New York City/State Voting


The Albany Times-Union advocated a number of remedies to New York’s laws to increase voting participation in the State and remove obstacles to the ease of voting and access to the polls in a July 9th Editorial on the subject. While their ideas were good and I agreed with them, I wrote a Letter to the Editor to offer some clarification on the several solutions that were offered, more along the lines of “easier said than done,” and to get on record that the New York State Assembly has passed bills on a number of their ideas.

The Times-Union advocated voting by mail; it is now law in about 30 states across the country, offering voters a variety of mail-in options to their Boards of Election to get their vote counted. I pointed out, however, that in New York the State Constitution requires a “cause” to vote absentee, meaning a reason or explanation for why the voter cannot come to the polls. To initiate broad voting by mail, the State Constitution must be changed to remove the word ” cause ” from the applicable section of the Constitution. The Legislature could then develop and pass a general scheme that could allow voting by mail; some states mail out the ballot to every registered voter. In California, even ballots posted on Election Day are countable. I was the sponsor of the bill for this Constitutional Amendment for many years, and finally got it passed the Assembly the year I retired. It is now carried by Assembly Member Clyde Vanel in the Assembly, which passed it again in 2017 and 2018. Carried in the State Senate by Senator LeRoy Comrie, it languishes there blocked by the Republicans who control the New York State Senate.

The Times-Union also advocated Same-Day Registration, meaning a person could show up at the polls on Election Day, and register and vote that same day. It is law in a number of States and is widely considered to assure substantial participation by our citizens, since interest in elections increases as Election Day approaches. But, once again, New York would need a Constitutional Amendment.  The current Constitution includes a minimum 10-day limit on registering before the election, and New York law now has a 25-day limit on registering to vote before an election. Assembly Member Charles Lavine now carries the bill to eliminate the 10-day barrier from the Constitution, but such a proposal has not passed either House recently. Mr. Lavine does carry a bill on Early Voting, which did pass the Assembly but not the Senate, which would allow voting to begin 8 days before the Election, at designated polling places within each county across the State. New York could also bring the 25-day deadline to register to 10 days without having to change the Constitution.

Sending the voters ballots by mail ( and people mailing them back), Early Voting, and Election Day Registration, would all cost money – and there are many elections. There are Federal, State, and local elections- there are  village, school district, town, county, borough, and City elections –  and both party primaries and general elections. Budgets of the Boards of Elections are paid for by counties, generally, or by the City of New York, and many local governments resist being forced to spend more money. The State Legislature would have to work out compromises with local governments about how to administer expansions like mail voting, Early Voting, etc., including offering to pay some or all of the cost, or limiting the number of elections involving substantial increases in expenses.

The Times-Union also expressed rightful dismay at the timing of the Congressional primaries in New York, held in June and separate from other elections, including state legislative primaries, which are held in September. But New York State was compelled by a Federal court order in 2012 to conduct these elections in June, part of a Federal lawsuit that claimed the State was not allowing enough time for overseas military ballots to be sent and returned in Federal elections. New York legislators clearly recognized the problem of low turnout and confusion from separating the Congressional primaries from other elections, and the Assembly passed a proposal to move the state legislative primaries to June and consolidate them with the House of Representatives. As you can see from my letter, it didn’t fly.

Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years and retired at the end of 2016. He chaired four committees, including the Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions for six years, the Committee on Cities for five years, and the Committee on Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities for six years. There are 96 Brennan laws on the books of the State of New York and Jim won three national awards for his legislative work during his career.


  1. William L Harris

    Bravo, Jim

  2. Marvin Ciporen

    Good insights, as usual, Jim.
    Are there any constitutional obstacles to making it easier to register and to selecting or changing Party affiliation? Do you know of any current measures to address these issues.
    I also think that any discussion about the abysmal level of participation in NY elections needs to also note that the schools, media and government-funded youth programs are doing a terrible job when it comes to educating people about the importance of civic engagement and voting. All of the technical improvements (while helpful and needed) won’t mean enough if people are not motivated to votes. Moreover, getting young people to vote as soon as they are eligible has been shown to increase individuals’ participation throughout their lifetimes.

  3. Thanks Marvin- registration itself and changing party affiliation are mostly statutory and can be changed. The Assembly passes other bills on these subjects, like automatic registration, and you can go to the Assembly website and get the annual reports of the Election Law Committee to see what other bills they do. Automatic enrollment upon registering for college, including community colleges, adult education, and continuing education, could reach 60-70% of the young adult population. New York is tied for 38th with two other states, out of 51, in the nation in the percentage of eligible adults voting in the 2016 Presidential election. 12% of New York adults are not citizens. We are comparable with California and actually ahead of Texas in this area.

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