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Voting Reform Advocates Say Cuomo Can Do More Through Executive Order


Cuomo podium

Gov. Cuomo (photo: The Governor's Office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order Monday expanding the list of New York State agencies required to provide voter registration assistance and creating a task force to oversee implementation of the program.

While current state and federal law requires the forms to be available at the Department of Motor Vehicles and certain social service agencies, Cuomo’s new order mandates that all agencies that interact with the public through professional licensing, recreational activities and other avenues carry the forms.

The State Agency Voter Registration Task Force -- comprised of Cuomo’s counsel Alphonso David, Jamie Rubin, his Director of State Operations, as well as a variety of agency commissioners -- will explore ways to implement the reforms laid out in the executive order. The task force will also study the use of electronic signatures and how to set up secure online voting registration systems -- similar to the one currently in place at the Department of Motor Vehicles -- through additional state agencies, according to the governor’s office.

Advocates of voting reform, who were disappointed by the lack of meaningful electoral reform during the 2017 legislative session, were buoyed by the news, praising it as an important first step, but they also noted that a lot more can be done to increase access to registration and voting.

“While we appreciate Governor Cuomo’s intentions, his proposed executive order will do little to address the issues New York State voters face on Election Day. Voter purges, strict registration and party change deadlines, and long lines at the polls cannot be fixed with enhanced voter registration,” said Jennifer Wilson of League of Women Voters in a statement.

In pointing out that voter registration is not the main barrier to voting in New York State, Wilson noted that in 2016 voter registration reached a record high, but many newly enrolled voters faced barriers to casting their ballots.

“While we agree that state agencies should take a more active role in voter registration, we would prefer to see an executive order that enacts early voting, alters registration deadlines, or allows for electronic poll books. The only way to truly empower voters and ensure ballot integrity is to make voting easier and more accessible,” said Wilson.

Reinvent Albany, a government reform group, issued a statement saying the organization is “most excited by the potential to use proven technology to implement fully online voter registration in New York State. State agencies, SUNY and CUNY and Boards of Election should make voting easier by maximizing the use of secure technology.”

“Governor Cuomo’s actions are a helpful step in what we hope is a wider push to update our archaic voting system,” said New York Civil Liberties Union head Donna Lieberman, noting the executive action’s timeliness in the wake of the Trump administration’s request for voter information through its newly created voter fraud commission, which critics say is paving the way to attempt voter suppression, and 44 states, including New York, have refused to comply with.

The voter registration expansion ordered by Cuomo could have a significant impact in places like New York City and Westchester where a considerable number of voters do not frequently interact with the DMV, because they are not car owners or are not licensed to drive.

A recent study by the New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG), which has been pushing for all agencies to make voter registration forms available, found that fewer than 50 percent of people who are of voting age living in Brooklyn or the Bronx possessed driver’s licenses, while in Queens, 64 percent of those residents were licensed, and in Manhattan, 54 percent of those residents were licensed. Eighty-three percent of voting age Staten Islanders were licensed, and in Westchester, 88 percent of those residents were registered with the DMV.

The analysis also found disparities between men and women who interacted with the DMV in New York State; there were 300,000 fewer female licensed drivers than male drivers, though there are 600,000 more women than men in the state. The NYPIRG estimates are based on 2010 U.S. Census data.

Cuomo has also ordered SUNY and CUNY to conduct a full investigation of their campus voter registration practices in order to ensure that required steps are being taken to increase voter registration rates among young voters on the state's public college campuses. State law requires SUNY and CUNY campuses to provide all students with voter registration forms at the beginning of each school year, as well as in January of each presidential election year.

Finally, Cuomo directed the DMV to send information referencing its online voter registration application in all emails reminding New Yorkers to renew their licenses, identification cards, and vehicle registrations, in order to maximize New Yorkers' awareness of the electronic voter registration application.

Since the launch of online voter registration in 2012, there have been over 921,922 online voter registration applications, including 430,886 who identified themselves as first-time voters, according to Cuomo’s office.

Reinvent Albany called on the new Cuomo task force, CUNY and SUNY to hold public hearings around improving voter registration.

Earlier this year, as part of his State of the State and 2017 policy book, the governor proposed "The Democracy Project," a legislative package to further modernize and reform New York's voting system. The bills were comprehensive, including early voting, same-day voter registration, and automatic voter registration, but the governor was criticized for failing to see any of those measures passed during the budget or subsequent legislative session, which ended in late June.

When asked about the failure to pass these reforms, Cuomo said there was “no appetite” in the Legislature.

"There is more to do; there is no political will to do it. Otherwise we would have done it in the budget," Cuomo said of the reforms when talking with reporters at an annual Easter open house.

Chisun Lee, senior counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, noted that while an executive order has its limitations, the governor could direct his task force to “study the benefits of and best practices for implementing opt-out automatic registration — a reform that would move New York from the back of the pack to the vanguard of pro-voter states.” Under this program, all eligible voters would automatically be registered unless they proactively declined.

“Today’s order is a good step forward, though more can and should be done to replace New York’s archaic, paper-based registration system with a modern, electronic one that increases efficiency and improves accuracy of our registration rolls,” Lee said in a statement.

A spokesperson for Cuomo’s office said the governor will continue to push for the reforms introduced in his 2017 agenda, but did not elaborate about how.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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LaGuardia College President Whipped Colleague Support for Cuomo Scholarship


Cuomo Excelsior Clinton LaGuardia
Cuomo with Hillary Clinton, Gail Mellow, far right, & others (photo: Governor's Office)


Dr. Gail O. Mellow, the president of LaGuardia Community College, contacted fellow City University of New York (CUNY) presidents to gather statements in support of the proposed Excelsior Scholarship program on behalf of Governor Andrew Cuomo, before the proposal was passed and signed into law earlier this year.

Gotham Gazette previously reported that the governor’s office launched a push to bring CUNY leaders on board with the plan early this year, at the same time as the governor was pushing for greater oversight over the system and an investigation conducted by his appointed Inspector General was expanding. The role played by Mellow was rumored but not known. LaGuardia College was the site where Cuomo both announced Excelsior in January alongside Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and ceremonially signed the bill alongside Hillary Clinton in April.

A public records request filed by Gotham Gazette requesting Excelsior-related emails between Mellow and Cuomo administration officials was initially denied, and only partially granted upon appeal. The heavily redacted emails block out much of the correspondence. What they do show is Mellow sending Dan Fuller, Cuomo’s Assistant Secretary for Education, statements from Bronx Community College President Thomas Isekenegbe; Hostos Community College President David Gómez; Medgar Evers College President Rudy Crew; Brooklyn College President Michelle Anderson; York College President Marcia Keizs; and College of Staten Island President William Fritz.

The statements forwarded by Mellow would ultimately appear in a press release that the governor’s office put out in May, touting the support of CUNY and SUNY presidents for the scholarship. Portions of the emails that came immediately before or after the statements, or direct interactions between Mellow and Fuller, are largely redacted. In one example, the email from Mellow followed “Dear Dan,” followed by a black box, followed by Mellow signing off as “Gail,” with nothing visible in between.

It’s not uncommon for elected officials drafting and pushing legislative proposals to enlist and work with affected individuals, other officials, activists, and community members. However, a campaign to create a shift of the Excelsior Scholarship’s magnitude may be more likely to be centrally coordinated, perhaps by CUNY Chancellor James Milliken or his staff. It is unclear why Mellow took the lead in this case, and what she was telling her colleagues, many of whom were skeptical of aspects of the plan, on behalf of the governor’s office.

The scholarship will cover tuition for CUNY and State University of New York (SUNY) students from households with incomes up to $125,000 a year by 2019. The fact that it would cover tuition alone, after all other grants and scholarships have been applied, and requires students to finish on time and live in the state for a period after graduation has drawn criticism from some students, activists, and educators.

The exchanges have been carefully redacted so that the emails between Mellow and Fuller contain only the statements that Mellow is sending, which became public, along with brief notes like “Here is another quote.” The subject lines are similar; examples include “FW: quote for NY’s Excelsior scholarship,” “Additional quote,” and “RE: another one more & …” This seems to indicate that Fuller was requesting additional quotes.

In an emailed statement, Elizabeth Streich, a spokesperson for LaGuardia, said that “based on [Mellow’s] national advocacy for free college, when Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the Excelsior Scholarship, she jumped right in to increase public awareness about it. She worked with fellow CUNY College presidents to help increase understanding, and build support for Excelsior.”

Streich did not detail what Mellow had told the other presidents to elicit their responses, nor did she give details of or characterize Mellow’s conversations with Fuller or other members of the Cuomo administration. Fuller did not return requests for comment. Emails to spokespeople for the governor were not answered.

CUNY colleges and affiliated nonprofits continue to be the subjects of a wide-ranging state Inspector General investigation into their structure and financial operations. The investigation released a preliminary report in November, and continued to expand early this year, at the same time as the governor’s office was seeking support for Excelsior and Cuomo was calling for additional inspector generals – which he would appoint – to oversee CUNY and SUNY, as well as new taxes on their affiliated nonprofits. These proposals were not ultimately enacted.

Shown the email exchanges, John Kaehny, the executive director of good government group Reinvent Albany, said the governor and Mellow should release unredacted emails “to lay to rest public concerns about CUNY administrators being pressured to make supportive statements about the governor's Excelsior Scholarship program. We saw redacted emails that raised more questions than they answered.”

One email in the chain involves Anthony Bernal, an aide to Dr. Jill Biden, the wife of former Vice President Joe Biden and a professor at Northern Virginia Community College. Bernal is responding to an email Mellow is copied on, in which Fuller has sent a draft of a statement that the governor’s office wants to attribute to Jill Biden in support of the proposal. Mellow is described as “[working] closely with Dr. Biden on these important issues.” The statement does not appear to have been ultimately used by the governor’s office.

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by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette
     

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Cuomo’s Fundraising Gives Him Strong Footing Ahead of Second Reelection Bid


Cuomo Niagra Falls

Gov. Cuomo (photo: The Governor's Office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo’s campaign finance filings show he’s sitting on a considerable war chest as he heads into the final year of his second term.

New York’s Democratic governor, up for re-election in Fall 2018, has $25.7 million in his campaign account, according to financial reports filed last week. And as he approaches the state election year, Cuomo’s fundraising momentum is strong. Between January and June, Cuomo raised $5.1 million in monetary and in-kind contributions and spent $1.35 million, according to the filings.

More than $500,000 of that campaign intake came from LLCs -- though Cuomo has said that he is in favor of ending the notorious LLC loophole, which allows those in elected office to accept virtually unlimited donations from corporations.

Cuomo returned more than $220,000 in contributions to various donors, some with problematic histories, or individuals with business before the state.

Several gifts, which are legal if they are related to normal operations, show up on Cuomo’s filings, including $212 on a gift from Tiffany’s & Co. A spokesperson for the state Democratic Party told The New York Post that it was a pen sent to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand for her birthday.

His campaign also made a $44.99 purchase at a Midtown Crocs store, apparently a gift for chef Mario Batali, one of the judges for Cuomo’s inaugural Taste NY Craft Beer Challenge this spring, The Daily News reported (Batali is known for sporting the iconic footwear in orange).

In addition, Cuomo has access to more than $1.3 million sitting in the New York State Democratic Committee’s primary and housekeeping accounts, which are controlled by the governor’s operatives, financial disclosure reports show. While fundraising in those accounts has been comparably slower -- the housekeeping account pulled in $1.6 million in contributions and the committee account $40,000 -- both entities will likely see more activity as the gubernatorial race heats up. Housekeeping accounts are limited in their function -- they may not spend on the election of a specific candidate, but can be used for party building activities.

This fundraising gives Cuomo a significant advantage over his potential challengers. No one has yet emerged to challenge Cuomo in the Democratic primary. The governor is surely hoping for a smoother showing than in 2014, when law professor Zephyr Teachout gave Cuomo a tough primary race playing on his vulnerabilities and energizing those to the governor’s left who were disillusioned with Cuomo’s centrism. With little institutional support or political experience, and minimal campaign cash, Teachout won a third of the primary vote.

The general election field is also unclear at this point, with several Republicans considering a gubernatorial campaign. Two suburban Republican county executives, Westchester’s Rob Astorino, who lost a gubernatorial challenge to Cuomo in 2014, and Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, are able to fundraise through their local re-election committees ahead of a formal announcement.

Molinaro is not up for re-election until 2019 and his Molinaro for Dutchess campaign account has lost money this year, shrinking from $50,832 to $34,547. Astorino, who is being challenged by Democratic Senator George Latimer for the county executive post this fall, recently raised $1.1 million on top of the $2.5 million he already had and spent $400,000, bringing his total nest egg to $3.2 million.

Other Republicans who have hinted that they might attempt to unseat Cuomo include Harry Wilson, who performed fairly well during his run for state comptroller in 2010 and is independently wealthy, and two state senators, Majority Leader John Flanagan, of Long Island, and John DeFrancisco, of Syracuse.

The Republican State Committee has $264,434.92 stashed, and nearly $1 million in its housekeeping account. Some interesting donors to the housekeeping account since January include $500,000 from state party Chair Ed Cox’s brother Howard Cox, and $3,500 from Davidoff, Hutcher & Citron, which is co-owned by the brother of Queens Democratic Party Chair Joseph Crowley and employs Manhattan Democratic Party Chair Keith Wright.

Two other statewide incumbents, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, both Democrats, also have money in the bank as they each eye another term. Schneiderman has $7.6 million in the bank and DiNapoli’s campaign account has $1.7 million. No one has declared an intention to challenge either official, though that may chance by the next campaign finance filing deadline, in January.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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