New Yorkers reject expanded voting access in stunning result

Amid an array of discouraging election results for Democrats last week, there was one under-the-radar outcome that was especially perplexing. In New York, one of the country’s most progressive states, voters overwhelmingly rejected initiatives that would have expanded voting access in future elections.

The vote, which came in a year when Republican-led states have passed dozens of laws to restrict voting access, left voting rights advocates stunned.

One of the proposals would have paved the way for lawmakers to get rid of a longstanding states policy that requires voters to give an excuse if they want to vote by mail (34 states and the District of Columbia allow anyone to vote by mail for any reason). Another would have allowed people to register to vote on election day, a reform advocates believe significantly increases political participation.

None of the measures came anywhere close to passing. Republicans waged a well-funded and aggressive campaign to oppose the amendments, a move that caught supporters of the proposal off guard. The reforms were also hampered by low turnout and confusing wording on the ballot, which may have prompted some voters to choose to skip voting on the measures altogether.

The failed ballot measures mean that for now, New York will remain in a category with conservative states like Alabama, Mississippi and Texas, all of which require voters to give an excuse if they want to cast a mail-in ballot.

“There was an assumption that of course it’ll pass because it’s New York. And unfortunately, we woke up Wednesday morning and saw that was definitely not true,” said Sarah Goff, the deputy director of the New York chapter of Common Cause, a watchdog group that supported the measures. “Republicans and conservatives treated these ballot initiatives like essential threats and moved accordingly. And we just did not see that from the institutional supporters that we would have liked to.”

The defeat offered a huge boon for Republicans, who are vigorously opposing Democratic efforts at the federal level to make it easier to vote. “Even in deep blue New York, citizens appear to be rejecting Democrats’ demands for weaker elections,” Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the US Senate, said on Wednesday.

New York’s Conservative party spent $3m opposing the effort, according to the New York Times, and Republicans traveled across the state as part of a “Just Say No” campaign. There was a heavy push to advertise online and on TV against the amendments, especially in more conservative areas of the state outside the city. Echoing national Republicans, the campaign touted the specter of voter fraud, which is extremely rare, to urge voters to vote down the measures.

“The Republicans dedicated a significant amount of money to defeating it and did a successful job of politicizing the question,” said Michael Gianaris, a Democrat in the New York state senate who backed the measures.

New York’s Democratic party did not spend any money supporting the efforts, Jay Jacobs, the party’s chair told reporters. New York state Democrats spent $300,000, and asked the state party for help, but got radio silence, Gianaris said.

“Republicans spent millions of dollars upstate and on Long Island educating voters to vote no and we did not spend hardly any money or even effort to educate voters on the other side,” said Jan Combopiano, senior policy director and executive committee member at the Brooklyn Voters Alliance.

“I don’t think it matters if you’re a Democrat or Republican or whatever – all voters, to some extent, are afraid of fraud,” said Jennifer Wilson, the deputy director of the New York chapter of the League of Women Voters, a good-government group. “We didn’t do a good job of reassuring voters ‘don’t worry this isn’t gonna cause fraud. All it’s gonna do is make voting easier.’”

Voters also may have simply not understood the lengthy and complex descriptions of the proposals, printed on the back of ballots. Up to 13% of voters left each of the three questions blank. “They had so many candidates on the front side and then they flipped it over to the backside and they had a dissertation to read,” Wilson said.

A third proposal, which was more controversial, would have changed the rules around how the state draws new political districts each decade. Good-government groups were divided on that measure, a fissure that made it harder to organize a cohesive message to voters to support the ballot initiatives that would have expanded absentee voting and allowed same-day registration, Combopiano said.

Nineteen states passed 33 laws between January and the end of September that made it harder to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, and are widely seen as an effort to make it harder for minority voters to cast a ballot. Democrats have aggressively challenged the new policies in states like Georgia and Florida, both of which allow for no-excuse absentee voting, the same policy New York voters rejected on Tuesday.

It could be years before the proposals appear on the ballot again because amending the constitution is a years-long process in New York state.

“These are not out-there ideas,” Combopiano said. “If we can’t even get these things done, we are really behind the curve.”

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