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Advocates push Election Day registration

Sunday, October 7, 2012
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Skidmore College student Cal Lane, 18, of Coldspring, fills out a voter registration form at the Tang Museum in Saratoga Springs Thursday.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber
Skidmore College student Cal Lane, 18, of Coldspring, fills out a voter registration form at the Tang Museum in Saratoga Springs Thursday.

— There is slightly less than a week to register to vote in the Nov. 6 general election, and there are a variety of options available for people still scrambling to exercise their right to vote.

You have until Friday to mail a voter registration form to your local board of elections, or you can register in person through Saturday at select locations. And, for the first time, New Yorkers can register to vote online, until Friday.

The online platform was announced in the middle of August by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. People can now apply to register to vote or update their voter information on the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles website. When it was launched, the governor credited the site with knocking down longstanding barriers, and in about 40 days, 16,000 people used the registration service, including 6,000 first-time voters.

The change has been heralded by good government groups interested in expanding ballot access. But those same groups say the simple requirement that voters register in advance keeps people away from the polls, because they don’t want to be bothered with this step or don’t know it exists.

A report last month by Common Cause NY noted that America is one of the only remaining democracies that asks its citizens to register for this right instead of automatically enrolling every eligible citizen. In countries where the government takes the lead on registering its citizens to vote, such as Canada, Australia and France, the percent of registered voters is above 90 percent. In Great Britain, where a voter registration form is mailed to households as part of a seasonal nationwide canvass, registration is at about 91 percent.

According to the Pew Research Center, only about 76 percent of eligible American voters are registered to vote. In New York, less than 64 percent of eligible voters are registered, which puts the state among the worst in the nation. As Cuomo noted, only three states have a lower percentage of eligible voters registered.

And the actual number of people who show up to vote is even lower. In the state’s 2010 gubernatorial race, about 40 percent of registered voters participated, and about 63 percent of registered New Yorkers voted in the 2008 presidential election.

Neal Rosenstein of the New York Public Interest Research Group said New York is so far behind because of how early its registration deadline is and the lack of active registration by state agencies. Additionally, New York City and other urban areas in the state are home to many low-income voters who often move and lose their registration status.

Rosenstein offered his opinion that gerrymandered legislative districts, rotten campaign finance laws and restricted ballot access for challengers, which all help incumbents, also make people less interested in voting. He maintains that allowing voters to register on Election Day would be a simple way to increase voter turnout.

“The whole registration process is a barrier,” he said, a view echoed by most good government groups.

The registration system in New York, Rosenstein said, was instituted around the turn of the 19th century and was designed to tightly control who could vote. The regulations were born out of the highly controlled party systems, like New York City’s Tammany Hall political machine run by the infamous Boss Tweed, and to keep new classes of immigrants from voting. By getting rid of this system, New York would see higher turnout, he said.

According to a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice, there were nine states prior to 2011 that allowed voters to register on Election Day. The report noted that the five states with the best voter turnout in the last presidential election had Election Day registration and they didn't experience any unusual voter fraud, which is often cited as a reason for earlier registration deadlines.

People opposed to measures that might increase ballot access argue the changes will weaken the checks on voter fraud. Rosenstein, who calls this argument a red herring, says this claim is born out of political motivation and doesn’t stem from any facts.

Detractors of expanding ballot access like to cite fraudulent registrations orchestrated in 2008 by the national community organization Acorn. The Common Cause study says this incident was not a coordinated effort and that none of the registrations actually were recognized by any board of elections.

Additionally, the anecdotal evidence of illegal voting that people do highlight likely falls short of constituting election fraud, according to the Common Cause report.

Rosenstein added that most incidents of illegal voting are the result of honest mistakes. He adds that the only fraud is perpetrated by advocates of stricter voting regulations, such as requiring official government identification, which could potentially disenfranchise millions nationwide.

The Brennan Center for Justice has noted that legislation to scale back or repeal Election Day registration has been introduced only by Republicans. Good government groups and Democratic defenders of expanded ballot access say Republican politicians are motivated by their political self-interest, with any voting regulations inhibiting typically Democratic voters, such as the elderly, young and poor.

Technology is available, Rosenstein said, to ensure that people who are supposed to be voting would be the only ones voting if Election Day registration was allowed. In New York, those safeguards are a social security or ID number and a signature that matches something on record. With Election Day registration, both requirements could be used, unless the voter didn’t have a driver’s license.

Short of allowing Election Day registration, proponents of ballot access want to increase opportunities to register, such as the governor’s online application process. Brennan Center for Justice Vice President John Kowal said in a statement that similar programs have led to an eight-fold increase in voter registration.

Because this is a presidential election year, the final chance to register to vote in person will occur Saturday. Contact your county board of elections for information about satellite registration sites being opened or visit their local office.

The last day to register online or by mail is Friday.

 
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