ALBANY — New York celebrated Juneteenth and paid tribute to the late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis on Monday by enacting sweeping new voter protections.
The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York, signed into law by Gov. Kathy Hochul, will make it easier to sue over discriminatory voting policies and require areas with a history of civil right violations to get approval before changing election rules.
“This is one of the most important bills to make it through the state Legislature in recent history and it will deliver the strongest and most comprehensive voter protections of any state in America,” sponsor Assemblywoman Latrice Walker, D-Brownsville, said during a ceremony at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn.
The signing took place as the U.S. celebrated the newly established Juneteenth holiday, commemorating the date when the last enslaved African Americans were freed in 1865.
Similar to a measure that recently failed to pass at the federal level, the voter protection bill will prohibit deceptive and suppressive voter practices, establish a voting and elections database, and make electronic election interference a misdemeanor.
“As always, when the federal government fails to act, you can count on New York to punch back and fight even harder,” Hochul said. “No state in the nation has stood up with the courage and the conviction and the power that we have by protecting these important rights.”
The new law makes it so that most school boards or local election boards can no longer remove people from voter rolls, reduce voting hours or cut number of polling sites without approval from the state attorney general’s office or courts.
Certain areas with disproportionately high arrest rates of minority New Yorkers will also need permission to change election rules.
It will also make it easier to sue over discriminatory voting policies like intimidation and suppression by laying out an expedited process for voters or the attorney general to file lawsuits over violations.
Groups including the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Brennan Center for Justice and the Legal Defense Fund applauded Hochul and state lawmakers for ensuring the voting rights of all New Yorkers are fully protected.
“We need to be an example, be relentless, fearless, and tireless because in New York we lead,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers. “And hopefully our leadership will resonate so loud that the rest of the nation will follow, because it must.”
In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the landmark federal Voting Rights Act, ruling that states with a long history of voter discrimination no longer needed to get approval from the federal government to make changes to election procedures.
Sen. Zellnor Myrie, D-Brooklyn, the bill’s Senate sponsor, said the Supreme Court’s decision coupled with the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol and restrictions being implemented in other states show the need to ensure voting rights are protected in the Empire State.
“This isn’t history, our democracy is on the line right now,” he said. “People are attacking it right now. And they’re doing it with greater force and they’re doing it with greater speed.
“We’re not just celebrating Juneteenth, we’re celebrating our fight back against the attacks on our democracy,” he added.