Make it easy for people to vote

Story highlights

  • We should be encouraging early voting, online registration and other ways to increase turnout, writes Scott Stringer
  • Despite its progressive reputation, New York state is backward on many of these issues, he says

Scott M. Stringer, a Democrat, is New York City comptroller. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)In states across the country, voting rights are under attack. In 2000, only 14 states had voter ID requirements. Today, 33 states have such laws, which have been shown to disproportionately affect young people and communities of color.

States are also making it harder to vote by curtailing early voting or removing polling sites. Since 2010, eight states have scaled back early voting and just last month, voters in Maricopa County, Arizona, were forced to stand in line for up to five hours to cast their ballots after officials slashed the number of poll sites from 200 in 2012 to 60 -- one for every 21,000 residents.
Scott Stringer
Each of these changes has been made possible by the Supreme Court, which in 2013 gutted federal oversight under the historic Voting Rights Act.
    These tactics are part of a broader effort to suppress turnout, and it has no place in our democracy.
    That's why, as the New York presidential primary on April 19 approaches, we must remember that voting is more than just a fundamental right -- it's the single most important tool we have to ensure accountability in our democracy.
    Unfortunately, even in a diverse, progressive state like New York, our turnout in recent elections has been among the worst in the nation.
    In the 2012 presidential election, only 58% of registered voters in New York City cast ballots. And in the 2014 midterms, only one in four city residents showed up to the polls, leading New York state to be ranked 48th of the 50 states for turnout that year.
    There's a reason these numbers are so low. It's because despite the Empire State's proud legacy of fighting for voting rights, our voting laws make it harder, not easier, for our expanding electorate to vote. For example:
    • 11 states provide same-day registration. Not New York.
    • 20 states offer online voter registration. Not New York.
    • 27 states allow people to secure absentee ballots without needing a specific excuse. Not New York.
    • 33 states provide opportunities for early voting. Not New York.
    That's why a broad and diverse coalition of elected officials, community leaders and advocates joined me this past weekend to release a new report, "Barriers to the Ballot," which outlines 16 solutions to expand participation in city, state, and federal elections.
    Change starts with registering more voters. We should make preregistration automatic for 16- and 17-year-olds, so by the time they turn 18 they're already signed up to vote. It should also be easy for every eligible voter to register, which is why I support legislation to automatically register voters when they engage with government agencies, whether to get a driver's license, apply for health insurance or enroll their kids in school.
    But registration is only the first hurdle, because even once you're registered, it's not always easy to cast your ballot. A work schedule or family obligation should never prevent voters from making their voices heard. That's why we need to implement early voting and no-excuse absentee balloting.
    We've also got to expand how and where you can vote. Our poll sites and our ballots need to be accessible to all, no matter an individual's native language or physical ability. That means using technology to expand language access at the polls and ensuring that every voting site meets the standards of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
    Finally, we need to streamline our voting process. This year alone, New Yorkers will be asked to go to the polls four times:
    • The presidential primary on April 19.
    • The congressional primary on June 28.
    • The state legislative primary on September 13.
    • The general election on November 8.
    That is an egregious waste of voters' time and taxpayer dollars, and it diminishes turnout at the polls. States should consolidate state and federal primaries, which would save taxpayers millions of dollars in the process.
    This election season, we've seen millions of new voters engaged across the political spectrum. Here in New York we can, and must, lead the fight to translate that excitement into votes at the ballot box, free of discrimination and intimidation. That's the promise of American democracy -- now and forever.