Dana Harris Gives Testimony to the NYS Assembly on Voting Rights and Access
5 pro-voter reforms for New York State
On November 15, 2018, Generation Citizen’s Advocacy Director Dana Harris submitted public testimony to the New York Assembly Standing Committee On Election Law with recommendations related to voter access to facilitate participation for New York’s youth and undeserved communities. Read on!
November 15, 2018
Assembly Standing Committee On Election Law
Subcommittee On Election Day Operations And Voter Disenfranchisement
New York, NY 10007
Good Afternoon Members of the Assembly,
Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you you today at this public hearing on Improving Opportunities to Vote in New York State.
I am the Advocacy Director at Generation Citizen. Generation Citizen is a nine-year old, national, nonpartisan civics education organization whose mission is to ensure that every student receives an Action Civics education. Generation Citizen New York City is the flagship of our six sites and we provide an experiential civics education to students in all five boroughs of New York City and this year, began expansion outside of the City, in Patchogue, Long Island. Since 2011, our Democracy Coach and teacher-led models have equipped over 18,000 young New Yorkers with the civic knowledge, skills, and disposition needed for lifelong civic engagement in our 21st century democracy.
Action Civics is a project-based approach to civics education where young people learn about the political process by taking action on specific issues they identify in their communities. The program operates during the school day, but in a real-world lab where students have the opportunity to become agents of positive change. This semester, our students are working with their local policymakers and school administrators on diverse issues including gang and gun violence, curricular improvements, and relevantly, voting rights.
In order to develop youth as civic actors, and ensure that their voices are heard and reflected by their representatives, we need voting reforms that break down barriers to political participation, and facilitate political participation for youth and all citizens. Indeed, voting — and easy access to it — both provides critical civics lessons to our young people, and enables them to manifest their civic dispositions, encouraging long-term engagement.
We recommend the Assembly consider the following 5 pro-voter reforms:
- Establish automatic voter registration.
Too many people do not vote not because they do not want to, but because New York’s voter registration processes are too antiquated, complex and time consuming or they learn that their registration is invalid when they show up at the polls on Election Day. Automatic voter registration (AVR), whereby completion of a government form automatically enrolls citizens as voters unless they choose to opt-out, can prevent these barriers to participation and increase turnout. To date, 15 states and Washington D.C. have approved AVR. In New York, AVR could begin at the DMV and expand to include other state agencies as they develop the capacity to support it. AVR is particularly important for facilitating the participation of underserved communities who may not have the time, capacity, or language ability to navigate the current bureaucracy of voter registration.
2. Implement early voting.
New York should follow the lead of 37 states and adopt early voting. Early voting allows citizens to cast their ballots at a time that is convenient for their own schedules. For individuals who have inflexible commitments including but not limited to: students, parents, seniors, working people and in particular, people with hourly wage jobs, this common sense policy creates the opportunity to participate without risking unnecessary compromise. Furthermore, when voting days are spread out, lines at the polls and risks of machine failure reduce. Early voting is a reform that would facilitate greater turnout among all, but particularly underserved communities, and make the voting experience a more positive one for all.
3. Implement voter pre-registration for 16- and 17- year olds, authorizing individuals to register to vote once they reach the age of sixteen.
Allowing prospective voters to pre-register before they reach the age of 18 is a commonsense policy that improves the the likelihood of young New Yorkers casting their ballot once they are eligible to do so. When students can pre-register to vote before turning 18, schools are more likely to host voter registration drives. This policy has been proven to increase youth voter turnout in states that have enacted it. Currently, 13 states plus Washington D.C. provide for 16-year-old voter pre-registration. New York should join them. This is an easy and inexpensive reform that would be a significant improvement to our voting system. In nearly all states that have adopted pre-registration, the bills providing for it have been accompanied by fiscal notes stating the bills would have zero impact on the state’s budget as it uses existing systems and software. This reform would allow 16 and 17 year olds to conveniently register to vote at the DMV when they go to get their driver’s’ permit or license and at high school voter drives.
4 Allow 17 year olds to vote in primary elections in years that they will be 18 and eligible to vote in the general election.
Currently, there is a notable portion of citizens who are eligible to vote in the general election, but not able to have a say in determining who will be on the ballot because they are not able vote in the preceding primary election. Granting voting rights to 17-year olds for primary elections if they’ll be 18 by the time of the general election allows their participation to be truly representative. Furthermore, it can bolster lifelong voter participation among youth. Engaging young people at the polls early allows voting to become a habit and depending on the time of the primary, can allow 17 year olds to vote while they are living at home and in high school, creating a supportive environment for them to engage. A vote in the primary can also increase their investment, and likeliness to turn out, in the general election. Nearly half of all US states allow 17 year olds to vote in primaries when they will be 18 by the time of the general election. New York should follow suit to make its elections more representative and to ensure to put young people on a more direct path to lifelong political participation.
5. Lower the voting age to 16 in state and municipal elections.
Lowering the voting age to 16 in elections helps young people establish the lifelong habit of voting by giving them the opportunity to vote in their first elections while they are still in secondary school. This policy also strengthens existing civics education classes and incentivizes schools to teach more, and higher quality, civics education. This voting reform is being successfully implemented in the cities of Takoma Park and Hyattsville, MD; within the school board elections of Berkeley, CA; and is currently being considered by the Council of Washington D.C. Lowering the voting age would enfranchise hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, instilling the lifelong habit of voting within the context of a supportive network of family and immediate community, rather than the comparatively less stable environment of a college or another post-secondary context.
We urge the Assembly to take these recommendations into consideration as critical means through which to improve our state’s democracy and make sure that all voices are heard and reflected in our government.
Thank you for your time and consideration of our testimony.
Advocacy Director, Generation Citizen