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Voters approve change to NY Constitution on ‘clean’ environment, reject proposals on elections

Voters in New York rejected three changes to the state constitution on Tuesday that would have modified the state’s redistricting process and made it easier to vote, while approving two others on the environment and courts in New York City.

As of midnight, more than 85% of the statewide vote on those proposals had been reported, and the results weren’t expected to change as more ballots were counted.

It was an unusually high number of amendments up for consideration, with Democrats from the Legislature eager to send the proposals to voters after they took the majority two years ago.

Three were written to modify the state’s elections and voting systems, while the remaining two were targeted at new environmental standards and a local rule for courts in New York City. All except the last had been the source of controversy in recent weeks.

Ballot Proposal #1 (Rejected): New York’s Apportionment and Redistricting Process

The first amendment was the most complicated for voters to consider, even if they’d done some pretty thorough research beforehand.

It had several provisions, each of which would have had consequences for the Legislature and the state’s process for drawing new district lines, which happens every 10 years following the results of the U.S. Census.

Right now, New York has chosen to hand off the process of drawing new district lines for Congress and the Legislature to the newly formed Independent Redistricting Commission. The panel was intended to take politics out of the process.

The amendment approved Tuesday would’ve changed that process. For one, it would have made it easier for the commission to approve new district lines, removing requirements that certain appointees sign onto those maps before they’re finalized.

But the most controversial part of the amendment deals with the fail-safe in that process. The current procedure allows the Legislature to draw its own maps if the commission can’t come to an agreement on their own set of lines. 

If the amendment had passed, the Legislature would’ve been able to approve its own maps with fewer votes than before. The threshold would’ve been lowered from two-thirds of members in approval to 60%.

Republicans had criticized the amendment as a power grab by Democrats, who hold a two-thirds majority in both chambers, to more easily approve their own plan for new districts if the commission fails to do so. Democrats had denied that claim.

The amendment would’ve also sped up the timeline for the commission to deliver those maps. That’s because New York moved up the date for its primary election from September to June a few years back.

It would’ve also locked the number of state senators in New York at 63. The chamber started with 50 members, but the Legislature has added another 13 over time.

Another provision of the amendment would have required incarcerated people to be counted at their last residence for the purposes of determining population in each legislative district. That would have affected the state’s population count for areas with large incarcerated populations.

Ballot Proposal #2 (Approved): Constitutional Right to Clean Air, Clean Water, and a Healthful Environment

In the final weeks leading up to Election Day, the second ballot proposal became a source of division.

The amendment will guarantee New Yorkers the right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment. That provision wasn’t in the constitution before, and environmentalists said it was important to have those protections enshrined in the document.

“New Yorkers have spoken very clearly on making clean air and clean water a legal right," said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates NY. "In these otherwise polarizing times, a healthy environment, breathing clear air and drinking clean water are values that bring people together.”

The hang-up for opponents was that the Legislature, in crafting the amendment, did not define what would constitute clean air, clean water, and a healthful environment.

Opponents argue that, because that standard isn’t defined, it could be low-hanging fruit for attorneys seeking to litigate cases related to the environment and public health. Then, the courts would define what the amendment actually means, which would set a legal precedent.

The New York Farm Bureau was particularly outspoken on the amendment, which they said could harm the state’s farmers if someone decides to front a legal challenge against how they do their work. 

Many current practices in farming are the result of environmental regulations as it is, which the Farm Bureau argued are enough to ensure clean air and water, and a healthful environment.

Ballot Proposal #3 (Rejected): Same-day Voter Registration; Eliminating the 10-Day Blackout

The third amendment on the ballot would’ve allowed New York to enact same-day voter registration, meaning someone could have shown up to the polls and registered right before they vote. 

It would’ve also allowed voters to register during the 10 days before an election. The constitution currently bars registration in the 10 days leading up to Election Day. Those changes were intended to boost voter turnout in New York.

Opponents of the measure had argued that it could’ve opened New York’s elections system to voter fraud if someone had attempted to steal a voter’s identity on Election Day. Twenty states currently allow same-day voter registration, with no wide-spread evidence of voter fraud. 

Ballot Proposal #4 (Rejected): No-Excuse Absentee Ballot Voting

Voters in New York can only vote by mail for a few reasons, like if they’re sick or won’t be in the area on Election Day. That’s called absentee voting.

That changed last year, when the state allowed everyone to vote by absentee if they were uncomfortable with heading to the polls during the pandemic. 

Under the amendment rejected Tuesday, voters would no longer have needed an excuse in New York to vote by absentee. They would’ve been able to request a ballot from their local board of elections, receive it, and send it back, instead of going to the polls in person. 

Opponents of this measure had also warned of voter fraud, in the sense that someone could try to request another person's ballot, and send it in under their name. 

No-excuse absentee voting is currently allowed in 34 states, none of which have reported widespread evidence of voter fraud. 

Ballot Proposal #5 (Approved): The Jurisdiction of the New York City Civil Court

The last ballot proposal is the easiest to explain.

Right now, the New York City Civil Court can only handle claims of $25,000 or less. If it exceeds that amount, it goes to the trial court at the state level.

The amendment approved Tuesday will raise that jurisdictional limit to $50,000. Supporters of the amendment had pointed to inflation; the limit hadn’t been raised for a few decades.