The New York State Legislature passed two bills this week which would create an automatic voter registration system in New York State and would make technical changes to the independent redistricting process scheduled for 2022.
Amidst the flurry of legislation that passed this week, there are two bills which have gathered acute interest from electoral reform advocates. One bill would create an automatic voter registration system in New York State beginning in 2023, something that advocates have been particularly excited about after a typographical error in the State Senate version of the bill derailed its passage in 2019. Another bill would make technical corrections to the independent redistricting process slated to take place before the 2022 election cycle, including the removal of a provision that would have allowed the redistricting commission rules to be changed midway through the process based on who wins majority control in each legislative chamber.
The automatic voter registration bill would require participating agencies including the Department of Motor Vehicles, Department of Health, Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, Department of Labor, NYCHA, and Office of Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities to register people with the Board of Elections who are otherwise eligible to vote in New York State unless the person opts out of the voter registration process. People who do not opt out would also be given the choice whether to enroll in a political party both at the time of automatic voter registration as well as in two subsequent mailers and informed that if they decline to register in a party that they will not be able to participate in primary elections for that party.
This legislation was poised to pass in 2019 until the State Senate passed a version of the bill that would have inadvertently required undocumented immigrants to either disclose their immigration status or improperly submit a voter registration form. That error was corrected in the bill that passed this week.
Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz said: “Automatic voter registration is a common sense solution to increase voter participation. We should be making it as easy as possible to cast a ballot, and our state agencies are already collecting much of the information required to register to vote. Furthermore, I am pleased with the requirement for party enrollment notification. In some districts, including most of New York City, the winner of a party primary is the de facto winner of the general election due to significant skews in party enrollment statistics. If a resident of one of these districts wants to give up their voice in choosing their representative, that is there prerogative but it should be a decision that was made with intention and not out of ignorance. I am optimistic that the Governor will sign this bill into law and I look forward to a future with higher voter participation.”
The legislation to change the redistricting process is a state constitutional amendment, so it will have to pass once more in 2021 and then be ratified by statewide popular vote in the November 2021 general election. The bill was developed following a joint public hearing on legislative redistricting that identified several flaws with current constitutional provisions and addresses concerns that have recently arisen regarding federal attempts to exclude undocumented immigrants from census population counts for the purposes of legislative districts.
Under the proposed state constitutional amendment, all undocumented immigrants and non-taxed indigenous people would be required to count for the purposes of redistricting (which the Assembly has done for the last three redistricting cycles already). The amendment would clarify that incarcerated persons would be counted at their last place of residence (which is already done in New York State) even if the census fails to identify them. It would also eliminate a formula to determine the number of State Senators in New York State and replace it with a permanent cap of 63. The amendment would adjust the deadlines set by the 2014 constitutional amendment which were established around a September primary date (New York State subsequently moved state and Congressional primaries to June).
Most controversially, the amendment changes internal voting requirements of the redistricting commission which currently depend on which party controls each house. As constructed, a redistricting proposal would have to have the consent of minority parties in both chambers which creates an ability for political parties who were rejected by voters for majority control to have outsize influence on the redistricting process. Under the proposal, a plan would require seven of ten votes (regardless of who appointed the relevant commissioner) to send a plan to the legislature, with a provision that if no plan receives seven votes by a certain date that the commission would submit the plan that received the highest number of votes. The proposal would retain provisions of the 2014 amendment that require a simple majority vote of the legislature if the redistricting plan receives seven of ten votes by the commission or a sixty percent vote of the legislature if the plan receives less than seven votes.
Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz added: “The existing law on independent redistricting gave outsize veto power to a small group of elected officials who failed to win the approval of voters in New York State. Furthermore, it allowed the rules of the process to be changed midway through depending on who wins more elections. New Yorkers are marching in the streets for equality, and it is unconscionable to allow the tyranny of the minority to threaten the representation of districts.”