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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union

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Making Voting Easier

Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union
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With change in the air as Americans watched the inauguration of a new president and the start of a new year, New York's leaders are setting their agendas for 2009. This month Gov. David Paterson delivered his first State of the State address, focusing on the economy and the challenges facing New York. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's State of the City also emphasized an economic recovery plan. Both executives spoke about education and infrastructure issues, as well as the tough choices government will have to make this year. What was clear in both of their addresses -- mostly from what Paterson and Bloomberg did not say -- is that during these difficult financial times reform will be left on the sidelines, particularly election changes that would make casting ballots easier and more secure for New Yorkers.

In November, Paterson asked New York Secretary of State Loraine Cortes-Vazquez to issue a report analyzing the 2008 election and highlight potential reforms that could increase voter participation. Cortes-Velazquez's report is set to be released in February. Despite the impending report and pleas from advocates, however, many wonder how much of a priority election reform will be for this administration. With a new year ahead, voting advocates and many voters have their own ideas about changes big and small that would make the election process more accountable, more secure and more accessible.

Early Voting

The excitement surrounding the 2008 elections caused record voter turnout nationwide. Voters headed to the polls early in states that allow people to cast ballots before Election Day. The rules for early voting vary from state to state and can range from allowing residents to cast absentee ballots without citing a reason to establishing early voting centers with voting machines.

In New York, state law allows absentee voting only by residents who are absent from the county or too ill to vote in person on Election Day. Despite that, New Yorkers, apparently unaware that early voting is not permitted here, headed to their borough election offices days before the Nov. 4 election to cast their ballots. The New York Times reported that between 50,000 and 60,000 absentee ballots had been received by Oct. 28, and some voters waited up to two hours at their borough office to obtain and cast an absentee ballot. Their votes were included with those cast in person on Election Day. In a press conference, Marcus Cederqvist, executive director of the city Board of Elections, speculated that stories from other states might have led New Yorkers to believe early voting was available here.

Voter advocates have begun pushing for a change in the New York State constitution and state law that would allow voters to cast ballots before Election Day using an absentee ballot without requiring the voter to provide an excuse. No-excuse absentee voting would increase the number of people who would vote in advance of the election and ultimately boost turnout.

Register, Then Vote

Another election change aimed at making voting easier and more accessible to voters is Election Day registration, also know as same-day registration, which is currently allowed in nine states. Election Day registration lets voters both register and vote on the day of the election. In some states, voters are required to fill out an affidavit ballot, and after their eligibility has been verified, the vote is counted. In other states, voters register at a central location and then, on the same day, vote at their local polling place. Still others allow same-day voting if the voter casts a ballot before Election Day.

New York State offers none of these options. Instead people must register to vote at least 25 days prior to the election.

In 2004, New York ranked 46th in voter turnout across the country, and in the last five presidential elections (not including 2008), New York State voter turnout failed to exceed 51 percent of the voting age population. In contrast, in three of the states with Election Day registration -- Maine, Minnesota and Wisconsin -- voter turnout in the 2004 presidential election exceeded 70 percent.

In New York, Assemblymember Michael Gianaris sponsored bill A. 4488 during the 2007-2008 legislative session, which would have amended state election law to implement Election Day registration. This bill has not been reintroduced yet for this session.

Those lobbying for the change cite New York's abysmal voter turnout rates as a key reason for implementing same-day registration. Opponents, on the other hand, argue that the process would be too costly, would create more work for election officials and, if improperly implemented, make elections more vulnerable to voter fraud. None of the nine states with Election Day registration, however, reports increased voting fraud.

Universal Registration

Another election reform that has been receiving attention is universal registration. Under this practice, the government would compile a list of all citizens eligible to vote and use it as the official roster of voters. Anyone on the list would automatically be registered and would only have to show up on Election Day and vote. Lists would be compiled either from census records or by adding names from different municipal or state lists, like social service recipients or people registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Proponents argue that universal registration would eliminate the problems voters encounter with not being on the rolls on Election Day and increase voter participation. A recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice entitled "Universal Voter Registration" examines the link between registration barriers and voter participation. At a recent City Council hearing, state Board of Elections commissioner Douglas Kellner said, "The concept is quite simple: Every citizen over 18 year of age, who is not incarcerated for a felony conviction and who has not been declared judicially incompetent should be entitled to vote. Period."

Other Reforms

Even without bold changes such as these, voting advocates argue that steps can be taken to improve the election process in New York. Modernizing election agency Websites, improving hotline capacity, better training for poll workers and increased access to the polls for disabled voters are among the many changes advocated by organizations like the Brennan Center, Citizens Union, Common Cause/NY, New York Public Interest and Research Group, the League of Women Voters of New York, the Women's City Club of New York and Center for Independence of the Disabled.

For some though, these small-scale reforms -- and the slow or nonexistent progress of the state's election agencies and city and state elected officials to implement them -- signal a need for greater changes to the structure of New York's election administration. Citizens Union (whose sister organization, Citizens Union Foundation, publishes Gotham Gazette) plans to issue a report in the coming weeks that discusses the importance of reforming how elections are run and a departure from what it characterizes as the old way of voting.

While reforming elections in New York state may not top anyone's agenda, at least publicly, for 2009, voters and advocates will no doubt continue to tell their legislators "out with the old, in with the new" when it comes to voting procedures in the state.

Andrea Senteno is program associate for Citizens Union Foundation, which publishes Gotham Gazette.



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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Welfare Reform Gone Wrong

By Nydia M. Velazquez

The 1996 welfare reform plan is touted as one of the great recent successes in social policy. It was designed to reduce dependency and move beneficiaries from welfare to work. Yet many questions remain unanswered. Yes, the welfare caseloads have dropped in New York City by 60 percent. But we still do not know where those families went. We do not know if they found jobs as the policy intended. They may still be unemployed and impoverished. And we may not know for years.

What we do know is that the five-year lifetime limit on welfare benefits began coming due last fall. In New York City alone, 60,000 families will be summarily dumped from the rolls, with their cash benefits slashed to $58.20 a month, just when the economy entered a recession and unemployment peaked at 7.4 percent.

There are some ominous signs of welfare reform gone wrong. The need for emergency shelter is at an all-time high, with 30,000 men, women and children being provided beds by the city. A third of the city's population was living below the poverty level in 2000.

Now, adding insult to injury, President George Bush this month has proposed sweeping changes for those remaining on the welfare rolls. These include new unrealistic work requirements, which force the states to place 70 percent of their welfare caseload in full-time, 40-hour "work activities". That is up from existing requirements to place 50 percent of beneficiaries in 30-hour jobs.

This is particularly regressive because it imposes the requirement on households, not individuals. The president's plan makes no distinction between a single parent and a married couple. That means a single mom with kids has to work 40 hours a week. But a married couple only needs to work 20 hours each.

The effect could be catastrophic. A single parent needs more time at home, not less. No family would tolerate such an imposition keeping them away from their children. Yet this proposal requires twice the work in some homes that have half the resources to cope. Is this the same administration that claimed to put "families first"?

What is more incredible, the Bush administration would make this intolerable situation even worse by freezing day care funding for the next five years. This plan restricts the very resource that could make it possible for a single parent to meet their work requirement!

These proposals are starkly contrasted with those made by the people who must implement this draconian, inflexible plan. The National Governors Association and the National Conference of State Legislators have repeatedly requested more - not less - flexibility to administer their own welfare plans.

But the Bush proposal expects the hands-on administrators to accomplish these radical goals with fewer resources, especially for worker training, childcare and transportation. Providing tools to help welfare recipients survive off the rolls is what makes reform work, not simply throwing families out and hoping they'll make it on their own.

The president also continues to exploit immigrant communities while ignoring their interests. His photo ops with diverse crowds put a shiny veneer on his harsh policies. In reality he recycles the same old nativist stereotypes of our shoreline teeming with shiftless immigrants bent on living the highlife.

I'm not making this up. The president said this month we need these restrictions to "ensure that welfare policy neither attracts non-citizens to the U.S. to take advantage of welfare, nor induces welfare dependency among non-citizens."

In truth, immigrants come to the United States to work for their families. They work hard, because they know that job opportunities in America are the best in the world.

Yet some immigrants, just like other Americans, need help. While the president extended food stamp benefits to legal permanent immigrants last month, he failed to do the same for welfare. That means the same communities that pay taxes to support welfare cannot benefit from it at all when they need help.

It is easy to forget in our unity against a common enemy that we still face an enemy within: poverty and hopelessness.

We do not know the ultimate effects of the 1996 welfare reform program, whether it is helping or harming our most vulnerable families. Yet this president is pushing forward blindly, ignoring immigrants, burdening single parents, and hawking an extremist policy without considering the consequences.

Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez (D-NY) represents parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. Her legislation includes H.R. 3459, which extends welfare to immigrants and repeals the five-year lifetime limit on benefits.

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Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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