In the wake of Governor Cuomo’s April announcement of felony voter re-enfranchisement, a number of legal service providers in New York City started to incorporate voter registration into their client services. During a July visit to his public defender’s office, John Lasley was asked by a case worker if he was interested in registering to vote. Lasley, who had recently been released after serving a 7-year sentence in state prison and was in the office to update his resume, looked at the form on the table pensively before responding “No one has ever asked me that before”.
Initiated by executive order to sidestep a resistant state senate, the re-enfranchisement restores voting rights to roughly 35,000 New Yorkers on parole, three-quarters of whom are black or Latino. To avoid violating state law, the mechanisms of the restoration are laborious, with the Governor’s office reviewing the case of each individual released to community supervision, issuing a partial executive pardon, and, if approved, dispatching the parole officer with a notification of relief and voter registration form. It’s a necessary and long overdue step. But the current felony voter re-enfranchisement process is far too piecemeal to meaningfully challenge the deeply rooted forces constricting robust voter participation New York — a state that hasn’t significantly updated its voter laws since the 1930’s thanks to an obstructionist state senate.
New York sits near the bottom of the U.S in voter turnout, with just eight states performing worse in the 2016 election. Even if all 35,000 newly re-enfranchised New Yorkers registered and voted, our turnout vis-à-vis other states would remain dismal. And even such a modest achievement is rather unlikely, as the formal and informal discrimination and collateral consequences of living with a felony conviction present often insurmountable obstacles to voting. New York’s antiquated voting laws complicate the process further with onerous restrictions that disproportionately disenfranchise the poor and the busy. Cuomo — who has had many opportunities to push a more wide-ranging set of reforms — has yet to prove himself to be anything approximating a champion for voting rights.
The list of factors behind New York’s slumberous voting rate is long and rife with frustratingly simple fixes: the absence of modern voting rights such as automatic voter registration or vote by mail; an outdated and expensive federal and state primary system that could be readily consolidated; an arduous party-changing process that takes well over six months; poor adherence to the Motor Voter Law; and a widespread divestment from civic engagement among the most marginalized communities. “Voter turnout in New York is a national embarrassment” summarized state Senator Bray Hoylman, Senate Democratic Policy Group Chair.
These restrictions — particularly limited voting hours and registration cut-offs — drive down turnout for everyone, but make it especially difficult for working people to get to the polls. In a survey of non-voters conducted by the New York Senate Democratic Conference in 2018 titled “Why Don’t More New Yorkers Vote”, 79% cited restrictive voting hours or school and work obligations as the principle reason they didn’t cast a ballot. “Government should make it easier for citizens to vote, not put up unnecessary hurdles” noted Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins whileunveiling the survey results in May. After conducting the survey, Senate Democrats launched their most recent package of reforms, a series of bills focused on implementing early voting, automatic voter registration, no-excuse absentee voting, pre-registration for 16-and 17-year-olds, expanded language options on ballots, enhanced notification before elections, and consistent voting hours. Though the most comprehensive and constituent-backed series of reforms yet, they’re all but certain to die swiftly in the senate.
New York’s inability to adopt cost-effective and proven remedies to these drivers of low turnout has for years drawn ire from voting rights proponents, particularly when so many other states have passed a variety of meaningful reforms. 34 states and the District of Columbia allow early voting or in-person absentee voting, 15 states allow same-day registration, 12 states and the District of Columbia provide automatic voter registration, 16 states allow 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister before they turn 18, and three states allow voting by mail. These reforms have all demonstrated cost-effectiveness and cogency in increasing voter turnout, and most have been on the Democratic Conference’s voting agenda for years. Governor Cuomo has spoken fervently about the moral imperative to make voting widely accessible, even endorsing automatic voter registration in his 2016 and 2017 State of the State and Budget addresses. But he has so far refrained from using his bully pulpit to advocate for these bills at critical junctures. The assembly has time and again passed vigorous voting reform packages that have stalled in the senate as Cuomo remained silent.
Maintaining a voting system that advantages those with the luxury of a flexible schedule and punishes the overworked and under-resourced might seem like an insidious reproduction of elite power, but many state senators seem unperturbed. Though the Independent Democratic Caucus was disbanded in April and six of its eight members were defeated in their September primaries, the senate remains narrowly dominated by Republicans. The fate of progressive legislation in the Senate will be determined by November’s general election. If Democrats are able to flip two seats and reclaim the majority, New York’s legacy of antediluvian voting laws may finally come to an end. But while the necessity of these reforms cannot be overstated, meaningfully improving voter participation will require an approach that both advances affirmative voting rights and penetrates the myriad social, cultural, economic, and institutional barriers to voting.
Beyond neutralizing the disparate effects of constrictive electoral laws, political strategies to address the inequalities that persist when voting laws don’t intentionally suppress targeted groups are urgently needed. Even states with the most inclusive electoral laws see particularly low voter turnout among low-income, young, Black, and Latinx populations, and New York’s turnout ranks worse even than states with more repressive voting laws. Improving social institutions, like enhanced investment in civic education in public schools and expansion of motor voter provisions to other social service agencies, would be a critical step toward ending this cycle of unequal representation.
Just as the overarching narrative of prison abolition focuses less on the immediate shuttering all prisons and more on creating the social, political, and economic conditions necessary to render mass incarceration obsolete, so too should the movement for affirmative voting rights operate with a far-reaching systemic vision. Civic engagement is an instructive measure of community health. Anemic voter participation reveals the flaws of multiple systems, and an adequate program for the equitable redistribution of political power requires a blueprint capable of striking the racial and socioeconomic roots of disempowerment. The institutional overhaul required to remove the entrenched barriers to the ballot box underscores an abiding catch-22 of advancing voting rights: in order to change the conditions that suppress voting, more people need to vote. If Democrats win the senate in November, there are a number of policies that could be implemented to neutralize obstacles to participation and create a more fertile terrain from which to advance this necessary transformation.