Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/2171 Thu, 19 Oct 2017 10:45:21 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Public Advocate Candidate Outlines Election Reform Agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7154:public-advocate-candidate-outlines-election-reform-agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7154:public-advocate-candidate-outlines-election-reform-agenda polanco bronxnet

JC Polanco on BronxNet


With candidates vying for votes ahead of New York City’s September primary and November general elections, many in and around campaigns know that the state’s antiquated election laws will, in part, ensure that a small percentage of potential voters will cast ballots among limited choices.

One candidate, Juan Carlos Polanco, known as J.C., is currently the presumptive Republican nominee for Public Advocate and has released an extensive package of proposed reforms to New York voting laws.

As a former member of the New York City Board of Elections (BOE), Polanco has had personal experience with the system that certifies candidates and runs elections. In a document provided to Gotham Gazette and subsequent phone conversation, Polanco outlined plans he believes will update, improve, and secure elections in New York through a combination of legislative changes, ballot referendums, and even changes to the state constitution.

“We have to really take a look at our election system and we have to modernize it,” said Polanco, who is eyeing a likely general election matchup with incumbent Letitia James, a Democrat.

Polanco is putting forward 10 proposals, some of which – like expanding the BOE’s reporting in the twice-yearly Mayor’s Management Report (MMR), which details performance of city agencies based on delivery of services – would be relatively easy shifts, and others – like instituting nonpartisan elections and starting a statewide voter identification program – would be fundamental reexaminations of voting in New York that would be very difficult to enact.

Among the former group, in addition to the MMR initiative, Polanco calls for forwarding of voter death and new address data to the BOE from city and state agencies, a new procedure for a nationwide search of the board’s executive director, and an increased budget for the agency to help it run the expanded programs.

The latter group are likely to be much more controversial; chief among them a proposal from Polanco for a statewide “free and fair voter identification program,” which the candidate framed as a compromise for including early voting and and no-fault absentee voting.

Polanco explained that free identifications would be arranged by the BOE using its central voter registration database and then be distributed through municipalities for free to voters who did not otherwise have a valid ID. He could not provide a cost estimate, and when asked why such a program was necessary when research has shown that voter fraud is almost nonexistent, he said there were two schools of thought on voter fraud.

“One is the [President Donald Trump] school, that 3 million people voted illegally in the election. Absolutely not. That’s an extreme view. Then we have the other extreme that no voter fraud happens. And that’s ridiculous,” Polanco said. He insisted that voters who turned up without IDs would not be disenfranchised, as they could fill out affidavit ballots – currently used by voters who arrive at polls to find they’re not on the rolls – that would be counted later if valid.

Another proposed change for voters would be the early voting provisions, which would have to be approved in the unsympathetic Republican-controlled state Senate. The plan would allow New York City residents to vote one week before the election, and to vote absentee without having to prove inability to vote in person, which is currently required for absentee ballots.

Polanco wants to change not only how New Yorkers vote but who they can vote for, by providing free legal counsel to candidates participating in the Campaign Finance Board’s public matching funds program who raise less than $10,000, and easing restrictions on ballot access for candidates.

“Candidates are getting kicked off the ballot after spending all summer campaigning and collecting petitions, and they’re getting kicked off for the most ridiculous reasons,” said Polanco, citing issues like having a slightly incorrect petition number listed on a cover sheet. Indeed, various candidates have been kept off or taken off the ballot for multiple city races this cycle, including one of two final candidates for the Republican mayoral nomination.

Unlike other populous cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, New York has a partisan election system where only voters registered to a particular party may vote in that party’s closed primary; that arrangement generally means that viable candidates tend to be selected only by the city’s registered partisans with one of the two major parties. Polanco wants to shift to a nonpartisan system, where rounds of voting, as opposed to primaries, would whittle down the candidate field.

“If you look at our city, it’s become much more of a nonpartisan city,” he said, adding that independent, or party unaffiliated, voters “are not participating.” While unaffiliated voter enrollment has indeed grown in the city over the past five years, nonpartisan voters still represent a minority (17.6%) of all registered voters. As Polanco looks ahead to the general election, he knows that there are many more unaffiliated registered voters in the city than those registered with the Republican Party (about 10.4% of all registered voters). It is those types of “independents” who helped Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg win their mayoral terms.

Finally, Polanco wants to address the undemocratic trend of elected officials stepping down from campaigns after ballot petitions have already been filed, allowing partisan county committees to pick their candidates and denying voters the opportunity to vote in an open primary. “They take it out of the hands of the voters and into the backrooms,” said Polanco of the practice. He said he would like to see, if not his ultimate goal of a nonpartisan election, then at least a mandated primary for special elections.

Polanco suggests that gerrymandering – the practice of drawing districts to maximize or minimize a particular class of voters – is partly responsible for ensuring that Democratic candidates routinely win special elections, though in general city districts are not considered to be gerrymandered.

Polanco acknowledged that in order to enact such an agenda, the Public Advocate – a largely ceremonial citywide elected position with little direct authority – needs to heavily rely on the bully pulpit and organizing, as opposed to hard power. Easier said than done. Polanco would be far from the first person to go to Albany seeking voting reforms. With the Senate controlled by his GOP party-mates through a power-sharing agreement with breakaway Democrats, there has been virtually no appetite for election reform.

He could have some ways around that, he said, such as getting proposals into a referendum to be voted on directly by voters. If the upcoming November vote on whether the state will hold a constitutional convention is approved, Polanco said he would support trying to enshrine some voting reform measures into the updated constitution.

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by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette
     

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Public Advocate Candidate Outlines Election Reform Agenda Thu, 24 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
The Deadline to Register to Vote this Fall is Fast Approaching http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7115:the-deadline-to-register-to-vote-this-fall-is-fast-approaching-and-other-key-dates http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7115:the-deadline-to-register-to-vote-this-fall-is-fast-approaching-and-other-key-dates 32985722296 26b52ab3b7 z

New Yorkers line up to vote (credit: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)


New York City has roughly 6.6 million residents of voting age but only about 4.99 million registered voters, according to rough estimates from the American Community Survey and the state Board of Elections. The city’s municipal primary election is a little over a month away, on September 12, and the deadline to register to vote is approaching fast. New Yorkers have until August 18, next Friday, to register if they wish to vote in the primary. For the November 7 general election, the registration deadline is October 13.

As of April 1, there are 4,996,975 registered voters in the city, according to the state Board of Elections. Of those, 4,496,115 are “active” registered voters, as opposed to “inactive” voters who have failed to confirm their residence with the BOE. If inactive voters fail to vote in two consecutive federal elections, they are purged in the fifth year. About 3.1 million of the city’s registered voters are active registered Democrats and 470,195 are active registered Republicans. More than 780,000 active voters are unaffiliated with any party.

New York holds “closed” primaries, meaning that only voters registered with a party can vote in that party’s primary. Unfortunately for those registered voters who may want to switch their party registration ahead of a primary -- which often matters significantly more in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 6-to-1 -- the deadline for switching party registration passed in October last year. In the April 2016 presidential primary, many New Yorkers who were unaffiliated with any party were shocked to find that they could not vote as the deadline for selecting a party for that election had passed six months before primary day.

These harsh deadlines, and the state’s voting and electoral laws at large, have been the subject of significant criticism from elected officials and government reform advocates who argue that the state needs to rapidly modernize its laws. New York is one of only 12 states in the country that does not allow no-excuse early voting; the state also does not provide for automatic or same-day voting registration or electronic poll books.

“In our antiquated voting system, New Yorkers need to register 25 days before they actually vote, which is another deadline that they need to keep in mind when participating in our democracy,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a good government advocacy group. “Having such a 25-day waiting period between registering and voting is a throwback to a time when there were no computers and that’s why we need to update our voting laws to allow for registration and voting to actually occur on the same day.”

New York’s laws have also contributed in part to the state’s abysmal voter turnout rates. Only 8 percent of registered voters in New York City turned out to vote in the June 2016 congressional primary election, while 10 percent turned out for the September state and local primary. In the 2013 Democratic mayoral primary won by Mayor Bill de Blasio, only 24 percent of registered New York City Democrats turned out to vote.

[Read: 8%! New Report Shows Shockingly Low Voter Turnout in NYC]

While elected officials have generally acknowledged the flawed election process in the state, there has been little concerted action. In January, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a legislative package known as the “Democracy Project” intended to modernize elections. The package included such reforms as early voting, automatic voter registration, and same-day voter registration. However, Cuomo was largely silent on the issue and voting and electoral reform were ultimately left out of the state budget passed in April.

Mayor Bill de Blasio also promised an aggressive push for electoral reform before the end of the legislative session in Albany this year, but only followed through with two telephone town halls. The mayor has supported a slate of voting reforms including same-day registration, early voting, keeping electronic poll books, consolidating federal, state, and local primaries into a single-day primary, reformatting ballots, and pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds. De Blasio does not, however, support a system of open primaries, contending that “parties mean something” and non-members shouldn’t vote in a primary.

The governor did implement a few incremental improvements last month, issuing a number of executive orders to make access to voter registration easier. The orders directed all state agencies to make voter registration forms available to the public, instructed CUNY and SUNY to take steps to increase student registration and required the Department of Motor Vehicles to promote online voter registration.

Dadey believes that the governor’s actions, while laudable, were not sufficient reforms. “It’s trying to make lemonade out of lemons that have gone bad,” he said, “but what we really need to do is get a voting system that makes voting as easy as possible in New York state because right now, New York State makes it so difficult...to register and to vote, that New York is really a passive voter suppression state.”

New Yorkers can check their voter registration status via the Board of Elections here, and check all registration and voting deadlines here.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

 

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The Deadline to Register to Vote this Fall is Fast Approaching Wed, 09 Aug 2017 00:27:36 +0000
Voting Reform Advocates Say Cuomo Can Do More Through Executive Order http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7089:voting-reform-advocates-say-cuomo-can-do-more-through-executive-order http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7089: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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Voting Reform Advocates Say Cuomo Can Do More Through Executive Order Wed, 26 Jul 2017 04:00:00 +0000
After Promising More, De Blasio Explains Limited Voting Reform Push http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7045:after-promising-more-de-blasio-explains-limited-voting-reform-push http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7045:after-promising-more-de-blasio-explains-limited-voting-reform-push de Blasio voting distance

De Blasio voting (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


On May 31 Mayor Bill de Blasio said that he and partners were “about to launch a major effort” to change state laws governing elections and voting in New York. ”I think people really want electoral reform in this state,” de Blasio told Gotham Gazette at an unrelated press conference. “And there’s a chance to do it, and it’s about creating the pressure needed to achieve it. So, we’re going to be doing a lot in the next few weeks on it.”

In the subsequent days, de Blasio led two telephone town halls on voting reform, but did nothing else publicly. The regularly scheduled legislative session ended in Albany on June 21 with none of the mayor’s desired reforms -- like early voting and same-day voter registration -- passed through both houses of the state Legislature.

A special session called the following week by Governor Andrew Cuomo yielded deals on several issues, including an extension of the expiring mayoral control of New York City schools, but nothing related to electoral reform was on the table, much less in the final package that was passed on June 29.

On May 31, Gotham Gazette asked de Blasio what had happened to his previously promised efforts on voting reform. The mayor responded, “Well, you know plenty about Albany, and this is when things start to happen.” He then promised a campaign.

On June 30, Gotham Gazette asked de Blasio what had happened to the “major effort” he had pledged given only the two tele-town halls.

“Well, I thought it was the beginning of a major effort, and we found quickly, you saw the session was pretty unusual,” de Blasio said during an open question-and-answer session after discussing July 4th-related public safety matters at One Police Plaza. “It was not like any session I can remember. The leaders -- you remember the day the leaders met for the first time, it was astoundingly late in the session. And for a long time, including as recently as Wednesday morning, we thought that very skinny bill that the governor put forward was all that was gonna get through,” de Blasio said, referring to the initial special session proposal Cuomo had made to reach a deal on mayoral control. The package passed wound up being more expansive, including a variety of legislation and funding priorities, but no voting reforms.

The mayor continued: “So, we started an effort that I thought had a real chance to make an impact. We found a situation where the Legislature and the governor were expecting a very limited session. I’m still glad we pushed for it, and we’re gonna be pushing a lot more because it has to happen. To me, it’s an inevitability. Everything in that Assembly package will become the law in New York State, it’s just a matter when. But this was -- I was surprised at how this whole session evolved. I don’t think I can think of anything exactly like it.”

The Assembly package the mayor referred to includes a slate of efforts to make voting easier in New York, which consistently ranks toward the bottom in voter participation among states. The electoral agenda that has passed in the Democratically-controlled Assembly but stalled in the Republican-controlled state Senate includes early voting, same-day registration, an expansion of “automatic” voter registration, combining primary days, electronic poll books, and more.

The agenda is one supported at least nominally by Cuomo, who included a similar electoral reform package in his 2017 State of the State policy book. The governor did nothing publicly, however, to push electoral reform. In April, he acknowledged nothing on the subject had made it into the new state budget, which included a good deal of new policy that the governor had made priority. In June, after the regularly scheduled session, Cuomo was asked about voting reform at a press conference and said to put it in “the loss column,” a reference to a prior comment he made about his wins and losses for the year. (The governor explained he had far more wins than losses this year.)

“[T]here wasn't extensive discussion on it” among himself and legislative leaders, Cuomo admitted June 22, “but it has been opposed for many, many years vociferously, so I wasn't surprised either.” The governor was not explicit about where the opposition has come from, though movement on the bills, or lack thereof, and comments from Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan have made clear the Senate has bottled up the legislation. Heastie and his Democratic majority have not necessarily made electoral reform a high priority, however.

While de Blasio has also put limited public weight behind electoral reform, he did hold the two tele-town halls, on June 7 and 14, encouraging New Yorkers to call their state representatives to lobby for reform. On the second call, for which he was joined by former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner and Jason Kander, former Missouri secretary of state and current president of Let America Vote, the mayor said there were 15,000 people participating.

Back in January, de Blasio testified before a state legislative hearing on Cuomo’s executive budget proposal. “I am obviously pleased to see election reform in the executive budget.,” de Blasio said in his opening testimony. “I want to thank the Assembly for passing an election reform package last year, including early voting, which is absolutely necessary given the realities of modern lives and people's’ schedule. Early voting and same-day registration are fundamental reforms we need to improve the democratic process.”

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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After Promising More, De Blasio Explains Limited Voting Reform Push Tue, 04 Jul 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Focused on Fighting Trump, is Schneiderman Looking Away from Albany Reform? http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7035:focused-on-fighting-trump-schneiderman-looks-away-from-albany-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7035:focused-on-fighting-trump-schneiderman-looks-away-from-albany-reform ag schneiderman via schneiderman

AG Eric Schneiderman (photo: @Schneiderman)


New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has quickly become one of President Donald Trump’s leading opponents, using the levers of his office to litigate against Trump’s policies, and has put New York at the forefront of efforts to resist the new Republican administration’s agenda.

Speaking at a Tuesday breakfast event hosted by the Association For A Better New York (ABNY), Schneiderman, a second-term Democrat, discussed his role in the Trump era, which has made his focus much more on Washington, D.C. than Albany, New York, the state capital where Schneiderman has worked as a state senator and sought reforms to the state’s election and government ethics laws.

The focus of the ABNY event Tuesday morning was Schneiderman’s approach to Trump. The attorney general emphasized New York’s fundamental principle of openness and reiterated his pledge to fight President Trump’s travel ban on people from six Muslim-majority countries. “New York values of mutual respect, pluralism, and common sense are more important than ever,” he said to a room of around 250 people at the Sheraton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. “As long as I am your Attorney General, I promise to do everything I can to stand up for those values and defend all the people I represent  in the challenges we face together.”

He also described his approach toward the legislation that seeks to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which may soon receive a vote in the U.S. Senate. “If the version of the health care bill proposed last week ever becomes law, I’ve promised to go to court to challenge it – and protect New Yorkers from these wrongheaded and unconstitutional provisions,” he said.

In a lighthearted moment, Schneiderman described the experience of quarreling with Trump over the years, even before Trump ran for President. In 2013, Schneiderman filed suit against the real estate mogul for his fraudulent for-profit college Trump University. The president settled in 2016 for $25 million.

Schneiderman noted he has learned to ignore Twitter, a favored Trump medium that the president has long-used to attack Schneiderman and others, and how Trump consistently pulls out all the stops against people when he feels threatened by them. Schneiderman read aloud a few insulting tweets that Trump has sent about him over the years. The attorney general also recalled when the New York Observer, owned by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, published a cover depicting Schneiderman as “Clockwork Eric,” likening him to the 1971 movie “A Clockwork Orange” character Alex DeLarge, who is a violent rapist. The paper published an accompanying feature on Schneiderman that accused him of “political opportunism,” “vindictiveness,” and cast doubt on his investigation into Trump.

When he did mention more local state affairs, Schneiderman cited passage of legislation to end the so-called gun show loophole and development of a drug tracking system, along with changing his office’s mentality. “Consistent with my goal of keeping New York competitive, we have shifted the culture of our office by making it clear that lawyers on my team don’t just get credit for catching bad guys; they also get credit for helping good guys,” said Schneiderman, who succeeded Governor Andrew Cuomo as attorney general.

State government was a distant second to national matters as they relate to New York, in keeping with the event’s intended purpose. The media advisory announcing the event stated Schneiderman was expected to “discuss his work fighting Trump Administration policies that he believes threaten New Yorkers and the rule of law. Attorney General Schneiderman will detail his office’s efforts on both fronts and articulate his priorities for the future in the fight to defend New York.”

While it made sense for Schneiderman to omit state government ethics and voting reform from his remarks, the attorney general was holding his first public speaking event since the end of the scheduled legislative session in Albany, which included none of the reforms Schneiderman has proposed. Tuesday’s event was representative of a shift in focus by Schneiderman away from state reforms and toward taking on federal government policies with the aim of fighting for New Yorkers against a new presidential administration and Republican-controlled Congress. 

A spokesperson for Attorney General Schneiderman disputed this observation. “He can walk and chew gum at the same time, and that’s exactly what he’s been doing,” wrote Amy Spitalnick, the Schneiderman spokesperson, in an email to Gotham Gazette. But, while Schneiderman does oversee a large and busy office, the attorney general has been quiet regarding state reforms in recent months as major decisions are made in the state capital. Schneiderman's office explained that representatives from the AG's office have met with legislative leaders, relevant committee chairs, and advocates about Schneiderman's proposals.

A review of Schneiderman’s May and June press releases show that as the legislative year in Albany headed toward underwhelmingly conclusion, the attorney general spoke out against President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accords; filed suit against Trump regarding energy efficiency standards; challenged the EPA on toxic pesticides; criticized Secretary of Education Betsy Devos over discontinuing student loan forgiveness policies; announced opposition to potential regulatory rollback in Senate legislation; voiced concern over infringement upon New Yorker’s contraceptive rights by Trump administration policies; and reaffirmed New York’s commitment to protecting so-called sanctuary city statuses; along with other pushbacks against policies originating in Washington.

Schneiderman’s main public efforts have been to, as he sees it, protect New Yorkers from the new president’s policies, many of which he believes threaten New Yorkers rights and needed services. Schneiderman was the subject of profiles in major outlets such as Politico and New York Magazine, both focused on his efforts against Trump. Meanwhile, Schneiderman hired Revolution Messaging, Senator Bernie Sanders’ digital consulting group in April , to work on his political team -- the AG is expected to seek a third term in 2018, but is also regarded as a certain gubernatorial candidate when Cuomo is no longer in the picture.

But the attorney general’s office insists that Schneiderman has been attentive to Albany-related efforts. “Anyone who follows the AG’s work knows he’s been very engaged in the fight for voting and ethics reform, including proposing his own legislative packages on both issues,” the Spitalnick wrote. “That’s in addition to his push to strengthen tenant protections, protect cost-free access to birth control, and more.”

While he has been quiet on both recently, Schneiderman has pushed election and government ethics reforms. In February, he introduced the New York Votes Act, a bill that would institute automatic and same-day voting registration along with early voting. On ethics reform for the scandal-plagued state government, in May 2015 Schneiderman introduced legislation that would give investigatory powers to the attorney general to prosecute corruption by officeholders, ban lawmakers from receiving outside income, and make campaign donation laws more restrictive. None of Schneiderman’s proposals on these two fronts have made it into law, opposed at various turns by the powers that be in Albany, including Governor Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic majority in the Assembly, and the Republican-led majority in the Senate.

Asked for recent examples of how Schneiderman has pushed his electoral and ethics proposals, or for any plans to get them moving, the AG’s office pointed to examples in the more distant past. Schneiderman does not appear to have held a public event, issued a press release, or written an op-ed on either voting or ethics reform since February, when he released his electoral reform package. The state budget was passed in early April and the scheduled legislative session ended last week, both without any of these reforms.

Speaking with reporters following his Tuesday ABNY speech, the attorney general said the legislative session ending without ethics reform was a missed opportunity. “I think that it is essential that the state government show an ability to, and a willingness to, reform,” he said in response to a question from Gotham Gazette. “Otherwise, we're just going to have more scandals and a further erosion of public confidence.”

“The willingness to get it done is there and I think there is an unfortunate tendency to cling to the status quo,” he added, though he did not cite evidence of the existence of any “willingness” and his spokesperson did not explain what he meant when asked in a follow-up email.

Corruption has plagued New York’s capital for years, with legislator after legislator removed from office because of ethical scandal. Recently, former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos were convicted separately on public corruption charges. Not long after that, charges were announced against nine associates of and donors to Gov. Cuomo in a massive alleged bid-rigging scandal. In September 2016, Schneiderman’s office brought charges against two former Cuomo aides along with state official Alain Kaloyeros as part of that scandal. In March, Schneiderman’s office also charged state Senator Robert Ortt and former state Senator George Maziarz for embezzling funds, though the charges against Ortt were dismissed by a judge on Tuesday.

Despite months of inaction on election and ethics reforms in Albany, Schneiderman said Tuesday he is hopeful. “I do really believe that we are at a point where the public is demanding reform and there are enough legislators who get the need and are willing to get a step towards it,” he said in the gaggle. “So I think that's something which should be coming.”

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Focused on Fighting Trump, is Schneiderman Looking Away from Albany Reform? Tue, 27 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Launches Voting Reform Push with Tele Town Hall http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6980:de-blasio-launches-voting-reform-push-with-tele-town-hall http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6980:de-blasio-launches-voting-reform-push-with-tele-town-hall de Blasio voting

Mayor de Blasio votes (photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)


Mayor Bill de Blasio held a telephone town hall with constituents on Wednesday night focused on voting reform. It was the first step in what the mayor recently promised would be “a major effort” to see electoral reforms like early voting passed through the state Legislature before the end of session in Albany, which is June 21.

Joining de Blasio as hosts of the call were Assemblymembers Brian Kavanagh and Latrice Walker, Susan Lerner of Common Cause NY, and his counsel Henry Berger.

Last week, de Blasio said he and partners were on the verge of launching an effort to persuade the State Senate to pass a package of voting reforms that have already passed the Democratically-controlled Assembly numerous times, but have stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. New York’s voting laws are some of the most highly restrictive in the nation, contributing to lowly and declining voter turnout.

New York is one of just 12 states to not have early voting; the state also doesn’t allow no-excuse absentee voting, and has the most restrictive party registration deadline to vote in a primary, at six months beforehand.

“The current requirements are ridiculous, and they’re exclusionary and they don’t reflect human reality,” the mayor told “Eric,” a caller from Manhattan who inquired about the six-month party registration deadline, which was roundly castigated during and after the presidential primaries last April. Many people were motivated to register with a party -- changing from unaffiliated, or “independent” -- in order to vote for Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. But, many found that they couldn’t do it just before the April primary elections.

The mayor also voiced support for keeping primaries restricted to party members, which some say disenfranchises independents in a two-party system. The mayor has said repeatedly in the past that “parties mean something.”

Other factors that have led to criticism of New York’s voting system include the lack of same-day registration, automatic registration, and keeping electronic poll books, all of which the mayor has expressed support of.

A caller named “Jeff” asked about online registration, which New York State also does not have. The mayor referred to it as a “purposeful effort to keep a lot of people from voting,” but mostly deferred the question to Assemblymember Kavanagh, who discussed a bill creating online voter registration that recently passed the Assembly but has stalled in the Senate. Current law requires a physical signature for registration, and electronic signatures are only applicable in limited circumstances.

When another participant, “Mike,” brought up election integrity, arguing for safeguards against making it “too easy” to vote, and each official on the call other than Berger chimed in to refute the caller. The mayor refuted the caller’s implication of a voter fraud crisis, pointing out that in-person voter fraud is largely non-existent and that a larger issue is voter suppression and non-participation. Lerner stated that modernizing elections would ensure election integrity.

Mike also asked why city landmarks, such as City Hall, weren’t lit up in red, white, and blue on the Fourth of July, to “commemorate our great nation,” but de Blasio only briefly touched upon that question, saying he’ll “look into it.”

The mayor had broached the subject of electoral reform in October but largely fell silent on the matter afterward. When Gotham Gazette recently asked him at a press conference about this, he stated that the end of the legislative session, which is nearing, is “when things start to happen” in Albany.

Wednesday’s call appears to be the start of de Blasio’s push. The mayor took about a dozen calls over about 45 minutes.

On the call, de Blasio promoted a rally that will take place on Tuesday in Albany to urge state Senators to pass the voting reform package, and urged listeners to further promote the rally, which is being organized by the “Easy Elections NY” coalition of government reform groups and others. The mayor did not indicate if he will attend the rally in the capital.

“We need the members of the Senate to feel this gathering momentum for making our elections truly open and inclusive,” he said. “And if we do that, we literally have the potential of getting millions of more people to participate, and that will change the trajectory of our city and state for the long term.”

A caller named “Alex” asked the mayor why he believes voting reforms garner little traction in Albany. De Blasio immediately said that he would “struggle here to be non-partisan in my answer.” He noted that early voting, as an example, is a fixture in the voting systems of 38 states, red and blue, large and small.

“Something’s wrong in our state. And, it is about our political history, and we have to address it, we have to break through. Neither party is entirely innocent here, to say the least,” de Blasio said. “So, I think it is a little bit because we have been presumed to be a progressive state that the pressure did not build internally or externally for us to address this issue the way it did in some other places.”

De Blasio did not mention Governor Andrew Cuomo, his rival, who has expressed support for a slate of electoral reforms, but has done nothing since January to publicly push for them. Cuomo, who is known for getting what he wants through the Legislature, has not appeared to make electoral reform a priority.

In terms of persuading Albany lawmakers to adopt the reforms, de Blasio referred to the Legislature’s inaction on the package as a “stain on New York State,” in response to a caller named “Amanda,” from Brooklyn. He stated that this should be a priority for activists and voters, adding that “if you get election reform right, a whole lot of other change is possible,” implying that the changes could help Democrats win more elections and enact policy priorities. It is widely believe that state Senate Republicans are blocking voting reforms because they believe making it easier to vote will hurt their chances of holding on to a razor thin majority in the chamber.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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De Blasio Launches Voting Reform Push with Tele Town Hall Wed, 07 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Petition Asks Cuomo to Prioritize Voting Reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6976:petition-asks-cuomo-to-prioritize-voting-reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6976:petition-asks-cuomo-to-prioritize-voting-reforms bk voters

Brooklyn Voters Allliance Action (photo: Sam Raskin)


Members of a new advocacy group, Brooklyn Voters Alliance Action, gathered outside Governor Andrew Cuomo’s New York City office Tuesday afternoon to deliver a petition urging the governor to take action on voting reforms.

The 30 or so demonstrators highlighted five key points they would like the governor to address in the petition they presented, which they said had 1,500 signatures on it. The state has about two weeks to pass any new laws before the end of the legislative session in Albany and Brooklyn Voters, along with a variety of others, is looking to the governor to take the lead on electoral reform.

The petition demands include early voting, automatic voter registration, providing electronic poll books, allowing for changes to one’s party registration closer to elections, and restoring parolee voting rights. Activists hope to increase access to the ballot and voter participation, which is notoriously low in New York, at least in part due to the state’s roundly-acknowledged antiquated voting laws.

“We have 1,500 signatures on this petition saying that this is something New Yorkers want,” said Nicole Hunt, a Brooklyn Voters Alliance organizer. The group delivered the petition to a staffer from the governor’s office in the lobby of 633 3rd Avenue at approximately 1:15 p.m.

The effort came the same day that Cuomo was participating in a political rally at the Javits Center, launching a push to flip the U.S. House of Representatives to Democrats through the 2018 elections. Meanwhile, the Legislature was also in session in Albany, where there are just nine more days of session after Tuesday.

“While Gov. Cuomo attends a rally on this same day to support electing more Democrats to Congress, he neglects voting reforms that would protect and benefit voters in his own state,” a Brooklyn Voters Alliance Action press release promoting the event read. “New Yorkers demand that Gov Cuomo provides more than excuses and empty rhetoric on voting reform.”

“We have been trying to get voting reform passed this legislative session,” Hunt said. “Cuomo talked about getting it into the budget and then kicked the can down the road. We think that the governor has more power to change this than he is letting on.”

Hunt also added that the group tried to meet with a Cuomo representative, but have “gotten nowhere,” and believes the governor is insufficiently attentive to his constituents.

In January, Cuomo outlined an extensive voting and election reform agenda as part of his 2017 State of the State policy platform. None of the reforms made it into the budget that was passed in April, and there has been almost no indication that electoral reform will move in the legislative session since. The Democratically-controlled Assembly has passed a slew of electoral reforms, but the Republican-controlled Senate has not. Cuomo has been virtually silent publicly on electoral reform since January, only addressing it when asked by reporters.

The Brooklyn Voters Alliance Action leadership also voiced skepticism of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a faction of elected Democrats in the state Senate that allies with Republicans in a ruling coalition. BVAA blames the IDC, along Cuomo’s lack of leadership, for stifling efforts to amend voting laws.

“He’s [Governor Cuomo] at a rally today with Nancy Pelosi to push turning Congress blue, but he can’t even keep his own state Senate blue!” Hunt said. Even without the IDC, Republicans hold a one-seat majority in the 63-seat Senate with 31 elected Republicans and Senator Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who caucuses with the GOP.

As Gotham Gazette reported Monday, there are currently two bills stuck in Senate committee that would address the implementation of electronic poll books and allow voters an additional seven days to cast their ballots through early voting. Some advocates believe e-poll books will be passed through both chambers, but that little else will get through the Senate.

Cuomo has taken the position recently that there is not enough political will in Albany to tackle voting reform (or government ethics reforms). Especially without aggressive advocacy from Cuomo, it appears that there is little hope for major electoral reforms, like early voting or same-day registration, this year.

In response to an inquiry from Gotham Gazette about the petition presented Monday by the Brooklyn Voters Alliance and whether the governor plans to take any public action on electoral reform before the end of the session, a spokesperson sent the same statement provided to Gotham Gazette previously:

“Since taking office, the Governor has repeatedly proposed voting reforms that have been opposed by the legislature and stalled during the budget process. We will continue to push to modernize our election system and we will work with all parties who join in those efforts.”

But those seeking the changes are not satisfied with how Cuomo has handled the issue, feeling as though he has put voting laws on the backburner. As a result, there are rallies planned to pressure Albany in the coming weeks, including by a large coalition known as Easy Elections NY, which includes a variety of government reform groups. “I would say if people are concerned about the state of our democracy, removing the barriers to participating in our democracy should be our number one priority,” said Amanda Ritchie, an activist with the Brooklyn Voters campaign. “Voter suppression is real and we need reform this year. We are not waiting any longer.”

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by Sam Raskin & Amanda Tukaj
@GothamGazette

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Petition Asks Cuomo to Prioritize Voting Reforms Tue, 06 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
As Session Nears End, Electoral Reforms Mostly Stalled & Cuomo Quiet http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6972:as-session-nears-end-electoral-reforms-mostly-stalled-cuomo-quiet http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6972:as-session-nears-end-electoral-reforms-mostly-stalled-cuomo-quiet Cuomo voting 2015

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


Governor Andrew Cuomo’s prediction that there is insufficient political will at the New York State Legislature to pass any significant voting reform measures this year may be coming to fruition.

During the final weeks before the end of the legislative session, this year June 21 -- when lawmakers leave the Capitol and return to their districts for the remainder of the year -- there is typically a final thrust for policy measures that did not make it into the budget, which this year was passed in early April.

On the electoral front, there has been a growing push from voting reform activists, civil rights organizations, and some Democratic elected officials to modernize New York’s arcane system, but, given the reluctance of Senate Republicans and, at least in part, Cuomo’s lack of prioritization of electoral reform despite saying in January he backs an ambitious agenda, major reforms appear to be elusive.

Citing numerous barriers faced by voters during the 2016 elections, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and New York City Bill de Blasio have joined the call for Albany to pass meaningful electoral reform, a cause that has been championed by other Democrats in the state Assembly majority and Senate minority.

Democrats in both legislative houses have introduced a slew of voting reform bills -- including legislation on early voting, automatic voter registration, electronic poll books, and “no excuse” absentee ballots, among other measures -- as they do each year. While most passed the Democrat-controlled Assembly, as usual, the efforts are stalled in the Senate, where Republicans control the chamber by a slim majority given the help of Senator Simcha Felder, a nominal Democrat who conferences with Republicans, and bolstered by the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) in a coalition agreement.

The Senate has passed a significantly slimmer electoral package, most of which would do little to increase voter access or enhance voter registration.

So far, the only electoral legislation passed in both houses would allow polling place inspectors to work eight-hour half-shifts, when previously they were made to work 16-hour days. It is a move intended to help Boards of Elections recruit staff and improve efficiency on election days.

Another piece of legislation, sponsored by IDC Senator Diane Savino and Assemblymember Amy Paulin in their respective chambers, would require special ballots to be mailed to domestic violence victims and has passed each house’s election committee and is calendared for floor votes.

The Assembly election committee is meeting on Tuesday, June 6, to consider a dozen more electoral law changes.

Other relatively minor pieces of electoral legislation close to being passed in both houses relate to the way candidates are listed on the ballot, the creation of an inventory of official campaign websites, and protecting the ballot information of domestic violence victims.

One sign of the lack of agreement on major electoral reforms, though, relates to consolidating New York’s repetitive primary election days, a cause that has bipartisan support -- in theory. Both the Senate and Assembly have passed bills to consolidate federal and state primary elections -- a move projected to save the state $25 million and help increase voter turnout -- however the houses cannot disagree on which month to hold the joint election.

The congressional primaries were split from state level primaries in 2012, when the federal MOVE Act mandated that federal elections allow sufficient time for absentee ballots from those in the army and overseas to be collected. The Assembly bill requires the joint primary to happen in June, in order to allow more absentee ballots to trickle in, while the Senate suggests an August date, which would still meet federal regulations. Democrats argue that the August date would suppress voter turnout given peoples’ summer vacations.

The only bill designed to expand voter access that has advanced in the Senate is an early voting bill, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, which would allow eligible New Yorkers an additional seven-day window prior to election day to cast their ballots, but it too appears unlikely to reach the Senate floor.

Stewart-Cousins’ bill, which mirrors legislation by Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh that has passed the Assembly, would open poll sites for seven days ahead of election day, allowing one day in between the early voting period and elections. Each county, depending on its size, would be required to make at least one and up to seven polling sites available during that period.

In March, when Stewart-Cousins forced the Senate election committee to vote on the measure, Democratic members of the committee voted to advance the bill to the Senate floor, only to have it diverted to the local government committee by GOP members. As Politico wrote, the majority conference is able to kill legislation without explicitly voting against it by pawning it off to another committee, which is unlikely to meet more than once or twice before the end of session and does not have to calendar a vote.

A bill for automatic voter registration, sponsored by Senator Michael Gianaris, a Democrat from Queens, was defeated after a vote was compelled in the same manner.

While Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, unveiled a sweeping electoral reform agenda during his 2017 State of the State, by April, following the passage of the budget, he appeared to have lost any can-do, telling reporters, “There is more to do; there is no political will to do it. Otherwise we would have done it in the budget."

This lack of enthusiasm on voting reform is echoed by Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, Republican of Long Island, who, when asked recently by a reporter, noted the fiscal component of early voting. “Early voting is defined so many ways, is it just one day?” he asked rhetorically. “I was just joking around that I’m supportive of early voting, just start 5 o’clock instead of 6. It is a serious subject and something we should be talking about, but how do you do that without costing astronomical amounts of money? Our county boards of election are strapped right now.”

While there is still time left in the legislative session, without Cuomo using his influence, movement on the issue in unlikely, according the Blair Horner, executive director of New York Public Interest Group, one of the advocacy organizations lobbying for electoral reform.

“Lawmakers don't have to face voters until next year so they are more likely to do popular things on even number years than odd number years. The governor has not shown a lot of leadership on this, so they haven't felt a lot of pressure,” Horner said.

De Blasio, no ally of Cuomo, told Gotham Gazette last week that he and unnamed partners intend “to launch a major effort” to see voting and election reforms passed in Albany by the end of the session.

Cuomo’s office told Gotham Gazette that the governor continues to support modernizing the state’s electoral laws and will keep pushing for measures to do so despite their lack of movement through the Legislature. A spokesperson did not answer whether the governor would make any public push to see his desired electoral reforms passed.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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As Session Nears End, Electoral Reforms Mostly Stalled & Cuomo Quiet Sun, 04 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Announces Plan to Push Electoral Reform in Albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6964:de-blasio-announces-plan-to-push-electoral-reform-in-albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6964:de-blasio-announces-plan-to-push-electoral-reform-in-albany de blasio voter registration

Mayor de Blasio registers voters (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Wednesday that he is about to “launch a major effort” to see voting and election reforms passed in Albany by the end of the legislative session, which runs until the middle of June.

De Blasio, a Democrat running for reelection this year, has called for reforms like early voting and same-day voter registration that have stalled in the state capital. While the mayor has expressed his support for those and other changes to the state’s antiquated electoral laws, he has done little publicly to push such reforms.

Last year, with a great deal of attention on New York’s electoral laws due to frustrations around voting in the presidential primary, de Blasio held an October press conference to make clear that he favors a slate of electoral reforms and to say he would be part of a strong push to see them passed in Albany. (The event also coincided with the deadline for first-time voters to register to vote on Election Day in November.)

When Gotham Gazette asked on Wednesday about his near-silence on the issue since that October event and the dwindling window in Albany for this year, de Blasio said during a question-and-answer session with reporters that it’s exactly the right time to make an aggressive move to see reforms pass.

"You know plenty about Albany and this is when things start to happen,” the mayor said, referencing the fact that there is usually a grand bargain package of legislation that moves at the very end of the session each year in the capital. “So we're about to launch a major effort on that front, because I think people really want electoral reform in this state. And there's a chance to do it and it's about creating the pressure needed to achieve it. So, we're going to be doing a lot in the next few weeks."

Asked for more detail, a de Blasio spokesperson said there would be more unveiled next week. Sources in the state Legislature indicated to Gotham Gazette that de Blasio’s team has engaged in conversation about pushing electoral reform before the end of session.

De Blasio has expressed support for no-excuse absentee voting; early voting; same-day voter registration; movement of the deadline to change party enrollment closer to primary day (he opposes open primaries); electronic poll books; pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds; and consolidated federal and state primaries.

Most of these electoral reforms have repeatedly passed the Democratically-controlled state Assembly, including this year, but they have stalled in the Republican-controlled state Senate. Good government groups and many reform-minded Democratic elected officials have rallied for change, but several of the state’s most powerful figures with the strongest bully pulpits -- de Blasio, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, among them -- have mostly been quiet this year, both before and since a state budget was passed in early April that included a good deal of new policy, but no voting or election reforms. (Attorney General Eric Schneiderman held a press conference on electoral reform in February.)

As state budget negotiations reached their finale, Cuomo -- who had included an electoral reform agenda in his State of the State policy book unveiled in January -- said that voting reform was all but certainly not going to be included in the budget deal. It would most likely have to be part of the legislative session to follow, the governor said, indicating that the reforms were not a high priority for him. Known for aggressively seeking the policy changes that he wants, and mostly winning them, Cuomo has not held or attended a single public event on electoral reform. For 2017, he is not alone.

On Wednesday, Gotham Gazette asked de Blasio if he would be working with Cuomo, a second term Democrat seeking re-election in 2018 and whom de Blasio is engaged in a long-running feud with. "If the governor wants to work on that, I would certainly -- I'll work with anyone who wants to achieve electoral reform," de Blasio said.

A spokesperson for Cuomo, Dani Lever, issued a statement in response to a Gotham Gazette inquiry. “Since taking office, the Governor has repeatedly proposed voting reforms that have been opposed by the legislature and stalled during the budget process. We will continue to push to modernize our election system and we will work with all parties who join in those efforts,” Lever said.

The statement from the governor’s office did not specifically address Gotham Gazette questions about whether the governor will be holding any public events to promote electoral reforms or what he is doing behind the scenes to see them passed.

The comments from de Blasio and from Cuomo’s office are similar to those made last year, when de Blasio pledged to advocate for electoral reform. At his October news conference, de Blasio said “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.” While the mayor mentioned electoral reform during his state budget testimony in Albany at the end of January, he has done little else publicly to see reforms passed.

In November, de Blasio told Gotham Gazette that Governor Cuomo “needs to prioritize these reforms or the people will do it for him,” when asked about the governor’s role in seeking electoral reform. Cuomo has been able to see his top priorities passed virtually every year in the budget, including minimum wage and paid family leave programs in 2016 and college affordability and criminal justice reforms this year.

The main obstacle to seeing sweeping electoral reform in Albany is a Republican-led state Senate that is wary of opening up the voting process. The GOP controls a one-seat majority in the Senate and only because Brooklyn Senator Simcha Felder, nominally a Democrat, caucuses with Republicans. The eight-member Independent Democratic Conference forms a coalition with the Senate GOP.

As de Blasio indicated, the end of session in Albany annually yields new policy deals. One question is how much public advocacy from the mayor, the governor, and anyone else can sway the Senate majority. Another is what Democrats would have to be willing to give Republicans in the usual type of deal-making that characterizes Albany bargains. A third question for the prospects of state electoral reform is what Democrats may be willing to settle for when it comes to specific pieces of their reform agenda.

The “Easy Elections NY” coalition is planning a lobby day in Albany on June 13, hoping to influence the nature of whatever package of legislation is passed at the end of the session. After that day, there will be just five session days left.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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De Blasio Announces Plan to Push Electoral Reform in Albany Wed, 31 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
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