New York’s Polling Stations Are Full of Promises, but Where Are the Voters?

Being involved in politics has become trendy again. Increased political polarization and nearly constant controversy in the White House have together galvanized young voters. At first glance, New York appears to be a pioneer in this youthful mobilization movement; yet the state’s primary elections, which occurred just a few weeks ago, left countless voters barred from the polls and with their empowered democratic spirit significantly dampened. Though New York ostensibly prides itself on its passion for progressive politics, the state has recently faced intense scrutiny due to its problematic voter registration laws and lack of organization at polling stations. These voters were not the first, nor the last, to experience such frustration. In the 2016 primary election, even Ivanka and Eric Trump were barred from voting for their father because they failed to register as Republicans in time. The two called New York’s registration process “one of the most onerous,” heavily criticizing the need to register for a party change six months in advance. Their unanticipated disenfranchisement, aside from being outright awkward, shed light on the serious impediments which prevent so many other New Yorkers from casting their ballot each election season.

New York’s voting laws are some of the most restrictive in the country. It is one of merely thirteen states to not offer early voting, with absentee ballots rarely granted. The state also lacks the opportunity to participate in same day registration, lagging behind many other progressive states such as Rhode Island and California. In addition to needless restrictions, simple organization and accessibility continue to be issues. Voters in the 2016 primary reported immense confusion after poll hours were suddenly reduced and many polling locations were moved without warning.  

Furthermore, a bizarrely-timed memo from the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) instructed residents to stay home—on the day of the 2018 primaries—for a “lead inspection.” This caused members of at least 650 low-income households to remain home between 8 am and 4 pm, prime voting time, to await inspectors. Although a NYCHA spokeswoman told Gothamist that the inspections were “mistakenly” scheduled for Election Day and that it “shouldn’t” have happened, the issue symbolizes the state’s uncoordinated, broken voter system. Perhaps encouraging voter turnout is not as much of a priority as the state advertises it to be.

Putting New York’s situation into a national context only makes the issue grow more alarming. In 2016, the nonpartisan Election Protection voter hotline received more calls from New Yorkers than from states with notoriously restrictive systems, such as Texas and Georgia, due to delayed poll openings, equipment malfunctions, and party-registration errors. The Justice Department even singled out the state, threatening to sue over what it said were sweeping failures to adhere to the federal voter registration law requiring state driver’s license applications to double as applications for voter registration.

Bernie Sanders in particular felt the repercussions of many of these limitations during the 2016 primary. Independents and first time voters, a major source of much support for his campaign, were both prohibited from voting because of the state’s closed primaries and early registration policies. His supporters’ inability to participate in the primaries demonstrates a major fault in the system: if a candidate is able to successfully excite and mobilize a group, the politician has earned their vote. Having willing and enthusiastic voters turned away at the polls is not what democracy should look like.

"The right to vote is the right that protects all rights. New York must become a national leader by protecting and expanding voting rights throughout the state."

Given New York’s restrictive and misleading polling practices, it should come to no surprise that voter turnout in New York has reached a discouraging low: With only 57 percent of eligible voters casting a ballot in the 2016 presidential election, the Empire State ranked 41st in the nation for turnout. During the last midterm election, voter turnout was only 34 percent — nearly the lowest in the country. Despite its enormous potential, the nation’s third most populous state is failing to pull its weight.

Compared to its progressive counterparts, New York’s statistics appear even more embarrassing; more Californians voted in the 2016 presidential election than in any election in the state’s history. Turnout for this year’s primary, although not seemingly high at 37 percent, was the highest turnout the state has seen at a midterm primary in a decade, indicating an increase in participation.  

When exploring the disparity between these two states, examining California’s own voting policies can be extremely telling. California allows voters to vote early or mail in their ballots weeks before Election Day. If a voter’s name isn’t on a polling place list, they can still fill out a provisional ballot. Furthermore, parties can opt to hold a modified closed primary, in which the party also allows voters who did not state a party preference to vote for that party’s nominee. This can be preferable to a fully closed primary, allowing independents or individuals not affiliated with a party to vote. Although states which consistently vote a certain party tend to feel as if their vote pulls less weight, California’s situation proves that accessibility does encourage voter turnout to a certain extent.

With all this controversy and attention, all eyes are on New York. Unfortunately, despite growing frustration, there continues to be little change. Although politicians from across the state have repeatedly discussed the need for reform such as early voting and automatic registration through the DMV, little decisive action has been taken. Why? The fact of the matter is that elected officials don’t want to change a system by which they were elected. Undeniably, incumbent politicians benefit from low-turnout, low-interest elections, in which few people muster the enthusiasm or effort to overcome various voting obstacles. The public rarely displays much interest in the mechanics of elections, so politicians enjoy the liberty of establishing and preserving self-serving rules. Thus, the status quo endures.

The repercussions that seep beyond the state’s borders bring further concern. New York’s voting procedures have become a talking point for Republican-led states in defending their own regression on voting rights. As John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, argued when asked about his state’s decision to cut early voting from six weeks to four, Ohio’s policy still measures generously with that of other states: “I also think 28 days is great, and I do not know why you are picking on Ohio,” he said. “Why don’t you go pick on New York?”. So long as New York’s voting system remains defective, states like Ohio, North Carolina, and Wisconsin–which have serious issues of their own and are major players in the general election–will continue use it as a reference point to justify their own flawed systems.

With all eyes on New York and a newfound movement of youth participation in politics mounting, it is imperative that such statewide voting restrictions be reformed. As social issues and institutions which young people value grow increasingly threatened, the country cannot afford to lose  votes over unnecessary limitations and lack of organization. It is astounding that voter obstruction continues to be an issue, yet what is even more shocking is the fact that if either party’s race had been closer, the system would have felt significantly more pressure to change in preparation for November. Although it is too late for such changes to go into effect in time for the midterms, the system will continue to essentially disenfranchise our nation’s youngest voters until reform takes place. With the increasing amount of media exposure political issues are receiving, as well as the general sense of unhappiness which currently encompasses various issues, both parties have the unique opportunity to become incredibly inclusive and inspiring. As Attorney General Schneiderman stated: “The right to vote is the right that protects all rights. New York must become a national leader by protecting and expanding voting rights throughout the state.”

Photo: Vote!

About the Author

Eleni Papapanou '22 is a Staff Writer for the US Section of the Brown Political Review. Eleni can be reached at eleni_papapanou@brown.edu

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