Assemblywoman Jenne: Election Reform Ensures All New Yorkers Have a Voice

May 18, 2017

Assemblywoman Addie A.E. Jenne, D-Theresa, said she supported a number of bills approved by the state Assembly this week aimed at making it easier for voters to cast their ballots.

"We know in the best of times - in years when there is a hotly contested presidential election - approximately one-third of registered voters in the North Country don't cast a ballot on Election Day. Those numbers often drop to more than one of every two registered voters not casting ballots in off years when there are only local races on the ballot in our region," Assemblywoman Jenne said.

"In a region where so many of our sons and daughters are in the military and we host the brave soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division that go in harm's way to protect our democracy, we must ensure their voices and our voices are heard and fully represented. We know the steps we have taken this week will address some of the issues that suppress voter participation," she noted.

Voter turnout in the 116th Assembly District - portions of St. Lawrence and Jefferson counties - was less than 65 percent in 2016. The election reform package breaks down barriers to voting and updates an antiquated system so that more New Yorkers are able to vote and do their civic duty, Assemblywoman Jenne said.

The St. Lawrence County Board of Elections reported 45 percent of registered voters cast ballots in 2014 in a year that included races for governor, state senate, state assembly and local government posts. The turnout rate dropped to just 24 percent in 2015 in St. Lawrence County, a year when only local races were on the ballot. There are currently 58,654 active registered voters in St. Lawrence County.

The turnout rates were similar in Jefferson County – 30 percent in 2015 and 42 percent in 2014. There are currently 55,627 registered voters in Jefferson County.

One piece of the legislative package consolidates the state’s election calendar by combining the federal and state primary election dates to a single day in June (A.3052).

This move would save the state and taxpayers an estimated $25 million and means less hassle for county boards of elections. The bill also ensures that military members stationed overseas and their families have enough time to vote by mail by bringing New York State into compliance with the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act, which, among other statutes, mandates that states get ballots to military personnel no later than 45 days before the election.

County boards of elections would see significant savings by holding the state and federal primaries on the same day, and those savings could then be used to implement early voting.

The Assembly legislation thus establishes early voting in New York State, which would take place during a seven-day period prior to an election (A.2064). During the early voting period, polling locations would be required to be open for eight hours on weekdays and five hours on weekends and holidays, and to offer evening hours on at least two days.

Whether polls are open on Election Day or during the week prior, the election process can be particularly grueling for election inspectors. Under current law, these invaluable workers must work the entire time polls are open, which can be up to 16 hours. That’s why the Assembly is supporting a measure to allow election workers to split shifts and receive prorated compensation (A.6907-A).

To increase access to mail-in ballots at home, the legislative package includes a bill that would amend the New York State Constitution to allow any citizen to receive an absentee ballot upon request (A.7623).

Under current election law, residents can only receive absentee ballots if they expect to be absent from the county on the day of the election or if they have an illness or physical disability. The amendment must be passed by both the Assembly and Senate in consecutive terms before it goes before voters as a ballot referendum.

“It’s simple. If we want more people to vote, we need to expand voting options so that busy New Yorkers can still exercise their right,” the assemblywoman said. “Voting by mail is a convenient way for New Yorkers to vote without having to trek to the polls on Election Day as they juggle work, caring for their families and everyday responsibilities.”

Further, the legislative package includes the Voter Enfranchisement Modernization Act of 2017, which establishes online voter registration in New York State (A.5382). This will streamline the registration process and bring the state’s antiquated, paper-based application process into the 21st century.

To complement these efforts, another piece of legislation, cosponsored by Assemblywoman Jenne, requires state and local agencies to include voter registration within their application process (A.6283).

Since agencies already get the relevant personal information needed to register to vote, this bill helps facilitate greater voter participation. The Assembly legislation also includes a measure instructing boards of elections to automatically transfer voter enrollment for New Yorkers who move from one county to another (A.3411).

"The automatic transfer simply makes sense. If voters are already registered in New York State, we don't need to block their access to the polls. This legislation would streamline the registration process," she said.

Finally, the package includes a measure allowing voters who are 17 to vote in presidential primary elections if they will be 18 years of age at the time of the general election (A.3549).

"I have been a strong supporter of efforts to increase voter participation and find it encouraging that the Assembly is making an effort to encourage prospective young voters to become more involved in the political process. The issues facing our state and nation are immense, and I think it is critical to have their voices at the table as we make decisions that will impact their lives for years to come," Assemblywoman Jenne said.

She noted that many of those teenagers end up attending one of six colleges in St. Lawrence or Jefferson counties or are stationed at Fort Drum.

"Allowing 17 year olds to help select the candidates they will be able to vote for when they are 18 in that November's election is simply the right thing to do," she said.

She said she is hopeful the voting reform legislation will gain support as it moves to the state senate for their review.

"By providing the hardworking people of our state with more voting options, we help make sure that everyone truly has a say,” Assemblywoman Jenne said. “This legislation breaks down barriers and strengthens the democratic values this nation and state were founded on.”

Jennie Bacon, St. Lawrence County election commissioner, said she strongly supports efforts to increase voter participation. 'The passage of bills to help improve the election process is much appreciated. We continuously work to improve the system, to make registering and voting a simple and quick process for all. Many of these bills will improve that effort in St. Lawrence County and across the entire state of New York," Ms. Bacon said.

Jefferson County Election Commissioner Babette Hall said she is open to any changes that benefit the voter and our election process. "We are so ready for the federal and state primaries to be combined. Most people do not realize the amount of work there is to planning an election, not to mention the cost," she said.

She noted the savings from combining the primaries would actually help with the costs generated by early voting.

Ms. Hall noted 3,169 voters cast absentee ballots in the 2016 general election. "I believe a no-excuse application for an absentee ballot would benefit voters who are in the county but have job responsibilities that make it difficult for them to get to their poll sites to vote," she said.

The election commissioner also said improvements in technology would help make registering voters who have moved from one county to another in the state a relatively simple process.

"This process would be much easier to monitor now that we are connected to NYSVoter, and each election board has access to all voters in New York," she noted.