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Voter Registration in NYC Plummeted During Pandemic, Sparking Concerns for November Election

People register to vote in Union Square in 2016.
People register to vote in Union Square in 2016.
Roy Harris/Shutterstock

New voter registrations plunged during New York City’s shutdown — spurring renewed calls to make it easier for people to sign up online to cast ballots in November’s pivotal national election.

Roughly 80,000 residents registered in the first six months of 2020, about half the total during the same period last year, data compiled by the city Campaign Finance Board shows.

Registration through February indicated major enthusiasm, drawing 27% more new voters than in the 2016 presidential cycle. But COVID-19’s arrival quashed this fervor, and dramatically changed the ways that campaigns and elections are conducted.

The lackluster voter registration numbers since March, combined with the chaos of the June 23 primary election, have voting rights advocates and good-government organizations looking warily ahead to the November presidential election.

Multiple experts said that the coronavirus pandemic has underscored the pressing need to overhaul the online voter registration system to make ID requirements less restrictive, in line with 39 other states.

“This should have been done 10 years ago, there’s no reason I can do my banking online but I can’t register to vote online,” said Jennifer Wilson, deputy director of the New York State chapter of the League of Women Voters.

“It’s looking pretty obvious the pandemic is still going to be happening in November.”

Many New Yorkers Left Out

In New York state, only residents with a DMV-issued form of identification can register to vote or change their voter registration online.

The remaining methods available to New Yorkers require either signing up in person or mailing an application to the Board of Elections. Community groups focused on voting rights said the city’s shutdown has exposed voter disenfranchisement resulting from too few options to sign up to vote.

More than 700,000 New York City residents do not have a DMV ID, according to the Campaign Finance Board’s data analysis.

“This all hit in early March, our organization had a ton of in-person voter registration events planned, all which had to be cancelled,” said Sanda Balaban, a co-founder and director of YVote, a nonprofit focused on youth civic engagement.

“We know that the passion exists, so at a time when people feel voiceless in many ways, the fact that we are precluding people from having this essential democratic outlet to express their needs and desires is just really heartbreaking.”

Waiting in the Wings

Advocates are calling for the activation of a less-restrictive online voter registration website already built by the Campaign Finance Board.

In 2017, the City Council passed a law mandating the CFB to create an online system by June 2019. The website, which would have allowed residents to e-sign a form and just use the last four digits of their social security number, was ultimately blocked by the city Board of Elections’ requirements for a physical signature.

Rachel Bloom, the policy director for Citizens Union, said that a revamped online system would address a critical problem scores of voters are currently facing — they want to register to vote but literally do not have the ability to, due to the stay at home orders.

People vote during the Democratic primary at PS 149 in Jackson Heights, Queens, June 23, 2020.
People vote during the Democratic primary at PS 149 in Jackson Heights, Queens, June 23, 2020.
Ann Choi/THE CITY

“We are living in unprecedented times. People don’t have access to paper ballots and a lot of New Yorkers don’t have state IDs,” Bloom said. “We want people to vote and we want them to get excited about voting. This is a problem with a fairly simple solution that exists.”

Valerie Vasquez Diaz, a spokesperson for the city Board of Elections, directed inquiries about the potential of reviving the dormant system to the Campaign Finance Board.

On the state level, a bill sponsored by State Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblymember Michael Blake (D-The Bronx), would authorize the city to collect electronic signatures. The bill has yet to be scheduled for a full vote by either the Assembly or Senate.

More Time Needed

Voters’ rights organizations are also fighting to give New Yorkers more time to register. The deadline is currently set at 25 days prior to an election, making Oct. 9 the last day to register for the November 3 general election.

Two years ago, the NYCLU filed suit against the city and state Boards of Election in an effort to extend the deadline. That litigation is ongoing.

“We are in such a deep hole for registrations this year that getting the deadline repealed for November is really, really critical,” said Perry Grossman, a voting rights attorney for the NYCLU. “It’s a completely absurd and a huge problem this year.”

Meanwhile, official results for the June 23 primary election are still weeks away, after the City Board of Elections announced Monday that the counting of absentee ballots would be delayed a week. The Board will start tallying for Staten Island on July 6, and the remaining boroughs on July 8.

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