Please don’t tell anyone but I have an embarrassing secret: I didn’t vote in the New York state primaries.
I am a graduate student pursuing a Master’s in Public Administration. I worked in a big city government agency as a NYC Urban Fellow. I can go on for hours about politics and policy. I am engaged, woke, and progressive. I was vigorously following New York’s gubernatorial race and looking forward to casting my vote for progressive candidate Cynthia Nixon. Yet even while being all those things, I could not make the voter registration deadline.
Before you call me a fraud, or a wannabe public servant, or a typical lazy millennial, let’s face a reality: New York has ridiculous voter registration rules.
New York is one of the few progressive states that does not have early voting or same-day registration. This lack of flexibility only makes it harder for citizens like me to be civically engaged in the election process. No wonder New York has one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country. According to the city Board of Elections, 12 percent of New Yorkers voted in the mayoral primaries in 2017 and only 26 percent voted in the general election in November. Before we find fault in the public for not being civically engaged enough, we should think critically about a system that continuously makes it difficult to get civically engaged.
Another baseless voter registration rule is the deadline to switch political parties before the primaries. This is a way to keep carpetbaggers from skewing and taking over a primary vote at the last minute. But, it also serves to keep people from voting at all. Eric Garner’s daughter, Erica Garner, who started a campaign against police brutality and a passionate Bernie Sanders supporter, was unable to vote in the Democratic primary in 2016 because she did not change her party affiliation from Independent in time. New York is the only state that requires voters to change their political parties in the year before the elections. This requirement and deadline prevents thousands of voters across the political spectrum in the state from participating in some of our most influential elections. Since many general elections in New York are landslide blowouts for Democrats, the primary elections are often the last votes that matter.
Over the last 30 years everything has become more accessible. We can use our phones to find the best restaurants near us, deposit a paycheck, or call a ride home without any forethought. Yet the voting system, the most vital and consequential form of democracy, is stuck in 1988.
New York Senator Michael Gianaris is advocating for the Voter Empowerment Act which would automatically register every eligible citizen to vote through the DMV and other government agencies. This will register more than 2 million New Yorkers to vote.
Unfortunately, this deeply beneficial bill has been stalled in a Senate committee for the last two years. What is surprising is that Democratic Senators are the ones holding it up. This makes sense. Democrats win in New York. Why fix what isn’t broken? But any system where 12 percent of the people (registered, primary-voting Democrats) hold all the voting power, is broken!
The New York electoral system is complicated and seems deliberately confusing. Sure, I should have been more aware and paid a little more attention to the deadlines. I also believe I represent a vast majority of the state’s population that cares, wants to participant, but easily misses arbitrary deadlines. This problematic gap in voting rulings and civic engagement adds to my incredulity when politicians shrug off citizens who are unprepared to vote in elections.
Sure, call me a fraud for now. My only ask is let’s not get comfortable with the empty rhetoric of “the right to vote.” That right can only be practiced when lawmakers ensure the people they serve do not face constant nonsensical barriers. Election Day means nothing if a vast population of eligible voters can’t vote because of the rules their own state inflicts on them.
Voting is the centerpiece of American democracy. It is unacceptable that New York, a trailblazer of progressive politics, is still so regressive in its voting practices. We must do better. We must challenge and command for a more logical and modernized voter registration system.
PS: I did register in time to vote in the general elections this November.
Palak Kaushal is an MPA Candidate at the NYU Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service