Barriers to the Ballot: Voting Reform in New York City
April 3, 2016
On May 17, 1957, three years to the day after the Supreme Court’s historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education, a 28-year-old minister from Atlanta—the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—stood before the Lincoln Memorial to demand that every American be able to access the ballot.
“So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind—it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact—I can only submit to the edict of others.”1
Eight years later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, with Dr. King at his side.
Despite all the progress of the past half-century, millions of Americans—including many right here in the Empire State—continue to face a complicated maze of obstacles simply to cast a ballot. In fact, voter turnout in New York State—and New York City in particular—is among the worst in the nation, whether for presidential, midterm, or mayoral races.
Only 58 percent of registered voters in the City cast ballots in the 2012 presidential general election—the lowest rate since 1996 (57 percent) and the second lowest since 1972.2
Turnout in the 2013 mayoral election was even worse. Only 1.1 million of the 4.2 million registered voters in New York City voted in the November 2013 general election—a rate of just 26 percent.
And in the November 2014 general election, only 31 percent of the registered voters cast ballots in the Empire State—one of the lowest rates in the nation, despite three statewide races (including for governor) and 27 U.S. House of Representatives races. In New York City, only 25 percent of registered voters turned out—the lowest rate on record and a continuation of a decades-long slide.
While there are many possible explanations for poor turnout, many of New York’s voting rules do more to prevent people from getting to the polls than they do to encourage New Yorkers to exercise their franchise.
In fact, the Empire State is one of only a handful of states to lack alternative poll access (early voting/no-excuse absentee voting/voting by mail), expedited registration (same-day or electronic registration), and increased primary access (open primaries, extended deadlines for party registration).
The state of voting laws in New York is particularly concerning at a moment when states across the country have created additional hurdles to voter participation, including voter ID laws, more restrictive registration practices, the elimination of early voting, and the expansion of bans on the franchise for people with criminal records.
If New York wants to reaffirm democratic values in the 21st century, we need voting laws that recognize our historic commitment to suffrage.