New Yorkers might like to think that suffrage violations only happen in places like Texas, Florida or Georgia. But the truth is, voter suppression is happening in both “blue” and “red” states, including here in the Hudson Valley.
New York has a long history of practices that prevent people from accessing the ballot. We have seen voters discriminated against because of their race, ethnicity and language spoken. New Yorkers routinely face barriers to voter registration and ballot access, racial gerrymandering and other forms of vote dilution, campaign purges, displacement and office closings voting rights and limited access to language assistance. These practices disproportionately harm voters of color, creating racial and ethnic inequalities in one of our most fundamental rights.
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The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of the New York State Legislature would go a long way to solving these endemic problems. A quick glance at recent history shows how necessary this legislation is.
Over the past 25 years, New York has seen at least 14 documented violations of federal voting rights laws. But this figure is only the tip of the iceberg. New York has thousands of local government entities – counties, cities, towns, school districts and special purpose districts. Many of these political subdivisions conduct their own elections without the oversight of state or county election commissions.
Successfully suing one of those thousands of entities for voting rights violations can take years and cost millions of dollars. This means that there simply aren’t enough resources available to prosecute every violation of voting rights, even the most egregious.
Voters in the Hudson Valley also face these types of voter suppression programs. In the controversy-ridden Clarkstown School District, 44% of public school students are children of color and 25% of all eligible voters are people of color. But the entire seven-member school board is white. An NYCLU analysis showed that there are less than half the number of polling places for school board elections than for general elections, and there are no polling places for council elections. schools in the neighborhood most densely populated by people of color.
Off-cycle school board elections are not held on the same day as state or federal elections. On average, nearly nine in 10 eligible voters do not vote in Clarkstown School District elections, according to information released in response to a NYCLU Freedom of Information Act request.
The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a historic civil rights achievement that expanded and protected access to the ballot across the country. But it’s being attacked by the Supreme Court, and states across the country are quickly passing laws to dismantle it. In the face of this nationwide threat, and given the disenfranchisement in New York, our state needs its own voting rights law.
The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act would provide leading protections against vote dilution and suppression. The bill increases language assistance, strengthens laws against voter intimidation and improves transparency of critical voting data.
The legislation also makes it easier to take legal action against voter suppression and racial vote dilution and makes those challenges more likely to succeed. And it requires local election commissions to get prior approval from the state attorney general before making changes that might limit voter access.
This legislation would cement New York as one of the most pro-democracy states in the nation and inspire other states to take action to make voting fair and equal. Voting is the foundation of democracy. It is the right we exercise to protect all others. State lawmakers must ensure that every New Yorker’s right to vote is protected and strengthened.
Perry Grossman is the supervising attorney for the NYCLU Voting Rights Project. Brandon Holmes is NYCLU’s regional director for the Hudson Valley.