De Blasio registers a voter (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)
As Public Advocate, Bill de Blasio strongly pushed for voting reform in New York, but as Mayor, it has not been high on his list of priorities. Last month, with Election Day around the corner, that seemed to change as de Blasio renewed his call for a system that will encourage voting in a state with one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country.
The advocacy comes just ahead of de Blasio’s re-election year and is spurred in part, the mayor said, by the enthusiasm stirred up by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who de Blasio did not support in the Democratic presidential primary. It also requires action in Albany and an opportunity for the mayor to work collaboratively with Governor Andrew Cuomo, whom the mayor has been feuding with for years, on reforms the two agree on.
On October 13, one day before the state’s voter registration deadline for new voters wishing to vote November 8, de Blasio spent about 30 minutes registering voters in downtown Brooklyn. He then headed indoors for a news conference, where he was accompanied by elected officials, government reform advocates, and representatives of the city Campaign Finance Board. The mayor called on the state Legislature to pass broad voting and election reforms, including same-day voter registration, early voting, “no excuse” absentee voting, electronic poll books, consolidation of primary elections, reformatting ballots to make them more user-friendly, and pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds.
Many of these reforms have been stalled in Albany, and de Blasio declared he was going to be part of a major push to see them passed in 2017, when the Legislature is back in session. “The bottom line is...the laws of New York State discourage participation in the democratic process,” de Blasio said. “Because everyone’s eyes are on election matters right now, we wanted to take this moment to make very, very clear that New York City and all of us here are going to be very, very actively engaged in a campaign to change state law in the coming months to finally make this a state that’s voter friendly, to finally make this a state where people can participate and not be disenfranchised.”
De Blasio had been mostly quiet on these issues over the nearly three years of his term and held the news conference with no chance that Albany lawmakers could enact reforms for the 2016 elections even if they wanted to. But he credits his renewed interest to a reinvigorated national conversation about voter enfranchisement and issues in New York, both highlighted by the Sanders campaign.
The mayor also asked the federal government to clear a backlog of pending naturalization applications, which would add about 57,000 new eligible voters to the rolls in New York alone, and more than 500,000 across the country.
The city expanded its efforts to register voters this year, providing voter registration forms in 16 languages when the state only requires five and allowing registration for people that take civil service exams through the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. The administration also organized a voter registration drive in partnership with 12 street food vendors across the five boroughs, promoted on Twitter with the hashtag #NoshTheVote.
A day after the news conference, the mayor appeared on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show for his weekly “Ask The Mayor” segment. He reiterated his appeal for voting reform, calling the state’s system “arcane” and blaming the “political class” for keeping participation low. “[New York] has got a set of voting standards that are some of the least effective, least inviting in the country,” de Blasio said. “It makes it hard for people to register, hard for people to vote."
The mayor has time and again commended Senator Sanders’ campaign for bringing significant attention to voting reform around the April 19 primary election in New York. There were confused voters who were ineligible but tried to show up and vote for Sanders in a closed party primary, but also mismanagement by the city Board of Elections, with tens of thousands of Brooklyn voters inappropriately purged from the voter rolls ahead of the primary.
At a November 4 news conference, Gotham Gazette asked the mayor why he hadn’t been vocal about voting and election reform earlier, in order to pressure Albany well ahead of the election, and what Governor Cuomo’s role should be in pushing for reforms.
“I think [Governor Cuomo] needs to prioritize these reforms or the people will do it for him,” de Blasio said. He also explained that the Sanders campaign was a key impetus for change, adding, “I think a lot of us were disgusted by the New York State voting laws years ago and thought they were unmovable, particularly with a Republican Senate that was not going to be friendly to voting reform. What’s happened different, I think the Bernie Sanders campaign changed the entire national discussion, certainly what we saw happen in the primary did, but, again, not with such speed that it was going to make it something that could be achieved by the end of this last June.” De Blasio was referring to the June end of the state legislative session.
With the Republicans likely to maintain control of the Senate going into next year, little has changed in Albany and those voting reforms may yet be unmovable. But the mayor has insisted he will work with state legislators and with the governor to push for reform. “I would happily, there’s no question,” de Blasio said at the news conference, when asked if he would work with Cuomo, a fellow Democrat but often the mayor’s political nemesis. “I want to get it done and I’ll work with anyone on either side of the aisle who wants to get it done,” de Blasio said. “So, I could happily work with the governor.”
Although de Blasio has taken inspiration from Sanders, he doesn’t agree with the senator’s criticism of the closed primary system or calls for open primaries in New York. “I believe that parties mean something,” de Blasio said at the Oct. 13 news conference, “and if you’re going to determine the choice of a party, you should be a member of the party.” He said the closed primary system prevents interference from voters that strategically “jump into the opposite primary just for the day and then jump back out.”
De Blasio has also been vocal in his support for administrative reform and even offered the New York City Board of Elections $20 million in funding if it agreed to institute crucial changes. But the board, which is governed by state law and notoriously inept, did not accept the funding.
Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group, was one of those present at the October 13 news conference. Dadey acknowledges that de Blasio may be late to the effort, but does not fault him for it. “I know personally that he believes strongly in this needed issue of reform but clearly decided to wait until a later time in his term to deal with this,” he said. “That it’s coming on the eve of his own reelection battle is not lost on anyone as to the likely coincidence and the rationale.”
Indeed, de Blasio’s campaign Twitter account pledged a fight for election reform: “We're going to reform NYS' voting access laws, because lack of early voting & same day registration is disenfranchisement, plain and simple,” read a tweet from the account sent out Tuesday morning.
The mayor had other priorities in his first three years, such as implementing universal pre-kindergarten, expanding access to paid sick leave, creating affordable housing, and moving the NYPD into a new era of neighborhood policing while keeping crime down. Voting and election reform, largely state issues, have not been on the mayor’s radar, though his state legislative affairs office has sent memos to lawmakers in support of legislation, which has foundered in the Republican-controlled Senate.
De Blasio has made annual trips to Albany to testify at budget hearings, at which he outlines key city priorities. Voting and election reform have not been mentioned.
“Do I wish that Mayor de Blasio had weighed in earlier on some important reform issues like he did when he was Public Advocate and his first news conference was on public oversight and police misconduct? Definitely, yes,” Dadey said. “But I also know that there are a lot of issues and priorities that needed to be addressed and [voting reform] was simply not one of them, unfortunately.”
Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg pushed for his favored voting reforms at different points, and he supports the open primary system that de Blasio does not. (Bloomberg is a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent.)
Governor Cuomo has been in support of the measures de Blasio is now pushing, as has the Democrat-controlled State Assembly, which has time and again passed such bills, which fail in the Senate. Cuomo has not been a forceful public voice on the issues either, even if he does back early voting and other reforms. He’s included them in his State of the State speeches or policy books, but has done little else to publicly promote the reforms.
Despite their agreement on the need for voting and election reforms, there is no indication, other than a few vague comments, that the two will coordinate their efforts to push the issue in Albany.
In his 2015 State of the State address, the governor included a number of voting reforms in his list of legislative priorities, which were echoed in what de Blasio recently outlined. “Governor Cuomo has fought tirelessly to ensure New York's elections are fair, inclusive, and open,” said spokesperson Abbey Fashouer, in an email. “The Governor will continue to work with all state and local partners to strengthen the democratic process and ensure every New Yorker has the opportunity to make their vote count and their voices heard.”
The governor can often bring Republicans to the table on issues that he favors, like the minimum wage, marriage equality, and more. He has not made voting reforms a top priority.
Freddi Goldstein, a spokesperson for the mayor, defended the timing of de Blasio’s renewed efforts in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette. It was important, she said, to piggyback off the election to grab people’s attention. “We need to talk to people when they're listening, and this has been a great opportunity,” she said. Goldstein also sought to dispel the idea that the mayor hasn’t consistently focused on the issue.
The mayor does not submit a legislative agenda to the State but does testify before legislators each year. Although his testimony this year did not include any reference to voting reform, Goldstein said the mayor’s team in Albany works behind the scenes on such legislative issues. “Just because we're not talking about these things publicly doesn't mean we're not working on it,” she said. City Hall issues legislative memos to Albany on bills and has done so on voting and election reform, according to copies of such memos reviewed by Gotham Gazette.
City Council Member Ben Kallos, who chairs the committee on governmental operations, said in a phone interview that “All of these [reforms] should’ve happened before Election Day and if there’s an Albany special session it should be part of that agenda. The voters shouldn’t let their elected officials go back to Albany without getting this done.”
The City Council has consistently advocated for voting and election reform in its annual state legislative agenda, including early voting, instant runoff voting for citywide primaries, and public campaign financing at the state level. De Blasio has said he has concerns about instant runoff voting but hasn’t taken a full position. The mayor has consistently called for campaign finance reform, calling the city’s public matching system a gold standard that the state should follow. Cuomo has professed support for such a system but has not gotten one passed and enacted.
Kallos says he recognizes that the mayor hasn’t been able to prioritize election reform over other items on his agenda. “I think that we needed attention to this in 2014,” he said. “The mayor and I were able to advocate together for universal pre-kindergarten but election reforms weren’t on that list…I think that when we have so few people engaged in voting and such low turnout, people need to put good government on the same plane as things like universal pre-kindergarten.”
He emphasized that elected officials should look beyond their own self-interest and vote for election and voting reform, and that voters need to speak up. “Anyone who waited in line, anyone who had trouble voting, needs to make their voices heard to their elected officials,” Kallos said, “and Albany needs to finally make these changes even if it isn’t in the interest of incumbents…Ultimately in 2017, we will have a vote on the Constitutional Convention, and if Albany won’t act then the electors might.”
Indeed, one of the reasons that those who are supportive of a “yes” vote for a state Constitutional Convention believe it could be an opportunity to institute long-sought government, voting, election, and campaign finance reforms.
Prior to November 8, voting reform was one issue that de Blasio mentioned as a priority if the Democrats were able to take control of the state Senate from the Republicans. While there are two Long Island races still being counted that could change things, it appears that Republicans will continue their hold on the state Senate, putting a dent in de Blasio’s hopes for voting reform and other priorities, like a lengthy extension of mayoral control of city schools.
Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, a Manhattan Democrat, has been a staunch proponent of election reform, sponsoring many of the relevant bills that have passed his chamber, and he lays the failure of reform proposals at the feet of Senate Republicans. Kavanagh said he strongly supports the mayor’s and governor’s efforts on the issue, and denied that de Blasio has been passive. “I think [Mayor de Blasio’s] push to focus on changing these laws is important,” said Kavanagh, who participated in de Blasio’s October press conference. “He’s not operating in a vacuum but he’s also not late to the party. He’s been pushing both as mayor and even before he was mayor.”
“I think the appropriate thing is to fault the Republican Senate majority,” Kavanagh said, insisting that the governor and the Independent Democratic Conference in the Senate have also backed the Assembly’s direction on election reform under Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat. “This is not Democratic election reform,” he said. “This is common sense voting reform that will benefit everybody...Republicans and Democrats should be able to agree on these.” Multiple requests for comment sent to Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan’s office were not returned.
Dadey, from Citizens Union, had a few words of advice for de Blasio. “If the mayor is rejoining the fight for voting and election reform,” he said, “then he should really reach out proactively with the non-profit organizations that work with this to develop a collective agenda and strategy plan, but also engage the elected officials who represent the City of New York who are involved in these issues as well. It’s not as if he’s the first elected official to be talking about these issues.”