A New Day in Albany

Written by Maeve McKaig

In the early days of the 2019-2020 legislative session, New York passed historic voting reforms that activists have advocated for decades. While many improvements were made, the state still has a way to go before our elections are free and fair for all New Yorkers.

What was passed?

  • Consolidating state and federal primary elections: Before January 14, New York was the only state that still held separate state and federal primary elections. This common-sense reform puts both state and federal primaries on one ballot, rather than making voters turn out for two different elections three months apart.
  • Pre-Registration for 16 and 17-year-olds: With pre-registration, 16 and 17-year-olds can get registering to vote out of the way ahead of time.
  • Early voting: Going into effect immediately, in time for the 2019 general election, early voting will begin on the tenth day before the election and end the second day before. Voters will have two full weekends to do their civil duty. New York now joins 39 other states that have early voting. However, the funding for early voting must be approved at the county level (luckily Dutchess County has appropriated funds for early voting in the county budget).
  • Automatic transferable voter registration: Voter registration will now automatically be updated whenever a voter moves within the state of New York. This streamlines the registration process and retains registered voters, rather than stripping them from the rolls.
  • Vote-by-mail, same-day voter registration, and no excuse absentee ballots: These measures would amend the state constitution, which means that they require voter referendums and passage by the subsequent legislature, scheduled to begin session in 2021. Currently, the measures have initial authorization from the 2019-2020 state legislature.

These reforms may seem mundane, but they have put New York on a path to repair its poor reputation regarding voter turnout and participation. Despite having the fourth most registered voters, experts on election data rank New York near the bottom for voter turnout. NY was ranked 14th lowest in voter turnout in 2016 by the United States Election Project with data going back to 1980. In the November 2016 election, NY ranked 42nd in voter turnout, with 57.2% of voting-age citizens, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By passing these reforms, New York has made elections more accessible with fairer voting procedures, but there is more work to be done.

Two nonpartisan statewide coalitions of pro-democracy individuals and organizations, Let NY Vote and Fair Elections NY, have a list of legislative demands that have yet to be addressed. Both coalitions support passing automatic voter registration, a bill that would make voting an “opt-out” system rather than an “opt-in.” Instead of having to register separately, every eligible voter will be registered when they interact with a government agency unless they affirmatively decline. Then, those agencies transfer voter registration information electronically instead of using paper forms. If passed, New York would join 15 other states with AVR.

Fair Elections NY also supports closing the so-called “L.L.C. loophole.” The state recently passed a law that “narrows” the loophole, but it is time to close it once and for all. The loophole allows corporate interests and wealthy donors to contribute practically unlimited amounts of money to campaigns by funneling money through anonymous limited liability companies. Donors can both donate more money by evading individual limits and make their donations essentially anonymous, as many companies are identified by barely more than an address. As an example of the loophole’s power, a 2016 Common Cause/NY analysis found that:

from 2005 through 2014, Glenwood Management contributed over $12.8 million to New York State candidates and committees. But, direct contributions made by the company itself, or through individuals such as CEO Leonard Litwin, made up only 10% of the spending overall. The contributions made by at least fifty (50) coordinated L.L.C.s steadily increased from $1.1 million in 2008 to over $2.5 million in 2014. In 2014, direct contributions made by Glenwood Management and affiliated individuals accounted for less than 2% of Glenwood’s $2.6 million total giving.

Cuomo has consistently supported closing the loophole despite being one of the biggest beneficiaries of L.L.C. donations. He has reportedly raised $16.54 million from L.L.C.s since taking office in 2011. Now that Democrats control the legislature, Republicans cannot be blamed for blocking reforms in the legislature. L.L.C.s would also be required “to disclose its beneficial ownership” with the State Board of Elections. A constitutional amendment requires disclosure of the identity and proportion of ownership of all direct and indirect owners in the L.L.C, which could go into effect as soon as 2021 if subsequent legislatures pass it.

Before the recent bill, an individual or L.L.C. could contribute a maximum of $60,800 to a statewide campaign, $16,800 to a State Senate candidate, and/or $8,200 to a State Assembly candidate per election cycle. In “narrowing” the loophole, the state decreased the contribution limit of L.L.C.s to $5,000, the same as corporations.

Fair Elections NY wants to close the loophole once and for all by banning any L.L.C. contributions, as it is still possible for individuals to create an essentially unlimited number of companies in order to maximize their influence as donors.

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