The state Legislature approved a package of voting and election law reforms Monday, receiving applause from legal groups that supported the reforms ahead of this year’s legislative session.
It was also the first time in eight years that a Democrat presided over a meeting of the State Senate Judiciary Committee, whose members approved two resolutions that would allow voters to decide whether the state constitution should be changed to enact same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting.
The overall legislative package includes several different priorities that Democrats in the Legislature have supported for several years, all of which are intended to increase voter turnout in New York.
The bills would allow early voting in the state ten days before an election and would also consolidate the federal and state primary elections in New York to one date in June. The package also includes measures to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote and automatically carry over a resident’s voter registration if they move to a different area of the state.
The single campaign finance bill include in Monday’s package would restrict the ability of limited liability companies to donate virtually unlimited amounts to candidates. Under current law, those companies can evade regular contribution limits because of a decades-old decision by the state board of elections.
The bill approved by lawmakers Monday would limit political donations by those companies to $5,000 for a candidate, which is the same amount that applies to corporations. It would also require those companies to disclose the identities of their owners.
Those bills, if approved by Cuomo, will take effect this year. Two other bills, which would require an amendment to the state’s constitution, would not be enacted for at least three years. That’s because constitutional amendments require a vote by the current Legislature, the next sitting Legislature, and the state’s voters.
The first constitutional amendment would allow residents to register to vote on the same day of an election. The other would allow residents to vote by mail, with an absentee ballot, without having to offer an excuse.
State Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, said having his first meeting as the new chair of the Judiciary Committee be about voting reform was “liberating.”
“It’s such a long awaited change in the way we approach our basic, fundamental responsibilities, which is to make it easier for citizens to express their preference at their polling place,” Hoylman said. “You get a sense that in New York they didn’t want you to vote.”
The entire package received praise from legal groups around the state, including both the New York State Bar Association and New York City Bar Association. Both groups said earlier this month that voting reform would be a top priority for them for this year’s legislative session. New York State Bar Association President Michael Miller echoed his group’s support on Monday.
“Measures to remove barriers to registration and voting and to encourage participation—while maintaining the integrity of the process—will go a long way toward improving civic engagement and enhancing our democracy,” Miller said. “Modernizing New York’s systems for registration and voting is a legislative priority for the New York State Bar Association, and we commend the Legislature for acting on these important bills as one of its first actions of the new session.”
The New York City Bar Association, which has long favored voting reform, also cheered the package of bills Monday. City Bar President Roger Juan Maldonado said their support is rooted in improving access to elections for New York residents.
“With New York consistently ranking as one of the worst states for voter turnout and growing increasingly out of step with the rest of the country in how it conducts its elections, the need for reform has never been greater,” Maldonado said. “Providing New Yorkers full access to the voting booth without unnecessary hurdles will ensure they can make their voices heard and support policies that best reflect their beliefs.”
Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, also gave his support for the reforms, but also urged the Legislature to continue with the same theme and enact automatic voter registration for state residents. Waldman called for lawmakers to create a system for publicly financed campaigns.
“Today’s new laws are a terrific first step to modernize New York’s elections. They will make it easier for thousands of New Yorkers to vote and harder for the wealthiest to evade campaign limits,” Waldman said. “This should build momentum for the biggest changes to reform and revitalize our system.”
Republicans in the Legislature pushed back on Monday’s voting reforms, pointing to the financial burden they may place on local boards of elections to implement and the potential for voter fraud. Same-day voter registration, for example, may require more staffing to accommodate those requests.
State Sen. Cathy Young, R-Cattaraugus, claimed on the Senate floor that implementing early voting would financially harm upstate counties and asked State Sen. Zellnor Myrie, who chairs the Elections Committee, to justify the cost.
“Does the sponsor believe that the serious disproportionate burdens that this bill imposes on upstate counties is fair?” Young said. She later called the bill an unfunded mandate for county governments.
“We do not feel this is an undue hardship on upstate counties,” Myrie said, pointing to a provision of the early voting bill that would give local boards of elections discretion in setting up early polling places. Myrie also noted that Democrats are confident funding will be included in this year’s state budget to address the needs of local governments when implementing voting reforms.
“This is a question about whether or not we are willing to invest in our Democracy,” Myrie said.
Significant changes to the state’s laws—especially those that make headlines—are usually included either in the state budget at the end of March or in an omnibus package of bill at the end of June, called the “Big Ugly” in Albany speak. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said Monday’s package of voting reforms was negotiated largely without input from the Cuomo administration.
“This is a result of the Legislature negotiating,” Stewart-Cousins said. “I think we’re all sharing the same agenda, but I think it’s clear the Legislature has an opportunity to work together to do what legislatures do: pass bills and put things out for the governor to decide whether or not to veto.”
Cuomo is expected to include additional voting reforms in his state budget address, which he’s set to deliver Tuesday afternoon.