New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has released a package of bills aimed at improving what he says are “arcane” and “ridiculous” laws that bar many potential voters from the ballot box.
Schneiderman began an inquiry after his office received a record 1,500 complaints about lack of voter access during the April presidential primary. His office is also conducting a separate, ongoing investigation into a massive voter purge in Brooklyn, first uncovered by WNYC last spring.
“In New York we have what amounts to legal voter suppression,” Schneiderman said Tuesday at an announcement on the second floor of the state Capitol in Albany.
In a new report, he detailed what he called “profound and widespread” issues, including disappearing polling places and poorly trained poll workers who turned away voters seeking affidavit ballots. Many polls that were open saw long lines and reduced hours.
He said the existing laws have resulted in New York having the third-worst voter participation in the nation.
Schneiderman’s recommendations include shortening the lengthy six-month window to change party enrollment before a primary. That rule prevented even Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s own children from voting for their father in the April primary.
He's also proposing early voting, and allowing voters to obtain and mail in absentee ballots without having to provide a reason. He also wants eligible voters to be automatically registered — as well as same-day voter registration.
The Attorney General was joined by numerous government reform groups.
The state legislature has in the past resisted changes to voter access, and Schneiderman acknowledges that current laws benefit incumbents, who may find it easier to win with fewer unknown new voters. But he says the Senate and Assembly are changing, and its members may be more receptive to reforms — especially with all of the national attention that voter access is now receiving.
“There’s been a huge generational shift in the makeup of the legislature,” he said.
During the April primary, many supporters of Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders complained that New York’s strict laws shut them out of the ballot box.
Schneiderman said his report found no evidence that if his proposed changes were in effect, the outcome of the primary vote would have been any different. He said Hillary Clinton had a lot of support in the state. But he said if the changes resulted in doubling the amount of regular voters in New York, it could “transform” election outcomes in the future.
Later that same day, lawyers from the Attorney General’s office were in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, defending the very sections of state election law Schneiderman is proposing to change. Attorney Mark Moody was arguing on behalf of plaintiffs who claimed they were shut out of the presidential primary because of the deadline to change party affiliation.
While a judge dismissed the motion, Moody said he plans to appeal. When he learned about Schneiderman’s proposed reforms, Moody said, “isn’t it ironic, don’t you think.”
Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s office said, “The AG proposed key reforms to New York's laws that would make it easier to participate in our state's elections, including changing the party enrollment deadline.” She added, “As the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, the current law is not unconstitutional — which is an entirely different question from whether it's a good law.”