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Newly reunited Democrats in Senate push for extended voting in New York

Karen DeWitt

The newly reunited Senate Democrats held their first press conference, where they focused on what they said was their No. 1 priority — a package of bills making it easier to vote.

Senate Democrats conducted a survey of eligible voters in New York on their voting patterns. Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said it confirms what she already knew: New York’s voter participation rate is abysmal. The state ranks 41st of all 50 states in the 2016 elections, with a voting rate of 57 percent.

“Unfortunately, New York consistently ranks as one of the worst voting turnout states in the nation,” Stewart-Cousins said. “And that’s embarrassing.”

The Senate Democratic conference now includes members of the former breakaway Democratic group, the Independent Democratic Conference. They agreed to merge with the Democrats two weeks ago. Jeff Klein, the former IDC leader who now is deputy Democratic leader, said voters offered many reasons for why they find it difficult to get to the polls, such as an inability to find child care, having to work late, or not even knowing that an election was taking place.

“Our survey found overwhelmingly that most people want to vote,” Klein said.

The bills would establish early voting at designated polling sites up to two weeks before a primary, special or general election, including some weekend days. It also would allow mail-in absentee voting for any reason. Currently, absentee ballots are only permitted if a voter has a specific reason, like being out of the state on Election Day or having an overseas military posting.

The measures also would extend primary polling hours upstate — making them 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. instead of noon to 9 p.m. — and they would require the Boards of Elections to notify voters when there’s a special election. 

Blair Horner with the New York Public Interest Research Group said the measures are not radical changes and would simply bring New York up to date with the rules in many other states.

“We have anachronistic laws on the books,” Horner said. “Why does it have to be that you can only vote on the second Tuesday of November? That doesn’t make any sense in the modern age.”

The bills face obstacles to getting on the floor for a vote.

The newly aligned Democratic conference includes two new senators, elected in a special election on April 24. But even with the additions, the Democrats still have just 31 seats, one short of the 32 required to hold the majority in the chamber. That’s because one remaining Democrat, Sen. Simcha Felder, still sits with the 31 Republicans, giving them control of the chamber. Republicans so far have not supported the measures.

But Stewart-Cousins said she’s not giving up hope.

“I’ve been watching changes happen here every day,” she said.

Stewart-Cousins said she plans to continue to talk to with Felder to try to convince him to switch sides and caucus with the Democrats. Felder has said he intends to stay with the Republicans through the end of the session, but he has not ruled out changing his mind.

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.