An estimated one million potential voters could be added to New York state’s rolls should forthcoming legislation be enacted, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. State Sen. Michael Gianaris, the co-sponsor of legislation that would modernize New York’s voter registration system, said his bill “will make it easier for people to vote.” He said he plans to introduce the bill by early June at the latest and, if adopted, it would take effect in 2013.
At the heart of the legislation, crafted with assistance from the Brennan Center and other organizations, is a mandated shift from the current paper-based voter registration system to one reliant on electronic records.
Importantly, the bill, called An Act to Modernize Voter Registration, would offer New York residents the opportunity to register to vote when they seek services, such as housing or unemployment insurance, from state or federal agencies, in addition to current voter registration offered through the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. The automated, computer-based system will allow online voter registration and a more expedient process for updating change of addresses or “portability” for those who move within the state.
The impending introduction of the New York legislation comes on the heels of last week’s announcement of the Voter Empowerment Act by leaders and members of House Democrats on Capitol Hill. Speaking on a New America Media-hosted teleconference with ethnic media on Tuesday, Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, said the federal legislation, which contains many of the key provisions of the New York bill, shows that the Democratic leadership is “serious about voting reforms” and comes at a time when “we’ve witnessed the largest rollback of voting rights in a decade.”
A number of state-based laws went into effect this year that impose more restrictive ID requirements and curtail or more aggressively penalize voter registration drives.
Fourteen states have passed restrictive voting laws that have the potential to impact the 2012 election (Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin, and West Virginia). These states account for 192 electoral votes, or 70 percent, of the total needed to win the presidency.
“Modernizing our voter registration system could add more than 50 million eligible voters to the rolls,” Weiser said, adding that, according a Pew Center on the States study, the voting registration records of an estimated 24 million Americans contain inaccuracies.
“Illegible handwriting, applications lost in the mail, duplicative data entry, and typos,” Weiser explained, are examples of the kind of occurrences that are compelling a growing number of states to shift to paperless, computer-based record keeping systems.
Myrna Perez, counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, said, “At least 21 states have fully or substantially automated” their voter registration systems. Thirty-eight states are already using automated registration to register young men for selective service as they become eligible.
When asked by the Louisiana Weekly about concerns over the possibility of computer hackers altering votes, Perez explained the legislation focuses on registration, not voting machines per se. The automation of voter registration efforts in the states have been “fairly non-controversial,” she said. “Relying on a paper-based system doesn’t make sense in the 21st century.”
However, while the federal legislation has the potential to become a truly bipartisan initiative, there have yet to be signals from the Republican congressional leadership that the Voter Empowerment Act will be embraced. At the state level, while the process of automation continues, it has been, with few exceptions, Republican-dominated legislatures that have sought the “rollback” Wesier cited.
Gianaris, a Democrat, who was elected to the New York state Senate in 2010 after serving in the state Assembly since 2000, said he will actively seek Republican co-sponsors in New York’s legislature, but cautioned that incumbents by nature, Republican and Democrat alike, are often resistant to change.
“It’s always difficult when one asks those who have been elected under one system, to alter that system,” Gianaris said. “It’s the institutional powers on both sides of the aisle that are opposed to any dramatic changes of the voting franchise.”