What’s It All About? – A Ballot Proposals Breakdown
By Maitefa Angaza
Although eyes are on the mayoral prize in next week’s election, there is life in New York City beyond that contest. Some weighty decisions will be made by voters that could significantly impact our future. Among the five new Ballot Proposals presented by state legislators for our approval, the majority—numbers 1,3, and 4—are directly related to voting rights. This is our opportunity to take part in the national conversation on this critical issue, while securing the franchise for future generations of New Yorkers.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice the 2021 legislative sessions resulted in the introduction of restrictive voting rights provisions in bills in 49 states—including New York State—totaling 425 bills overall. As of last week, 19 states have passed 30 of these bills into law. Aimed at restricting who gets to vote, as well as when and how, these laws have withstood widespread court challenges. The process was abetted by Republicans on a mission to appoint judges in states and circuits across the nation available to them during the Trump years, greasing the slide to the disenfranchisement of Black and brown people.
The voting rights crisis is not new. It’s just new to most white folk. Black people have, for decades, decried and fought (with little assistance) this resurgence of unjust Jim Crow-era tactics, primarily in Republican-helmed states. There was little response outside of the Black press, Black elected officials, and social justice advocates and organizations. Other citizens and their representatives not directly impacted by voter suppression turned a deaf ear—if and when they were even aware of the issue. (It was not then a priority on the evening news.) Until recently, most of the nation could be characterized as “low-information voters” as regards threats to voting rights. Now that this state of affairs imperils the very future of the “republic,” it’s a national crisis, although one that many feel is still not given the weight it merits.
New York is among the 25 states that passed a total of 62 laws that expand access to the polls. New York residents with prior felony convictions are now allowed to vote and voter registration is now automatic—meaning, if you are a citizen with a driver’s license, non-driver’s ID or other form of identification, you are automatically registered to vote. (Automatic Voter Registration was actually signed into law by then Gov. Cuomo in December of 2020.)
These new laws are unfortunately not expected to have significant impact across the country, as they were passed in states where voter access is already supported. Interestingly, a number of states passed new laws expanding existing voting rights along with the restrictive laws. New York is counted among them. It’s one new law listed in this category shortens the time voters have to submit mail-in ballots. Where ballots used to be accepted up until Nov. 2nd, they are now due October 15th. This is actually seen by many as an assist to voters, however. The new deadline allows time for any issues to be sorted out before the last minute, in the interest of having every vote count. The Republican Party opposes all five proposed amendments, but New Yorkers have the last word and the opportunity to change the state constitution by which they are governed.
Ballot Proposal 1 — Redistricting
This proposed constitutional amendment would freeze the number of state senators ar 63, amend the process for the counting of the state’s population, delete certain provisions that violate the United States Constitution, repeal and amend certain requirements for the appointment of the co-executive directors of the redistricting commission and amend the manner of drawing district lines for congressional and state legislative offices.
Speaking of every vote counting, this proposal addresses redistricting reform, which we know is crucial to protecting voting rights. Legislators have long held all the cards when it came to drawing the lines that make up Assembly, State Senate and Congressional districts. But the Independent Redistricting Commission established earlier this year, could, with a few tweaks, change the game if their recommendations are endorsed by voters. City residents sitting on the Commission now participate in drawing district lines they feel make sense, and are just for their communities.
The process is not pristine, however. Eight of the ten members are appointed by party leaders (four Democrats and four Republicans), with the remaining two chosen by the Commission itself, which—yes, is comprised of political appointees. So although the Commission could benefit from some reforming itself, the proposal it came up with is an improvement and an important first step.
Passage of this bill would be seen as a victory to those who have advocated for incarcerated people to be listed as residents of their home districts, rather than the county where they are imprisoned. One of the reasons that upstate New York has the power it does over NYC finances and other issues, is that the many thousands of inmates held there are counted toward that locale’s population.
NYPIRG (the New York Public Interest Research Group) encourages voters to see Proposal 1 through to becoming law.
“Vote Yes. The proposal caps the number of senate districts at 63; provides constitutional protection for counting prison populations at the last residences of persons who are incarcerated; does away with the partisan co-directors of the redistricting commission; eliminates the current partisan commission’s voting rules; removes the 1894 “block-on-border” rule that favors towns over cities in senate line drawing; and removes “dead wood” provisions long ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court and federal courts. The proposal also addresses timetable issues mapmakers face in 2020 and some of the shortcomings of the current constitution. Lastly, it eliminates convoluted rules that changed depending on the partisan makeup of the Legislature.”
Ballot Proposal 2 — Right to Clean Air, Water and A Healthful Environment
The proposed amendment to Article 1 of the New York Constitution would establish the right of each person to clean air and water and a healthful environment. Shall the proposed amendment be approved?
Corporations are still being sued for dumping toxic chemicals and even human waste into New York rivers. This bill would strengthen existing laws by broadening the scope of criminality in these crimes against the populace. Critics of the bill claim it’s not needed. Some proponents say it’s not specific enough. But most environmental advocates say it’s a good next step, as its general nature opens up a wide area of off-limits offenses to be prosecuted. They say additional details can be added once this basic protective upgrade is made.
New York is behind several other states that have the right to clean air and water already mandated in their state constitutions. In New York City, which is more densely populated by people and industry than most areas upstate, asthma has been at emergency levels for decades. On Election Day voters have the right to demand that the poisoning of their waters and the polluting of the air be addressed, and their rights defended, within their state laws.
Environmental Advocates NY says:
“ Most, if not all, New Yorkers would agree that clean air to breathe and clean water to drink are fundamental to a healthy and prosperous life. Most New Yorkers would also assume that access to clean air and water is a fundamental right no matter the color of our skin, how much money you have, or your zip code… We have for too long taken clean water and air for granted and sacrificed low-income and disadvantaged communities across New York who currently live with high levels of air pollution and water contamination everyday. Voting yes for this measure will create the legal and equitable safeguards to secure clean air and water for all New Yorkers to come.”
Ballot Proposal 3 — Eliminating 10-Day Advance Registration Requirement
The proposed amendment would delete the current requirement in Article II, S 5 that a citizen be registered to vote at least ten days before an election and would allow the legislature to enact laws permitting a citizen to register to vote less than 10 days before the election. Shall the proposed amendment be approved?
If this becomes law it will eliminate the current requirement for New Yorkers to be registered at least 10-days prior to voting in person for each election. Instead, New York State lawmakers would come up with a new formula, optimally in time for the 2022 election. Proponents, particularly those who’d like to see New York allow same-day voting registration, would obviously be in favor of empowering the legislature to come up with a new structure.
Opponents predict problems if same-day registration were to be part of the new voting formula. And if anything were to go wrong, they say, with voters lined up cast their ballot, and machines possibly malfunctioning there might not be time to rectify it. The result could be that some people are deprived of their vote that day, not participating on the most important day of this election year.
Citizens Union, however, believes the pros outweigh the cons.
“Citizens Union recommends a yes vote on question 3, which would allow voters to register to vote and cast their ballots less than ten days before an election. This proposal would allow the legislature to enact laws that make it possible to register to vote and cast your ballot on the same day. This streamlines registration and voting into a single process, diminishing administrative burdens associated with registration procedures and affidavit ballots and eliminating confusion and uncertainty over voter registration status. Every eligible citizen should have the opportunity to cast their ballot, regardless of when they registered to vote. Eliminating the current unnecessary restriction on voter registration will make it easier to vote and increase turnout in our elections.”
Ballot Proposal 4 — Authorizing No-Excuse Absentee Ballot Voting
The proposed amendment would delete from the current provision on absentee ballots the requirement that an absentee voter must be unable to appear at the polls by reason of absence from the county or illness or physical disability.
Currently voters have to attest that they are either physically disabled, ill, or will be out of town on Election Day in order to be able to vote by mail. All other voters must appear at the polls in order to vote, according to the New York State Constitution. If this amendment passes, all registered New York voters would be allowed to vote by mail without supplying a reason that they win’t be voting in person.
Many New Yorkers were relieved to be able to vote by mail during the height of the pandemic, and happy to be allowed to do so again for this election. If Proposal 4 is approved by the voters, this could become a permanent right.
Citizen’s Union weighs in again on this one:
“Citizens Union recommends a yes vote on question 4, which would eliminate the requirement that absentee voters must be unable to physically cast their ballot for reasons of illness or physical disability. The proposed amendment would give alternative voting options to people who have unmovable obligations or irregular schedules. Given that most elections are held during workdays, many citizens simply cannot afford to wait for hours in line to vote or incur the costs of traveling to and from the polls. It would Increase voter turnout and public participation in our elections and decrease the number of challenged and litigated absentee ballots, making the process easier for election administrators.”
Ballot Proposal 5 — Increasing the Jurisdiction of NYC Civil Court
The proposed amendment would increase the New York City Civil Court’s jurisdiction by allowing it to hear and decide claims for up to $50,000, instead of the current jurisdictional limit of $25,000.
Many New Yorkers turn to the Civil Court for help in adjudicating matters that may not be on the level of headline-making lawsuits, but are important to their lives, and sometimes their livelihoods. When the claims suggested by those helping them to navigate the legal system exceed the limits of the court, they are left adrift, awaiting a date in New York State Supreme Court—a date that could take much more time than the parties may have to resolve matters.
The passage of this bill into law would not only help citizens directly, but would benefit the legal system overall, by freeing up time and space in the larger courts and easing the way to decisions and settlements.
NY Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) obliges again:
“In 1983, the Constitution was amended to raise the jurisdictional limit of the New York City Civil Court from claims of $10,800 to $25,000, where it has remained. This was done to adjust for inflation, and to help lift a burden from a backlogged New York State Supreme Court, setting precedent that the court systems should evolve as the nation and as the state does. Now, more than 35 years later, it is time to revisit this threshold once again. This amendment would raise the jurisdictional limit of New York City Civil Court to $50,000. New Yorkers should update this anachronistic restriction.”
Voting.nyc is among the resources used for this article. New Yorkers can also find more detailed information at Gothamist.com and the other sources mentioned here.