BY RANDY MASTRO | While voters in many states participated in early-voting primaries in last year’s presidential election, few New Yorkers realized that our state does not allow for any early voting at all. In fact, it is harder to cast a vote in New York than in almost any other state across the nation.
This is a huge problem. But the good news is that this November, New Yorkers have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take the first step toward changing that forever.
On Nov. 7, New Yorkers will vote on whether they would like to convene a convention to consider changes to the state’s constitution. By voting yes on a constitutional convention, New Yorkers can make voting easier in the state by allowing early voting, introducing same-day registration and enabling greater access to absentee ballots.
New York is a state with passive voter suppression caused by its antiquated voting laws that restrict how and when citizens can vote. Voter participation in the state is surprisingly low — almost the lowest in the country. In last year’s presidential election, only 57 percent of eligible voters in the state turned up at the polls, putting New York 41st in the nation for turnout.
There is no doubt that the difficulties voters face in accessing the ballot results in low participation. Not only is New York one of 16 states that does not allow early voting, but the state constitution prohibits the practice. As a result, those with full workdays or busy schedules are forced to choose between voting or fulfilling their other responsibilities.
Not only does New York limit voting to one workday, but the state also makes it exceedingly difficult to vote by mail. In California, voters can get permanent absentee status, which allows them to skip the polls for every election and mail in their ballots. In contrast, New York only permits absentee ballot voting in extreme cases — if a voter is absent from the country or city, has an illness or disability that prevents him or her from reaching poll sites, is detained in jail or is a patient in a veterans hospital.
The rules governing participation in New York’s primaries are even more restrictive. Primaries in this state are closed, meaning that a prospective voter must be registered with a party to participate. New York law requires that first-time voters be party registered at least 25 days before the election. And if voters want to switch their affiliation, they need to have decided at least six months before the primary vote. An analysis by The New York Times found that New York has the earliest deadline for switching party affiliation of any state in the country that holds closed primaries.
As a result, the number of voters participating in primary elections is abysmal. In 2016, just 8 percent of eligible city voters voted in June’s federal primaries and 10 percent voted in September’s state and local primaries.
Over the years, legislators have announced plans to make voting easier and address these seemingly unnecessary limitations on ballot access. But these proposals have gone nowhere, and voting remains burdensome as the recent participation numbers bear out.
That’s why New Yorkers must take advantage of the opportunity afforded by a constitutional convention and introduce these badly needed voting reforms. A convention is particularly important for a proposal like early voting, which would require a change to the constitution. To do this via the normal legislative process is particularly challenging since it requires two successive sessions of the Legislature to approve before presented to the people for a vote.
A convention provides a much easier solution for enacting reform. It lets citizens bypass Albany altogether and vote instead for delegates to represent them at the convention. Any proposals drafted by delegates at the convention appear on the ballot for a statewide vote.
In a progressive state like New York, citizen engagement and electoral participation should be encouraged, not discouraged. It’s time to say yes to a constitutional convention and make voting easier in New York.
Mastro is chairperson, Citizens Union of the City of New York