New Yorkers will vote on amendments dealing with the environment, elections, redistricting, and courts

On Nov. 2, New Yorkers will be voting on five amendments to the state constitution.

Any legislative proposal to amend the Constitution of the State of New York must be passed in two successive legislative sessions; the amendment will then appear on the ballot, which must also pass.

This year’s proposed amendments deal with elections, redistricting, the environment, and the courts. 

A detailed  description of the five ballot proposals is on the state’s website. What follows here is a summary of each proposal with some context.


Proposal 1

This would amend the apportionment and redistricting process.

The number of state senators, which has grown over time from 50, would be frozen at 63. The process for the state’s population would be amended, deleting provisions that violate the United States Constitution.

Also, certain requirements for the appointment of co-executive directors of the redistricting commission would be repealed and the manner of drawing district lines for congressional and state legislative offices would be amended.

In 2014, state voters had approved a constitutional amendment that created a redistricting commission with 10 members — four each from the two major parties and two appointed by those eight members from other parties.

That 2014 amendment would be changed to allow the redistricting commission to appoint two co-executive directors by simple majority vote without considering their party affiliation and would reduce the vote threshold for approval of the maps from two-thirds to 60 percent of the 63-seat senate and 60 percent of the 150-seat assembly.

The state assembly and senate district lines would be based on the total population of the state and the state would be required to count all residents, including non-citizens and Native Americans if the federal census fails to include them.

The amendment would also provide for incarcerated people to be counted at their place of last residence rather than at their place of incarceration for redistricting. This practice is already established by state statute for senate and assembly districts.

The amendment would also remove the current “block-on-border” requirement for state senate districts that prohibits redistricting plans from dividing towns but not cities.

On July 23, both houses passed the amendment: 42 Democratic senators (one did not vote) voted yes while all 20 Republican senators voted against; 99 Democratic assembly members voted yes and 7 voted no while all 43 Republican members voted no, and the one Independence Party member voted yes.

In 2014 and again in 2021, good-government groups have been divided on the constitutional changes for redistricting. In 2014, supporters thought having a commission would make the process more independent but opponents pointed out that the legislature still had the power to override the commission’s maps, leaving the politicians in control.

For the current 2021 proposal, supporters say some partisan elements would be removed and that the amendment would simplify the voting process. Opponents say that reducing the vote threshold from two-thirds to 60 percent reduces the need for bipartisan support.

Currently, Democrats have a supermajority in both the assembly and senate so redistricting, which, based on the 2020 federal census, is to conclude next year before the 2022 elections, is unlikely to be affected by a change in the threshold


Proposal 2

This amendment would add just one sentence to the Bill of Rights in Article I of the New York Constitution: “Each person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.”

On Feb. 8, the assembly passed the measure, 124 to 25, with support from all Democrats, 17 Republicans, and an Independence Party member. The senate had passed the measure on Jan. 12 by a vote of 48 to 14 with 42 Democrats and six Republicans voting in favor.

The bill’s lead sponsor, Robert Jackson, a Democrat representing Manhattan’s West Side, said, “This language will finally put in place safeguards that require the government to consider the environment and our relationship to the Earth in decision making. If the government fails in that responsibility, New Yorkers will finally have the right to take legal action for a clean environment because it will be in the State Constitution.”

Dan Stec, a Republican from Queensbury, said in voting against it, “I’m all for clean air and clean water. Who isn’t? But in the face of ambiguity you will have distrust, you will have lawsuits, you will have costs, and I’m trying to avoid that.”

Some farming and business groups have opposed the amendment while environmental and good government groups have supported it.


Proposal 3

This proposed amendment would delete the constitution’s current requirement that a citizen be registered to vote at least 10 days before an election and would allow the legislature to enact laws permitting a citizen to register to vote less than 10 days before the election.

The rest of the current language would remain in place: “Laws shall be me for ascertaining, by proper proofs, the citizens who shall be entitled to the right of suffrage ….”

If this amendment passes, there would no longer be a constitutional block to the legislature passing a bill that would allow registration on the same day as a vote.

For years, voting-rights advocates have sought this reform, criticizing the current system as outdated and saying it would expand access to the ballot and increase voter engagement. Twenty states currently allow same-day registration.

When the Democrats gained control of both houses in January 2019 — the senate had long been controlled by Republicans — they passed the amendment, and then passed it for the second time this January.

On Jan. 12, all 20 Republican senators voted against the amendment and 42 Democrats voted for it; one Democrat didn’t vote. In the assembly, on May 11, all but one of the 104 Democrats voted for the amendment and all but one of the 43 Republicans voted against it; the vote was 104 to 43.


Proposal 4

This no-excuse-needed for absentee voting amendment would delete from the current provision the requirement that an absentee voter must be unable to appear at the polls by reason of absence from the county or illness or physical disability.

Currently, the state’s constitution allows only these two specific circumstances for an absentee ballot — to be absent from the county of residence, or from New York City for residents of the city, on Election Day or to be unable to appear at their polling place because of illness or physical disability.

An emergency executive order signed by then-Governor Andrew Cuomo during the pandemic, and then a state law following that, allowed no-excuse-needed absentee voting to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Sixteen states, including New York, require an excuse for absentee voting; most of those states are in the South.

If this amendment were approved, no-excuse-needed absentee voting would become part of the constitution — another reform long sought by voting-rights advocates, which had long been blocked by the Republican-controlled senate.

Similar to Proposal 3, this amendment was passed by the senate in January 2019 when Democrats gained control of that house.

On Jan. 14, the amendment passed in the assembly, 139 to 9, with 102 Democrats and 34 Republicans voting in favor; one Democrat and eight Republicans opposed the amendment.

The next day, Jan. 15, the senate passed the amendment, 56 to 5, with all the Democrats and 16 Republicans supporting it and five Republicans voting no.


Proposal 5

The fifth proposal applies just to New York City Civil Court but must be passed statewide in order to amend the constitution.

The purpose of the amendment is to increase the jurisdiction of the city’s civil court, a trial court, to hear and decide claims for up to $50,000 instead of the current jurisdictional limit of $25,000.

The court was set up in 1962 after a restructuring amendment passed in 1961. Its original jurisdiction was on claims, such as those related to landlord-tenant disputes, up to $10,000.

In 1983, voters approved a constitutional amendment to increase the court’s jurisdiction to $25,000. In 1995, voters rejected another amendment, like this one, to increase the jurisdiction from $25,000 to $50,000.

Of the five amendments on the state’s ballot this year, Proposal 5 is the only one to get unanimous support from Democrats, Republicans, and independent legislators.

The senate’s lead sponsor for the amendment, Luis Sepulveda, a Democrat representing the Bronx, said it is meant to adequately adjust for inflation, address backlogs and delays in the state judicial system, and relieve caseload burdens in other courts.

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