On the morning of last year's mid-terms, Salem Almaani was already in line at Raices Times Plaza Senior Center in Brooklyn, New York, when the polls opened at 6 a.m. This was his normal polling site, and though he'd recently moved down the block, he'd re-registered and been assigned the same location. However, when he gave his name to the poll workers, he didn't appear on the rolls and was told to fill out an affidavit ballot.
Back home, he checked his registration online. Nothing came up under his name—neither an entry for his old address nor his new—and, three weeks later, he received a letter saying his affidavit ballot hadn't counted because he'd voted in the wrong place. At the bottom of the page, it listed the correct site. It was Raices Times Plaza Senior Center.
The House of Representatives is currently investigating voting irregularities from the mid-terms in Texas, Georgia, and Florida. But it is New York, the epicenter of the #Resistance that, until passing reforms in January, was one of the worst states in the country for voter registration.
If, instead of having to register 25 days before Election Day, Almaani could have registered same-day (or not have been required to register at all), he may have been able to cast a legitimate vote—along with the other 52,220 New York voters who, according to the State Board of Elections, were flagged as having rejected affidavit ballots in 2018.
In fact, in 2018, Scot Schraufnagel, chair of the Department of Political Science at Northern Illinois University, co-authored a "cost of voting" index based on 33 aspects of a state's voting laws, including the ability to register online, if civic groups have to take a state-mandated training to run recruitment drives, the presence of absentee voting, and the average number of hours poll sites are open. Of all the factors, he found that the voter registration deadline was the most "costly" barrier to the polls—more so than even the infamous "strict photo ID" laws. Mostly for that reason, in the last presidential election, it was more difficult to vote in New York than in Montana, Louisiana, or West Virginia, all states that broke for Donald Trump by at least a 20-point margin. And if you consider voter turnout for that whole year, the Empire State fared even worse: It was 49th for the primary.
In January, New York passed its first significant voting reforms in a century, expanding online registration, allowing for pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, introducing early voting, and paving the way for same-day registration and vote-by-mail. However, the state's long history of costly voting—and the limit of these new reforms—shows how blocking access to the polls is a problem even in deep-blue states.
In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which, among other things, required jurisdictions with a history of suppression tactics to get permission from the federal government before changing their voting laws. Of the 11 states formerly in the Confederacy, seven were covered under this "preclearance" provision in full (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia), and two had counties that were covered (Florida and North Carolina).
Five decades later, these states are still known for voter suppression—and rightfully so—but bigotry at the ballot box extends far beyond the Deep South. Before the Supreme Court's 2013 Shelby case nullified preclearance, the law also covered jurisdictions in Michigan, South Dakota, California, and three of New York City's five boroughs, which used English tests and draconian registration requirements to disenfranchise voters, especially Puerto Ricans, until the practice was outlawed by an amendment to the Voting Rights Act in 1970.
By the time Almaani went to vote at Raices Times Plaza Senior Center, New York's voting laws had become less overtly racist but were still burdensome, despite reforms being proposed. Part of the reason the system hadn't improved was that, although the state had been governed by a Democrat since 2007, Republicans had controlled the State Senate more or less uninterrupted since World War II. Under their leadership, these voting-reform bills were left to die in committee or voted down on the floor—and this kind of bipartisan power-sharing isn't unique to New York.*
From 2013 to 2017, that was the dynamic in Washington State, and it's currently the case in Kansas, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Virginia—which all have Democratic governors but Republican-controlled legislatures—and New Hampshire, which has the opposite. According to Jerry H. Goldfeder, an attorney and law school professor specializing in election law, politicians in both parties often prioritize re-election over voting accessibility. "Incumbents in New York have attempted to continue the laws in the state that made it difficult to run for office, and they didn't expand voting opportunities," he says.
Laura Bierman, the executive director of the League of Women Voters of New York State, agrees. Speaking about the difficulty of lobbying for New York's recent voting reforms, she says: "It's the same reason why we struggle getting campaign finance reforms done. We're asking the same people who the system was working for to make it possibly harder for them to get elected."
Bierman gives two examples of how these political considerations have worked. The first is New York's uniquely severe deadline to be able to participate in the state's closed primaries. "To vote in the primaries in 2016," Bierman says, "you had to know on October 10th of 2015 that you wanted to change your party affiliation, even though you didn't know who the candidates were going to be yet." Why is this the case? "Parties don't like people to be able to change their party affiliation quickly."
Because parties wanted to keep their power entrenched, Bierman says there was also opposition to the Voter Friendly Ballot Act, proposed in the state assembly in 2015, which eliminated party emblems next to candidates' names, along with making changes that seem like common sense but needed to be codified through the legislature: working with graphic designers and disability rights advocates to increase the ballot's font size, eliminate visual clutter, and make the layout standardized across the state. "All 62 county boards of elections are independent," Bierman says. "So even if the state thinks something is a good idea, the counties don't have to do it unless it's a law."
The second obstacle in the way of reform is that some seemingly minor reforms require more than the passage of a bill. In order to enact same-day registration and vote-by-mail, lawmakers must amend the state constitution, so that, despite the fact that those measures passed in January, they must pass again in 2021 (the next legislative session), and then be approved by a popular referendum. And after any reform is passed comes another challenge: funding it.
Of all the changes New York implemented, the most expensive is the nine days of early voting, which will require the state to convert from paper to electronic poll books and supply the machines necessary to print new ballots. In addition, the counties must train and staff additional poll workers, hire security to guard the voting machines at night, and, in many areas, find new polling sites and rent them for 15 hours instead of the previous nine.
So far, the state has allocated $14.7 million in funding for the e-poll books and $10 million for the early voting, but Bierman still has reservations. "The money is not coming from the State Board of Elections," she says. Instead, each county must submit a proposal to the governor's office, and the criteria for selection are not yet clear. "How is his office going to determine who gets approved, who gets rejected, and how much money they get?" Bierman asks.
Schraufnagel called New York's reforms "consequential" but noted that "nine days of early voting is still less than other states." (By comparison, Georgia, a lighthouse of voter suppression, offers 22 days.) He also pointed out that other jurisdictions, like New Jersey, which enacted automatic voter registration last year, are also lowering the cost of voting, and New York has a long way to go if it wants to keep pace.
One lofty ambition for the state is enacting automatic voter registration (which is available in Georgia), and another is ranked-choice voting, which Maine used in last year's mid-terms and which flipped the outcome of a Congressional race but received relatively little press. In such a system, voters rank the candidates on the ballot. If none of the first-choice contenders receives over 50 percent of the vote, the candidate in last place is eliminated, and her supporters' votes are allocated to the candidate they marked as their second choice, allowing voters to choose third-party candidates without "wasting" their votes.
A third goal is repealing the part of the state constitution that disenfranchises anyone convicted of a felony. "It's going to be a lot harder than even I expected," says Isabel Zeitz-Moskin, the national organizer for the National Action Network, a civil rights organization. "Based on the initial surveys we've had of legislators in the state, there are extremely progressive—or who I thought were progressive—legislators who don't want to restore the right to vote to people who are incarcerated. We don't even have a primary sponsor right now."
Of course, the federal government could always intervene and pass legislation like the Voting Rights Act, the National Voter Registration Act, or the Help America Vote Act. Or, according to Catherine Vaughan, the chief executive officer and co-founder of Flippable, a progressive organization working to elect Democrats to state legislatures, Congress could, at the very least, encourage good behavior. "What if states got a certain amount of funding based on turnout?" she says. "If you could set up incentives so that they tried to expand the electorate rather than make it smaller, would that change voting laws?"
The nuance of voting law is often technical and boring, which is why only the most egregious cases of voter suppression typically make the news, like the ID laws and so-called "purges" in conservative states. However, protecting the status quo is a bipartisan endeavor, and without lobbying lawmakers of all stripes, the divide will, according to Schraufnagel, only grow. He writes, "I suspect the gap between the states where it is easier to vote and the states where it is most difficult to vote will be wider in 2020."
*Update—May 1st, 2019: A previous version of this article reported that, since World War II, Republicans had controlled the New York State Assembly "more or less uninterrupted." Their nearly unimpeded control was in the State Senate.