Don't Lose Your Voice at the Ballot Box

By DANIEL ALTSCHULER, Newsday

Call it the biggest political problem in New York that you've never heard of. Among all 50 states, New York consistently ranks near the bottom in voter turnout.

In 2008, 59 percent of eligible New York voters cast ballots in the presidential election, compared with nearly 62 percent nationally, according to George Mason University's U.S. Elections Project. Data also show that in the 2010 midterm elections, our state ranked dead last in turnout among eligible voters.

New York voters abstain for various reasons, including too many elections throughout the year, and a lack of competition in most local and state races because of gerrymandering.

But we also face an even bigger problem: Hundreds of thousands of eligible New Yorkers will not be able to cast ballots because they are not registered. In the last two presidential elections, 2004 and 2008, census data show that New York's voter registration rates ranked nearly last in the country.

The problem persists, and is particularly bad on Long Island. Census data analyzed by the Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank, indicate that nearly 2 million Long Islanders are eligible to vote. However, Board of Elections data studied by my organization, the Long Island Civic Engagement Table, shows that fewer than 1.8 million are registered.

That leaves at least 200,000 people voiceless in November's elections -- not to mention the thousands more who have moved or changed their name and need to re-register.

New York's registration deficit has many causes, including restrictive election laws such as a rule that voters must register at least 25 days before an election. Recently, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo wisely approved an online voter registration system, but this alone will not close the gap.

Moreover, unregistered adults are disproportionately concentrated among low-income people and people of color. Since votes and money are the two most important types of political power in this country, these communities face a double whammy.

This registration deficit has consequences. In recent months, as both Long Island counties have tried to address large budget deficits, services for low-income people have been among the first things to go. County funding of youth services in Nassau? Gone. Child care support in Suffolk. On the chopping block.

Politicians' principal priority will always be re-election; thus, they cater to blocs of people who vote. That's why we must expand Long Island's electorate. Fortunately, there's some good news. We're beginning to turn the tide on Long Island.

Since June, the Civic Engagement Table has led a coordinated effort to register thousands of voters in Suffolk areas including Brentwood, Central Islip and Gordon Heights. Community members have worked with groups like Make the Road New York, the largest participatory immigrant organization in the state, to identify areas where people congregate and to learn how to register voters. The Central American Refugee Center in Brentwood has made sure that newly naturalized citizens are registered. Using these tactics and others, Civic Engagement Table teams have registered more than 2,200 people.

Other organizations are joining the effort. Labor allies like Locals 1102 and 338 of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union are working to make sure members are registered. And branches of the NAACP, always at the forefront of the struggle for rights, are also registering voters.

This work is critical to enable Long Islanders, particularly those of color, to articulate their needs and interests to people in power. As Elizabeth Bonilla, a Central Islip resident who was the first person we registered this year, said, "Being a Hispanic woman, I want my vote to count."

With about a month to go before New York's voter registration deadline on Oct. 12, this effort must expand. In coming weeks, community organizations and leaders must redouble their efforts to ensure that members and clients can vote on Nov. 6. If we believe in this country's democratic principles, we must make sure that every eligible Long Islander has a voice in our political process.


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