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NY updated its voting laws – finally!

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For decades, New York had an archaic and embarrassing burden: it’s voting laws were some of the oldest and most restrictive in the United States.

Options to vote were limited. If you wanted to vote in person, if you didn’t send an application by a certain date, you would have been locked out of the process, New York being a state that didn’t allow same-day voter registration. In addition, while 37 states and Washington D.C. would’ve allowed you to cast your ballot early, as a New York resident, you lived in one of just 13 states to not allow early voting, meaning brutally long lines at polling places as all eligible voters in the state who went out to vote tried to get into voting booths on the same day.

If you wanted to vote with an absentee ballot, you would have still faced issues. I can personally speak on this, being one of the dozens of students caught up in the great University at Albany Absentee Ballot Fiasco of 2018, when a number of absentee ballots failed to show up before election day (and in my case arrived the day AFTER the election was over) despite being applied for months before. This wasn’t the first instance of an absentee mishap either, with another infamous mishap in New York City’s 2017 mayoral elections resulting in 533 absentee votes not being counted due to a mail processing error.

With discouraging options and incidents like these, it shouldn’t be a surprise that New York, the fourth  largest state in the U.S. by population, and arguably one the country’s most liberal, had some of the worst voter turnout numbers in the nation. During the 2016 elections, just 57% of New York voters cast a ballot, a number that, while depressing, was actually an improvement over 2012, when just 54% of voters participated. In comparison, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont, neighboring states where voting information is available, all broke the 65% mark in 2016.

Because of these numbers, voting law reform had long been a priority for both activists and Democratic politicians alike, with various versions of voting reform routinely passing the Democratic State Assembly, but failing to advance past the Republican State Senate. This all changed with last year’s midterm elections. The Democratic blue wave that hit Washington and countless state houses also hit Albany, creating, for the first time in many years, a unified government as Democrats, long the controller of the Assembly and the Governor’s Mansion, took control of the Senate. With this unified government, a package of voting reform bills quickly made its way to Andrew Cuomo’s desk, and on January 24th, Cuomo signed the bills into law.

It cannot be overstated just how much of a seismic shift the passage of these bills represents. Almost overnight, New York’s voting laws were catapulted from being the some of the worst in the country to some of the best. Sixteen and 17-year olds can now pre-register so that they can vote immediately once they turn 18.

New York’s system of separate primary dates for state and federal races, long a source of confusion for voters and commonly seen as a vote suppression has been combined into a single day.

Same-day voter registration, long a reality in a number of states, is now present in New York as well.

And, perhaps most excitingly of all, early voting and vote by mail in New York is now a reality, making situations like the absentee ballot incidents mentioned before less likely to happen as voters take advantage of these new options.

If you have ever had a negative experience at a New York polling place, then, these changes are welcome news. For the first time in modern memory, it won’t be a chore to vote in New York elections, state or federal, and, with more voting reforms like automatic registration and an Election Day holiday potentially on the horizon, there’s a good chance that our voting numbers will no longer be a source of embarrassment, but a source of pride.

After all, it’s sort of a blow to our ego to be behind New Jersey in anything.

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