Democrats who lead the state Senate approved several measures on Thursday to make it easier to vote. But a newly energized Republican minority wanted to talk about other topics, such as worries about undocumented immigrants voting and whether to repeal recently enacted bail reform measures.
On the second day of the legislative session, the Senate lost no time in acting on a number of bills to allow more voter participation.
One would make it easier for college students to vote, by requiring a polling station on a campus if there are 300 or more registered voters at the school.
Another exempts elementary and secondary schools from having to host polling sites for the 10 days of early voting before each election, after schools said it was too disruptive.
And another bill requires counties to locate at least one polling place in its largest urban center. The measure stems from last November’s election, when Rensselaer County located its two early polling sites in a suburb and in a rural area but did not allow voting within the city of Troy.
But the most controversial measure that the Senate approved is one that would permit automatic voter registration at state agencies, including the DMV. It was derailed in the last session because it inadvertently might have led to non-citizens being automatically registered when they applied for driver’s licenses.
A new law that took effect in mid-December, known as the Green Light Law, allows undocumented immigrants to apply for the licenses.
Sponsor and Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris, a Queens Democrat, said the errors in the bill are now fixed, and won’t lead to non-citizens voting in New York. He said it’s a “myth” that large numbers of undocumented immigrants aim to vote in the state’s elections.
“There’s some suggestion that there’s a group of people out there who are nefariously organizing to register and go vote,” said Gianaris. “Under penalty of deportation.”
He said there is no evidence that is occurring in New York or in other states that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.
“If someone is so motivated to do that, they can walk into the Board of Elections right now and improperly register to vote and they would be subject to appropriate penalties,” he said. “All we are trying to do here is to make it easier for people to vote.”
But minority party Republicans, including Sen. Robert Ortt of western New York, are unconvinced.
“I don’t know if there are legions of people who are festering to register illegally,” Ortt said. “But I do know that the laws we are passing in this chamber, including this one, are certainly making it far more likely that someone who is here illegally will be registered to vote.”
Gianaris said there are safeguards. He said DMV staff will look over the voter registration forms for errors before they are sent to the Board of Elections.
The voting-related measures are not the only topics that the GOP would like to revisit.
Senate Republican Leader John Flanagan spoke on a hostile amendment proposed by the GOP that would repeal a criminal justice reform that took effect on Jan. 1 and ends most forms of cash bail.
“You enacted criminal justice reform that we think is awful,” Flanagan told Democrats.
Flanagan and other Republicans, as well as some district attorneys and county sheriffs, said the law has led to repeat offenders, including bank robbers and those accused of manslaughter, to be freed on their own recognizance.
“This is going to be an unmitigated disaster,” Flanagan predicted. “The public is less safe today as a result of the laws that were enacted last year.”
“This is germane,” Flanagan said of the amendment.
Democrats did not agree that the amendment was germane, though, and it was voted down along party lines.
Senate Republicans promised to continue to raise the subject on the floor every chance they get.
Some Democratic senators and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have said they are open to making some changes to the criminal justice reforms, including possibly giving judges more discretion on when to set bail.
But in order for that to happen, the Assembly would also have to agree. And so far, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said he has some concerns.
He said in the past, two people charged with the same crime could have different bail amounts set by the same judge, sometimes depending on their race.
“Judicial discretion invites back in bias,” said Heastie. “Right now, the way the law is written, it is based on the crime you are accused of, as to whether you are either bail-eligible or not, or whether you should be released.”
The Assembly did not act on the early voting measures. Heastie said his Democratic members are committed to them, but will take them up later in the session.