Hurricane Sandy showcased how vulnerable New York City is to the wrath of Mother Nature, but as voters throughout the five boroughs saw first-hand on Election Day, the storm also underscored how decades of poor policy decisions regarding voter registration and access to the ballot have created significant barriers to political participation across the Empire State.
New York City consistently has some of the lowest voter turnout in the entire nation. Last June, the city’s Campaign Finance Board issued a report finding that in the November 2010 elections, turnout in the city was significantly lower (28 percent) than in the rest of the state (53 percent) and nationally (46 percent). New York City also had lower voter turnout in the presidential elections in 2008 than any other major U.S. city. And turnout in the 2012 election was even worse.
Of course, issues at the polls are not limited to New York City. The national Election Protection coalition of civil rights and voting access groups said they received more than 80,000 complaints and questions through their voter protection hotline. Likewise, at Riverside Church in West Harlem, all three scanners jammed not long after voting began at 6 a.m.
There is no excuse for these types of issues, particularly when so many of our sister states have embraced reform that has improved turnout and reduced crowding on Election Day.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order allowing all displaced voters to cast affidavit ballots at any polling place was the right call and a decision I praised. However, there are long-term steps New York could take today to fix this woeful system and fix it for good–not just in times of weather-related crises, but always.
Fixing New York’s voting system starts by joining 32 other states and embracing early voting, which allows citizens to exercise their right to vote well in advance of Election Day. Instead of imposing a barrier on working people who may not be able to get to the polls on the first Tuesday of November, these states permit voting from four to 45 days prior to Election Day, with the average across all 32 states being 19 days.
In addition, New York should do away with the needless excuses that are required to qualify for an absentee ballot.
Many other states, including New Jersey, allow no-excuse absentee voting. However, in New York, voters must first prove they will be out of the city, are disabled, hospitalized or in prison facing a misdemeanor charge to get an absentee ballot.
For a state that prides itself as the gateway to America for millions of immigrants and a leader of progressive government, the time has come for New York to embrace both early voting and no-excuse absentee voting in order to expand access to the ballot box. Had we had either of these sensible tools at our disposal during this election cycle, we could have spent less time helping storm-ravaged New Yorkers cast their ballots and more time working to rebuild their communities.
Here’s the point: As we continue to recover from Sandy, debates have already begun about storm walls, sea barriers and other devices to protect New York from future storms. However, we must also engage in a debate about modernizing the law so that all New Yorkers can exercise one of our most sacred civic rights and responsibilities: voting.