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NY passes Juneteenth holiday, automatic voter registration

The state Senate and Assembly worked into the evening Thursday on bills addressing calls for a reckoning on the nation’s history of slavery and racism.

ALBANY, N.Y. — State lawmakers have wrapped up work on bills ranging from automatic voter registration to two new public holidays celebrating Juneteenth and Abolition Commemoration Day. 

The State Senate and Assembly this week passed a bill to designate June 19 as Juneteenth to commemorate the emancipation of slaves in the U.S. 

New York joins states including Texas, where Juneteenth has its historical roots and where it became a state holiday in 1980.

“Every day our communities witness a continued fight for justice and equality,” said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Kevin Parker, a Democrat. "Designating Juneteenth a public holiday gives us a chance to recognize our liberties, honor our ancestor’s struggle for emancipation, and send a clear message that we value this significant moment in history.”

President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was effective Jan. 1, 1863. But it wasn’t until June 19, 1865, when word of the proclamation was brought by the Union army to enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, making them among the last to learn about their emancipation.

The Legislature also passed a bill setting aside the second Monday in July to observe the New York state Legislature’s passage of the Abolition Act on March 31, 1817, which abolished slavery effective July 4, 1827.

 Lawmakers said Abolition Commemoration Day would honor the sacrifices of abolitionists and the end of slavery in New York.

The state Senate and Assembly worked into the evening Thursday on bills addressing calls for a reckoning on the nation’s history of slavery and racism, a law shielding nursing homes from lawsuits amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and efforts to make it easier to vote in the Nov. 6 election.

Some state agencies will automatically register voters under another bill the Democratic-led Legislature passed. 

Federal law already requires state motor vehicle departments and public assistance agencies to offer applicants an opportunity to register to vote. But in recent years, voting right groups have pushed states to automatically register voters who interact with those state agencies.

 Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris said the new system will help cut costs and enroll more of about two million eligible voters who aren't on the rolls. The legislation allows voters to opt out of voter registration. 

“While national efforts to establish more roadblocks to voting increase, it is critical we make it as easy as possible for all New Yorkers to exercise their right to vote," he said.

Several bills, including a moratorium on facial recognition programs at schools, will eventually head to the desk of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who then faces a 10-day deadline to act.

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