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Senate considers automatic voter registration

Karen Dewitt
WBFO Albany Correspondent

The state Senate held a hearing on how New York can join 15 other states and implement automatic voter registration.

Advocates said it could result in 2 million more registered voters in a state that has one of the worst records for voter registration and participation.

Under the proposal, instead of opting in to vote, residents would opt out.

Currently, potential voters who go to a state agency, most commonly the DMV, for a service, are asked if they would also like to register to vote. Under the proposed system, the potential voter would be automatically registered to vote, but they would have the option of declining to be registered.

The voter registration data would be automatically sent to the appropriate board of elections, which would verify whether the registrant is eligible to vote.

Susan Lerner with the government reform group Common Cause spoke at a rally before the hearing. She said other states that implemented automatic voter registration, also known as AVR, have greatly increased their voter rolls.

“We know there’s a certain inertia humans have if they actually have to actually initiate something, so AVR is an opt-out system,” Lerner said. “This information is going to transfer automatically unless you tell the agency, ‘I don’t want to be on the voter rolls.’ ”

Lerner said other states have found that change translates into more voters going to the polls.

“Once people know they’re registered, a really significant proportion, 40 to 50 percent of them, take that invitation and go in and vote,” Lerner said. “That’s a big increase.”

The advocates also would like to expand the agencies that offer automatic voter registration to social services agencies that provide welfare subsidies and food stamps; the state Department of Health, which handles health care under the Medicaid program; and state housing agencies.

Testimony at the hearing centered on the nuts and bolts of how to implement an automatic voter registration system.

Concerns include how to protect undocumented immigrants who might inadvertently be signed up by a state agency to vote and who could end up being deported by federal authorities.

Sean Morales-Doyle is with NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice.

“This is a rare occurrence,” he said. “But if they are a non-citizen, that means they are at risk of deportation, they are permanently barred from naturalizing if they vote.”

The Brennan Center has documented the benefits of automatic voter registration on improving voter turnout.

Another concern is how to protect the personal information of domestic violence survivors, some of whom do not want their current addresses made public.

Robert Brehm, co-executive director of the New York State Board of Elections, advised lawmakers to craft a bill that could stand up to potential court challenges.

Lawmakers are also in the process of amending the state’s constitution to allow same-day voter registration, as well as permitting mail-in voting. Those changes require the approval of two consecutively elected legislatures and approval by voters, and so could not happen until 2021, at the earliest.

Brehm recommended that changes to the voter registration system for automatic voting also be compatible with the other changes. 

Brehm said it would take three years for the state Board of Elections to implement everything, and he said it would cost money: about $4 million for the state board and $1.25 million for the county boards. 

Lawmakers acted earlier this year to implement some improvements that will be made to the state’s voter system beginning in the fall election cycle.

For the first time, early in-person voting will be permitted up to 10 days before Election Day at selected locations. And the state Democratic Party wants to allow New Yorkers to register for a political party closer to the 2020 presidential primary.

Current rules say voters have to register in a party by October in order to be eligible to vote in the April primary. The Democrats want to allow party registrations up to 60 days before the primary is held.

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.