Editorial: Fix New York's election laws
A state with so many signs of vast dysfunction didn't need one more. But New York managed last month to finish dead last among the states in the percentage of eligible voters who did vote: a feeble 32.1.
Why? It's too easy to blame the not-even-close gubernatorial race. No matter who's running, there are plenty of permanent obstacles to get candidates on the ballot and voters to the polls. So the voting percentage calculated by George Mason University's U.S. Election Project shouldn't surprise us.
Nor did the flaws end on Election Day. More than a month after New Yorkers first used optical scanners to vote in a general election, the counting has dragged on in two key races.
So, right now, while the election is still fresh in our minds, and as a new governor prepares to take the oath of office, we have to work on fixing our elections. Here's what we need: more voter participation, an easier route for candidates to get on the ballot, more fairly drawn legislative districts, and clearer guidelines for dealing with too-close-to-call elections.
Let's start with voter registration.
There's no good reason to close new-voter registrations almost a month before the election, as New York does. A lot of people don't focus on politics until well into October. If a candidate catches their interest, and they decide to register late in the month, they're out of luck.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Other states allow registration right up to Election Day, and those states have high turnout rates. In fact, some countries do automatic registration: When the government gathers and verifies your personal information in the course of other business, it automatically registers you to vote. That's not likely to happen here soon, but we can at least ease the deadline.
One obstacle: The state's constitution says "registration shall be completed at least ten days before each election." So, it appears that enacting Election Day registration here would require a constitutional amendment. But even 10 days before the election would be an improvement.
Party-changing is too slow, too
You can sign the form to change parties, but the new enrollment doesn't take effect until after the next general election. That's way too long. (Ask Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy. If his party change took effect quickly, he might have been the GOP nominee for governor.) But as long as we have closed primaries, the period shouldn't be too short, either. That might encourage last-minute moves by members of one party switching just to vote for the other party's weakest candidate. But let's make switching easier, without enabling mischief.
Then there's the matter of when and where voting should take place.
Tuesday voting is so 19th century, as two West Babylon High School students reported recently in the Newsday-Hofstra University Renew New York initiative. Congress set that day for travel convenience in an agrarian era. That time is long gone, and Tuesday-only voting should go, too. Other states have moved to early voting, and we should try it. Perhaps Election Weekend would be a good start.
As to where, let's try what some states, like Colorado, are doing: Set up supercenters for voting at high-traffic locations like shopping malls. With the statewide voter databases mandated by the Help America Vote Act of 2002, people could vote in a supercenter, at Penn Station, or wherever, and election officials could use the database to make sure they're not voting twice.
No matter how easy voting gets, though, people won't show up if there are no real choices on the ballot. In New York legislative "races," voters too often have to "choose" between unbeatable incumbents and underwhelming challengers.
Provide neutral redistricting
One needed fix is nonpartisan drawing of district lines. Voters should pick their lawmakers, but as it is, lawmakers pick their voters, by carving up districts every 10 years to include voters favorable to them. If the legislature won't pass a bill replacing this incumbent-protection scam with a nonpartisan districting commission, Gov. Andrew Cuomo should threaten not to sign any redistricting that doesn't produce fair districts.
The other issue is ballot access. It's unbelievably tough for challengers to gather enough signatures to get on the ballot. In more than half the states, there's a good alternative: Pay a filing fee and get on the ballot. The fee's size varies by state, but it usually costs less than gathering signatures and defending them in court. And it's revenue for the state. The New York City Bar proposes that system for our state, an excellent idea.
Finally, vote counts. With the new scanners, there's an automatic countywide audit every year, to check the accuracy of the machines. But only seven of the 32 machines randomly selected for audit came from the crucial 7th Senate District, where control of the State Senate hangs in the balance. To create total confidence in the outcome, the best bet is a full recount of all the paper ballots in this district. But the language in state law providing for that is not specific enough.
With the complications of this vote and the low turnout just behind us, and redistricting just ahead, 2011 is the year for a top-to-bottom revision in the way we run our elections. Isn't it time for New York to lead the way, instead of bringing up the rear? hN