A rally for Our City Our Vote (photo: William Alatriste/NYC Council)
The New York City Council called on Mayor Eric Adams to provide $25 million in his latest budget plan to implement the city’s noncitizen voting law, which went into effect in January. But the mayor’s $99.7 billion executive budget for the 2023 fiscal year, released last month, did not include that request, leaving Council members and voting and immigrant rights activists disappointed.
The “Our City, Our Vote” law will give an estimated 800,000 legal permanent residents (also known as green card holders) and certain immigrants with work authorization the right to vote in municipal elections for citywide and borough-wide seats, City Council members, and city ballot referenda starting in January 2023. The law will significantly increase the number of eligible voters in the city, which is currently home to 5.1 million registered voters as of February 21, according to the State Board of Elections. Next year will also see all 51 City Council seats on the ballot because of the decennial Census and redistricting process.
The law will have to be implemented by the New York City Board of Elections, which is technically a state agency funded by the city and has until July 1 to present a plan to do so. But it will also involve other city entities that regularly interact with voters and, in this case, immigrants who will have to be educated on the opportunity to register to vote and voting processes, and will require language access and translation services. Those entities include the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA), DemocracyNYC, which is part of the New York City Civic Engagement Commission, which is made up of appointees by several top city officials, and the city’s independent Campaign Finance Board and its NYC Votes engagement arm.
Recognizing the major task of informing and enrolling hundreds of thousands of potential new voters, the City Council asked the mayor for $25 million dedicated to implementation. And though the executive budget was $1.2 billion higher than the mayor’s preliminary budget, it did not set aside funding specifically for that purpose. For the Board of Elections, the executive budget allocated $136.7 million for the next fiscal year, beginning July 1, an increase of about $3.8 million from the preliminary budget.
Adams’ executive budget is now the subject of a series of City Council hearings as the two sides of City Hall will ultimately negotiate a final budget agreement sometime in June. The new mayor, a Democrat, supported the noncitizen voting legislation throughout his campaign and appointed its lead Council sponsor, Ydanis Rodriguez, as his transportation commissioner after the two campaigned heavily together in immigrant and Latino communities.
“Mayor Adams looks forward to welcoming hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers into the democratic process when the non-citizen voting law goes into effect,” said a City Hall spokesperson, in a statement. “The city currently has funding in the budget for outreach through both DemocracyNYC, as well as funding for NYC BOE. We will continue to monitor needs associated with the law and assess appropriate funding levels.” The spokesperson did not say how much funding was allocated to DemocracyNYC, which is charged with increasing voter participation in the city.
BOE Executive Director Mike Ryan said in February that the funding wasn’t urgently required even as they are preparing the implementation plan, which they will present by the required deadline. “From a budgetary perspective, it is not a house-on-fire emergency to deal with right this minute,” he said at the time, though he was speaking more about administration within the BOE than robust outreach into communities.
But some want the city to act sooner rather than later. At a recent budget hearing on immigrant affairs, City Council Member Shahana Hanif, a Brooklyn Democrat and chair of the Council’s immigration committee, expressed dismay that the funding wasn’t in the executive budget. “I am disappointed…that we haven't been doing our due diligence to this fight that was brought to passage by our immigrant community,” Hanif said at the May 12 hearing. “This is a disservice. This is us, again, regressing and it is unfair to our democracy.”
At the hearing, Hanif pressed MOIA Commissioner Manuel Castro on whether his agency was also preparing to help implement the law. But Castro had few details to offer, pointing to an ongoing legal challenge initiated by Republicans. Both sides have filed motions for summary judgment and are due back in court on June 7.
“We're waiting results on that,” Castro said of the legal challenge at the hearing, “but I'm also mindful that we need to start preparing now because this is something that we're very confident will be reality.”
“[T]he law is indeed in effect, and we have got to be a city that treats it as such and move forward regardless of the nature of the lawsuits being filed against this law,” Hanif responded.
Besides outreach, voting and immigrant rights advocates have pointed out that the law will also require the BOE to create new technology to handle the new voters, design registration forms and separate ballots, train poll workers, and maintain new voter lists. All those tasks require increased funding, advocates say.
At a time when other states are “enacting regressive voting laws to disenfranchise thousands of their voters, New York City has an opportunity to be a leader in the continued fight for a true representative Democracy,” said Theodore Moore, vice president of policy for the New York Immigration Coalition, one of the groups that championed the passage of the law. The Immigration Coalition praised the Council for pushing for the $25 million allocation “to ensure that every eligible voter has the information they need to participate in the local elections and elect representatives who will see that their communities' needs are met. Now, Mayor Adams has a chance to ensure successful implementation of the Our City, Our Vote law…by including the critical $25 million allocation in his final budget.”