Voting-Booth Photo: Shutterstock

The New York State Bar Association and New York City Bar Association plan to make voting reforms, like early voting and same-day registration, among their top priorities on which to lobby state lawmakers during this year’s legislative session.

That’s one of several legislative priorities both groups outlined to the New York Law Journal ahead of the start of this year’s session, which begins Wednesday.

It’s also the one legislative issue both groups share on their respective wish lists, though they do have similar positions on other issues, like civil legal services. New York City Bar Association president Roger Juan Maldonado said voting reform stuck with his members as a way to improve the state’s government for their clients.

“The City Bar has long tried to focus on issues that are important to the persons we seek to represent, our clients,” Maldonado said. “Our clients, in order to have meaningful access to government and justice, need to be able, among other things, to have a meaningful voting process take place.”

Voting reform, to the City Bar, is a combination of several different proposals that would largely overhaul the state’s election system and open voting opportunities for people who may currently feel disenfranchised. Early voting, for example, would enable people to cast their ballots before Election Day—a practice currently not allowed in New York.

They also support “no excuse” absentee voting, which would allow voters to cast an absentee ballot without having to provide an excuse, as well as allowing same-day voter and party registration on Election Day, among other reforms.

The New York State Bar Association also supports same-day registration and enacting laws that would facilitate the voting process. They want to see lawmakers approve pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds as well, which would automatically place them on the rolls ahead of the first election in which they could vote.

“The rate of voter participation in New York state is frequently ranked among the lowest in the nation,” New York State Bar Association president Michael Miller said. “NYSBA joins Gov. Andrew Cuomo and many other elected officials across the state in supporting necessary and long-overdue changes in election law to remove barriers to registration and voting and to encourage participation in the electoral process. These changes should include the ability to register online, Election Day registration, early voting and improved ballot design.”

The two groups aren’t necessarily split on other issues, but each has their own set of different priorities heading into the legislative session.

The City Bar, for example, is also planning to push for the passage of the Reproductive Health Act and the Gender Expression Nondiscrimination Act. The former would codify the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade into state law and the latter would prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or expression.

Those two bills are very likely to pass the Legislature this year after Democrats won a strong majority in the State Senate in November. The Assembly, which has been controlled by Democrats for decades, has already passed both bills more than once.

Republicans, who were in control of the Senate for the past eight years, had decided not to bring either bill to the floor for a vote. Both chambers are now expected to pass a flurry of progressive legislation over the next six months, including the RHA. Cuomo held an event with other Democrats and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday touting the Legislature’s plan to approve the bill later this month.

Elizabeth Kocienda, director of advocacy at the City Bar, said the association is optimistic about the RHA and GENDA given the new composition of the Senate.

“We have long called for these. These have been core City Bar issues for quite a long time,” Kocienda said. “We recognize that there’s a renewed interest in these issues and a groundswell of support behind them, so we’re thrilled to see that.”

The same is likely true for certain aspects of criminal justice reform. The City Bar also supports eliminating cash bail for misdemeanor and nonviolent felony charges—a position shared by many Democrats in the Legislature. Cuomo has called for an end to cash bail altogether, putting the decision to release a defendant from custody in the hands of a judge.

“We’ve called for the end of the commercial bond industry and we most recently, in light of last year’s bail negotiations in the budget, we have supported eliminating monetary bail for misdemeanor and nonviolent felony charges,” Kocienda said.

The State Bar Association, meanwhile, has placed discovery reform on its list of priorities for the year. During last year’s session, it supported a bill that would mandate the second phase of discoverable material to be disclosed by prosecutors within 90 days of a defendant’s arraignment. There’s currently no such requirement in New York.

Both issues already have strong allies in the Legislature. State Sen. Jamaal Bailey, D-Bronx, and Assemblyman Joe Lentol, D-Brooklyn, both chair the Codes Committee in their respective chambers and support bail and discovery reform. Any legislation that addresses those issues would have to be approved by their committees to make it to the Senate floor.

There are several other items both groups have placed among their priorities that may receive less attention than other major issues the Legislature is expected to consider. The City Bar, for example, is supporting a bill that would create a new independent ethics watchdog to oversee the Legislature, Cuomo’s office and state agencies

“[The bill] would be a constitutional amendment to create a Commission on Public Integrity, which would basically combine the functions of [the Joint Commission on Public Ethics] and the Legislative Ethics Commission into one independent commission that would deal with the executive and legislative branches,” Kocienda said. “It’s modeled after the way the judiciary polices itself in terms of judges.”

The State Bar is also putting its weight behind more funding for civil legal services, which provides no-cost legal representation for individuals who want to bring a lawsuit but can’t afford an attorney. The Office of Court Administration is asking for $100 million for those services in this year’s state budget—a request the City Bar also supports.

“Access to justice should not be dependent upon one’s personal finances, so NYSBA will also continue to advocate for state funding for civil legal services that help ensure that all New Yorkers have the legal representation they need to protect their housing, health care and other essentials, and to prevent or escape from domestic violence,” Miller said.

This year’s legislative session is scheduled to begin Wednesday.

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