Here’s How NY Protects Incumbents From Citizens — And How To Change That

The state legislature won’t fix a broken system that rewards its members. But this year New Yorkers have a chance to change it themselves.

Saul Martinez / Reuters

This month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a series of commendable proposals to modernize the state’s voting system. His “Democracy Project” would “remove unnecessary barriers that prevent participation in elections” by opening voting sites for more than one day, creating an automatic voter registration system and permitting voter registration on Election Day. This makes for good political theater, since there is little chance the state legislature will do the right thing.

New York State ranks an abysmal 45th in America in voter participation, largely because our system is broken beyond repair and voters know it. It’s not that people don’t want to vote. A Gordian knot of pervasive and insidious problems have been written into laws and regulation that will require systemic reform at the state level.

For five years ending last month, I served as the first chairman of the New York City Voter Assistance Advisory Committee. NYC Votes, as it is known, brings voters into a conversation with representatives from the citywide elected offices, plus the New York City Board of Elections. The goal is to improve the voting experience and expand voter participation.

While technology has made life easier for nearly everyone in their private lives, the voting experience stands in ever-starker, ever-more-dismal contrast.

Last year’s deletion of 120,000 registered voters from the voter rolls in Brooklyn resulted in the Department of Justice announcement this month that it would step in to ensure “full compliance with the law.” This catapulted public frustration into righteous outrage that we heard in abundance at recent NYC Votes public hearings and open meetings. To add insult to injury, the NYC Board of Elections has attended only one NYC Votes public hearing or meeting since 2015. To be fair, the NYC BOE has limited power to change our voting system. Legislators in Albany make the rules that matter.

NYC Votes has been an advocate for voting initiatives that align with the Governor’s Democracy Project. Our Vote Better NY campaign has called for allowing an early voting period of up to two weeks before Election Day, same-day registration, ballots that are readable and user-friendly, and a true online voter-registration system that works for all New Yorkers. These changes would also reduce New York’s draconian rule that requires voters to change their party affiliation nearly a year before an election.

The most powerful disincentives to voting reform are the spoils of incumbency. No one disputes that a healthy democracy requires an expanded and invigorated base of voters. However, to incumbents, more voters represent a risk to re-election and a potential loss of financial perks including part-time second jobs, unlimited contributions from LLCs (including those with no other purpose than contributing to a politician’s campaign) and the crowning jewel, the ability to essentially convert unspent campaign funds to pay for all but the most personal expenses after leaving office. It should be no surprise that, despite years of valiant efforts by civic groups and civic-minded legislators, these measures are stymied by the many lawmakers from both parties who pay mere lip service to true voting reform.

NYC Votes has done amazing work that is no match for the size of the challenge. NYC Votes has organized a growing community coalition that registered over 100,000 New Yorkers. We organized a public-private effort that built mobile technology to more seamlessly connect candidates with potential supporters. We’ve done everything we can to play the game we were given.

So, why might 2017 be different? In November, New Yorkers will be given an opportunity to vote for a Constitutional Convention that can give people the power to change what the Legislature won’t. After years of waiting, the voters will have the chance to change the game.