A New Type of Lawyering Up: NY State Bar Association Calls for Election Reform


[Image courtesy of nysba.org via Twitter]

Few topics have been a more reliable source of material here on this blog than election problems and voting issues in New York State. Even before the chaos created by Hurricane Sandy, the Empire State has struggled recently with election issues: fights about whether to move the state primary to accommodate military and overseas voters, tiny type on ballots, strange vote-counting procedures and overheating voting machines. There have been glimmers of promise, including the State’s adoption of online voter registration, but it’s undeniable that overall there is much work to be done on improving the voting process.

Last Friday, the New York State Bar Association added its weighty voice to the discussion by approving a 72-page report by its Special Committee on Voter Participation calling for reform and making specific recommendations about what those reforms should resemble.

From the release announcing the report:

“New York, once a leader in civic participation and voting, has fallen behind other states, in large part because its registration and voting procedures have failed to keep up with innovative practices and modern technology,” said State Bar President Seymour W. James, Jr. (The Legal Aid Society in New York City). “It is important to the democratic process that barriers which inhibit or discourage voter participation be removed.”

In the last three elections, New York ranked 47th in average voter turnout nationwide, and New York’s participation numbers have plummeted since 2000, the report states. In 2010, New York had the 16th worst voter registration rate nationwide, with less than 64 percent of eligible New Yorkers registered to vote. During the 2008 presidential election, only 59 percent of New York’s eligible voters cast a ballot …

The major focus of the report is improving turnout by –

  • + expanding online registration to other state agencies;
  • + allowing pre-registration of 16 and 17-year olds;
  • + enabling same day and Election Day registration (and until then extending the deadline to 10 days before an election instead of 25); and
  • + approving “limited, in person early voting” for a few days before Election Day.

Significantly, the NYSBA also came out strongly in favor of better election design for ballots:

Improve ballot design to minimize voter confusion and mistakes by boosting the minimum font size to 12 points; clear away clutter such as the required “closed fist” (with pointing finger) symbol at the head of rows and columns; simplify voting instructions; and provide ballots in multiple languages to encourage voting among those for whom English is not their first language.

Just as significantly, the report comes out against expansion of absentee balloting: “The committee said it did not support expanding the use of absentee ballots as a way to boost turnout. ‘No-excuse absentee voting,’ which allows people to vote by absentee ballot without providing a legitimate reason, has proven to be vulnerable to fraud, errors and disqualified ballots.”

This is a remarkably detailed report with an ambitious vision for the future of New York elections. Here’s hoping the Legislature will take note and consider one or more of the changes suggested by the report.

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