The New York State Bar Association today offered recommendations for modernizing the election process in New York, including allowing early voting, online voter registration and Election Day registration. The goal is to boost the state's abysmal voter turnout and registration levels.

The Association's House of Delegates approved the report of the Special Committee on Voter Participation at its January 25 meeting in New York City.

"New York, once a leader in civic participation and voting, has fallen behind other states, in large part because its registration and voting procedures have failed to keep up with innovative practices and modern technology," said State Bar President Seymour W. James, Jr. (The Legal Aid Society in New York City). "It is important to the democratic process that barriers which inhibit or discourage voter participation be removed."

In the last three elections, New York ranked 47th in average voter turnout nationwide, and New York's participation numbers have plummeted since 2000, the report states. In 2010, New York had the 16th worst voter registration rate nationwide, with less than 64 percent of eligible New Yorkers registered to vote. During the 2008 presidential election, only 59 percent of New York's eligible voters cast a ballot, according to the report.

Difficulty in voter registration is often cited as a reason for low voter turnout and enrollment. The report- borrowing ideas from other states and democratic countries that have successfully boosted enrollment and turnout- contains numerous recommendations, including:

•        Modernize the voter registration process to include making voter registration available online and making the voter registration process available electronically every time a citizen engages in a transaction with a state or federal agency.

•        Allow pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds to boost turnout among the 18-21 age group. Online registration and registration through motor vehicle departments has proven to be an effective method to boost voting among young people, who traditionally have the lowest voter registration rates in New York.
•        Amend the state Constitution to allow statewide Election Day registration and, in instances where early voting is adopted, same-day registration at the polls. In the interim, towns and villages should consider adopting the practice for local elections, as currently allowed under the state Constitution.
•        Until same-day registration is adopted in New York, the state should amend the cutoff date for voter registration to the constitutional limit of 10 days prior to an election instead of the current 25 days mandated by the state Legislature.
•        Allow limited, in-person early voting to give citizens the option of voting in person prior to Election Day. The committee recommended limiting early voting to a few days before Election Day so as not to dilute attention from the races or substantially increase costs of staffing polling places.
The committee also made the following recommendations:
•        Improve ballot design to minimize voter confusion and mistakes by boosting the minimum font size to 12 points; clear away clutter such as the required "closed fist" (with pointing finger) symbol at the head of rows and columns; simplify voting instructions; and provide ballots in multiple languages to encourage voting among those for whom English is not their first language.
•        Expand recruitment and training of polling place workers and improve conditions for them to alleviate some of the difficulties voters face at their polling places;
•        Crack down on deceptive practices such as "robo-calling" that are designed to discourage voter participation, and change New York's laws to provide criminal penalties for deceptive practices that suppress voting. The committee recommended boosting penalties to reflect existing penalties for voter registration fraud, including creating a Class E felony punishable by up to 4 years in prison.

Given the success of implementing similar practices in other states and major democracies around the world, the report said the state could realistically achieve turnout and enrollment of at least 80 percent within "a few years."

"We believe that, if implemented, the changes we recommend would have a very significant impact on voter participation, bringing New York's rates of registration and voter participation up to levels of which the citizens of the state can and should be proud," the report states.

The committee said it did not support expanding the use of absentee ballots as a way to boost turnout. "No-excuse absentee voting," which allows people to vote by absentee ballot without providing a legitimate reason, has proven to be vulnerable to fraud, errors and disqualified ballots, the report states.

The Special Committee on Voter Participation, appointed by President James in October, is chaired by former Assistant U.S. Attorney General and state Senator John R. Dunne of Albany (Whiteman Osterman & Hanna) and Daniel F. Kolb of New York City (Davis Polk & Wardwell). The 21-member committee was politically and geographically balanced to ensure fairness in its evaluations and recommendations.

To read the entire report, visit www.nysba.org/substantivereports.

The New York State Bar Association, with 76,000 members, is the largest voluntary state bar association in the nation. It was founded in 1876.

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Contact: Mark Mahoney
Associate Director of Media Services
mmahoney@nysba.org
518/487-5532