New York needs to boost its grade on voting

A D- in this area of democracy is unacceptable.
At the Jewish Community Center, Jeff Witsoe finishes voting in the NYS Primary on Tuesday April 19, 2016.
At the Jewish Community Center, Jeff Witsoe finishes voting in the NYS Primary on Tuesday April 19, 2016.

As citizens of a representative democracy, voting is the most important thing we can do to ensure and protect our freedoms.

And because it’s so important, government has an obligation to make voting as easy, convenient and secure as possible.

So it’s quite disturbing that of all the things that New York government controls, providing citizens access to voting is among its greatest failures.

A report by Common Cause/NY issued Friday gave New York a grade of D- on its voting laws and its implementation of them. The report card was based on a comparison to 19 criteria established by the federal government and by the practices of other states.

New York was the 11th of the first 13 states admitted into the union. Our state was pivotol in the fight for independence from an oppressive monarchy. The battles that turned the American Revolution in America’s favor were, literally, fought just up the road from here.

Yet when it comes to securing one of the most basic rights our ancestors fought for in that war, the Empire State ranks among the worst in the nation.

There are a lot of reasons why New York’s report card on voting rights and elections resembles the “fat, drunk and stupid” scene from “Animal House.”

Despite significant financial and technological resources not readily available to other states, New York is behind on how much it takes advantage of technology for registration, voting and to secure our polls.

On seven of the 19 criteria listed in the 34-page report, New York state got a flat failing grade.

Among the shortcomings were the failure to expand voting opportunities before Election Day — in other words, we don’t have early voting. Many states now provide early voting to make the process more convenient and to remove obstacles to people being unable to vote on a specific day.

New York also got an F for failing to transition to electronic poll books, which at least 23 other states use to help poll workers verify a voter’s eligibility and identity, to ensure voters don’t vote more than once (in person or by absentee), to speed up the voting process at the polls, to direct voters to the correct voting location, and to obtain accurate numbers on voter turnout.

Among the eight categories we got a D rating on were poor training standards for poll workers, inadequate use of bilingual poll workers, inadequate tests to determine whether ballots are usable and written in plain language, and not adequately providing ballots and registration materials to the military and overseas voters via the state Board of Elections website.

Language can be a strong deterrent to voter turnout, as can ballots that are unclear and not having easy access to voting materials. This is 2017. Other states are taking advantage of basic technology to provide soldiers with easy access to absentee ballots online. Why isn’t New York?

Our best grade on the report card was a C, for four categories that included improving our online voter registration process, integrating the DMV voter data with voter registration lists, and recruiting volunteers to become poll workers.

Many of these problems shouldn’t be new to state legislators. Other states are far ahead of New York in electronic registration, creating more opportunities for New Yorkers to vote, and securing the ballot from potential fraud. All you have to do is read a paper or watch TV in the weeks before Election Day to see how popular these initiatives can be in encouraging people to vote and in making it easier for them to make their voices heard.

Among the recommendations made by Common Cause for change, and echoed here in previous editorials, are modernizing voter registration through better use of technology, shortening the deadline for voter registration to 10 days prior to an election, allowing early voting that includes at least one weekend, upgrading poll-worker training, and allowing preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds.

While we’re at it, New York should change the date when people can change political affiliations on their registration forms so they can vote in party primaries. Currently, the change date is several months before the election, an unnecessarily early deadline that most people aren’t even aware of until it’s too late.

The result of not revamping our election regulations and practices to make them easier, more efficient and more secure is that more citizens feel shut out of the process and therefore stay home on election day.
It’s the right of every citizen to participate in the selection of our government officials. And our government should do everything it can to encourage citizen participation by making voting easy and convenient.
A D- in this area of democracy is unacceptable.

Our state legislators can easily make the changes needed to get New York’s grade up to an A. This report card should light a fire under them to get it done now.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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