New York eyes its own voting rights act after failure at the federal level

A move to provide new voter protections in New York is picking up momentum among a growing number of advocates and lawmakers, given the failure to enact similar legislation at the federal level.

In a letter sent Wednesday to Gov. Kathy Hochul and the state Senate and Assembly leaders, a group of 72 civil rights, labor and voting rights organizations urged the state to make passage of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York, (NY VRA) a priority before the Legislature winds down its final month of session.

The organizations who signed on to the letter, led by the New York Civil Liberties Union, point to the need to protect voters, especially voters of color, from race-based voter suppression, dilution and intimidation — while also expanding language access above and beyond what is required by federal law.

“This landmark legislation would root out discrimination against voters of color in New York and immediately make our state a national leader on protecting the right to vote,” the groups wrote.

Other states have already enacted their own voting rights bills including California, Washington, Oregon and Virginia.

A key element of New York’s bill is a state-level pre-clearance system that requires certain jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in their elections to seek approval from the state attorney general’s office or a local court before making changes to their election administration.

The preclearance provision makes up for one stripped from the federal Voting Rights Act in 2013 as part of the US Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision. Judges ruled that the formula used to determine which jurisdictions would be subject to coverage was outdated.

Since 1968 and up until that ruling, elections in the Bronx, Kings, and New York counties were subject to federal oversight by the Justice Department.

Under the NY VRA, all of New York City would likely be considered a covered jurisdiction, meaning changes to things like poll site locations and the removal of voters from voter rolls would be subject to state oversight.

In the wake of a massive voter purge in Brooklyn ahead of the 2016 presidential primary, election law experts and federal officials argued that if the federal preclearance requirement remained in place, the fiasco may have been prevented.

“It was the crown jewel of the federal Voting Rights Act,” said Perry Grossman, a voting rights attorney with the NYCLU. “It is the crown jewel of the New York Voting Rights Act.”

Still, the path of the NY VRA through both chambers is unclear.

On Wednesday, the state Senate Elections Committee voted to advance the bill. This comes more than two years after the committee held a public hearing on the legislation. That was held back in March 2020, “a week before the world changed,” quipped state Sen. Zellnor Myrie, the committee chair, referring to the pandemic.

Myrie is the lead sponsor of the Senate bill and stressed the significance of it moving forward, noting the failed attempts in Congress to pass either the Freedom to Vote Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. He said passage of the NY VRA would be felt beyond the state.

“I think it signals not just to New Yorkers, but really to the country, that the states have a role to play, particularly with a hostile Supreme Court and in some instances a hostile Congress,” Myrie told Gothamist, alluding to the recent leak of a draft US Supreme Court opinion that would end more than 50 years of precedence when it comes to abortion access.

A spokesperson for the state Senate Democratic majority said the bill is expected to go to the Senate floor for a full vote next week. A spokesperson for the Assembly Speaker has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Avi Small, a spokesperson for the governor, emphasized Hochul’s commitment to making sure New York remained a leader on voting rights.

“Gov. Hochul has taken bold action to expand voting rights and is committed to making sure New York State will continue to be a national leader on voting rights protections,” he said in a statement. Her office de ella has already signed laws to expand access to early voting, ensure there are polling sites on college campuses, and setting up an electronic absentee ballot and tracking.

While Hochul included the enactment of a state-level voting rights act in her 2022 State of the State book in January, Small said only that Hochul would review the bill if approved by the Legislature.

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