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Kathy Hochul signs New York voting rights act

Governor Kathy Hochul  AP photo

Gov. Kathy Hochul has signed an expansive state voting rights bill into law.

The state Assembly passed the John E. Lewis Voting Rights Act in a 106-43 vote with Assemblymen Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, and Joe Giglio, R-Gowanda, voting against. Sen. George Borrello voted against the legislation in a 43-20 state Senate vote. The bill had failed to make it out of committee in both the Assembly and Senate in 2020 and 2021 before passing this year.

Goodell argued on the Assembly floor that the bill gives far too much power to the courts, pointing specifically to the city of Jamestown. Jamestown has a state-granted charter and elects six City Council members to represent a ward and three citywide at-large members. The court, Goodell said, could simply choose to abolish the city’s election structure if it is proven the current structure is unfair. Courts can also change the size of an elected body, potentially undoing legislative downsizing efforts that have been undertaken throughout the state.

See RIGHTS, Page A3

It also applies to all elections for any elected office in New York state or New York’s political subdivisions, including school districts and libraries.

“These are astounding powers,” Goodell said. “You might say, well, they wouldn’t exercise those powers under this law if there is obviously good reason for the current standards. Not true at all. This bill actually states that you cannot defend the existing provisions even if, and I quote, the current program can be explained by factors other than racially polarized voting including any of the other criteria that are set forth in the constitution. This bill says we don’t care what your intent is. I’m not just making that up or summarizing — it says evidence concerning the intent of the parties or of the intent of the voters or the elected officials cannot be considered.”

The legislation prohibits methods of election that eliminate the voting strength of a protected class and establishes legal protections for violations, prohibits election-related laws and practices from being implemented in ways that deny members of a protected class the right to vote and establishes legal protections for violations; prohibits acts of intimidation, deception, or obstruction that impact the ability of New Yorkers to access their right to vote and establishes legal protections for violations; and requires election-related language assistance beyond what is required by the federal Voting Rights Act.

“And we’re going to change our election laws so we no longer hurt minority communities,” Hochul said Monday. “We said we’re going get it done. We did this before, we did early voting, and I hope everybody’s gotten their early vote in — it’s a lot easier. I did mine on Saturday. Get your early votes in. Tell everybody. We’ve added polling sites to college campuses and we’ve restored the right to vote, but today’s legislation will not be the last. We’ll always find where there’s cracks, where there’s not perfection. When we can look at our laws and say, let’s fix them and make them even stronger.”

The legislation (S.1046/A.6678) establishes a rights of action for denying or abridging of the right of any member of a protected class to vote, providing assistance to language-minority groups, requires political subdivisions to receive preclearance for potential violations of the new law and creates a civil liability for voter intimidation. It also establishes a state version to the now dormant “section 5 preclearance” of the federal Voting Rights Act, requiring covered jurisdictions to “preclear” any changes to certain important election-related laws and policies before they can implement them. Under the new law, covered jurisdictions seeking to make a change to a range of election measures will first need to have those changes reviewed to ensure they will not violate the voting rights of a protected class. Covered jurisdictions are those with a history of civil or voting rights violations.

The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed to prevent state and local governments from passing discriminatory laws that denied citizens the right to vote based on their race. For decades, the law required certain jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to submit any proposed changes in voting procedures to the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal district court for preclearance. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that the formula used to determine which jurisdictions required this preclearance was outdated and therefore unconstitutional.

It is likely all of New York City could considered a covered jurisdiction if the New York Voting Rights Act is signed into law by Hochul, which means changes including poll site locations, changes to election hours or removal of voters from voter rolls would be overseen by the state.

“There is no reason to be opposed to an opportunity to pursue justice for all,” said Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo and Assembly majority leader. “We often say justice for all but we already know it’s really not specific enough. there are a ton of us who have never seen justice for all. There are a ton of people who have had the experience of having their voting rights disenfranchised. I can recall the first time our black mayor was elected. I have been a committee person in that district for at least a decade, but when it came time for his election somehow, the places that used to have four voting machines only ended up with two so the people, particularly in communities of color, had to wait in line. That’s a specific example of disenfranchising people. The county was hoping people would go home because they didn’t want to stand in line for a long time. But they didn’t go home. They stayed in line and they voted.”

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