In his opinion curtailing key aspects of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the act was no longer needed because “the country has changed” with regard to discrimination in voting. However, in the wake of the first presidential election since 1965 to be conducted without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act, the issue of democratic access has become increasingly salient. Rampant closing of polling places made it difficult, if not impossible, for people in minority communities to overcome long lines and exercise their civic duty last November. Additionally, more than 117,000 voters, including Asians, Latinos, and other ethnic minority groups, were unable to vote because they hadn’t cast ballots in past elections.
For these reasons, the New York Votes Act, introduced in the New York State Assembly on February 8, seeks to expand voter protections within the state while making it simpler and faster for registered voters to cast their ballots. This bill would establish automatic voter registration, allow for early voting, and modernize the absentee ballot and rules related to absentee voting, among other provisions.
Modernizing absentee voting is long overdue in New York, where citizens are currently only eligible to cast an absentee vote if they expect to be absent from their county on Election Day, have an illness or disability, are under patient care at a veteran’s administration hospital, or are incarcerated for non-felonies. Voters must then submit their ballot by mail or deliver it in person. The New York Votes Act meaning voters do not need a reason to acquire an absentee ballot, as well as allow voters to request absentee ballots online.
The bill would especially benefit voters with disabilities, as absentee voting allows participation from disabled citizens who cannot independently use voting equipment or find transportation to the polling place. Experts estimate that currently only 40 percent of voters with disabilities use absentee ballots, largely because these ballots are difficult to access and to understand. The implementation of online absentee registration coupled with disability accommodations will facilitate higher voter turnout amongst the disabled, and therefore bring a historically disenfranchised group of citizens into the political dialogue.
The New York Votes Act would also provide for early voting and automatic voter registration. These measures would be beneficial in reducing wait times and making voting equally accessible to people all races. According to a study conducted by Stephen Pettigrew, a PhD candidate at Harvard University, minorities across the board experience lines that are twice as long as predominantly white lines and wait six times longer on average throughout the nation. Automatic registration and early voting would streamline the voting experience, increasing turnout and making sure underrepresented groups’ voices are heard.
Finally, the New York Votes Act would increase voter accessibility for people who speak languages other than English. Federal law requires voting materials to be available in Spanish, Mandarin, Korean, and Bengali, but they have not been provided for absentee ballots. Currently, New York’s registration websites only provide Google Translate for translation services.
Oregon provides evidence that voter turnout would increase with easier access to the ballot. In 2000, Oregon switched over to an all-mail voting system so that all resident could cast their ballots regardless of their whereabouts on Election Day. Oregonians responded positively to this new initiative, as there was a 16 percent increase in voter turnout in the primary elections and nearly 80 percent of registered voters participated in the general election. Since that election, turnout has remained high enough to mark this adjustment as significant. There is a clear relationship between increased access to voting and increased turnout of registered voters.
As Roosevelters, we believe that who writes the rules matters. Now more than ever, it is crucial that a diverse cross-section of people can participate in a fair and free democracy. That is why we have joined forces with eight other colleges and universities in New York to form Our Voice, Our Vote. We will continue to call and email state senators and assembly members, culminating with a trip to Albany this month to meet with legislators face-to-face, and lobby our elected officials to pass this bill.