Automatic voter registration needed in New York to improve turnout, advocates say

Automatic voter registration in New York could register 1.5 million eligible voters in one year, according to advocates who called on state legislators Tuesday to pass the reform this session.

“Rather than placing the onus of registration on the individual, it allows for the government to do it automatically,” Sean McElwee, founder of AVR NOW, said outside City Hall with other advocates and local politicians. 

“Unregistered and eligible voters are added to the rolls with a single interaction at a government agency,” he explained. “When you go to the DMV, or when you go to the Department of Health to sign up for health care, you’re already supplying the data that we need to verify eligibility.”

The process has been implemented in 15 states, including Oregon, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Advocates in New York want the state to pass a model based on Oregon’s, which uses a back-end system to automatically register eligible voters who interact with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

With that model in place, 94 percent of people who interacted with the Oregon DMV and were eligible to vote were registered in the first year after it was implemented, and 44 percent of those newly registered voters participated in the next election, the advocates said. The model gives people a chance to opt out after they have already been registered, but not before.

In New York, more than a third of eligible voters are not registered. The state also has one of the lowest voter turnouts across the nation, ranking 48th for turnout in the 2018 midterm elections, City Comptroller Scott Stringer said. 

“Only 42 percent of all New Yorkers eligible to vote actually cast a ballot,” he said. “To make matters worse, we’ve seen locally how the Board of Elections has failed on our voting time and time again by purging voters from the rolls and using machines that crash on election day.”

State lawmakers in January passed a package of voter reform bills that included establishing an early voting system, putting the state and federal primary elections on the same day, allowing same-day voter registration, removing a requirement for absentee voters to disclose why they need an absentee ballot and allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister. 

That package of reforms should include automatic voting registration, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said. 

“If we want to be sincere in saying that we want people to participate, that we want the groups who are normally hard to engage like communities of more color, like communities that are economically suppressed, like young people — if we truly believe that they should be engaged then we have to change the laws,” he said. “Anyone who talks about increasing participation in democracy should be supporting automatic voter registration.”

Automatic voter registration was introduced in the State Senate by Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens).

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