ALBANY, N.Y. — New Yorkers heading to the polls for the general election have the chance to make some big changes, with major ramifications, to the state constitution.
Early voting began on Saturday and will continue until Sunday, Oct. 31. Election Day is Nov. 2.
The ballots include five proposals that will let voters approve or shoot down sweeping overhauls to the state’s complicated redistricting process, enshrine environmental protections in the state constitution and even remove voter registration deadlines and potentially set the stage for the expansion of mail-in voting.
Also on the ballot is an amendment that would allow the city’s civil courts to hear and decide claims up to $50,000 instead of the current cap of $25,000.
All of the constitutional changes were approved by the state Legislature in back-to-back sessions separated by an election before going before voters.
Statewide ballot measures have a pretty good chance of getting the green light from voters based on the fate of past proposals. Of 50 initiatives proposed between 1985 and 2020, 37 were approved, according to Ballotpedia.
How the five proposals before New Yorkers this year will fare remains to be seen as early voting began this weekend ahead of the Nov. 2 general election.
The first measure is the most controversial and sweeping of the bunch as it encompasses several changes related to New York’s redistricting process, currently underway following last year’s census.
At the moment, an independent commission, created by a 2014 constitutional amendment, is tasked with redrawing boundaries for Congressional and state legislative districts and submitting maps to the Legislature for final approval.
The amendment changes how the Legislature approves maps presented by the commission, requiring a simple majority vote in both the Senate and Assembly regardless of which party is in control of either chamber. Democrats currently control both chambers, requiring a 60% vote to approve new maps under the existing law. If the houses were split, a majority vote would be needed.
It also enshrines in the constitution that all people, regardless of citizenship status, be counted in the redistricting process and moves up the deadline for the maps to be submitted to align with the state’s new June primaries, ensuring candidates know district lines before collecting signatures needed to get on the ballot.
Among other changes, the measure would cap the number of state senators at its current level of 63, preventing a party from adding seats to sway power. It also requires incarcerated people be counted at their last address, not the prison where they are being detained.
A coalition of good government groups and unions are rallying behind the proposal, along with two voting-related measures, props 3 and 4.
“There are parts of that question that are really important in terms of the value of strengthening democracy and making sure that we put people before politicians and redistricting and we make sure that we count everyone... and there are also part that are just about making sure this process works this time,” Daniel Altschuler, director of politics and strategic communications for Make the Road New York, one of dozens of groups behind the “Vote Yes on Proposals 1, 3, and 4!” campaign.
Several unions, the New York Public Interest Research Group, Common Cause NY and the NY Civic Engagement Table, have joined forces to support the three propositions.
Republicans, meanwhile, are up in arms over the changes, appropriating a line from Nancy Reagan as they encourage New Yorkers to “Just Say No.”
State Republican Committee chair Nick Langworthy has spent the past two weeks crisscrossing the state under the borrowed banner and calling on New Yorkers to reject the amendment.
“Let’s keep our independent redistricting independent, let’s not let the powerful people in Albany gerrymander districts, and strip voices away from communities,” Langworthy said during a stop in Buffalo on Thursday.
The League of Women Voters of New York also opposes the measure, arguing the amendment “significantly reduces the role of the commission in the process” and would “unfairly empower the majority party by preventing the minority party from having input into the final proposed maps.”
The second proposal on the ballot would add a single sentence to the state constitution’s bill of rights guaranteeing the right to “clean air, clean water, and a healthful environment.”
The so-called ”Green Amendment” would add New York to the relatively small number of states whose constitutions include language on environmental rights.
“Unfortunately, across the state there are New Yorkers who suffer because the air they breathe or the water they drink is polluted,” Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates NY, said in a statement ahead of a Kingston rally in support of the measure last week. “No one should have their health impacted simply because of where they live.”
Republican opponents argue that while the line sounds innocuous it could open the door to a rash of lawsuits since there is no baseline standard or legal definition of clean or healthful.
Proposition 3 eliminates the need for voters to be registered at least 10 days before an election, paving the way for the Legislature to enact same-day voter registration. Currently, 20 states and Washington, D.C. allow same-day registration, something supporters say New York should embrace in order to encourage younger voters.
“We do know that voter registration deadlines are the number one reason, the number one barrier, to young people casting their vote,” said Brianna Cea of APA VOICE, a coalition of Asian-American community organizations partaking in the “Vote Yes on Proposals 1, 3, and 4!” campaign.
Proposal 4 would remove constitutional restrictions on absentee ballots that currently require a voter attest that they are either ill or out of the state in order to request a mail-in ballot. If approved, the Legislature could vote to allow for no-excuse absentee voting.
Supporters point to the popularity of absentee ballots during the pandemic, allowed via an executive order from former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and argue that New York’s current limitations are too restrictive.
Cea also noted that within the Asian American community fears of contracting COVID-19 were coupled with a rise in hate crimes, leading many to embrace mail-in voting last year.
“The folks that I worked with, particularly the older Asian American voters, submitted their ballots via absentee even if they were in New York City because they were afraid for their health and also the uptick in hate crimes really raised the anxiety level.”
Republican leaders in Albany oppose both measures, arguing that the changes could increase voter fraud.
“It happens in many other states that already have no excuse to vote by mail,” Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt, R-Erie County, said at the Buffalo event last week. “What we’re talking about is organizations with a vested interest in the outcome of that election, going to people with ballots that are already filled out and saying I just need you to sign. It’s modern-day ballot box stuffing.”
Despite the majority of states allowing no-excuse absentee voting, Langworthy said the expansion would lead to “chaos and question marks in our elections.”
Susan Lerner of Common Cause NY said Republicans are fear-mongering and noted that 34 states and Washington, D.C. already allow widespread mail-in voting with few problems.
“(C)ontrary to Mr. Langworthy’s scare tactics, there is no evidence that any of these pro-voter reforms lead to anything other than fair, reliable elections,” she said. “Why should voters in Buffalo or Brooklyn be denied the same voting opportunities voters in two-thirds of the nation enjoy?”
The fifth and final proposal applies only to New York City Civil Court, but most go before all voters in the state per the rules laid out in the constitution.
Meant to lighten the workload for judges in State Supreme Court, the measure increases the city Civil Court’s jurisdiction to include claims up to $50,000.
The current cap of $25,000 was set in 1983 and a proposal identical to the one before voters this year was rejected back in the 1990s. The proposition on the ballot this year received unanimous support in both chambers of the Legislature.