November 15, 2018 Testimony at NYS Assembly Election Law

My testimony on November 15, 2018 in front of the NYS Assembly Election Law Committee on Improving Opportunities to Vote in New York State. I advocate for Early Voting, Automatic Voter Registration, Same Day Registration, Removing the polling place barrier for affidavit ballots, No-Excuse Absentees, and Reducing the party change sequester to 90 days.

You can watch the entire hearing from that day here:

Part 1: http://nystateassembly.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=8&clip_id=4788

Part 2: http://nystateassembly.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=8&clip_id=4789

(Excuse the music over the first 3 minutes of the hearing that is the NYS Assembly AV departments attempt to make me look like a Jazz singer doling out the sweet melody of Election Reform)

Prepared Remarks Below

Testimony Before The New York State Assembly

 Standing Committee on Election Law

                            Subcommittee on Election Day Operations

and Voter Disenfranchisement

 Dustin M. Czarny, NYSECA Democratic Caucus Chair

Thank you to the members of the New York State Assembly Standing Committee on Election Law and Subcommittee on Election Day Operations and chairmen Charles Lavine and David Buchwald for holding this important hearing today.  My name is Dustin Czarny and I am the chair of the Democratic Caucus of the New York State Elections Commissioner Association as well as an Elections Commissioner from Onondaga County.  I am here representing not just the Democratic Commissioners from all 62 counties but the voters of my county who yearn for Election Reform.

Today we will talk about how we can improve New York’s byzantine election system.  It is important however to acknowledge many things that New York does right.  Our system of bi-partisan Election Boards is at the top of our successes.  The Democratic and Republican Commissioners work together to ensure the integrity of our election system.  The built in checks and balances helps NY avoid the partisan battles we see unfolding in other States.  Commissioners must find ways to put partisan ideologies aside to meet the needs of the voters.  This is also true at the State Board of Elections as well.  And also, thanks to the State Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo, have invested in our cyber security and that along with our paper ballot systems have allowed us to protect our election results against foreign and domestic attack.

Unfortunately our New York system of elections has a long way to go to meet the needs of our voting population.  In our modern day society there is more pressure than ever on our time.   We have single parent households and dual income households trying to balance the needs of long work hours with childcare and school activities.  Commuters face delays that are out of their control.  Family and medical emergencies can further put demands on our already limited time.  With an aging population elder care and transportation for those with special needs can further burden our time commitments.  We are also a mobile society with frequent residential changes and multiple domiciles.  We need an Election System that can also adapt to the needs of our citizenry.

The foremost of the reforms that New York desperately needs is Early Voting.  The concept of voting only in a single 15 hour period on a Tuesday in November is antiquated and does not take into account our modern needs.   Early Voting is one of the most vocal demands of citizens coming to our Board of Election offices in the days leading up to Election Day.  They see other states have this convenience and want that option here in our state.   Early Voting has become needlessly partisan in New York.  We see across the country that every demographic and every ideology enjoys the benefit of Early Voting.  Large, small, red, blue, and purple states like Texas, Ohio, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, California, Virginia and Oklahoma have all adopted Early Voting and seen its popularity increase. 

Early Voting is already a popular demand in New York.  A January 16, 2018 Siena College Poll shows 65% are in favor of “Instituting early voting in New York like it exists in dozens of other states.”  It is also growing in popularity in the states that already have Early Voting.  In this last mid-term election the usage of Early Voting broke records in the 37 states that utilize it.  The voters want the convenience of determining the time they want to vote and working it into their busy schedules.

Many will offer “no excuse” absentee voting as an alternative to Early Voting.  This mail in balloting option reform should be passed but in addition to Early Voting and not instead.  Many citizens prefer the option of the polling place experience.  Citizens however should be allowed to vote by mail at will and removing the excuse portion of the absentee process could lead to participation increases.  However we must also reform the way we canvass absentees.  We must allow for canvassing of absentees as they come in so they can be part of the Election night totals and disallow the option of voting at the polls if an absentee ballot has been cast.  States like Colorado and Oregon that have moved to the mail in ballot option that no-Excuse Absentee Ballots would eventually become experience over 50% of their ballots to be cast in this manner.  No-excuse absentees will increase participation but if that increase makes it hard for boards to determine winners on Election Night or leads to prolonged absentee ballot fights it could increase uncertainty.  No-excuse absentees should be considered but only coupled with changes in how we canvass those ballots.

We cannot do Early Voting and No-Excuse Absentee alone.  We need to reform the way we register voters.  We must remove the initial barrier to participation by switching to Automatic Voter Registration.  Automatic Voter Registration is one of the fastest growing electoral reforms in America.  15 states have now enacted this reform either through their legislature or through voter initiated ballot measures.  New York should not wait to be one of the last states to implement this reform.  By switching to an “opt out” instead of “opt in” we will remove the most common barrier against participation.  Often voters will assume they are either properly registered or decide they want to participate beyond the registration deadline.  AVR will eliminate most of the registration issue voter faces.  

Same Day Registration should be passed to help meet the needs of late moves and those who fall through the cracks of an AVR system.  They can be treated as affidavit ballots at polling places and allow bi-partisan review of the registration in a post-election setting.  Ballots could be canvassed with absentees that arrive after Election Day.  We should also remove the burdensome regulation that disallows votes from voters who vote by affidavit at a wrong polling place.  Often a voter will be casting ballots on a similar ballot but just down the street from where they should be.   Boards of Elections could easily determine if they voted in races they were ineligible to do so and disallow the votes in those races only and not the entire ballot.

Almost all of the reforms I have mentioned can be implemented with minimal costs as it is only changing procedures we already do.  We already register voters, so Automatic Voter Registration will shift the registration from the deadlines to a constant flow throughout the year.  We already do affidavit ballots so Same Day Registration and removing the Polling Place limitation will only change how we count the voters.  We already process absentee ballots so changing to no-excuse would only change when we canvass them and how they are applied for. 

The most expensive and radical change to our election system is also the change that voters want the most:  Early Voting.  In the last session lawmakers saw the need to make sure the cost of Early Voting was not an unfunded mandate to the counties that host the Boards of Elections.  It is important that New York State either passes a permanent line in the budget that reimburses counties for costs associated with Early Voting or using the Unclaimed Funds.  In addition the legislature should recognize the need to pass this reform early in the session if the intent is to implement by the general election of 2019.  County and City Boards will need to recruit polling stations and inspectors.  Logistically we face a bit of a conundrum that the moving of the primary to an earlier date is a necessity for Early Voting to work and if the primary is moved to June in 2019 we may not have time to also implement Early Voting for the primary.  We should target General Election 2019 for implementation and then institute primary Early Voting in 2020.

Finally we must stop seeing Election Reform as a partisan measure.  It is troubling that many of these reforms have passed the Assembly and not even gotten the courtesy of a vote in the Senate.  With the new makeup in the Senate it is hope that this will change.  There are also reforms that have bi-partisan agreements such as the permissive use of Electronic Poll Books and a unified federal primary.  The latter option could save New York taxpayers an estimated $50 million dollars every 2 years and reduce voter fatigue.

Every Election my office and the Boards of Elections throughout New York State are contacted by voters angry that NY State voting system is so behind the country on many reforms that they see voting other citizens of our country enjoy.  The citizens of New York deserve the convenience these Election reforms can provide.  It is my hope that NY State government will in early 2019 pass these reforms so we can work on perfecting them in the 2019 Election cycle.  We don’t want to try and implement reforms in the heat of a Presidential election in 2020.  I am confident the commissioner of the County Boards of Elections as well as NYC and the State Board can handle all of these reforms and I hope the legislature will give these tools to us to implement and serve the needs of our voters.

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