The vote – opening access, closing loopholes

Voting is essential to democracy.

This year saw the greatest voter turnout ever for a presidential election — in the midst of a pandemic.

We believe the widespread mail-in voting that New York and many other states allowed because of the pandemic helped to increase voter participation.

Although President Donald Trump is still making false claims that the election was stolen, the vast majority of his lawsuits have failed in court. Our democratic system has held even in the midst of a pandemic and under assault from our president.

But more can and should be done to make voting easy and accessible to all.

New York State had serendipitously enacted reforms ahead of the pandemic, which among other things allowed all-important early voting. We marveled at the long lines we saw ahead of Nov. 3 as residents patiently waited to exercise their right to vote.

Even before the fall elections, we witnessed a surge of votes — all through mail-in ballots — for public library and school board and budget elections.

The old adage that a large voter turn-out foretells budget defeat went by the wayside. In Guilderland for example, district residents cast triple the votes usual for school and library elections — yet both budgets passed by wide margins.

The state’s comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, reported that this increased participation in school budget votes and elections with mail-in rather than in-person voting was statewide.

“Historically,” the report says, “participation in school district budget votes has been relatively low and declined steadily since the implementation of the property tax cap, which became effective starting in the 2012-13 school year.”

However, with the executive order for mail-in ballots, voter participation for school district budgets statewide more than tripled to 1.6 million votes. The budget outcomes were similar to 2019 when only 1.6 percent of the budgets failed to pass on the first vote, the report says.

New York should learn from this emergency measure to develop a permanent model for mail-in voting. 

Oregon was the first state in the nation to adopt a vote-by-mail model, in 1998.

A study published in the American Review of Politics shows that “Oregonians have maintained their overwhelming support for vote-by-mail elections — in particular, women, Independents, Republicans, and older voters.” Eighty-one percent of Oregonians who were surveyed favored a vote-by-mail system over traditional voting at poll booths.

The survey also showed that increased turnout under vote-by-mail does not give an advantage to a particular party’s candidates.

A 2018 report by the New York State Senate Democratic Policy Group found that more than three-quarters of New York voters said they would be more likely to vote in an election if no-excuse absentee voting was enacted 

The same survey found that the most frequently cited reason for not voting, cited by 28 percent of respondents, was work or school obligations.

The no-excuse mail-in voting brought on by the pandemic, if it were enacted as the standard approach, would solve that problem along with other issues cited less frequently: illness or disability (14 percent), caring for child or family member (6 percent), bad weather (6 percent), and lacked transportation to polls (2 percent).

According to official data from the United States Elections Project, in 2016, Minnesota — a state with no-excuse mail-in balloting and early voting — had the highest turnout at 75 percent. New York ranked 41st among the states with just 57 percent of the voting-eligible population casting a ballot.

Governor Andrew Cuomo says he’s committed to further voter reform in the state and earlier this month he signed into law the Automatic Voter Registration Act.

The new law requires designated state agencies to establish an automatic voter registration to expedite voter registration and create a straightforward process for New Yorkers applying for services to also register to vote.

The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles is to come online in 2023, followed by the Department of Health, Department of Labor, and the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance in 2024. The State University of New York is to come online in 2025. 

The law is meant to increase voter turnout while reducing administrative barriers to processing voter registration applications. 

Certainly, creating a single uniform platform for registering online should help ease the process to bring in new voters. New York State has 14.3 million residents who are 18 or older. In November’s record-setting election, 8.5 million New Yorkers voted.

So we can do better.

We urge consideration of a permanent mail-in model like Oregon’s. 

We also urge states to work together to close loopholes. Earlier this month, David Erickson of Knox wrote us about his concerns that someone could vote twice if they were registered in two different states.

We contacted the state’s Board of Elections, thinking we’d get an air-tight answer to the concern. Here’s what Records Access Officer J. Conklin said:

“It is not illegal to be registered in two states, but it is illegal to vote in two or more states during the same election. 

“When Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act in 1994, also known as the Motor Voter law, in an effort to assist the states to keep clean and up-to-date voter registration lists they established a procedure for the states to send each other cancellation notices for voters that have moved from one state to another.

“The process is not instantaneous and is dependent on the voter telling the new state information about where they previously voted, which not every voter does. In addition, not every state is diligent in sending the notices. As a result, some voters can remain registered in two or more states for some time.

“If the new state never sends the cancellation notice to the old state there are other procedures in statute that will eventually cancel the voter in the old state that are dependent on mail being returned or tracking through the National Change of Address system run through the Post Office.

“Once mail is returned to the county board of elections the voter is placed in inactive status. If they remain in inactive status for two federal general election cycles they can then be cancelled. In addition, the voter can take the initiative and send a letter to their old board of elections requesting to have their registration cancelled because they moved.

“The question of preventing a person from voting in two or more states is a much thornier problem. There is no national database that tracks voters between states so the system is largely dependent on the honesty of the voter and the fact that it is a felony if caught.”

“Then it is up to the county district attorney in either state to bring a prosecution. In most cases someone with knowledge of the situation would have to report the voter, it is not something that is routinely tracked.”

So, Erickson’s recommendation for a national registration bank sounds like a good one to us. He notes there is a system for a national gun check.

It is important to both increase the number of voters — personal responsibility is essential but access can ease the way — and to safeguard the sanctity of the ballot box by making it impermeable to fraud.

 

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