ALBANY, N.Y. — For years, the ways in which voters in New York have been stymied by the state’s antiquated voting laws have stood in stark contrast to the state’s liberal reputation.
During last year’s contentious midterm elections, New York was the only state in the nation that held separate state and federal primary elections, a bifurcation that almost seemed designed to suppress voter turnout — which is generally thought to favor incumbents.
Early voting? Voting by mail? Same-day voter registration? All are fairly basic voting reforms now found in many states, but not in New York.
But with Democrats now in control of both chambers of the state Capitol and the governor’s office, things are about to change. Legislative leaders said they intend to pass a voting reform package Monday to overhaul the state’s voting laws, among the more restrictive in the nation.
The voting changes are a veritable wish list for those who have blamed New York’s laws for driving down voter turnout. The measures include allowing early voting, preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds and consolidating state and federal primary elections, which are now held in different months.
Lawmakers also plan to pass bills to allow vote-by-mail and same-day voter registration, although those proposals will also require voter referendums — and passage by the next Legislature, scheduled to be seated in 2021 — as they change the state constitution.
“This is just the beginning,” said state Sen. Michael Gianaris of Queens, deputy Democratic leader in the Senate. “There’s a long list of issues that have been kept on the shelf by Republicans all these years.
“And the issues we’re handling in the first week are incredibly important, and there will be incredibly important issues in the second week and the third week and the fourth week.”
The changes to the state’s voting laws are long overdue, according to good-government groups that have watched as New York has fallen to the bottom of lists tracking voter participation, despite being one of the nation’s bluest states.
“New York is moving from caboose to locomotive,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, adding, “New York has been in the obstacle-creating business, as opposed to the obstacle-smashing business, when it comes to voting.”
The bills, which will be introduced as a package, would place New York in the same rank as other liberal bulwarks like California and Washington, at a time when Democrats are seeking to enhance voter involvement.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has expressed support for such measures in the past, most recently last month, when he vowed to make election reform a priority in the first 100 days of the new year. A spokesman for Cuomo said the administration is hopeful that the voting package is the start of a range of reforms lawmakers pass this session.
“We look forward to working with them to go further and enact public campaign financing, make Election Day a state holiday and ban corporate contributions once and for all,” spokesman Rich Azzopardi said.
Cuomo has also favored a bill that would close the “LLC loophole,” which allows corporate interests to funnel almost unlimited amounts of money into campaigns through various anonymous limited liability companies. The loophole has been a bête noire of good-government groups for years but has been utilized by various powerful politicians in the state, including Cuomo, who has been one of its biggest beneficiaries.
The Democrat-dominated Assembly has voted to close the loophole for years, but the measure went nowhere in the Republican-led Senate.
On Monday, however, the new Democratic leadership in the Capitol intends to pass identical bills to cap contributions from LLCs at $5,000, bringing them in line with limits on donations from corporations.
LLCs would also be required “to disclose its beneficial ownership” with the state Board of Elections, requiring more transparency of entities that are often purposely opaque, sometimes identified by little more than an address of the company that established the LLC.
The push on election reform is expected to be followed in short order Tuesday by two other progressive agenda items: a ban of treating minors with conversion therapy, which aims to “cure” gay people of being homosexual; and the Gender Non-Discrimination Act, which prohibits discrimination based on “gender identity or expression” and expands the definition of hate crimes to cover transgender people.
The sponsor of both those bills is Sen. Brad Hoylman, who said they would be the first gender-oriented legislation to pass since same-sex marriage was legalized in 2011. Hoylman, who is the only openly gay lawmaker in the upper chamber, said that Republicans had thwarted even minor bills and resolutions that mentioned gay rights or issues.
Hoylman, who represents Lower Manhattan and brought his husband, David, and their 16-month-old daughter, Lucy, to the opening day of session Wednesday, said he hoped that the bills would find some votes from across the aisle as well. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Republican support,” he said.
On Wednesday, the interim minority leader of the Senate, Joseph Griffo, said in his introductory speech that the Republicans’ “mission as public servants remains the same: starting with supporting policies that help hardworking, middle-class families succeed and businesses grow and prosper.”
For the time being, Republicans, with only 23 members in a 63-seat house, have little recourse to stop a Democratic agenda, including the major changes to the state’s voting laws that could amplify demographic advantages in an already deep-blue state.
Money, however, is a bipartisan need, and the LLC loophole has been used by both parties to support campaigns. Still, many of the new members in the Senate Democratic conference ran for office on a pledge of getting corporate money out of politics, and Monday’s plan of action seems calibrated to make good on those campaign promises.
“I didn’t take any LLC money; a number of people coming in didn’t take any LLC money,” said Zellnor Myrie, a newly elected senator from Brooklyn. “And I think that’s what we’re responding to.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.