This is an opinion piece by Suraj Patel, an entrepreneur, educator, and activist working to remove barriers to civic engagement.
When you think of voter suppression, New York probably isn't the first place that comes to mind. So, you may be surprised to learn that New York state has some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country and consistently ranks in the bottom 10 states in voter participation. In fact, in New York Congressional Primaries (often the only election of consequence thanks to gerrymandering and clustering), only 8% of eligible voters cast ballots. To put that in perspective, last year in the state's 12th Congressional District, merely 16,000 voters decided who would represent the 715,000 New Yorkers residing on the entire East Side of Manhattan, Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Astoria, and Long Island City.
Low turnout is the symptom of a larger illness: in the marketplace of ideas that is our democracy, there is simply no competition. Politics is the only game where the players are also the referees – they set the rules for who gets to vote, where, and when. And since elections are the only performance review for our elected leaders, there's little incentive for incumbents to make those reviews more difficult. Restrictive voting laws help keep turnout down to benefit incumbents who get a more predictable and known electorate. Specifically targeting groups that tend to support your competition can enhance that advantage even more.
"Instead of New York leading the country with cutting edge ideas like online voting and automatic registration, New York prioritizes protecting its incumbents from competition."
We've seen Republicans use this tactic in recent years with stunning gall and even scarier success. For instance, after taking control of the statehouse, Wisconsin Republicans passed one of the strictest new voter ID laws in the country knowing that they would disproportionately affect black voters and college students – groups that tend to vote Democratic.
One such voter, Gladys Harris, 63, braved lung disease and a torn ligament to vote at her regular polling place last November. She brought her Social Security and Medicare cards, as well as a county-issued bus pass, but was not allowed to vote for the first time in her life. She's not alone - it's estimated that 300,000 Wisconsonties lacked valid photo IDs heading into the election, one that swung to Donald Trump by just under 23,000 votes.
Elsewhere, in North Carolina, Republican legislators enacted a slew of restrictions under the bogus pretenses of combating "voter fraud."
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A Federal Court found that, armed with data on racial differences in voting behaviors in the state, legislators enacted a set of voting restrictions that "targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision." They drafted the law to exclude many of the alternative photo IDs used by African Americans and "retained only the kinds of IDs that white North Carolinians were more likely to possess," the judges wrote. Because black voters disproportionately used the first seven days of early voting, they simply amended the bill to eliminate the first week of early voting. Because counties with Sunday voting in 2014 were disproportionately black and therefore "disproportionately Democratic," legislators outlawed voting on Sundays.
North Carolina Republicans were not only unapologetic, they were proud of their work to disenfranchise black voters. In a particularly shameful (and telling) November press release, the NC GOP boasted "as a share of Early Voters, African Americans are down 6.0% and Caucasians are up 4.2%."
"New Yorkers have to pre-register to vote almost a month ahead of the actual election, meaning if we show up but aren't registered, we don't get to vote."
While Republicans have found it useful to prevent minorities and young people from voting, limiting overall civic engagement can be good business for another group of politicians: incumbents. Incumbents are already at a huge advantage in the American electoral system. In 2016, incumbents sought re-election in 90% of U.S. House districts. Only 45 percent faced contested primaries and only 1.7 percent lost in those primaries.
And that's why New York's voting laws remain some of the most restrictive in the country. New Yorkers have to pre-register to vote almost a month ahead of the actual election, meaning if we show up but aren't registered, we don't get to vote. Anyone scrambling to buy eclipse glasses the day of the eclipse, like me, can understand why same-day registration is important.
In order to vote in our closed primary system, you even have to be registered to your preferred candidate's party six months prior to the election, something many Bernie voters found out only well after his New York campaign started. There's also no early voting, and we're one of the few states that requires a specific reason, under penalty of felony to request an absentee ballot, such as "unavoidable absence" from the City on Election Day.
New York's Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, is trying to bring New York to the 21st Century with the New York Votes Act. Among other things, the bill would automatically register all New Yorkers when they interact with a state service, like the DMV. It also establishes same day registration and a digital registry of voters so one could vote early anywhere and be prevented from voting twice. Since New Yorkers move so often, it would create "permanent registration," so that your registration would move with you when you changed addresses within the state. However, Schneiderman's basic reforms are languishing in the New York State Senate where there is little incentive for lawmakers to hold themselves more accountable.
These should not be considered impossible or experimental reforms – Minnesota, Oregon, and others have already implemented automatic voter registration (AVR) and other changes which consistently increase and diversify voter participation. In every facet of our lives except politics, we have grown more accustomed to a level of on-demand service that makes the process of acquiring goods easier and more efficient, while the voting experience hasn't changed. We have to vote in a single assigned polling place, likely far from our offices, and wait in line while a well-meaning poll worker paid by the party manually looks for our signature in a binder to let us cast our vote. It's not a lack of technology or means that's stopping us, it's a lack of political will.
Instead of New York leading the country with cutting edge ideas like online voting and automatic registration, New York prioritizes protecting its incumbents from competition. In politics, it's essential that that we maximize both our choices and our voices. Politics is a marketplace of ideas — without enough buyers and sellers, markets fail to materialize, visions grow stale, and the participants focus on holding their position rather than innovating for the future. If we want new ideas and a new future, we need new candidates and a new electorate. We need more, not less competition.