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Guide For The Last Minute Voter, 2007 General Election

by Gotham Gazette Staff, Nov 05, 2007

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In recent memory, most advocates and political observers cannot recall a sleepier election year. There are no citywide races. There are no real contests in the City Council. The ballot question doesn't even affect New York City residents.

The hottest race in town is for district attorney on Staten Island (who would have thought?)

Every three or four years, there is an off-election year, where voters are left to ponder judicial races with candidates handpicked by party bosses and large conventions. But this year, political observers said, there seems to be even less than usual.

Political junkies, though, can look forward to the next three general elections: a presidential election in '08; citywide races, including the mayoral race, in '09; and then the gubernatorial race in 2010. But for now many will be left listless, wandering their polling places desperately seeking some political furor.

For results of these races, come to Gotham Gazette this week as returns become available.

--Holding an Election

--Voter Turnout

--The District Attorney Race

--Surrogate Court

--City Council

--Supreme Court

--Civil Court

--The Ballot Question

--Voter Information

The Machinery of Democracy

Although there is a lack of controversial races this year, the process goes on, and it is not cheap. The cost of running an election in the city is between $15 million and $16 million, according to the Board of Elections.

The city, for all elections, recruits approximately 35,000 poll workers and each gets a $200 stipend, officials at the board said. The poll worker stipends add up to about $7 million.

The cost for a primary and general election, said Valerie Vasquez Rivera, the board's communications director, tend to be comparable. During a primary, she added, the board must print a larger variety of ballots; during a general election, they must recruit more poll workers.

Given such costs, some have argued that sleepy election cycles should be eliminated and elections consolidated.

"Would you save money?" asked Neal Rosenstein, an election specialist at the New York Public Interest Research Group. "Yes. Would you increase turnout in the lesser-known judgeships? Would the folks that are voting on those races be more informed?"

That is debatable, he added. "The proponents of off year elections have always said it allows voters to focus on those elections," said Rosenstein.

Before the primary, the New York City Board of Elections mailed reminders to the city's nearly 3.8 million registered voters. The cost of all of the board's literature, sent out in English, Spanish, Korean and Chinese, said Vasquez Rivera, is $1.2 million.

The city's Campaign Finance Board sends more detailed voter guides in multiple languages to registered voters. The latest figures it had for the cost of those brochures, a spokesperson said, was in 2005, when the board sent 5 million out for 50 cents each. This year, because there are significantly less races, far fewer were sent out.

Though a general election comes with a fairly large bill, factor in a primary and the several special elections bound to pop up in a single year and the check could be significant.

But it's all for democracy -- right?

Voter Participation

In recent years, voter turnout has stagnated at approximately 36 percent in the city for a general election. During the 2004 presidential race, that number jumped to 65 percent. But for a primary, that number is far lower.

The most hotly contested race in September was the Democratic contest for Surrogate Court judge in Brooklyn. Only 5 percent of voters turned out. During judicial contests, said Adrienne Kivelson, an election specialist at the League of Women Voters of the City of New York, most voters ignore the political process, and many who do pull the lever are likely to be involved in party politics.

"People are really not informed of who these judges are," said Kivelson. "It doesn't have the kind of attention that other elections have. I think that it's unfortunate."

Officials at the Board of Elections are not expecting fireworks on Tuesday. The process will be the same as any other general election, said Vasquez Rivera, but a little lighter.

At the New York Public Interest Research Group, Rosenstein said they would continue to operate their voter help hotline. But, he added, he expects a "sleepy" day.

"In 2004, there were 3,000 phone calls on our help line," he said. "This year, I'm hoping for three."

For those who do want to vote, or follow the races that are taking place, here's a summary.

District Attorneys

Officially three of New York City's five district attorneys are up for re-election this year: Richard Brown in Queens, Robert Johnson in the Bronx and Daniel Donovan on Staten Island. But neither Johnson nor Brown has any opposition on Tuesday. (The other two district attorneys -- Manhattan's Robert Morgenthau and Brooklyn's Charles Hynes will not face the voters until 2009 when Morgenthau will be 90 -- and he has reportedly been raising money for a re-election bid.)

District attorneys serve as the top prosecutors and chief law enforcement officers in their counties, investigating and prosecuting violations of city and state law. (For more on what a district attorney does, see The DA's of New York.)

On the Staten Island, there is a real contest for this post. Incumbent Donovan would seem to be a shoo-in for re-election: He won handily in 2003, borough-wide races there often go to a Republican, and he has been described as "rising star" of a party that clearly needs them. His opponent is Democrat Mike Ryan, a lawyer who has worked extensively in law enforcement.

The two men apparently do differ on issues, although that seems to be playing little role in the campaign. According to NY1, "Donovan supports the death penalty and says he doesn't support Governor Eliot Spitzer's plan to give illegal immigrants drivers' licenses. Ryan is not as clear on either issue."

Ryan stresses his background, work ethic and commitment to law. Donovan is running largely on his record, saying that he is revitalizing the office, improving the conviction rate, instituting a witness protection program and "using new technologies and laws to prosecute criminals in our community."

Several aspects of that record, though, have become issues in the campaign. Perhaps the most potentially damaging for Donovan is his office's handling of criminal charges against Steven Molinaro, grandson of Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro. After pleading guilty to assault charges arising from two separate attacks on 14-year-old boys, the court ordered the younger Molinaro to steer clear of his victims. But Molinaro then allegedly drove by the house of one of the boys and glared at him. Molinaro was then convicted of violating his parole and sentenced to five years in prison. All this was done by officials from Brooklyn to avoid any possible conflicts.

But that has not kept grandfather Molinaro from blaming Donovan. The borough president took out a full-page ad in the Staten Island Advance denouncing Donovan, and the borough president, a Conservative who was also elected on the Republican line, has endorsed Democrat Ryan for district attorney. Molinaro has claimed that to avoid the appearance of impropriety, Donovan dealt more harshly with his grandson than he would have with other similar defendants.

Other controversies revolve around whether Donovan has accurately reported conviction rates. Ryan has aired a commercial featuring a woman who addresses the camera and says, "DA Donovan let the man who sexually abused my daughter off free...Thanks to you, Mr. Donovan, there is a sexual abuser walking the streets."

But if this looks like a classic dirty campaign, think again. "Even during this campaign, we're gentlemen. We respect each other," Ryan told NY1.

In the Bronx, District Attorney Johnson, who has served since 1988 when he became the state's first black district attorney, received a rating of not approved from the New York City Bar Association. The organization does not offer details on its decisions beyond saying an unapproved candidate has failed "to affirmatively demonstrate that he possess the requisite qualifications" for the office.

The bar association may have withheld its seal of approval from Johnson because he declined to meet with them, according to The Politicker. Attending that meeting, Johnson has said, "would have accomplished nothing, while taking away from the operation of my office, communicating with the citizens of the Bronx, and spending quality time with my family." The district attorney has also said the association seeks "to have candidates 'kiss its (proverbial) ring.' I, for one, will never do that."

Richard Brown, the other district attorney running unopposed, received the bar association's approval, as did both Staten Island candidates.

City Council

Two City Council races will be on the ballot this Tuesday, one in Brooklyn and one in Staten Island. Each are a result of special elections after Yvette Clarke vacated her seat in the 40th district in Brooklyn to go to the U.S. Congress and Andrew Lanza left his seat in the 51st district on Staten Island to go to the State Assembly.

The winners, Mathieu Eugene in Brooklyn and Vincent Ignizio in Staten Island, are now seeking to finish the remainder of their council terms, which last through 2009.

Ignizio, a former state Assemblyman and one of only three Republicans on the City Council, is unopposed. Not surprisingly, according to the latest records from the Campaign Finance Board, he has raised only $105.

A spokesperson for the Campaign Finance Board said a candidate can roll over funds to another election cycle as long as he or she returns public matching funds, currently set at $4 for every $1.

Eugene's faces a Republican challenger, Clarence Joseph John. It's the third election of the year for Eugene, the first Haitian to serve on the council. Following the special election in February, controversy arose over whether Eugene actually lived in the district. To settle any accusations, Eugene requested another special election, which he won in April. He was finally sworn in in May.

Both candidates have filled out questionnaires from the city's Campaign Finance Board, which are available here.

Eugene identifies health issues and access to health care as the most important issue facing the district. John, a native of Trinidad and a licensed electrician who owned his own company, said the district needs to increase city services, from police to affordable housing.

Through the end of October, Eugene has raised $24,474, according to the Campaign Finance Board. John has not registered with the board.

The Surrogate

Though the Democratic primary attracted some attention in September, the Kings County Surrogate Court race has not been talked about much since. Diana Johnson, who won the primary with about 59 percent of the vote against Democratic Party-backed ShawnDya Simpson, faces Republican Theodore Alatsas.

In Brooklyn, Democrats are usually favored, and Johnson is practically guaranteed victory.

The Surrogate Court oversees wills, adoptions and estates and has long been tied to political cronyism. Because the surrogate appoints attorneys as guardians of large fortunes, sketchy political tradeoffs and cronyism can flourish. The term is 14 years.

Johnson has sat on the state Supreme Court in Brooklyn since 2001 and was endorsed by Citizens Union, the sister group to Gotham Gazette's publisher, Citizens Union Foundation. She was also endorsed by the Rev. Al Sharpton, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, City Council members Letitia James, Albert Vann, Mathieu Eugene and Charles Barron as well as numerous state Senate and Assembly members. Here is a questionnaire she filled out for Citizens Union earlier this year.

Alatsas, an attorney, has been a frequent Conservative candidate. He ran for Brooklyn borough president in 2005, Kings County district attorney in 2001 and the state Assembly in 2002, all unsuccessfully. He received a bachelor's degree from New York University and graduated from St. John's School of Law.

Johnson's candidacy received approval from both the Brooklyn and city bar associations, while Alatsas did not.

Supreme Court Judges

Voters in several parts of the city will choose judges for the state Supreme Court on Tuesday. Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, the state Supreme Court is not an appeals court but the main trial court with general jurisdiction. The judges serve 14-year terms. Candidates for the bench run on party lines. Unlike candidates for other offices, they are selected by delegates to judicial conventions, not in a primary election. Delegates to the convention were selected in the September primary.

The system has been widely condemned for giving too much power to party organizations. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case challenging the constitutionality of the conventions. The court has not yet issued its decision.

Although some races appear on the ballot, experts contend the contests rarely are competitive. "Winning the nomination is usually tantamount to winning the election.... The candidate who appears on the Election Day ballot in New York City is usually the Democrat, who may or may not be endorsed by other parties but who almost always wins either way. Other parties may field their own candidates, but with little expectation of winning," Judge Emily Jane Goodman wrote in Gotham Gazette.

That does not have to keep you from voting, though. These are the contested races for Supreme Court judge:

--Brooklyn and Staten Island (2nd Judicial District): Four candidates are vying for six openings. They are: L. Priscilla Hall, Albert Tomei, Larry Martin and Robert Miller, all of whom have the backing of Republican and Democratic parties (Miller gets the Conservative nod too) and Conservatives Paul Atanasio, Dennis Houdek and Ross Brady. The four candidates with the Democratic and Republican endorsements have received the bar association's nod as well, but the association rated all three of the candidates running solely as Conservatives as "not approved."

Hall, Martin and Tomei are already Supreme Court judges. Miller is a partner in a firm specializing in international law. (For more, on the candidates, click here.)

Queens (11th Judicial District): Six candidates are competing for three openings here, with each major party offering three candidates. The Democrats are Denis Butler, keneth Holder and Steven Paynter. Kerry Katsorhis, Theodore Stamas and Joseph Kasper are the GOP candidates.

All but Kasper and Katsorhis, both lawyers in private practice, have bar association approval.

Butler and Holder are Civil Court judges, Stamas is a lawyer in private practice and Paynter serves as a Criminal Court judge. (For more on the candidates, click here.)

Civil Court Judges

In various communities around the city, the ballot will feature contests for Civil Court judge. The Civil Court decides lawsuits involving claims of up to $25,000, with a small claims division involving cases with up to $5,000. It also has a housing part to hear cases involving landlord-tenant disputes and housing violation proceedings. Judges on the Civil Court serve 10-year terms.

Over the past several months, one contest in Brooklyn has attracted some attention because of the man seeking the post: former City Councilmember Noach Dear. Dear has been charged with ethical lapses, of being hostile to gays and even of once having supported the apartheid-era government of South Africa. The bar association has not approved him, and during the primary for the seat from the Fifth Municipal Court District, most of the city's newspapers endorsed his opponent. According to the Daily News, Dear has given conflicting statements about if, when and how he practiced law. Dear won the primary anyway.

Given the Democratic advantage in the district and Dear's high name recognition, he seems likely to win again on Tuesday, though he does have an opponent: James P. McCall, who is running as a Republican and a Conservative. In an editorial endorsing McCall, the Daily News described him as a lawyer for more than 30 years, who currently works as a senior court attorney for a judge. McCall has been approved by the bar association. Dear has not.

For more on Brooklyn Civil Court candidates, click here.

These are the other Civil Court contests:

-- Bronx (1st Municipal Court District): Democrat Donald Miles, a principal law clerk to a state Supreme Court judge, faces Paul Indig, a litigation attorney who appears on the Republican and Conservative lines. (For more on the candidates, click here.)

--Brooklyn (countywide): Eight candidates are competing for four seats. The Democratic Party has four candidates: Debra Silber, Frederick Arriaga, Carolyn Wade and Robin Sheares. The Republican Party has nominated three candidates, who also have the Conservative line: Vincent Martusciello, Michael Reinhardt and Philip Smallman. Another candidate, Thomas Stadnik, appears only on the Conservative line. Only three of the eight -- Arriaga, Silber and Wade -- have bar association approval.

Silber already serves as a civil court judge. Arriaga is counsel to Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, Sheares lists herself as self-employed, Wade is principal law clerk to a state Supreme Court judge, Reinhardt is an attorney in private practice and Smallman has run for judge before -- without success. (For additional information, on Brooklyn Civil Court candidates, click here.)

--Queens (4th Municipal Court District): Democrat Cheree Buggs is running against Republican Robert Beltrani. Beltrani is an administrative law judge with the state Division of Parole. Buggs has served as counsel to the City Council's Committee on Oversight and Investigation. She is approved by the bar association; Beltrani is not.

Ballot Question

Voters may be a little perplexed when they read their ballot question on Tuesday, considering it refers to the water supply in Hamilton County upstate.

To make it more baffling, the action voters are confronted with has already occurred. If approved, the question would allow the town of Long Lake to use one acre of state property for water wells. In exchange, the state will acquire 12 acres of land elsewhere in the town. Because the water in Long Lake was unfiltered and potentially hazardous, the state Department of Environmental Conservation gave the town extraordinary permission to begin drilling in 2004.

To drill wells for groundwater in preserved forests, a constitutional amendment is needed. According to the League of Women Voters in New York City, there appears to be no opposition to the amendment.

BEFORE YOU GO TO THE POLLS

Where and When Do I Vote?

The election will be this Tuesday, November 6, with polls open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Only registered voters who have registered at least 25 days before the election can vote.

You should have received a notice in the mail telling you where to vote, but if you do not have it, you can go to the Board of Election's poll site locator or call 1 866 VOTE-NYC. This number can provide you with other information as well, including registration deadlines.

On its Web site, the Board of Elections also has instructions on how to work the voting machine.

Absentee ballot applications can be obtained by calling the Board of Elections at 1-866-VOTE-NYC or e-mailing a request to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

The deadline for requesting an absentee ballot has already passed. If you have not requested one and you cannot appear at the polls on Election Day because of an accident or sudden illness, you may send a representative with an authorized letter to receive an Absentee Ballot Application and Absentee Ballot and return both to the Board of Elections by 9 p.m. on Election Day at your borough office.

If you are disabled and cannot vote independently or privately using New York's Shoup lever machines, or if you are interested in new voting technology, you can vote at your borough's Super Poll Site. These sites are equipped with ballot marking devices (BMDs) that function as an electronic pen to mark a voters choices on a paper ballot. The machines feature a screen that displays the ballot to the voter and are equipped with audio recordings of the ballot, compatibility with sip and puff devices, rocker paddles with foot controls, large font displays and voice activated, voice output technology. They are designed to allow disabled voters to cast their own votes without assistance.

You can also find detailed directions and information about the Super Poll Sites, poll site accessibility and disability voting rights issues at the Center for Independence of the Disabled, 212 674-2300.

The Board of Elections says that it has increased efforts to make polling places accessible for senior citizens and handicapped voters, but they admit there are still problems at some sites. Voters who feel that their polling site is inaccessible should call the Voter Registration Unit of their local borough office for information.

First-Time Voters

New Yorkers who registered to vote for the first time via mail may be asked to provide identification, such as a driver's license, when they arrive at the polls.

Voters without a driver's license can also offer a copy of one of the following:

-- valid photo ID
-- current utility bill
-- bank statement
-- government check or other government document that shows the voter's name and address.

Those who do not have any form of identification or decline to supply one will be allowed to vote by paper ballot, not in the machines, according to the Board of Elections. Those votes will be counted only if they are verified to match registration forms.

The new rules are part of the federal Help America Vote Act, which Congress passed after the turmoil in Florida during the 2000 presidential election.

What If You Encounter Problems at the Polls?

If a poll worker says you are not on the list, ask an inspector to verify that you are at the correct Election and Assembly District for your address. If you believe that you are eligible to vote, you can ask for a paper or affidavit ballot. After the election, the Board of Elections will check its records and your vote will be counted if you are deemed eligible to vote and were at the correct polling site.

If you encounter problems at the polls, call one of the following places:

-- New York Public Interest Research Group: 212 349-6460

-- League of Women Voters Election hotline: 212 725-3541.

-- New York Civil Liberties Union: 212 607-3300

For assistance in Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, Hindi, Khmer and English, call the Asian American Legal Defense Fund at 800 966-5946.