New York’s Democracy Reform Bill Sends Positive Message

After decades in which all reforms were stymied, the new legislature enacted sweeping changes to voting laws on its second day in session

Harvard Ash Center
Jan 18, 2019 · 9 min read
New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and others applaud as Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins speaks to members of the state Senate during opening day of the 2019 legislative session at the State Capitol. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

This article was originally published in Miles Rapoport’s column on democracy issues for the American Prospect. Read other posts in the series here.

By Miles Rapoport

On one remarkable day — the second day of the legislative session — the state of New York took a great leap forward in how elections will operate in the state. The voting reform bills, which passed through both legislative Chambers in a single day, will open up new and wide opportunities for people to vote, and catapults New York from being at the back of the pack (and almost the only blue state there) to close to the front when it comes to expanding voting access to everyone.

For years, New York had been notorious for laws that effectively diminished voting, lest state residents realize that they could actually vote against incumbents. Alone among the 50 states, New York actually conducted two different primaries — one for federal offices, another for state — on two different days, a sure-fire way to confuse voters and fragment the electorate. As well, registration closed weeks before the election days, so if a challenger’s campaign managed to gain some traction, it would already be too late for the candidate’s backers, if not yet registered, to get themselves onto the voting rolls. The campaign finance laws, meanwhile, enabled major financial interests — most commonly, New York City’s real estate moguls — to lavishly fund their favored candidates.

Such laws created a system in which challengers were few, and the percentage of registered voters who came out to vote in primaries often barely exceeded single digits.

Now, those hurdles to voting have been toppled by New York’s new legislators. In one fell swoop, the legislature adopted:

  • Portable registration for people who move within the state

Two aspects of this extraordinary development are worth exploring. The first is the apparent speed of the actions, which requires some New York history. The second is how much of what has passed is based on a suite of best practice policies that has increasingly been agreed upon by the robust and growing movement of voting expansion advocates and election reformers.

FIRST, THE HISTORY. This was only ‘fast’ if you believe history began when these legislators were sworn in. But the history of the fight goes back years, is full of frustration and betrayal, and the only constant has been the determination of organizers to never give up.

Organizations like Common Cause, Citizen Action of New York, the Working Families Party, Make the Road New York, and many others have been fighting for expanded voting rights and for public financing of election campaigns for years. But they have run up against the infamous “three men in a room” character of New York politics, where the Senate majority leader, Assembly speaker, and the governor end up settling everything behind closed doors. In addition, the Senate has for years been a Republican bastion, reliably (and sometimes conveniently for some Democrats) blocking both progressive economic policies and democratic reform.

In the last several years, though Democrats have had a technical majority in the Senate, a breakoff group of “Independent Democratic Conference” members caucused and voted with the Republicans. This stymied the Democratic-controlled Assembly, and allowed Governor Cuomo, the depth of whose commitment to election and campaign finance reform has always been suspect, to support the reforms every year, but never quite have them pass.

“In recent years, the voting reform organizations did excellent organizing and coalition building”

In recent years, the voting reform organizations did excellent organizing and coalition building. The Let New York Vote coalition has led the fight for voting reform, and Fair Elections for New York has brought 175 organizations together in support of public funding for elections. They generated strong popular support for change, helped along by the high-profile corruption in the state’s political system, including the convictions of both the longtime former speaker (a Democrat) and the longtime former Senate majority leader (a Republican) on bribery charges. But still, the old-school policies persisted. The frustration among advocates grew year after year, and was one of the key factors that led Cynthia Nixon to launch her challenge to Cuomo in last year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Enter the other elections of 2018. While the elections of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Antonio Delgado to Congress have gotten the most ‘ink’, at the state legislative level, progressive Democrats defeated six of the eight IDC Democrats and another conservative Democrat in the primaries. On top of that, in November, Democrats took eight seats in the State Senate from Republicans, completely undercutting Republican strength in the chamber and giving the Democrats a 39-to-23 advantage, with one Independent. This was the culmination of years of efforts by progressive Democrats, and especially the Working Families Party, to bring change to the New York State Senate, combined with intensive work by new, highly energized groups that grew out of the anti-Trump resistance.

The changes are palpable. The two leaders of the legislative chambers — Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Jr., and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, mark a sea change from the old guard. New York and Nevada are now the only states with African American legislative leaders in both chambers, and the incoming leaders have worked with, and shared the frustration of, advocates and organizations on multiple issues. The winds of change are blowing left in New York on a number of issues, but it is significant that the new majorities chose to strengthen the state’s democracy as the first issue out of the block, as did Congressional Democrats in leading with their own democracy reform package, HR 1.

SECOND, THE POLICIES THEMSELVES are very significant and represent a real and increasing maturity among the advocates for voting rights and democracy reform. The modern fight for voting rights began in the civil rights movement of African Americans in the ’50s and ’60s, and hasn’t stopped since. But in addition, since the Florida debacle of 2000, an increasingly diverse and robust movement for democracy reform has been developing around the country.

For many years, this movement tended to be siloed and separate: mostly white good government campaign reformers in one corner, mostly African American voting rights advocates in another. In addition, organizations who advocated a particular reform, like making Election Day a holiday or full voting by mail, argued for their individual reforms as ‘the key’ to a better democracy.

Over the last five years or so, however, a fairly broad consensus has developed that our democracy is broken and dysfunctional in so many ways that a variety, or ‘suite,’ of policies is needed to really make a change. Voting rights supporters are getting behind campaign finance reforms, money in politics advocates are supporting the restoration of voting rights for people with felony convictions, and organizations that have focused on economic issues are joining the election reform fray.

As this maturing and melding process has moved forward, consensus support has emerged for a comprehensive reform package. The elements include: registration reforms like online voter registration, automatic voter registration, same day registration, pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, and portable registration for address changes. On voting itself, the new elements include a combination of conveniently located in-person early voting, expanded mail-in options for voting, making election day a holiday, improving vote-casting by overseas and military voting, along with ensuring the integrity of vote counting through paper-based audit trails.

Two other areas are increasingly part of this consensus. The first is dramatically changing the role of money in politics. Shorterm (within the bounds of Supreme Court decisions that have fostered flooding our politics with big money), strong disclosure laws, elimination of loopholes like New York’s LLC, and varying forms of public financing (matching small contributions, providing citizens with vouchers, or full public financing for candidates who reach a threshold of small contributions) are all making headway. Long-term, overturning key Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United and 1976’s Buckley v. Valeo, which have defined unlimited spending as free speech, is critical to reining in the billionaire domination of politics.

The second element of the consensus is ending both racial and partisan gerrymandering. Increasingly, reformers and citizens are recognizing that districts drawn non-competitively discourage participation, increase polarization and drive many people from politics altogether. In 2018, five states passed ballot initiatives that created independent redistricting commissions or sharply limited partisan gerrymandering, and the move toward redistricting reform has gained remarkable strength in just a short period.

With the exception of eliminating the “LLC Loophole” and putting state and federal primaries on the same date, the New York legislature stuck to the voting rights agenda on their first day. But within that, they came a fair way to having the full suite of reform policies that advocates have recommended. Granted, in the case of same-day registration and voting by mail, the reforms require changing the New York State Constitution, but the legislature took a first and highly important step toward making this happen on Day 2 of their session.

Additional reforms may move forward during the rest of the session. Both Susan Lerner of Common Cause New York and Karen Scharff, who headed Citizen Action of New York for 31 years, say that public financing, voting rights restoration, and automatic voter registration all have real shots to be enacted as the session proceeds. Governor Cuomo included funding for a public financing system in his budget proposal, which will receive final action by April 1.

I think it is likely that New York’s great leap forward will help crystallize the thinking of advocates, legislators, governors, and secretaries of state in other states where reform is possible. In states with new political openings since the midterm elections, rather than think about just one reform or another, states now have a template for examining their existing laws, for assessing both where they have made progress and where they haven’t, and for adopting as much of the suite as they can as a holistic democracy reform. New York has taken a major step here, but it is not alone. Colorado in recent years has adopted a wide swath of democracy reforms, as has California. Last year, Washington state adopted a slate of similar reforms. Will other states follow this lead? It seems more possible now than it was even a few days ago.

Winning transformative reform in New York and other states will continue to be a hard-fought and long-term project. And even with all of the voting reforms, America’s voter participation will lag well behind other industrialized countries. The Electoral College is a huge impediment to truly democratic representation. Structural reforms like multi-member districts, ranked choice voting, and others have significant unfulfilled promise. We haven’t scratched the surface of truly reining in the power of money. The Senate itself, while we are at it, has a fundamentally undemocratic structure.

But we were never promised a rose garden, and people fighting for democracy reform know it is a very long haul. However, there are some moments to stop and smell the flowers that do grow along the way. New York’s victory is one such moment. Their democracy champions should savor it, as should we all.

Miles Rapoport is a Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance & Innovation. Previously, Rapoport was President of the independent grassroots organization Common Cause, & for 13 years, he headed the public policy center Demos. Rapoport served as Secretary of the State in Connecticut from 1995–1999, & served ten years in the Connecticut legislature.

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Challenges to Democracy

Challenges to Democracy is the blog of the Democratic Governance Program at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School.

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Challenges to Democracy

Challenges to Democracy is the blog of the Democratic Governance Program at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School.