Council Member Kallos at Thursday's hearing (photo: William Alatriste)
NEW YORK—In 2000 the City Council passed Local Law 29 which aimed to increase voter registration by requiring 19 city agencies to offer voter registration forms to its customers. It's fourteen years after the law's passage and compliance has been abysmal.
A report compiled by Center for Popular Democracy released this week shows during their walk-ins to 14 of those city agencies, 95 percent of people were never asked if they wanted to register to vote. Of those who self-identified as citizens, the report indicated 84 percent were not given a voter registration form.
On Thursday the City Council held an oversight hearing to discuss the poor compliance and introduce two bills aimed to increase voter registration at the city agency level. Intro 493, sponsored by Committee on Government Operations chair Ben Kallos, would require 15 additional agencies to be covered under the agency-based voter registration law. Intro 356, sponsored by Council Member Jumaane Williams, would assign a code to each agency that would be printed on the voter registration forms and allow the City to track how many forms are being utilized from each agency.
Both bills are being rejected by the de Blasio administration.
"We are committed to getting agency-based voter registration right," Mindy Tarlow, director of the Mayor's Office of Operations, said during her testimony. "But to get it done, we are going to need time and space to manage the agencies and correct long-standing behavior."
Tarlow pointed to Directive 1, issued by Mayor Bill de Blasio on July 11, 2014. In the directive—his first as mayor—he ordered each agency covered under Local Law 29 to prepare a plan showing how they would implement the requirements of the Charter and submit it within 60 days.
The directive also requires each agency submit a semi-annual report on how the plan is being implemented which will include the number of voter registration forms distributed, the number of registration forms completed, and the number of forms transmitted to the Board of Elections.
Tarlow said she agrees with the assessment that there is a problem, but she argued that with the administration already addressing the problem, it was too early for further legislation.
"It is hard. We are trying to bring a number of agencies along," Tarlow said, adding that before moving on new legislation, "we want a chance to feel like we have made some inroads."
Tarlow did not provide an exact timeline as to when the Council would see the results from Directive 1, but did promise to share preliminary reports with the Council some time at the end of November. Kallos jokingly said he looked forward to to reading it in between bites of his Thanksgiving dinner.
"We need the flexibility to watch this over time," Henry Berger, special counsel to the mayor, said during the hearing.
The administration's rejection of the second bill, Intro 356, is based less on Directive 1 and more on privacy concerns. Tarlow argued that by putting a code which would identify what agency a voter was getting services from may deter voters from registering at agencies.
"This is to protect the privacy of the individuals who receive services from government that they don't wish to be disclosed," Tarlow said in her testimony.
The council members now face the prospect of attempting to negotiate the bills with the administration.
On Thursday, Council Member Williams went through a lengthy back-and-forth with members of the administration as well as representatives of the Board of Elections (who testified in a later panel) to dispute objections. Williams argued there was already a code (the number 9) on all voter registration forms coming from City agencies and a separate code for those coming from CUNY.
Both Williams and Kallos asked if it was a matter of that information being released to the public or simply being documented. Tarlow said it wasn't a matter of determining who the person was, but what services they were seeking or receiving. She said the administration believes the fear of that information getting out would deter people from signing up to register to vote.
Williams pointed out information such as social security numbers, fax numbers, and driver's license numbers are all exempt from public reporting, but records are still kept. He argued this code could be exempt as well.
Michael Ryan, executive director of the New York City Board of Elections (BOE), said during his testimony the BOE did not believe this code could be exempt based on current law, but he admitted they did not have a chance to dive in deeply on the issue because they were preparing for the upcoming election.
"I don't know that I have been persuaded," Williams said.
by Kristen Meriwether, Gotham Gazette