January 24, 2019, changed the face of voting in New York State and ushered in a 21st century vision. The voting reforms made changes that impact our communities and the way politics progress. New Yorkers are not permitted to register to vote unless they will be 18 years of age by the end of the year, and by the date of an upcoming election. Cuomo’s bill allows for minors, 16 and 17 years of age, to pre-register to vote, meaning that a voter will automatically be registered on his or her 18th birthday.
This notion now allows high schools to have a stronger impact on their students in discussing the voting process. Teachers have pointed out that those who vote in the first election are able to have their voices heard and are more prone to continue voting and, moreover, encourage their friends and family to follow suit.
“The Agudah Voting Project has now incorporated this legislation into their approach in New York State,” explained Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, Agudah’s Director of New York Government Relations. “This new phase of registering high school seniors to vote was received with excitement in three Queens high schools and has enabled young men and women to immediately begin voting in the upcoming elections this February and June.” In total, the visits to the high schools, Mesivta Tiferet Torah, Mesivta Yesodei Yeshurun, and Shevach High School, garnered close to 100 seniors as new registered voters, a phenomenal accomplishment.
Rebbetzin Rochelle Hirtz, the principal of Shevach High School in Kew Gardens Hills, was on hand for the initiative’s launch. “Without a doubt, the girls are excited to take part in the voting process,” she said. Rabbi Silber explained the importance in being involved in local elections and noted the importance in voting. Rabbi Silber then detailed Agudah’s commitment to the cause and how Agudah makes an impact in schools and around the country. “The girls learned about voting in their history and government classes and now had the opportunity to experience the process firsthand,” Rebbetzin Hirtz continued. “Our girls will have the chance to make positive change. They realized that it is not just about them, but rather what their impact can be on the larger picture. In learning about their civic duty, the girls now understand that they can have a voice in the politicians whom they support and watch as they advocate on behalf of the klal.”
Rabbi Silber also took time to visit the Kew Gardens community, where one of its own, Avi Cyperstein, is running in the June City Council race to replace the term-limited Karen Koslowitz. At Mesivta Tiferet Torah, an affiliate of Ner Mordechai, Rabbi Nachum Zlotnick imparted that Rabbi Silber took time to explain the voting procedures and Agudath Israel of America’s wide-ranging impacts. “Our talmidim appreciated the fact that someone from Agudah made the effort to come down and educate them on voting,” recollected Rabbi Zlotnick. “The boys are excited to prepare to perform their civic duties.”
Synchronized federal and state elections was also a measure enacted by the bill. Previously, New York State held separate primary elections for state and federal decisions. The institution of a presidential primary every four years and a general election meant that many in New York would be sent to the polls four different times in just one year, confusing voters and dissuading them from voting altogether. The new rules send voters to the polls only once to choose nominees. Another bill ensured that a voters who move within the state would have their voter registration seamlessly transferred to their new locale.
The legislation also authorized early voting, which was widely taken advantage of this past November, enabling more convenience for voters who have professional or family obligations and found it difficult to get to the polls on Election Day. In general, wait times at polls would also be reduced with early voting. With the special election to elect new Council members in Districts 24 and 31 coming up on February 2 and February 23 respectively, early voting is all too important. These elections, to fill the seats left by Rory Lancman and Donovan Richards, are also the initial tests for New York City’s ratification of rank choice voting, enabling voters to choose their top five candidates and have their lowest choices be eliminated until one candidate emerges a victor with more than 50 percent of the vote, thus avoiding a runoff.
Generations of voters have been discouraged from exercising their right to vote; these new rules will help ensure all have their voices heard. The goal of the Agudah Voting Project is for the Agudah to register as many New York City students as possible in advance of the City primary elections this upcoming June. Rabbi Silber is planning a return to Queens in the first week of 2021, ahead of the voter registration deadline of January 8 for the February special election. The intention is to visit other high schools in the area and have new voices on hand for the upcoming pivotal races that are sure to have widespread bearing on our neighborhoods. “In some cases, a senior will be 18 by the February election dates, and in other cases by the June election,” said Rabbi Silber. Every 12th grader should seize this opportunity to make a difference.
By Shabsie Saphirstein