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Amid Another Poorly-Run Election, Top New York Officials Point Fingers, Offer Plans, or Say Nothing

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Mayor de Blasio on line to vote (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Hours-long lines for early voting in New York City have become the latest fodder for New York’s highest elected officials to renew calls to overhaul the New York City Board of Elections. The general request comes from some government leaders every election cycle but has never been followed with action by those in power and there is little indication that this time will be different.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, three of the most well-positioned individuals to alter the structure of the board, each said they supported change this week. Noticeably quiet, however, are key players in the ongoing saga: the leaders of the two houses of the State Legislature, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins of Westchester, both Democrats.

The problems frequently cited by voting rights advocates and at times echoed by de Blasio and others stem from the BOE's explicitly bi-partisan make-up and lack of professional standards, where party leaders control appointments, feuling patronage over competence and efficiency. The result is recurring, almost predictable, dysfunction -- like endless lines, mass voter roll purges, or the printing snafu that led to tens of thousands of Brooklyn residents receiving invalid absentee ballots -- that disenfranchises voters.

"I think the Board of Elections in New York City did a terrible job," Cuomo told reporters Monday. "It's not the first time and I think I would be open to an entire redesign of the New York City Board of Election system."

"The New York State Constitution literally says that boards of election have to have representation of leadership from the political parties," de Blasio said at a press briefing Wednesday, echoing remarks he made earlier in the week. "I think that's a broken system."

Control over the BOE is decentralized, which helps administrators and elected officials, alike, avoid accountability for poorly-run elections. State law and regulations outline the BOE's general powers and responsibilities, but its commissioners are appointed by the City Council, which defers to slates selected by the Democratic or Republican leaders in each borough. Its funding comes from the New York City budget, which has been used unsuccessfully by the mayor and City Council to attempt to leverage action from the board. The city may pass local laws that impact elections within limits set in Albany.

Through the BOE commissioners, it is the political party leaders that control the actual election administration, down to the hiring of low-level staff.

Changing the BOE's partisan nature requires a state constitutional amendment, but there has been no momentum in the State Legislature and none have been formally proposed by lawmakers. The Legislature passed a number of celebrated voting reforms when it came fully under Democratic control in 2019, though none of them touched the partisan framework of election administration or its lack of professional standards.

Any constitutional amendment would have to pass two consecutive legislative sessions then a statewide voter referendum, which would take years and lots of political capital.

With the start of early voting in the 2020 presidential election, many of the key players criticized the Board of Elections and pointed to the others to fix it.

"I would be open to whatever the city proposes to just redesign from the ground up the New York City Board of Elections. Period," Cuomo said Sunday.

"I think what the governor was referring to earlier was the desire to have the New York City Council pass a home rule request for the state Legislature then to consider," added Beth Garvey, special counsel to the governor.

De Blasio is publicly calling for state legislation to modestly professionalize board operations and a constitutional amendment to address the larger structural problems. The mayor, Cuomo, and Johnson have all indicated support for greater local control, but only de Blasio has explicitly stated he wants a nonpartisan board. Over years, de Blasio has said the Board of Elections should either be a mayoral agency or a nonpartisan, relatively independent city entity akin to the New York City Campaign Finance Board, though he has done little to make any such changes happen.

De Blasio on Wednesday also said state lawmakers should make statutory changes short of an amendment ahead of the 2021 mayoral elections, which will also be some of the first to use the new ranked-choice voting system.

"I call upon the Legislature and the Governor to examine a different kind of model, staying within the concepts laid out in the State Constitution, consider a model that still allows for the representation by political parties as is required, but works with a different kind of board and a different kind of staff," he told reporters, citing the Campaign Finance Board as an example. (A spokesperson for the mayor told Gotham Gazette there were no additional details to the request and that the ball was in the Legislature's court.)

The mayor signaled support for the State Senate bill sponsored by Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, which would delineate the responsibilities of both BOE commissioners and their executive management. Advocates say the bill would help hold both accountable without a constitutional amendment -- which also means without changing the partisan control.

"The Legislature should immediately pass Senate Bill 2726. That bill would allow for the professionalization of the Board of Elections in its current form," de Blasio said.

"Now I don't think the current form makes sense, immediate action that could be taken would be to pass this legislation to professionalize the board as is currently structured, to empower the executive director to run it as a more modern agency," he added.

There is no Assembly companion to the legislation and Speaker Carl Heastie's office did not return multiple requests for comment about Krueger's bill, which has just two sponsors in the 63-seat Senate. Krueger's office did not return requests for comment for this article.

Caitlin Giouard, a spokesperson for Cuomo, did not say whether the governor supported the bill. “As the Governor has said he would be open to an entire redesign of the NYC BOE and we will review any legislation to reform it that passes the legislature,” she wrote by email on Wednesday.

Asked about a possible home rule message, a City Council spokesperson kicked it back to the Legislature. “Speaker Johnson is open to considering a home rule message if the State Legislature determines one is necessary for Senator Krueger's bill, which he supports,” wrote the Council spokesperson in a Wednesday email to Gotham Gazette.

“The New York City Board of Elections has a problematic history and it’s time for improvement," Johnson wrote in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "I support Senator Krueger’s BOE reform bill, which takes important steps to fix many of the problems we see at the Board of Elections."

"In the meantime, the Council will be closely monitoring the Nov. 3 election while pushing for structural reform to the Board of Elections including giving New York City more local control,” he said.

Michael Ryan, the BOE's executive director, is the frequent subject of criticism by Johnson and others at oversight hearings held by the City Council and State Legislature, including after the disastrous 2018 midterm elections when Johnson charged Ryan with harming New York City's democracy. Johnson later called for Ryan's ouster but he and the Council have taken no action to reform the BOE since.

State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a first-term Brooklyn Democrat and chair of the Senate elections committee who helped move the various voting reforms through the Legislature last year, raised issues with the Board's make-up but would not comment directly on Krueger’s bill nor whether he supports nonpartisan election administration. Neither Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins’ office nor Assembly Speaker Heastie’s office responded to inquiries about eliminating partisan control.

"My concerns with the ability of the BOE, as currently constituted, to effectively administer elections have grown throughout the year. From timely processing of absentee ballot requests during the Primary to the massive printing error in Brooklyn last month, I have significant questions about the Board's capabilities," Myrie wrote in an email to Gotham Gazette.

"Once this election is over, my colleagues and I will certainly consider ways to make elections in New York more efficient and voter-friendly," he said.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Holds Hearing on Sexual and Reproductive Right

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City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, right (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

New York City Council Members will hold an oversight hearing Wednesday on “sexual and reproductive rights in New York City” and consider a package of legislation on those subjects, at a joint hearing of the Council’s Committee on Health and Committee on Women and Gender Equity. 

The bills cover a wide range of issues, including access to contraception, establishing a board on gender equity in hospitals, and providing health care professionals with training on how to identify the signs of female genital mutilation. Most of the bills fall under the World Health Organization's 17 indicators of reproductive health, according to a City Council spokesperson.

The hearing comes at a time where reproductive rights in the United States are again at the center of the national political conversation, amid a presidential election, the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a strong supporter of abortion rights, and the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who has expressed opposition to abortion, to replace Ginsburg on the high court, tilting it further toward conservatives and raising concerns among pro-choice Americans that the Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling could be overturned. 

The National Organization for Women’s New York City chapter issued a statement soon after Justice Barrett was confirmed, signaling that women’s reproductive rights may now be at stake with her on the bench.

“We're on the brink of losing our hard fought right to choose. We're going to have to fight like never before to protect our rights and those of the next generation," said Sonia Ossorio, President of NOW-NY.

In New York, abortion protections provided by Roe v. Wade were codified into state law last year, while insurance companies were also mandated to cover contraception. But various aspects of reproductive health continue to be debated and discussed.

Among those testifying at Wednesday’s hearing, which is expected to largely focus on the bill package but to also look at sexual and reproductive rights more broadly, will be representatives of the New York City Department of Health and of the city’s Commission on Gender Equity, according to City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Council Committee on Women and Gender Equity.

In an interview, Rosenthal said that the package of bills is a result of meetings with experts to figure out how to best support women’s reproductive health.

"The Women's Caucus, and the BLAC -- the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus -- has been meeting jointly on a number of these issues, to hear from advocates, activists, and medical professionals themselves, who are experts in these areas. And that's why you have this broad range for very thoughtful legislation," she said.

Rosenthal is the lead sponsor on a bill that would create an advisory board on gender equity in city hospitals. The bill was written after a group of female medical students sued Mt. Sinai hospital for gender discrimination last year. 

Rosenthal said that gender-based discrimination in hospitals not only harms the employees, but also affects the patients as well. 

“If a doctor berates a female medical student who is responsible for a particular patient and then leaves the room, how is that patient supposed to respect that medical student?” she said. 

The board would consist of 13 members, including city officials as well as members of the medical community and students.

Both emergency and long term-reversible contraception would be made available at Department of Health and Mental Hygiene facilities if a bill sponsored by Council Member Carlina Rivera, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Council’s Committee on Hospitals, is passed. 

The bill would provide free or low-cost access to the insertion or removal of long acting-reversible contraception such as an intrauterine device or subdermal contraceptive implants.

As chair of one of the committees at hand, Rosenthal will lead the oversight portion of the hearing along with Council Member Mark Levine, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Council’s health committee, while other members of the two committees and of the larger Council who decide to participate will also be able to ask questions of those testifying.

Also in the package of legislation are two bills on female gential mutilation and cutting, which aim to create an advisory board and educate health-care professionals on how to identify the practices. Female genital mutilation is outlawed in New York State but has gone underground and continues to affect an estimated 60,000-plus women in the New York and New Jersey metro area, according to Council Member Rosenthal, who is the lead sponsor on the education bill. 

“When a medical professional, a doctor, is presented with someone who is trying to get pregnant or who may already be pregnant and has undergone female genital cutting,” Rosenthal said, “that doctor needs to know what they're looking at. And many doctors don't.”

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Office of Women’s Health, female genital mutilation and cutting may complicate a childbirth if not properly identified by a doctor. 

The bill seeking to establish an advisory board for female genital mutilation and cutting, sponsored by Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel, a Brooklyn Democrat, would help educate providers and establish guidelines on the identification and protection of those at risk of the practices. 

The board would also change the way the city collects data on the practice and would develop outreach campaigns aimed at preventing such practices from occurring.

In a follow-up to his original bill, which required that employers provide breastfeeding employees with on-site lactation rooms, which went into effect last year, Council Member Robert Cornegy, a Brooklyn Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would require lactation rooms to be regularly inspected by the city Health Department and also provide training on how to prepare and clean the rooms.

Also on the agenda for the hearing is consideration of a bill introduced by Council Member Danny Dromm, a Queens Democrat, that is aimed at preventing medically unnecessary procedures on intersex infants will also be considered on Thursday. If passed, it would create a public outreach campaign to educate New Yorkers about “medically unnecessary treatments and interventions performed on infants born with intersex traits.” The bill would also postpone any procedure until the intersex person can make an informed decision about the procedure, rather than having that decision made at birth by their parents.

Along with the bills under consideration, the Council will be considering two non-binding resolutions on abortion, one specifically calling on the federal government to rescind the changes on Title X funding issued last year, which prohibits health care providers who recieve federal funding from performing abortions or providing abortion referrals to patients as a part of family planning. 

According to the resolution, introduced by Council Member Diana Ayala, a Democrat representing parts of Manhattan and the Bronx, the federal changes disproportionately impact communities of color and low-income communities whose members rely on Title X clinics for reproductive and preventative health care services. 

The second resolution, proposed by Council Member Margaret Chin, a Manhattan Democrat, calls on federal and state legislators to oppose a ban on sex-selective abortions, arguing that they perpetuate a racial stereotype against Asian-American and Pacific-Islander women. A ban on sex-selective abortions, according to the resolution, could potentially lead to further restrictions on access to abortion and “scrutinizes a woman’s reasons for making the decision to terminate a pregnancy.”


by Caroline Leddy, Gotham Gazette

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As De Blasio Promises WiFi in Shelters to Help Homeless Children Learn, Advocates Question Tardiness and Implementation

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Remote learning in action (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Amid widespread criticism about a lack of internet access for students in homeless shelters who need to get online more than ever to complete their school work, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would equip every shelter with WiFi. But advocates are raising questions about execution of that pledge, especially as tens of thousands of students living in shelters need internet access now in order to engage in remote learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite de Blasio’s promise, issued Monday, to “ensure that every shelter gets WiFi,” no concrete plan for implementation has been offered publicly, though the mayor said Tuesday that he has one that will be shared.

“The instruction I have given to the Law Department and to Social Services is to ensure that every shelter gets Wi-Fi,” de Blasio said Monday. “We’ve got to stop this and make sure everyone has what they need. In terms of devices, I want to keep emphasizing, one, any parent, any kid with a problem should call 311 and let us know immediately.”

“Children in our shelters desperately need assistance with remote learning and have never received the tools they need to succeed from Mayor Bill de Blasio or the NYC Department of Education,” said Christine Quinn, the former City Council Speaker who is now the president and CEO of Win, New York City’s largest provider of shelter and support services for homeless women and their children, in a statement reacting to de Blasio’s pledge.

“We have worked tirelessly to make up the gap, hiring in-house technical support staff to navigate the Department of Education’s (DOE) service and using grant dollars to privately fund iPads, laptops, and hot spots to our students,” said Quinn.

Although the de Blasio administration did release its longtime-coming “Internet Master Plan” in January, and announced an acceleration of it in July amid the COVID-19 pandemic, promising to provide universal broadband access to city residents, the plan did not specifically mention homeless shelters, according to the New York City Bar Association, in an August press release.

The plan prioritized public housing developments, “which have suffered disproportionately during the Covid-19 pandemic,” the mayor’s July press release said. As well as investing “$157 million in ending digital redlining and providing high-speed internet,” and using “$87 million redirected from the NYPD budget.”

The Bar Association cited a recent report from its Justice Center’s Legal Clinic for the Homeless that found that “75 percent of surveyed shelter residents agreed that internet access would help improve their circumstances.” According to the report, “67 percent of homeless shelter residents wanted but had no regular access to the internet, and only 6 percent were able to access the internet through their shelters.”

In that August statement, the Bar Association called on the de Blasio administration to “prioritize City residents most impacted by the pandemic and to provide reliable Wi-Fi connections to shelter residents, updated Internet-ready devices,” and “Wireless or Bluetooth printers.”

Although advocates and others have demanded de Blasio detail plans to help students in shelters access Wi-Fi since the start of the pandemic, the mayor has not focused on wiring up shelters, instead pointing to the hundreds of thousands of internet-enabled devices that the city has been giving out to students in and out of shelters upon request, though tens of thousands of students are still awaiting those devices as the new school year continues toward November. Then came his shelter promise on Monday, seemingly provoked by a Daily News report about lack of access and devices.

In a letter written to de Blasio and the Department of Education (DOE) by City Comptroller Scott Stringer at the start of the school year, Stringer urged the city to “provide direct support to the over 100,000 children who experience homelessness each year.”

In his letter, Stringer called on the City to “designate an interagency Director of Students in Temporary Housing charged with addressing the educational needs of this vulnerable population.” 

The de Blasio administration launched the Learning Bridges program, which provides a free child care option for some children in 3-K through 8th grade who are in the blended learning model on days they are doing remote learning, with access pending application and a needs hierarchy the city established. However, “if these sites are not located near shelters, many students who most need these spaces may not be able to access them,” Stringer wrote.

Meanwhile, “City policy prohibits any child under the age of 18 from remaining in a shelter unit without a parent,” Stringer noted, especially relevant given that Learning Bridges is not available to high school-aged students.

“There's such a stigma for teenagers and youth for being homeless. That became a big benefit from having WiFi,” said Ted Houghton, President of Gateway Housing, a non-profit that works with homeless shelters in the city, including through a technical assistance program to help providers bring Wi-Fi to shelters. 

With a lack of stable internet access in homeless shelters and not every student equipped with an internet-enabled device from the city, some children are unable to log on for their remote classes, leading to questions about school administrators who may report the parents for the virtual truancy. 

“That is not a situation of neglect,” de Blasio said during his Monday press briefing, when asked about that possibility and pledging to rectify the internet access gap. “If a family is trying to solve a problem, we should be working with them and not giving them the impression that we are judging them negatively,” the mayor added.

Gateway Housing, which has worked with BronxWorks, CAMBA, and Help USA to equip shelters with Wi-Fi, saw both “an increase in the number of families going online, and an increase in “the amount of participation in virtual learning,” said Houghton.

Another concern, Houghton said, surrounds the monthly cost of Wi-Fi once it is installed in shelters with families.

“Each of these buildings is going to have what is essentially a corporate Wi-Fi account and that starts adding up,” said Houghton. “We do not want to see an unfunded mandate to shelter providers, because there is a cost associated with internet service.”

“You're talking about small shelters that might cost $10,000 to wire, very large shelters, some of which are spread out among many different buildings, that are going to cost more than $100,000,” Houghton added.

Responding to de Blasio’s initial announcement, attorneys representing homeless New Yorkers questioned the mayor’s commitment.

"The devil is in the details, and while we welcome this announcement, too much time has passed with too little action for us to accept it at face value,” said Susan Horwitz, Supervising Attorney of the Education Law Project at The Legal Aid Society, in a statement released Tuesday, wherein Legal Aid called on the de Blasio administration to quickly detail how it will get WiFi installed at all city shelters.

“City Hall should have addressed this issue several months ago,” she said.

“There is a plan in place,” de Blasio said Tuesday when asked at his daily press briefing about the criticism from Legal Aid and others. “We'll certainly go over it publicly. The idea here is to go through every shelter where there's kids. Obviously we have shelters that are adults only, that doesn't count, but shelters where there are kids get Wi-Fi in place. Some shelters that's going to be easier than others, depending on the physical reality. I want to make sure the kids have options immediately so they can study wherever they need to. So we'll lay out the plan and what it's going to take, what we're going to do short-term, what it's going to take to get every single shelter done. That's a commitment we make. Our IT department, DoITT, is leading the way, working with our Department of Social Services, and we will make sure every shelter has services. It’s as simple as that.”

Asked to provide the administration’s plan, the mayor’s press office did not respond to Gotham Gazette’s inquiry.

[Read: De Blasio Administration Pledges to Finally Address City's Persistent 'Digital Divide' with Universal Internet Access]

by Anna Conkling, Gotham Gazette

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Ben Max contributed to this story.

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