Election law reforms coming?

Things are going to be different in Albany when the new legislative session convenes in January. The large Democratic majority in the State Senate will join the overwhelmingly Democratic Assembly and Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo for the very rare occurrence in New York State – one party rule.

There have Republican governors from time-to-time (Dewey, Rockefeller, Wilson, Pataki). The Democrats won control of the Assembly in 1974 and the size of their majority has grown much bigger over the years.

But except for about three years (1965; 2009 and 2010) the Republicans have run the State Senate for about eighty years. It took a lot of creative gerrymandering and a couple expansions of the Senate, but they held a pretty tight grip for a long, long time.

With Democrats about to hold 40 seats of the 63 Senate seats, we are coming to a fork in the road – put up or shut up time. And as Yogi Berra used to say, when you come to a fork in the road, take it.

With divided control of the two houses of the Legislature, and with a governor who was often pleased with that arrangement, it was easy for the Assembly to pass one-house bills that would die in the Senate. Senate Democrats, while in the minority, could propose things that they knew the Republican leadership would never allow to come up for a vote. Those days are about to end.

So we’ll see how many of those going-nowhere proposals will now surface when opportunities to get approval are real and excuses for not being able to act are gone.

One of the legislative areas where there has been lots of talk and no action concerns changes – some will call them reforms – in the Election Law. New York State lags behind many other states when it comes to a voter-friendly Election Law.   Here, in no particular order, are ten potential amendments that will surface for some serious discussion:

  • Easier voter registration. You can register to vote when you apply for or renew your driver’s license – every eight years. If party organizations are on their toes they might, knowing you are not registered, bring a form to you. Otherwise, you’re on your own. Look for proposals ranging from some type of automatic registration tied to your DMV licenses to same day or near same day registrations, which are currently cut off 25 days before annual general elections.
  • Ability to change your party registration without needing to do so almost a year before the next election. That’s what the law provides now; you must change your party affiliation no later than 25 days prior to the current year’s election date in order to be able to vote in your new party’s primary the following year. What a new cut-off date might look like is anyone’s guess. This would allow some game playing for potential party-hoppers who want to have some fun in another party’s primary elections.
  • Eliminating the need for two primary elections in years when federal offices are filled. For the past several even-number years New York State has conducted two primary elections: one in June to satisfy military voting requirements for federal offices, and a second primary in September for state and local office primary elections. The split primaries increase costs and diminish interest. In days past one primary election was held in June of even-numbered years for all offices.
  • Early voting. This is a privilege that even states better known for voter suppression have made available to their voters. It could be offered for limited or extended periods of time; in multiple or limited locations; on Saturdays.
  • Voting absentee without a medical/military/out-of- town excuse. This would likely expand turnout. The counting might slow down a bit but the absentee system works.
  • Restricting or eliminating the use of limited liability corporations (LLCs) to get around campaign donation limits. The current system is out of control and gives the wealthy and influential the opportunity to feather their own nests with multiple donations to favored candidates.
  • Some sort of state financed funding for state campaigns, perhaps modeled on the New York City program. That would seem to be a hard sell, given the cost.
  • Toughen up financial reporting requirements. There have recently been several prosecutions that went after those who flouted the law concerning the raising and spending of campaign money without regard for the limits already in the law. But such prosecutions occur long after the violations occur and damage to the process has been done. Giving the state and county election boards the ability to possibly check on potential violations in real time would improve the chances of conducting fair elections.
  • Raising the threshold for automatic party qualifications based on gubernatorial votes. The present 50,000 vote requirement for the four-year creation or continuation of political parties was set decades ago when the state population was smaller. Every four years the result is that fringe parties get created, usually by major party candidates for governor looking to add more lines on the ballot with their name on it. If the threshold were 100,000 votes we would only be looking at four parties for the next four years rather than the eight which the 2018 election for governor created. Independent candidacies would still be permitted by petitioning, as is currently the case.
  • Ending fusion voting. Fusion (aka cross endorsements) gives minor parties the opportunity to wag the dog (Democrats or Republicans), influencing candidate selection, issue priorities and patronage distributions. Only two states other than New York allow this. Minor parties could still exist, but they would need to run their own affiliated candidates, something only the Green Party in New York consistently does. And as has been shown in New York State and locally, it is occasionally possible to elect people on minor party lines – think James Buckley (elected Senator on the Conservative line); Mayor John Lindsay (elected Mayor of New York on the Liberal line); Jimmy Griffin and Chuck Swanick (elected Buffalo Mayor and Erie County legislator, respectively, on the Conservative line).

All of the above proposals have been discussed for many years in New York State, but none of them have been enacted. The people who will be in charge in January have proposed and supported these ideas. So we will soon see if we should judge the state’s leadership by their talk or by their actions.

Just wondering

Speaking of the State Senate, the twenty-three Republicans who are about to become the minority in the Senate met recently and re-elected John Flanagan as their leader. Flanagan had been challenged by Western New York Senator Cathy Young, who served as Chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee. The vote was reported to be 14 to 9 for Flanagan. The only Western New York Republican senator to vote for Young was Robert Ortt from Niagara County. Senators Michael Ranzenhofer, Pat Gallivan and Chris Jacobs, whose districts are all based in Erie County, voted for Flanagan.

Flanagan has been part of the group of powerful senators known as the Long Island Nine. Come January they will be known as the Long Island Three. Quite a comedown.

The shutout of Republicans in all statewide offices and the loss of the Senate has encouraged lots of talk about the party dumping Chairman Ed Cox in 2019. One of the names prominently mentioned as a replacement is Erie County Chairman Nick Langworthy.

So I’m just wondering: did those three Erie County-based senators who voted for someone from Long Island rather than someone from Western New York as their party leader do so to help round up future Long Island State Republican Committee votes for Langworthy when the time comes for the election for party chairman sometime in 2019? You know, for geographic balance and all that good stuff. We’ll see.