When the first presidential election in newly minted America was held in 1789, three of the 13 new states did not vote, including New York, which was in the midst of a legislative conflict.
Now, more than 200 years later, New York’s conflicts are still holding back votes. There is no early voting here, voter registration is a separate process, and polls are only open one day.
Limiting access leads to low turnout. In the 2016 presidential election, New York ranked 41st in voter turnout, with only 57 percent of people voting. Meanwhile, mid-term elections — such as the one Tuesday — generally draw even fewer votes.
NYSUT members are working to reverse that trend. Active and retired unionists are staffing phone banks throughout the state through Election Day.
“We’ve never seen this much action,” NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said enthusiastically.
The necessity of voting to support pro-education and pro-labor candidates is pressing, said Pallotta, especially when considering a legislative landscape in which Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, who is running for reelection, called educators “forces of evil.”
Despite the state’s paltry voting turnout, a recent proposal to bring early voting to New York — which was backed by NYSUT — failed to pass.
“This isn’t really just a Republican/Democrat issue,” Rev. Emily McNeill, director of the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State, said of the early-voting proposal rejection. “It’s really a method politicians use to protect their own power.”
Some states require photo ID to vote — typically a driver’s license — which makes it difficult for poor, elderly and handicapped people to vote. Some states also have purged section of voter rolls.
Twenty-three states now allow early voting up to two weeks in advance. Some states have automatic voter registration when you obtain or renew a driver’s license, and in others, you can register and vote on the same day.
Through the Labor-Religion’s affiliation with the national Poor People’s Campaign, McNeill said there’s been focus placed on raising awareness about efforts to suppress voting.
Working together with the League of Women Voters and Albany Law School, volunteers canvassed neighborhoods in Western New York to register voters, as they also did at the Albany County Jail. Email blasts were sent out as well.
McNeill said the fact that politicians suppress votes underscores just how important voting is, “otherwise they wouldn’t try to suppress it.”
“We need an organized force of people,” said McNeil, “who can hold the elite accountable to values of democracy and human rights.”