system of patronage hires by the two major political parties.

“We don’t think there should be a cabal of just Democrats and Republicans running the elections for all 20 million New Yorkers,” said Horner.

So far, there has not been much interest in the legislature in passing laws to allow same day or automatic registration, or even professionalizing Boards of Elections. But Horner says the outcomes of the  investigations into the Brooklyn potential voter disenfranchisement by the Attorney General and New York City Comptroller, could change that.  

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.
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