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New Yorkers Voted Not to Make Voting Easier. Why?

Voters surprisingly rejected ballot proposals that would have allowed same-day registration and no-excuse absentee voting.

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The majority of New York voters in last week’s election gave a thumbs down to two ballot proposals that would have expanded voting access in the state: Prop 3, which would have eliminated the requirement that a voter be registered at least 10 days before an election, and Prop 4, which would have cleared the way for no-excuse absentee voting. Those proposals were expected to pass easily. So what happened?

Proposals 3 and 4 were endorsed by leading Democratic politicians, including Governor Kathy Hochul, Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and six members of the state’s Congressional delegation. Six key labor unions and a host of other organizations also endorsed the measures, including the Yes on 1, 3, 4 campaign, anchored by a coalition of nonprofits, labor unions, and advocacy groups.

But there wasn’t much in the way of outreach to Democratic voters—perhaps because local politicians thought “yes” votes were a given. Among 5.6 million registered New York voters, most didn’t even bother to vote this cycle: turnout was an estimated 20 percent, one of the lowest rates in years. Across the state, 51.4 percent of voters voted against Prop 3, and 50.1 percent voted against Prop 4.

“These results are a cautionary tale showing that even in deep-blue New York, we can’t take pro-democracy outcomes for granted,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, in a statement. “Anti-democracy forces are drowning out common-sense reforms with fear-mongering scare tactics, and voters are listening.”

According to a source close to one of the partner organizations supporting the ballot measure who spoke on background to The River, there are a few different possible explanations for the surprising vote results, including confusing ballot language and voter apathy. The spokesperson also offered general criticism of Democratic party leaders for being “overconfident” and “dropping the ball.”

There were definitely regrets among top Democrats in the state. In a post-election statement, New York Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs said the party “should have paid more attention” to the ballot proposals. He later told The New York Times that the party did not fund the ballot proposals because he was “never asked by any of the stakeholders to do that.”

Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) called that an “outright lie.” Intra-party bickering between Jacobs and other Democratic leaders is nothing new.

“This election was a unique opportunity to improve our democracy and expand our freedom to vote,” says Melody Lopez, executive director of New York Civic Engagement Table, a nonprofit organization that supports civic engagement efforts by the state. “The failure of Proposals 1, 3, and 4 underscores how much our democracy is under attack, even in New York.”

Better Organization on the Right

By contrast, New York State Republicans ran a well-funded, well-publicized campaign against the ballot proposals, with special attention given to voter engagement that told Republicans how to vote on all ballot measures.

In a “Just Say No” tour kick-off event in Staten Island last month, Nick Langworthy, the chair of the state Republican Party, told the crowd these “dangerous” ballot measures would be a “threat to our democracy” and “recipes for disaster” that would make it easier for people to “cheat” while voting. Langworthy also said the ballot initiatives would legalize “rigged elections.” Passing the ballot measures would be like “rolling out the carpet for voting fraud,” he said, adding that requiring voter ID at the polls—not one of the measures on the ballot—is essential to fair voting.

Langworthy says it was the state Conservative Party that handled the majority of financing for the right’s media strategy, while the GOP got “boots on the ground” for in-person events. Conservative and Republican leaders collectively made stops in 40 counties in the weeks prior to the election.

In a phone interview with The River, Langworthy says he believed the Democratic party’s leadership was in disarray. “With Cuomo gone, there is no dictator telling people what to do.” Governor Kathy Hochul was in “over her head.”

Ultimately, Langworthy was pleased with the successful results of the “Just Say No” campaign and grateful that Democrats “dishonest” proposals did not get voted in. “The Democrats were trying to sneak this through and pull the wool over people’s eyes in an off election year,” he says.

New York State Conservative Party Chairman Gerard Kassar praised Langworthy’s efforts in a phone interview with The River. Kassar said there was great “synergy” between the Conservative Party and the GOP during the “Just Say No” campaign, noting both entities shared resources to finance the campaign.

“We were pleased with the results,” Kassar says. “We were able to cobble together $4 million. Within a window of 12 days, we did a substantial radio, TV, broadcasting, and [a] significant digital campaign, along with print advertising.” The campaign also distributed 15,000 lawn signs. 

“I was not surprised that we won, but I was surprised by the large margins, including in New York City,” Kassar says. “The Democratic Party’s response was inadequate and the result was what you see…significant wins across the state.” 

But some Democratic civic and community leaders vowed to continue to fight for measures that would improve voting access statewide. The earliest future opportunity for another repeat ballot measure vote could be in 2023. 

“We must all stand ready to fight for the democracy we deserve,” says Theo Oshiro, executive director of Make the Road New York, a grassroots organization that advocates for immigrants and the working class.