There’s no excuse for New York’s pitiful election system

Voters waited in long lines to cast their vote.
Voters waited in long lines to cast their vote.
Mark Lennihan/AP/Shutterstock.
Voters waited in long lines to cast their vote.

There’s no excuse for New York’s pitiful election system

New York is disenfranchising its voters. Democrats need to stop it.
December 5, 2018

As the election recedes from the news cycle, we can’t be so preoccupied with the winners and losers of the horserace that we again lose sight of the potholes on the race track. This year, a host of contested elections were decided by less than one percentage point or even a handful of votes, including New York’s 22nd Congressional District contest in between Rep. Claudia Tenney and Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, elevating the impact that voting suppression, malfunctioning voting machines, and voter purges could have had on results.

Like many other New York representatives, my inbox and social media pages on Nov. 6 were flooded with reports of broken machines and polling locations with only one or two operating scanners.

Voters waded through cold rain, stood in long lines and patiently waited on malfunctioning machines to cast their vote, giving Democrats control over the state Senate, Assembly and governor’s mansion. It’s only fair that, in the next legislative session in January, Democrats make modernizing the antiquated voting system – one that has frustrated their constituents for years – a priority.

Although the massive midterm turnout was a powerful display of civic duty, it rightfully had reporters and voters alike asking why, after all this time, New York City continues to cram its 4.6 million registered voters into school gyms and community centers in the span of 15 hours.

I’ve since reached out to the city’s Board of Elections to ask for a meeting with Executive Director Michael Ryan to address these concerns to both myself and my colleagues in the state Senate and Assembly, who will ultimately have to act on a to-do list of these issues. Not least among the priorities will be a reassessment of how many technicians are allotted per capita to Assembly districts and are on hand to respond to malfunctions with the scanners.

However, independent of the Board of Elections’ directive, Democrats in Albany must finally institute broader reforms that ease the underlying issues causing such congestion in polling places. They must adopt early voting in the state, allowing all its voters the space and time to cast their ballot at their convenience.

The democratic system is more democratic when more people vote, and more people vote when it’s easier and more accessible. Yet, despite New York’s reputation as a progressive bastion, it is not among the 37 states that offer early voting.

Even to file an absentee ballot requires an excuse, placing it among only 20 states that impose such requirements, and eliminating that requirement would be a relatively easy legislative fix.

Given the barriers to the voting booth, it is no surprise that New York ranked 41st in voter turnout in 2016, an election in which 200,000 voters were improperly purged from voter rolls in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens, highlighting the state’s outdated voter registration system.

The technology to better maintain voter rolls already exists, with automatic voter registration providing a cheap and secure system to register and update voter logs automatically through information voters already provide to the state. Yet not even the outrage after 2016’s voter purges have prompted New York to implement automatic voter registration or pass any substantial election reform.

To fund the modernization, the state need look no further than its unsynchronized federal and state primary dates, which causes New York to unnecessarily spend millions every year on separate elections. The confusing and inconvenient different primary dates have dogged voters every election year, exhausting already low primary turnout numbers for races that, in the largely blue electoral map of the city, are more consequential than the general election. Consolidating primary dates would both free up funding for election reform and simplify elections, a 2-for-1.

State Sen. Joseph Addabbo Jr. of Queens sponsored a package of bills to implement several of the aforementioned improvements and, under Andrea Stewart-Cousins’ newfound leadership in the state Senate, there is now a clear pathway for these bills to become law.

The issues that have plagued the 2018 midterms, the 2016 presidential election and countless elections beforehand cannot be ignored, not when a united Democratic leadership can finally circumvent the former partisan gridlock of the Board of Elections and Albany. 2020 will no doubt be one of the most consequential elections of our nation’s modern history, and it deserves a modern election system to service what will undoubtedly be a historic turnout.

Gregory Meeks
is the congressman representing New York’s 5th Congressional District, in Queens.
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