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Advocates push for early voting in New York

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Democrats who will run the state Senate in January say a top priority will be to expand access to voting in New York. Advocates say there are several steps they can take.

The incoming Senate leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, said New York is one of the last states in the nation that hasn’t expanded voting beyond Election Day. She said that by the next presidential election in 2020, that will change and New Yorkers will have more options to vote early and eventually, vote by mail from home.

“We don’t have early voting. We don’t have automatic registration. We don’t have so many things that we could have to make voting easier,” Stewart-Cousins said. “Those kinds of reforms will be among the very first.”

Several measures to expand voting in New York were approved by the Democratic-led Assembly, but failed to win passage in the Senate, which was dominated by Republicans until last month’s elections. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he supports expansion of voter access.

Donna Lieberman with the New York Civil Liberties Union has been advocating for expanded voting for years. She said the state’s restrictive rules on when people can vote and when and how they can register to vote have led to it having among the worst voter turnout records in the nation.

In 2014, New York ranked 49th in voter turnout, with just 29 percent of eligible residents coming out to vote. She said the current rules help the political parties keep control of voting, and the restrictions “alienate” the electorate.

“In New York, we have our own passive-aggressive voter suppression mechanism going on,” Lieberman said. “By virtue of the Legislature’s failure to adopt common-sense, user-friendly, democracy-friendly voting reforms that are long overdue.”

The NYCLU and other reform groups support extended in-person voting by having polling places open for several days before the official Election Day, including some weekend days.

Lieberman said New York also makes it difficult to register to vote. New voters have to sign up 25 days before the general election if they want to cast a ballot. The group has gone to court to try to change that rule.

“That means if you move to New York in the middle of October, you can’t vote,” Lieberman said. “It’s time for New York to really get with it.”

During the 2016 presidential primary, the restrictions were even more severe. Those wishing to join a political party to vote in the primary had to do so a full six months before the April voting date.

The NYCLU backs a proposal that would require state agencies to automatically register citizens interacting with those agencies. Those who don’t want to be registered to vote could opt out.

Thirty-eight states already have mail-in voting systems. Three states — Oregon, Washington and Colorado — conduct all of their elections by mail.

But New York’s constitution allows absentee ballots only under very specific circumstances, including being out of town on business or vacation, an illness or physical disability, or being in prison for a non-felony crime.

Lieberman said to change that, the constitution needs to be amended. That requires approval by two consecutively elected Legislatures, and then a vote by the public. There are no plans for the Senate and Assembly to return this month, so the earliest the change could happen is the 2021 elections. But she said it would go a long way to improving voter participation.

“It would make a world of difference,” she said.

Finally, Lieberman said New York also should switch to electronic-based poll books and move away from its paper-based system. She said it would be complex to implement the computerized system, but she believes it could be designed to be safe from potential hackers.

The NYCLU will be among the groups at the Capitol in January that will urge lawmakers to act.

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.