NY voting rights: Voter intimidation, absentee ballots among lawmakers' push for reforms

·6 min read

In the lead-up to the 2020 election, early voting lines across New York snaked around libraries, ran down city blocks, and occupied churches.

Some voters brought umbrellas to brave the elements. Others sat in lawn chairs or read books in the hours-long wait to cast a ballot in the presidential contest that would lead to Joe Biden’s victory over incumbent Donald Trump.

Those efforts amid the COVID-19 pandemic helped lead to the highest voter turnout in the United States in more than a century, records show. Meanwhile, voting among Black people reached heights comparable to the turnout rate in the 2012 election of former President Barack Obama, the first Black president.

Now, a little over a year after the 2020 election and the passage of restrictive voting bills in several states, New York Democratic legislators are seeking to build off previous voting rights reforms — particularly early voting in 2019 and voting for people on parole in 2021 — with several pieces of legislation.

Voters line up in front of the Yonkers Public Library, Grinton I. Will Branch on Central Park Avenue, as the first day of early voting begins, Oct. 24, 2020.
Voters line up in front of the Yonkers Public Library, Grinton I. Will Branch on Central Park Avenue, as the first day of early voting begins, Oct. 24, 2020.

MARCH TO POLLS: New York protesters seek inroads at the ballot box after summer filled with unrest

Those measures range from allowing those with pandemic safety concerns to vote via absentee ballots through the end of 2022 to allowing polling sites on college campuses.

The former measure was passed by the state's Assembly and Senate, and signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul on Jan. 21.

Democrats are also hoping to build off the loss of two ballot referendums that deal with voting. One would’ve permanently removed any excuse to vote through an absentee ballot. The other would have allowed same-day voter registration.

State Republicans pushed hard to defeat the measures, calling them a power grab to stack elections in Democrats' favor.

"We've seen other states legislatures take unprecedented steps to roll back voting rights and reproductive care. These anti-democratic attacks on our constitutional rights will not stand in New York," state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said.

While NY pushes forward, federal voting bill fails

LaShawn Frazier places her ballot into a scanner as she votes in primary elections at the Nepperhan Community Center in Yonkers on June 23, 2020.
LaShawn Frazier places her ballot into a scanner as she votes in primary elections at the Nepperhan Community Center in Yonkers on June 23, 2020.

The legislative push also comes as the federal voting rights bill collapsed on Wednesday night, The Associated Press reported. The Democrats pushed for the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, legislation that would include making Election Day a holiday. It would also allow the Department of Justice to intervene in states with a history of voter interference, referred to as “preclearance.”

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the “preclearance” portion of the Voting Rights Act.

The House approved the measure, the wire service reported. Yet, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) and Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) did not vote to change the filibuster on the item so that a simple majority could advance the legislation.

After the vote, Biden said, “I am profoundly disappointed.”

Across the country, lawmakers have passed at least 34 measures that restrict voting in nearly 20 states, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law found.

In total, more than 400 bills with restrictive voting provisions were introduced in 49 states, the center said.

Biden called new efforts to limit access as “Jim Crow 2.0” because of how the measures may stunt turnout among minority populations.

The 'voting wars'

Jarret Berg, a co-founder of the nonprofit VoteEarlyNY, said the bills introduced in the aftermath of the 2020 election represent a “low watermark” in what election advocates have dubbed the “voting wars” of the last few decades.

Some date those wars back to the 2000 presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore or the rise of voter identification laws in 2006, though it certainly includes changes to voting laws following Obama's election.

But, Berg said, New York has an opportunity to lead in this arena, given what's going on nationally.

"People are looking to places like New York to lead America's democracy out of this darkness,” he said.

To get there, he said, New York has to build off recent election reforms to update its somewhat “antiquated” election system, while also ridding itself of restrictive voting measures that make it more difficult for people to cast their ballot.

Voting rights legislation on the move

Ramapo residents line up outside the town hall to cast their votes early on Saturday, October 24, 2020.
Ramapo residents line up outside the town hall to cast their votes early on Saturday, October 24, 2020.

New York is among states that have enacted expansive and restrictive voting laws, the Brennan Center, a non-partisan public policy and law institute, found. (The designation, Berg said, came after New York required absentee ballot applications to be at local boards of elections 15 days before the election due to the strain absentee ballots put on the postal system amid the pandemic.)

This month, the state’s Democratically controlled Senate passed around 10 pieces of legislation that would make it relatively easier to vote.

Among them:

  • Two bills allowing voters to cite coronavirus concerns as a sufficient reason to request an absentee ballot until the end of 2022

  • A bill that would bar election districts from being drawn in a way that’ll split across a college or university with more than 300 active voters. It would also allow for polling sites at higher education institutions.

  • A bill that requires that an affidavit ballot be counted should an eligible voter appear at a polling place in the correct county but the wrong election district. The phenomenon, called the “wrong church,” suppresses the votes of thousands of New Yorkers who showed up at the wrong polling location, election advocates say.

In the 2020 election, more than 13,000 affidavit ballots were disqualified, with many of the votes coming from dense communities of color, according to a report by VoteEarlyNY.

The issue has become particularly problematic in more dense areas that may have several close voting sites, though the problem extends across New York.

In Erie County, home to Buffalo, “wrong church” ballots represented 83%, or around 1,000, of rejected affidavits.

Other pieces of legislation passed by the Senate would:

But not among the pieces passed by the state Senate earlier this month was the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York. Named after the civil rights icon, the bill would enact preclearance but with the overview from the state’s attorney general. It is still in committee.

Voters line up in front of the Yonkers Public Library, Grinton I. Will Branch on Central Park Avenue, as the first day of early voting begins, Oct. 24, 2020.
Voters line up in front of the Yonkers Public Library, Grinton I. Will Branch on Central Park Avenue, as the first day of early voting begins, Oct. 24, 2020.

Sponsored by New York Sen. Zellnor Myrie, the proposal would also expand language assistance, protections against voter intimidation and call for the collection of election data that include demographics.

Myrie said on the anniversary of the Jan. 6. Capitol insurrection that there are voices in New York who see expanded voting rights as a threat.

“Those who would stand in the way of your right to vote have always been around — but they seem louder and stronger than ever," the Brooklyn Democrat noted.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Tiffany Cusaac-Smith covers race and justice for the USA TODAY Network of New York. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter @T_Cusaac.

This article originally appeared on New York State Team: NY voting rights push grows as federal effort falters. See what's proposed