For 21-year-old Jessica Rosario, this was a monumental election year. The John Jay College junior was not only going to cast her first vote in a presidential election but she also planned to lead student voter registration drives on her college campus through the November general election.
But the coronavirus outbreak has dashed her civic-minded plans to conduct a traditional in-person voter registration drive, as it has forced the closure of schools and banned meetings, much less sharing a pen.
“I can't hand you a clipboard and a pen six feet away from you and guide you through a voter registration form,” Rosario told Gothamist / WNYC.
That’s why Rosario and her classmates turned their attention to online registration. In what she called a “virtual day of action,” Rosario on Tuesday used social media and the telephone to lobby elected officials to pass a piece of state legislation that would allow potential voters in New York City to register online.
“Just as our city moved to create space for digital work and education, it must also create a digital space for a democracy where young people can make their voices heard at the polls,” Rosario explained. “Without an online voter registration system, too many of us will not be able to exercise our rights in the 2020 election.”
The bill is sponsored by State Senator Zellnor Myrie, who chairs the Senate Election Committee, and Assembly Member Michael Blake. While it is unclear whether the state will take action on this bill this week as they face an impending budget deadline, Myrie said an online registration system is needed now more than ever.
“If there ever was a time to bring New York’s democracy into the 21st century, it’s now. While we know there are a lot of issues on the table right now, our commitment to this issue hasn’t changed and we will continue to work with our colleagues to get it done,” Myrie told Gothamist/WNYC.
The state bill grew out of a push for an online voter registration system here in New York City, led by City Councilmember Ben Kallos. He said three years ago that he wanted to make registering to vote as easy as calling an Uber. His bill passed the Council and was signed into law by Mayor de Blasio in 2017. But the New York City Board of Elections has indicated it would not process the forms completed online through a system built by the New York City Campaign Finance Board, unless it is required by a change in state law.
Kallos said it’s time for the state to act, not just to make registering to vote easier, but to reduce the risk to public health.
“While we're telling everyone to just stay home, it's wrong to still require people to print out a voter registration form, fill it out by hand, get a postage stamp, go to a post office, expose themselves to mail it, when we could just as easily do it online,” he said. “And then, similarly, it's a little bit crazy that we would require very low-wage workers at the Board of Elections, often making minimum wage, to go in at a time like this and literally transcribe what people hand write into a computer, when we could just skip the step...let people enter it from home and keep everybody safe during the process.”
Currently, the only way to register to vote online is through the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles website, but that requires having an account with the site. Only 55 percent of city residents have a driver’s license, according to analysis from the NYC Campaign Finance Board. In the rest of the state, nearly 90 percent of residents have identification from the DMV.
“We urge our state leadership to protect our democracy during this emergency by establishing an online voter registration system that all New Yorkers can access,” said Amy Loprest, Executive Director, NYC Campaign Finance Board. She added, “With in-person voter registration events shut down, we are concerned that young voters and naturalized citizens, in particular, will be disenfranchised during this critical election year."
For Rosario, who registered to vote as soon as she turned 18 and worked as an intern with NYPIRG to help register students through her years in college, she’s particularly worried about first-time voters who might miss out on the chance to vote in this year’s elections if there is no way for them to register online. Analysis from the NYC Campaign Finance Board found that 90,730 city residents turn 18 this year and that more than 500,000 potential city voters in the 18-29 age bracket are not registered to vote.
Online voter registration is something voters need, said Rosario, “because we literally can't leave our home.”