Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/385 Mon, 23 Oct 2017 15:32:57 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) On the Bus to Albany for Better New York Voting Laws http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6916:on-the-bus-to-albany-for-better-new-york-voting-laws http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6916:on-the-bus-to-albany-for-better-new-york-voting-laws vote better ny lobbyist via nyc votes

One Vote Better NY lobbyist (photo: @NYCVotes)


Two charter buses idling in downtown Manhattan in the early hours of the morning on a weekday would usually be full of mismatched tourists from far-flung states and countries, waiting to gape at the Wall Street bull and his recently-placed female antagonist.

That was not the case for the buses that departed Church Street this past Tuesday morning, which, like their counterpart departing from the Bronx, were full of New Yorkers headed to Albany with a very specific mission: pushing legislators to adopt voting reforms that would make it easier for people to cast their ballots.

The group of about 150 activists, students, and assorted concerned citizens from Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Syracuse had risen at an hour when most fellow city-dwellers were still sound asleep, steeled themselves with coffee and muffins, and traveled to the state capital as part of the “Vote Better NY” campaign. The effort -- now an annual lobbying day -- was organized by the New York City Campaign Finance Board’s “NYC Votes” initiative, which partnered with schools and civic organizations like Dominicanos USA, CUNY, and the recently founded high school progressive group Coalition Z.

Chloe Baker, 21, a junior studying history at Queens College and interning at the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), felt that the trip’s intent was to “get the legislators thinking about [voting reform], and remind them that they work for us,” a sentiment echoed by many of her fellow volunteers.

It’s the fourth year of the annual pilgrimage (Gotham Gazette was also along for the last two). To the chagrin of organizers, the objectives this year are the same as they were the first: to change the laws around voting so that citizens can more easily register and stay registered, and find it more feasible to actually vote once registered.

Those goals are put forward in proposals included in four bills introduced to the Democratically-controlled State Assembly -- they would need passage there, then in the state Senate, and to be signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. The New York Votes and Voter Empowerment Acts, sponsored by Democrats Michael Cusick of Staten Island and Brian Kavanagh of Manhattan, have some similar language; both would permit pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds and allow government agencies like housing authorities to automatically forward voter information for registration.

New York Votes would additionally establish same-day registration with a constitutional amendment (it isn’t permitted under the current state constitution), open polls two weeks before elections for what is known as “early voting,” expand absentee voting, and boost polling place resources and training. Voter Empowerment would establish online voter registration through the Board of Elections and automatically update registration information.

A separate early voting bill, also sponsored by Kavanagh, would, in its current version, establish an early-voting window beginning eight days before an election.

Finally, the so-called preclearance bill, sponsored by Brooklyn Democrat Latrice Walker, would seek to replicate some of the controls previously contained in the Voting Rights Act before it was gutted by the Supreme Court. Counties where 10 percent of the population are racial or language minorities or which have been found to have denied voting rights to protected populations would need to submit any changes in voting-related practical or policy changes to the Attorney General’s office for approval.

The early voting and voter empowerment bills both have versions in the Republican-controlled Senate. The former, sponsored by Democratic Conference Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, was passed through the election committee and has been sent over to the local government committee. The latter, sponsored by Queens Democrat Michael Gianaris, was voted down, 6-3, in the elections committee less than 24 hours before the activists boarded their buses, including a “nay” vote by one of its own sponsors, Queens Democrat and Independent Democratic Conference member Tony Avella.

Yet what would seem like a deflating defeat was received with cautious optimism by activists, who are happy that the leadership in the Senate -- “where these bills go to die,” was how one NYC Votes staffer put it -- were even publicly acknowledging the ideas.

“Having [Senate Majority Leader John] Flanagan even talking about wanting to know the cost of it is a change in the right direction. Last year it would have been a flat ‘no,’” said Onida Coward Mayers, the NYCCFB director of voter assistance, referring to the Suffolk County Republican’s recent comments citing the potential cost of early voting, while leaving the door open to continued conversations on reform.

The day’s activities began with a rally held by legislators and advocates on the steps of the Capitol building’s famed “Million Dollar Staircase,” where it was moved after rain scuttled plans to hold it in Lafayette Park. After that, the group splintered into 11 teams, each with its own schedule of meetings; the idea was to try to have each legislator who had been open to a meeting hear from at least one of his or her own constituents. “They’re much more interested if it’s someone from their community, because they know that person represents many more at home,” explained Coward Mayers.

The group Gotham Gazette trailed soon found itself in the imposingly bright and bustling Legislative Office Building, where hordes of staffers, lobbyists, and activists tried hard not to run into each other as they shuffled between meetings. First on the group’s schedule was Senator Roxanne Persaud, who had to run out but left an aide, who asked not to be identified, to speak with the six-person delegation. The Brooklyn legislator is one of a handful of Senate mainline Democrats who have not sponsored both of the Senate bills. No Republicans have signed on.

As Amanda Melillo, public affairs officer at NYCCFB, explained that multi-hour lines dissuaded voters from participating in elections, the staffer nodded and spoke of her own experience during last year’s presidential election, saying, “I was out there, I saw the last-minute rush. I understand.” While she couldn’t quite commit to the senator sponsoring the bill, she promised to discuss it with her boss, and ended with the hope that “when we meet next year, it’ll be better.”

A cramped elevator ride and brisk walk through halogen-lit hallways deposited the group at the office of Brooklyn Senator Jesse Hamilton, who greeted Coward Mayers with a hug and spent a few minutes posing for photographs with the activists. Hamilton and his seven colleagues in the IDC, a group that forms a governing coalition with Senate Republicans, are crucial to pushing through the bills that still have a chance in this legislative session, which runs through mid-June.

The group quickly scored their first clear success: Melillo explained the intent of the preclearance measure and had not quite finished asking Hamilton to introduce it in the Senate before he piped up with, “I can do that, that’s not a problem.”

He was a bit less receptive when the volunteers raised the issue of early voting. When Bella Wang, a 26-year-old PhD student at Princeton and former poll worker, brought up voters waiting “one to three hours” to get their ballot, Hamilton said that “that’s only in presidential elections that you get three hours.”

Wendy Odle-Harvey, a volunteer in her fifties whose family moved to Brooklyn from Barbados in the 1970s, chimed in to say that if people vote in any election to find long lines and voting machine problems, they “don’t want to come out to vote for senator, for local races.”

Hamilton promised to look a the bill, but told the group that they’d be best served by “talking to the Republicans, because you’re preaching to the choir.”

Case in point, the group’s next scheduled meeting was with Republican Senator Marty Golden, of Brooklyn, who quickly got into a back-and-forth with Wang when she stated that people with oddly-spelled and hyphenated names often find themselves left off the voter rolls due to human error.

“We have people with names, hyphenated or not hyphenated, voting in several elections” he said, and asserted that there were “people bused in from the Bronx and Westchester to vote in Brooklyn races.” Wang shot back that you were more likely to be “crushed by furniture” than to commit voter fraud, a claim that Golden vigorously disputed. While there have been sporadic claims of voter fraud in New York, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman declared earlier this year that there was not one substantiated incident of voter fraud in New York in 2016.

As Melillo ticked off reasons why New York’s voter turnout is so low - 41st out of the 50 states in the 2016 general election, with 57 percent turnout - Golden asked if it couldn’t be that “people don’t care,” and argued that high immigrant populations and cultural differences led to low turnout in some districts, pointing to “Palestinian and Arab communities” in his own constituency. “Do they vote? No,” he said.

Despite the disagreements, Golden conceded that improvements could be made to the state’s voting procedures, saying “there are a couple of things we can do to help people register and vote, and I’m open to that,” and agreeing to consider the bills. He threw out some of his own ideas, such as making poll workers’ pay non-taxable and getting the MTA to provide expanded service on election days.

Asked about the probability that he would support any of the bills were they to come to a vote, he said “our leader is having conversations about the bill,” but declined to definitively take a position.

Downstairs in the building’s cafeteria, past a group of Army personnel manning a series of small tables covered in military equipment as part of something called Fort Drum Day, the activists took a breather.

“I didn’t really know what to expect…Say ‘I’m a constituent’ and maybe they’ll listen more, but there are a lot of groups here, so sometimes it feels like lip service,” said Natasha Padilla, 38, a Brooklynite who had taken a vacation day to go on the trip, as a group of people in bright green shirts emblazoned with the Airbnb logo chatted quietly 10 feet away.

The final meeting of the day for the group Gotham Gazette followed took its members back through the packed elevators with the electronic voice and to the office of Brooklyn Assembly Member Peter Abbate Jr., who was not available. Aide Joe Brady took his place for a quick discussion that largely consisted of Brady agreeing that there were issues with voting and pledging to discuss the proposals with the Assembly member.

The issue of voting reform is a particularly sensitive one for legislators, Coward Mayers said, because it “taps into their livelihoods. They want to be safeguarded.” If successful, the reforms would shift their voter base, empowering a whole slate of people previously not involved in politics. That prospect can be frightening to elected officials that can pretty much predict the comfortable margin they’ll be reelected with under the current system. Incumbents in New York, where there are no term limits for state legislators, do very well election after election, often running unopposed or with nominal opposition.

For the activists who gave up their weekday to show up at their doorstep, the legislators’ reticence is understandable but misplaced. With “a few million dollars in a multibillion dollar budget,” as Melillo put it, they could bring hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers into the political process. (The state budget that was recently passed totals $153.1 billion in operating funds.)

In a telling exchange with Senator Hamilton, Wang, the PhD student, brought up Minnesota, a state with same-day registration and early voting that also happens to have had the highest percentage turnout in 2016 elections. As Hamilton began to speculate about the reasons Minnesotans may simply have a greater interest in voting, Padilla cut him off.

“They got their people to vote. And it’s really cold there,” she said.

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by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette
     

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On the Bus to Albany for Better New York Voting Laws Sun, 07 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
With Chamber Control at Stake, No Democratic Challenger to Republican Senator from Brooklyn http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6580:with-chamber-control-at-stake-no-democratic-challenger-to-republican-senator-from-brooklyn http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6580:with-chamber-control-at-stake-no-democratic-challenger-to-republican-senator-from-brooklyn golden nypd

Sen. Marty Golden (photo: @NYPDAuxilary)


With a great deal on the line for New York City, Democrats are trying to flip the State Senate and a handful of races across the state will make the difference. One Brooklyn district has a significant Democratic voter registration advantage and an incumbent Republican, yet no one is challenging Senator Martin Golden. In 2012, a Democratic challenger won 42% of the vote against Golden.

In the overwhelmingly Blue state of New York, and an even Bluer New York City, a Democratic challenge to an incumbent Republican in a presidential election year would seem to be a no-brainer. But in the 22nd State Senate district in Southern Brooklyn, Democrats have failed to put forward a candidate to run against Golden, a long-serving senator, the only Republican senator from the borough, and one of only two in the entire city.

Golden, a former NYPD officer and New York City Council member, has represented the district for nearly 14 years. He has a strong base of support and has defeated recent challengers despite a heavy enrollment advantage for Democrats in the district. As of April, the district has 27,599 active registered Republican voters, 66,990 Democrats, and 31,756 unaffiliated voters across Bay Ridge, Fort Hamilton, Dyker Heights, parts of Bensonhurst, Gravesend, Sheepshead Bay, Manhattan Beach and Marine Park.

Although Golden faced challenges in the last two cycles, 2014 and 2012, he wasn’t too surprised that he has no Democratic opponent this year. “I’m sure they wanted to spend their money wisely,” he said of the Democratic Party, “to try to take over the Senate and look for better opportunities across the state.”

That confidence seems to stem from an ability to work well with all his colleagues, including those across the aisle. “It’s not about Republican or Democrat, it’s about what we can do,” he said. “I work across party lines to deliver resources to our county and our city and that’s one of the reasons I’m running unchallenged.”

A self-proclaimed “economic development nut,” his main focus once he is reelected will be creating jobs for his district while reducing the tax burden on constituents, he said. His other priorities include education, transportation, public safety and seniors.

For the Democrats, the odds of posing a strong challenge to Golden were better this time around than they have been in years. At the state level, the party has seen renewed hope of taking back the Senate from Republicans, who do not have outright numerical dominance of the chamber but retain control by partnering with the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway faction of Democrats. One other Democrat, Simcha Felder from Brooklyn, also caucuses with the Republicans. With the presidential election this year, more Democrats are expected to turn out on Election Day, and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s strong approval ratings in the state have buoyed other New York Democrats, who hope to leverage that enthusiasm into down ballot races.

Golden, an avowed supporter of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, brushed aside any concern that the Democrats could indeed succeed. “The Senate Democrats are definitely not taking over the majority,” he said. “Between the Independent Democratic Conference and elected Republicans, we’ll have a good number and a majority to carry forward our agenda.”

Local Democrats disagree and believe that the party should have offered up a challenge to the incumbent. “I definitely think it’s a missed opportunity,” said Jamie Kemmerer, a member of the Bay Ridge Democrats political club who unsuccessfully ran against Golden in 2014. “You could reasonably expect Republican turnout to go down based on the last couple of weeks of the cycle,” Kemmerer added, in apparent reference to Republican nominee Donald Trump’s fall in the polls.

When Kemmerer initially ran two years ago, he expected he would run again this year, having built some name and face recognition. But, after his wife gave birth to their second son shortly after the 2014 election, he decided it would be “too much to put the family through.” Personal reasons aside, he also admitted that running against Golden is an uphill battle given the way the district lines are drawn. “The reality is it’s a very gerrymandered district,” he said. “It will be very difficult for anyone to win until the lines are redrawn.”

A South Brooklyn political operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, presented the same reasoning. “For the past several election cycles Golden has won re-election thanks to a wretchedly gerrymandered district,” the operative said, insisting that Golden’s numbers have actually been dwindling in southern parts of the district but he has won because of support in Marine Park, Gerritsen Beach and Midwood. “So while his power is becoming more and more of an eroding mirage, the fear of real estate developers coming in and dropping a few million to bury any challenger has made some candidates think twice. But electorally, Marty is definitely vulnerable, no doubt about it. His days are numbered and I think he knows it. South Brooklyn is a markedly different place than it was in 1998 when Marty was first elected to the Council.”

Past election results do, however, indicate that the district will continue to vote Republican. “Regardless of what enrollment numbers show, the vote pattern shows that voters in the area have supported Republicans,” said Steven Romalewski, director of CUNY Graduate Center’s mapping service, which tracks and charts voting patterns (see district map below). “I wouldn’t be surprised that the redistricting effort had something to do with it.”

senate district 22

In the April presidential primary, the district largely favored Trump over other Republican contenders, and mostly voted for Senator Bernie Sanders over Clinton. Both were closed party primaries, though, which excluded the district’s sizable unaffiliated pool of voters.

A key element of Democratic reticence seems to be the lack of support from the Democratic political machinery. There hasn’t been a concerted effort by Kings County Democrats to challenge Golden and even in years past, local contenders have received little in the way of institutional support. This year would likely have been no different, particularly since Mayor Bill de Blasio, who attempted to sway Senate elections for Democrats in 2014, has taken a step back from state legislative races following controversy over his previous involvement. But even in 2014, de Blasio and others gave almost no help to Kemmerer in his bid to unseat Golden.

With a Democratic Governor and a large Democratic majority in the state Assembly, Democrats would have full control of state government if they were to win the Senate. Whichever mainline conference has more seats is still expected to have to make a coalition deal with the Independent Democratic Conference between November's elections and the start of the new legislative session in January.

The last competitive challenge Golden faced was in 2012 when Andrew Gounardes, another member of the Bay Ridge Democrats, did better than Kemmerer would subsequently do. But Gounardes, who now works in the Brooklyn Borough President’s office, was outspent and outmatched. Gounardes received 42.3 percent of votes in 2012 against 57.7 percent for Golden; in 2014, Kemmerer garnered 29.3 percent while Golden won with 64.9 percent.

“For many years, the worst kept secret was the sweetheart deal made to protect Marty Golden from any serious Democratic challengers,” said the political operative from Brooklyn. “This deal was strictly enforced by [former Brooklyn Democratic party chair] Vito Lopez. Andrew Gounardes in 2012 was the first year the Democrats were given the green light to run a real candidate against Marty. The fact that Gounardes defeated Marty in Bay Ridge and gave him the race of his life shows why that sweetheart deal was so important to keeping Marty in power for so long. It is much different now and County is not protecting Marty anymore but they aren't exactly drafting or recruiting challengers either.”

Another political operative who spoke on the condition of anonymity echoed that view. “It’d be great if we had a Democratic Party committed to electing Democrats, if we had local officials who supported those efforts,” the second operative said. “It’s a really winnable seat if you look at the numbers and enrollment, it’s winnable if you have the right support and resources.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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With Chamber Control at Stake, No Democratic Challenger to Republican Senator from Brooklyn Wed, 19 Oct 2016 04:00:00 +0000