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How New Yorkers Can Help Shape Voting Rules and Environmental Rights

If you’re reading this, you are probably well aware of New York City’s mayoral election and the other city races being contested this year. But …

How New Yorkers Can Help Shape Voting Rules and Environmental Rights

If you’re reading this, you are probably well aware of New York City’s mayoral election and the other city races being contested this year. But you may be less familiar with the five potential amendments to the State Constitution that are also on the ballot.

The ballot questions include measuresinvolving legislative redistricting, changes to voting laws, environmental policy and New York City’s civil courts. Any that are approved would take effect on Jan. 1, 2022.

According to the political website Ballotpedia, New Yorkers approved 74 percent of state ballot measures from 1985 to 2020.

Registered voters can weigh in on the proposals by casting ballots during early voting, which runs through Sunday, or on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 2. The Board of Elections’ poll site locator has information on where and when to cast your ballot.

Here is a rundown of the five ballot measures and what they entail. The full text of each can be found on the Board of Elections’ website.

1. Changes to the state’s redistricting process

This measure involves the drawing of legislative maps, which occurs every 10 years. Among other things, it would cap the number of state senators at 63, require that all New York residents be counted in the U.S. census regardless of their citizenship status, and count incarcerated people at their last place of residence rather than where they are detained.

Michael Li, a senior counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said that maintaining the existing number of state senators was necessary to prevent gerrymandering, the practice of manipulating congressional district lines for political gain. Freezing the number, Mr. Li said, would prevent the creation of new districts that could be exploited for partisan purposes.

The measure would also scrap the current requirement that two-thirds of state lawmakers must agree to pass redistricting plans, in favor of simple majorities in both the Assembly and Senate.

The proposal’s opponents, including The League of Women Voters of New York State, have focused on this point, saying that allowing a simple majority to make such decisions could diminish a minority party’s voting power.

“It’s not giving other parties a fair shot at having any sort of say in this process,” said Jennifer Wilson, the group’s deputy director.

Mr. Li argued that it was difficult to say with any certainty whether the new district maps would be better or worse for minority parties because the process is complicated.

“We’ll see how this new system works,” he said. “It may be that New York needs more reform after we see what the maps look like.”

2. An environmental rights amendment

This measure would give New Yorkers a constitutional right to clean air, water and a “healthful environment.” The proposal language is vague on what a “healthful environment” is or how the standard would be legally enforced.

Eddie Bautista, the executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, said the measure was especially important for Black and brown communities because they experience disproportionate rates of pollution.

“We can’t exercise our right to free speech if we’re having trouble breathing,” Mr. Bautista said. “If you want to have a right to speak, you have a right to breathe. This is a long overdue and welcome addition to the Constitution.”

Critics of the measure have cited its broad language as a concern, arguing that the lack of specificity could lead to unnecessary lawsuits. State Senator Dan Stec, a Republican who represents the North Country region, said in a statement that the proposal would place the burden of enforcement on the courts.

New Yorkers approved 74 percent of statewide ballot measures between 1985 and 2020, according to Ballotpedia.Credit…Amir Hamja for The New York Times

“Businesses, including farms, are very concerned what this will mean if adopted, especially at a time of tremendous challenges and uncertainty because of Covid-19,” Mr. Stec said. “We owe it to the voters to at least offer them something more clearly defined.”

But environmental advocates said the proposal’s language only poses a risk to those who know they may be polluting the environment.

3. A push to allow same-day voter registration

The measure, one of two ballot related to voting rights, would eliminate a rule that requires voters to register at least 10 days before an election.

If passed, the measure would make it possible for state lawmakers to adopt same-day voter registration, something that 20 states already have.

The measure would be particularly beneficial to voters who do not start paying attention to local politics until late in the election cycle, said Jan Combopiano, the senior policy director for the Brooklyn Voters Alliance.

“It really hurts people who get activated and interested in an election late in the game, and there’s no reason to punish those people,” she said. “They haven’t been paying attention until maybe the last month — that’s like human nature.”

4. Making it easier to cast absentee ballots

The second proposed change to the voting process would erase the requirement that those who request absentee ballots explain why they are doing so.

Under current law, mail-in ballots are only allowed for voters who expect to be away on Election Day, or who have an illness or disability that would prevent them from voting in person.

There was an increase in absentee ballots cast last year because of the coronavirus pandemic; Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo issued an executive order automatically providing all New Yorkers with absentee ballot applications.

Ms. Combopiano said that, if approved, both of the measures related to voting would increase participation in elections by making it easier to cast ballots. Expanding access to absentee voting specifically would make it easier for New Yorkers to take their time and make more informed decisions, she said.

5. Changes to New York City’s civil courts

This measure would double the monetary limit for claims filed in New York City’s civil courts to $50,000 from $25,000. This would enable the courts to consider more small claims, reducing the burden of such actions on the state’s Supreme Court.

In theory, the measure is meant to make it faster, easier and less expensive for people to resolve disputes legally.

Although the change would be likely to increase the efficiency with which lawsuits are resolved, it might also increase the workload for the city’s civil courts, which are already understaffed, said Sidney Cherubin, the director of legal services at the Brooklyn Volunteer Lawyers Project.

If the measure passes, he said, the state would to have to help the civil courts handle the probable surge in cases, perhaps by hiring more judges or increasing the funding for the system.

“What we anticipate is quicker resolution for litigants,” Mr. Cherubin said. He added: “It’s not going to cure all the issues, but it takes us a step in the right direction.”

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