Testimony to the City Council Governmental Operations Committee on Election Reform and Modernization

CITIZENS UNION TESTIMONY

TO THE NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL

COMMITTEE ON GOVERNMENTAL OPERATIONS

on

Election Reform and Modernization:

Considering Early Voting, Same-Day Registration and Electronic Voter Registration

Delivered by

Dick Dadey, Executive Director, Citizens Union

November 25, 2008

Good morning Chairperson Felder and committee members. My name is Dick Dadey, Executive Director of Citizens Union of the City of New York, an independent, nonpartisan civic organization of New Yorkers that promotes good government and advances political reform in our city and state. For more than a century, Citizens Union has served as a watchdog for the public interest and an advocate for the common good. I would like to thank the New York City Council Committee on Governmental Operations for the opportunity to testify today on innovative ways New York State can explore to make increase voter participation.

The recent presidential election demonstrated that increased interest in voting and the electoral process can be generated. It is the responsibility of New York State and election officials to make voting as accessible as possible. Removing barriers will allow and in fact encourage voters to participate in greater numbers. With advances in technology, and a greater capacity to allow voters to participate through different processes, creative approaches aimed at boosting voter participation should be explored. Among them include instituting Election Day voter registration (EDR or also known as same-day registration), exploring the use of early voting and “no-excuse” absentee voting, and allowing voters to register online to vote. By creating a system through which people have a greater ability to participate at the fundamental level of voting, we can not only increase voter turnout, but also encourage their involvement in other areas of elections and government.

Election Day Registration

The deadlines for voter registration can have a significant affect on the ability of eligible voters to participate in elections. New York State currently requires registration to be completed twenty-five days in advance of the election. During this year’s general election, this restrictive deadline meant that voters had to register by October 10th. This registration deadline can create a barrier for voters interested in casting a ballot, specifically for those who may become interested in the election too late or are frequently mobile. The advancement of EDR has been a long-held goal of CU, and we believe it can be a forward thinking solution to New York’s notoriously low voter turnout. In a report published by Citizens Union Foundation, Citizens Union’s affiliated non-profit research and education organization, in 2005 titled “Election Day Registration: Simplifying the Voting Process and Increasing Voter Turnout in New York City,” we detail not only why New York can benefit from the implementation of same-day voter registration, but also provide recommendations for how to securely and efficiently institute the practice.

In the 2004 presidential election, New York ranked 46th in voter turnout across the nation. Since 1960, New York’s turnout rate has fallen from over sixty percent to just over fifty percent in 2004 and with turnout rates below the national average since 1972.[1] In the last five presidential elections, New York State voter turnout failed to exceed fifty-one percent of the voting age population, while the state’s population continued to increase.[2] By implementing EDR, New York could encourage participation among all voters, and particularly late interest, recently mobile, marginally interested, incorrectly registered, and first time voters.

Based on research and analysis in our report, EDR in New York would:

  • Streamline registration and voting into a single process, diminishing administrative burdens associated with registration procedures and affidavit ballots.
  • Allow eligible voters with uncertain registration status to re-register, therefore decreasing the number of provisional ballots cast.
  • Eliminate confusion and uncertainty over voter registration status.
  • Generally enfranchise and turn out more citizens to vote.

Currently nine states across the country have implemented EDR, including Maine, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. In these three states specifically, voter turnout has seen large increases over the national trend, and, at times, even when voter turnout across the country decreased. Only once has Wisconsin’s voter turnout rate dropped below sixty percent since 1976 when EDR was implemented—and all three states exceeded seventy percent participation in the 2004 presidential election.[3]

Criticism of EDR include concerns of voter fraud and increased errors, administrative burdens on Board of Elections (Board) staff, and the financial costs associated with its implementation. Other states that have instituted EDR, however, have shown that precautionary measures can be implemented to safeguard the ballot. Voters registering on Election Day may be required to provide photo identification, proof of address, and/or sign a voter oath or affidavit to prevent attempts by voters to register illegally. Stiff penalties for voter fraud should be implemented for voters who violate the law as a strong deterrent to any possible fraud. Voter fraud is already an infrequent occurrence in New York, and there is no evidence based on other states that EDR would increase the potential for voter fraud. To address concerns that EDR would overburden Board staff, some states have introduced “greeters” inside the polling place to direct voters and those wishing to register to the appropriate locations. Placing one or more poll workers at each site solely assigned to Election Day registrants, may also be another option. With an increased number of poll workers, voters can submit their registration forms under the supervision of election officials, reducing mistakes and in turn decreasing the resources needed to follow up and correct erred forms.

There are concerns that New York City, in particular, would have a difficult time implementing EDR because of the size of our electorate. In order of preference, CUF has identified available approaches the City can utilize to implement EDR, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each approach:

 

  • Election Office EDR and Voting—Voters can register and vote at their local election office instead of their assigned polling place. New York City allows voters to vote by absentee ballot in advance by visiting their Board borough office within a specified time period before the election. Voters would only have to go to one place to register and vote; however, the borough office may not be convenient for all voters wishing to register on Election Day.
  • Precinct-level EDR (utilized in Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming) —Voters can register to vote in an election at their local polling site. This would require one to two additional poll workers per poll site to assist in voter registration, but would provide the most convenient method for voters to register on Election Day.
  • Election Office EDR (utilized in Maine) —Voters can register at their local borough office, and would travel to their local polling location to cast a ballot after registration. While this system would allow registration to take place in centralized locations and minimize the need to hire additional poll workers, it would also require voters to register and vote in separate locations.

EDR can also be beneficial in eliminating affidavit ballot errors and administrative burdens associated with voter registration. The implementation of the statewide voter database, which is intended to make verifying voters easier, and a process to address ballot security concerns, coupled with EDR may reduce some of the administrative errors that prevent people from voting and remove onerous steps for various voting groups. EDR also has the potential to reduce the number of uncounted affidavit ballots, which demand increased time and effort to verify, and may indicate inefficiencies in election administration. According to the EAC Election Day Survey, provisional ballots in New York in 2004 accounted for four percent of ballots cast and one percent of ballots counted. Over half of the provisional ballots cast, 144,457 votes, were not counted. Yet, in Wisconsin, a state with EDR, the percentage of provisional ballots cast was 0.01%, with 0.00% counted.

By eliminating this extra step of registering before Election Day, New York State can provide all citizens with the opportunity to participate in elections, no matter when they become engaged in the process. EDR, however, cannot be implemented in New York without a constitutional change that eliminates the requirement that registration be completed at least ten days before each election. Prior to becoming Assembly Speaker, Sheldon Silver in 1992 sponsored and passed in the Assembly EDR legislation. It never passed the Senate so the constitutional amendment was not presented to the voters. Assemblymember Michael Gianaris from Queens currently is the lead sponsor. We continue to work toward this goal and support Res. 1252, calling on the State to implement EDR.

Online Registration

In addition to EDR, there are other innovative ways to allow voters greater opportunity to participate in the electoral process and ease access to voting. In the same vein as EDR, online registration also provides voters with an easier way to register to vote.

To register to vote in New York State, citizens must complete a form in-person at a State agency or local board office, or mail in the completed form. As mentioned before, registration is a major obstacle for many potential voters, and increasing their ability to become registered more quickly and easily can not only increase registration rates, but also voter turnout. Online registration is convenient, and would accommodate an increasingly mobile and virtual population. According to a study by the Center for Technology in Government at the University of Albany, the second most common request by citizens for electronic government services is online voter registration.[4] Additionally, online registration may encourage younger citizens, whose registration rates are consistently lower than those of older age groups, to become involved in the electoral process. A Pew Research report found that 88 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds are online and nearly two-thirds check their e-mail daily.[5]

Two states currently permit online voter registration—Arizona and Washington—and both have experienced significant increases in voter registration which can be directly correlated with higher voter turnout.[6] Arizona implemented online registration in 2003, in response to their registration rates which were the lowest in the nation, tied with Hawaii, at forty-one percent of voter-age population. During their first year of implementation, twenty-five percent of all voter registrations were completed online. Four years later the number of online voter registrations increased to seventy-two percent.[7] The website of Arizona’s Secretary of State, which hosts online registration, provides voters with a clear and accessible way to complete their voter registration in both English and Spanish. Since its implementation in 2003, the service has only experienced one problem, when its computer system—which is linked to the nationwide database of driver’s licenses—temporarily experienced service failures on the last day to register for the 2008 presidential primary.[8] The requirements of the online form are identical to the paper version, and in Arizona all voters must present valid government identification when they show up at the polls.

Washington State implemented online voter registration in January of 2008, and uses the same verification procedure as Arizona, requiring voters to provide identification both when completing the form online and in-person at the polls. Additionally, the website of the Secretary of State is available in Spanish and Chinese, and registration forms are available in Spanish, Chinese, Cambodian, Korean, Laotian, Russian, and Vietnamese. Its capacity to translate and process voter registration forms in varied languages is particularly relevant to New York City, which hosts a large and widely diverse voting population that speaks many languages. Furthermore, Washington’s system is not connected to the nationwide database of driver’s licenses, thereby reducing their risk of associated technical problems. This year Washington state reported that voter enrollment had reached a new record since 2004, with a total of over 3.5 million registered voters.[9]

Following these states’ lead, California passed a bill on September 30, 2008, to implement their own online registration. “Californians can pay bills and file their taxes online. Being able to register to vote online is the next logical step in making it easier for Californians to participate fully in their democracy,” said Secretary of State Debra Bowen, California's chief elections officer. California’s online registration system requires the online registrant to provide their birth dates, the last four digits of their Social Security numbers, and the numbers from either a valid California driver's license or identification card.[10]

California also allows voters to request an absentee ballot online. In New York voters must first submit an application to receive an absentee ballot at their home through the mail, or must appear in person to their county board office. Increasing New York’s capacity to accommodate online registration, subject to the same identification requirements for any newly registered voter, and requests for absentee ballots and communicate more effectively through the internet has the potential to positively affect voter participation, and should be further explored. CU supports Res. 1251 and encourages the state and election officials to explore ways to allow online voter registration and increase voter information available on the State and City Boards’ websites.

EARLY VOTING and No-Excuse Absentee Voting

Beyond Election Day and online voter registration, New York State can implement other changes to increase New Yorkers’ ability to vote as easily as possible. Early voting is one option that can allow voters who may not be able to reach their polling location on Election Day to still participate by casting their ballot at an earlier time. In the 2004 elections, twenty percent of voters nationwide voted early, [11] and the increase in voter participation from 2002 was higher in states with early voting than those without.[12] In the 2008 General Election, early voting has reached a record high, especially in certain swing states in which early voting may account for the majority of ballots cast.[13]

At a recent City Board meeting, it was reported that the City received up to 800 voters per day prior to November 4th wishing to cast an absentee ballot in person at one of the five local Board offices. While Citizens Union has yet to take a position on how best to implement early voting, its potential to allow those unable to reach their polling location on Election Day, or cast an absentee ballot, the opportunity to cast their ballots is a laudable goal that must be studied further.

Unlike New York, thirty-one states offer the chance to vote in-person before Election Day.[14] Although the time period and locations vary by state, most states offer early voting ten to fourteen days before the election, and some allow voting at county or state offices, grocery stores, shopping malls, schools, libraries, or other locations. In the states that had early voting in both 2002 and 2004, turnout increased by seven percent compared to an increase of six percent in states without early voting.[15]

In addition to exploring the use of early voting, the State should consider changes to the use of absentee ballots. The New York Constitution requires all voters who wish to cast an absentee ballot to declare a reason why they will be unable to vote at their respective poll sites on Election Day. [16] Permissible reasons are illness or absence from the county.[17] Twenty-eight other states, such as California, have instituted “no-excuse” absentee voting, allowing voters who would prefer to vote early and through the mail to do so.

No-excuse absentee voting would provide an additional opportunity to vote for those who have difficulty showing up on a business day, or do not wish to wait on long lines at their poll sites. Hawaii and Nevada, included among the states that provide early vote and no-excuse absentee voting, even pay postage for absentee ballots. Georgia, whose voter turnout was below the national average in 2000, rose from forty-six percent in 2000 to fifty-six percent in 2004 after the adoption of these voting methods.[18] In states which do not require an excuse, absentee voting reached levels as high as eighty-eight percent in Washington state in 2006, while in states which do require an excuse, absentee rates ranged from four percent in New York to three percent in Delaware.[19]

Citizens Union is supportive of Res. 1698 encouraging the United States Congress and the New York State legislature to implement early voting, and we encourage further study of the best way to institute the program here. We would also be supportive of a constitutional amendment needed to reform New York’s restrictive absentee ballot requirements and allow voters to obtain an absentee without declaring a reason.

New York State has a responsibility to its citizens to make voting as accessible as possible and encourage their participation by removing barriers – all of which would be achieved by the implementation of these proposed reforms. If implemented correctly with the proper precautionary measures in place, Election Day registration, online registration, early voting and no-excuse absentee voting can ensure that all eligible voters have the opportunity to cast a ballot, which ultimately will increase voter participation and civic engagement. These reforms represent a new commitment and creative approach to increasing voter participation, which has been and continues to be a top priority of Citizens Union.

Again, thank you for the opportunity to testify today, and we look forward to working with you and our colleagues to make progress on these important reforms.

 

[1] Israel, Doug and Ngai, Amy. “Making Votes Count: Election Day Registration: Simplifying the Voting Process and Increasing Voter Turnout in New York City.” Citizens Union Foundation. November 2005, available at: http://www.citizensunion.org/www/cu/site/hosting/Reports/CUF_Election_Day_Registration_Report.pdf

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Pardo, Theresa A. “Realizing the Promise of Digital Government: It’s More Than Building a Web Site.” Center of Technology in Government (CTG), October 2000. http://www.ctg.albany.edu/publications/journals/realizing_the_promise/realizing_the_promise.pdf

[5] Ari Hoffnung, Point of view: Getting young people to the polls. The Riverdale Press, February 21, 2008, available at: http://www.riverdalepress.com/full.php?sid=3180¤t_edition=2008-02-21

[6] Marcelo, Karlo Barrios. “Voter Registration Among Young People.” The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE), June 2008. http://www.civicyouth.org/PopUps/FactSheets/FS07_Registration.pdf

[7] See, http://www.secstate.wa.gov/elections/online_reg_faq.aspx

[8] Gregory Roberts, Washington starts up online voter registration, January 14, 2008, available at: http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/347217_voterregistration14.html.

[9] See, “Washington Voter Registration hits record at 3.5 million.” Puget Sound Business Journal, October 7, 2008, available at: http://www.bizjournals.com/seattle/stories/2008/10/06/daily13.html.

[10] “Electronic Vote: California Creating Online Voter Registration System.” September 30, 2008. http://www.govtech.com/gt/articles/418758

[11] See, Associated Press Elections Unit, http://elections.gmu.edu/early_vote_2008.html

[12] ReformElections.org, available at: http://www.reformelections.org/feature.asp?menuid=%7B88D32B43-3876-4B06-A941-25A33211CBE5%7D

[13] See, Janet Hook and Noam N. Levey , Early voting hits record high, The Los Angeles Times, November 4, 2008, available at: http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-na-voting4-2008nov04,0,1104991.story.

[14] See generally, National Conference of State Legislatures, available at: http://www.ncsl.org/programs/legismgt/elect/absentearly.htm, accessed November 5, 2008.

[15] See, ReformElections.org, available at: http://www.reformelections.org/feature.asp?menuid=%7B88D32B43-3876-4B06-A941-25A33211CBE5%7D

[16] N.Y.S. Const. Article II, Section 2 (2008).

[17] Id.

[18] See, Sam Rosenfeld, A Few Good States, available at: http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=a_few_good_states, December 20, 2004.

[19] U.S. Election Assistance Commission, The 2006 Election Administration and Voting Survey, available at: http://www.eac.gov/files/Eds2006/eds2006/edsr-final-adopted-version.pdf, at pg. 16