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New York Registration Deadline Prevents Tens of Thousands From Voting

Voting Line
Voting Line
Emily Rong Zhang,
Skadden Fellow,
ACLU Voting Rights Project
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November 7, 2018

Imagine a national department store chain holding a “Back to School” sale in late July instead of in August. People who show up close to when school actually starts are told, “You’re too late.”

That’s what voting in New York is like. Each election cycle, thousands of New Yorkers are prevented from casting a ballot because of the state’s registration cutoff, which requires voters to register at least 25 days in advance of the election in order for their vote to count.

The 25-day registration cutoff imposes an unnecessary and outdated burden on the right to vote — and we, along with the New York Civil Liberties Union and Latham & Watkins LLP, are suing to change it. Late last night, we filed a lawsuit seeking to strike down this unnecessarily long registration cutoff.

By requiring voters to register almost a month in advance of Election Day, New York forces voters to register before the election even becomes salient to most people and disenfranchises those who don’t.

The entire election machinery is geared toward one big day — Election Day — with public anticipation building every day until then. But New York’s registration cutoff hits before campaign activities heat up. For example, candidate debates, one of the hallmarks of campaign activities, often don’t happen until after New York’s registration deadline.

The consequences are severe. In the 2016 presidential election, more than 90,000 New Yorkers were ultimately not allowed to vote because they had registered after the 25-day cutoff. The registration deadline also deters voters from registering altogether. Every other year, the U.S. Census Bureau conducts a survey which asks unregistered citizens why they didn’t register to vote. In 2016, 13.2 percent of New Yorkers responded that they did not meet the registration deadline. That’s more than 145,000 people.

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that in the November 2016 election, New York had the eighth-worst voter turnout rate in the country, with only 57.2 percent of voting-age citizens participating.

To add insult to injury for disenfranchised voters, the state does not even need the extra time it provides itself. Voter registration lists are computerized and printing happens in mere hours. In fact, when the law was put in place 27 years ago, Gov. Mario Cuomo testified that it would be feasible for New York to have a shorter deadline or even allow for Election Day registration. Many states have shorter registration deadlines than New York, and as many as 17 states and the District of Columbia allow voters to register to vote on Election Day.

While numerous bills have been introduced over the years to move the voter registration deadline so that it comports both with modern election administration and with voter behaviors, the legislature has failed to take those opportunities over and over again. Elected officials can be especially hesitant to pass electoral reform. After all, they got elected through the old regime.

We can’t keep waiting for politicians to do the right thing. The New York Constitution guarantees every eligible voter the fullest and freest opportunity to vote. It’s time to hold the state to this promise.

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