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State Lawmakers Question Inclusive Language

There is at least some bipartisan concern over ambiguities raised by the move to gender neutral language in state legislation.

Both Rep. Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, and Rep. Monica Wallace, D-Cheektowaga, raised concerns during a recent floor debate over the use of they, them and their in reference to voters in a chapter amendment for legislation extending voter registration timelines.

“There is one other item I wanted to bring up,” Goodell said. “At the insistence of the governor the original statutatory language that referred to applicants as he or she has been changed to they, them or their. While I absolutely, wholly, 100% percent support gender-neutral language, and I appreciate when somebody asks me how I want to be addressed and I honor that suggestion by others, I think it’s inappropriate for us as a legislature to use terminology that is typically used for the 1% of the population that is nonbinary to refer to the other 99%. It is as insulting to us who prefer to be called he or she to be called them they or their for them to be called he or she. There is absolutely no reason why we should use they, them and their in reference to a single person when we can use gender neutral language that applies to everyone. So it would be a very simple matter to take this bill, as an example, and use the phrase such applicant recognizing longstanding English customs of singular verbs with singular nouns without insulting anybody else.”

Wallace, meanwhile, agreed with Goodell’s comments but said using they, them and their on more complex legislation could create problems for those who have to analyze the legislation’s meaning in the future.

“While I support this legislation and I fully support the concept of making our statutes gender inclusive, I would concur with the comments that were made earlier that when we do so we should try to be a little more thoughtful in doing so in a way that isn’t going to create confusion for individuals who are going to be interpreting this statute,” Wallace said. “While it might not be a problem in this particular case there are going to be times where the statute may refer to the governor and then later on the lieutenant governor and then later there might be another paragraph later on where it says they and it would be very unclear if are we talking about the governor, are we talking about the lieutenant governor or are we talking about both the governor and the lieutenant governor because they can also be a plural term. So I concur with our colleagues suggestion that we think about substituting such applicant, such voter, the indivdual, whatever it is rather than using the plural terms because they have different meanings.”

The concerns raised by Goodell and Wallace — as well as Rep. Michael Novakhov, R-Brooklyn, who said thousands of his constituents don’t speak English well and could find themselves confused — were brushed aside by Assembly members Charles Lavine, D-New York City, and Carrie Woerner, D-Sarasota Springs, who both said use of the phrase “they” has a longstanding use and should pose no problems.

“I have read the text of this bill and I find nothing at all offensive or problemmatic about the use of the word they,” Lavine said. “It is patently clear what the meaning of the statute or the proposed statutory language is and it’s an entirely and perfectly suitable use of the English language and I just wonder to what extent will an anti-woke polemic or diatribe, where is that going to take us? It takes us nowhere.”

As for the chapter amendment, A.972 was approved 97-47 with Goodell and Assemblyman Joe Giglio voting against the legislation. The bill amends legislation passed in 2022 gives voters more time to register to vote before an election. Under the old rules, voters had to register at least 30 days before an election. The state Legislature reduced that timeframe to 10 days, with Gov. Kathy Hochul insisting on 15 days before she signed the bill.

“There is a great concern by moving that timeframe and condensing it to just 10 days it would compromise the integrity of the process particularly in light of the view that we now have early voting and a lot of absentee voting,” Goodell said. “This chapter amendment lengthens that time by five days, which is good and many of my colleagues appreciate that we’ve gone with an additional five days, though we still think it should be 30 days.”

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