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Opinion

Opinion

The Conspiracy in Queens is Beyond the DA Ballots


votes president us cast 2016

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)


Election officials in Queens are counting ballots in the District Attorney Democratic primary recount exactly as the law prescribes -- and it is an injustice for Queens and an affront to democracy. 

After a stunning reversal of fortune that saw Melinda Katz erase a 1,090-vote gap after absentee and other ballots were counted, Tiffany Cabán is challenging the rejection of a small number of provisional ballots that she thinks will turn the tide back in her favor.  While there are many reasons a ballot could be rejected, the main cause at play here is that voters were not properly registered with the Democratic Party in time to vote in the June 25 primary.

Some are enrolled in a different party or no party at all, while others just didn’t enroll at their current address within the six-month window required by our state before this vote. Whatever the reason, many Queens residents came to the polls to vote in an important election and were told that their voice was not welcome. 

New York, unlike most other big cities in the country, uses a closed primary system to determine who will be on the general election ballot. This means that only voters who are properly enrolled in a political party may vote in a taxpayer-funded partisan primary. The winner of each partisan primary, or the party nominee if there is only one candidate, then advances to a general election open to all registered voters. 

In a city where Democrats represent nearly 70% of the electorate, this means that the relatively few people who show up and are allowed to vote in a Democratic primary essentially choose the winner of the general election.

The Republican nominee for Queens District Attorney has all but acknowledged the fruitlessness of trying to win, openly admitting he had not decided whether he would even bother to campaign for the office. The most likely outcome no matter if Katz or Cabán prevails in the primary recount, is that a county of nearly 2.4 million people will be represented by a District Attorney who received the support of barely 4% of registered Queens Democrats. 

In a democracy, residents are supposed to choose their elected officials. In New York, politicians from both the Republican and Democratic parties have worked hard to turn that idea on its head and pick their constituents. New York’s ballot access rules are among the most restrictive in the nation and the results speak for themselves -- apathetic voters who can’t be bothered to engage in a system that makes it hard to participate and where they do not feel that their vote really matters. 

Open primaries allow all registered voters to vote in a primary where all candidates for office are grouped together regardless of party affiliation. If no candidate receives 50% of the vote, the top two then face off in a general election, even if they are from the same party. It’s a system based on encouraging democracy.

Open primaries also allow new candidates from nontraditional backgrounds to break into the system. In the current structure, voters often avoid casting a ballot for candidates outside of the traditional parties for fear of spoiling the election in favor of someone they truly dislike. Traditional parties have intentionally perpetuated this dilemma to keep new players out and keep a broken system and the privileges that come with it in place. 

Opening up primaries to all voters, regardless of party affiliation, gives candidates a reason to appeal to a broad range of the electorate, while head-to-head general elections take the spoiler-effect out of the equation and free voters to vote for the candidate they like best.

The editorial boards have opined that there is no conspiracy at play by machine Democrats to steal the primary, and that the rules are being scrupulously followed. However, the proceedings in Queens show once again that the rules are the conspiracy. It is time to replace New York’s outdated, unjust system with something as open and inclusive as our residents deserve. 

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Michael Volpe is the Chair of the SAM Party of New York and former candidate for Lieutenant Governor on the SAM line. He is the former Mayor of the Village of Pelham. On Twitter @SAMforNY.

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I'm Not Running for Congress; Here's Why


gustavo rivera senate

Senator Gustavo Rivera, the author (photo: State Senate)


To someone who isn’t from the borough, the mention of the Bronx may evoke images of Yankee Stadium, the Bronx Zoo, or Arthur Avenue. A lesser-known fact is that the Congressional District that covers all three landmarks, and most of the South Bronx, is home to an open seat and will host a highly-contested election in 2020. The future of one of the poorest and most densely-populated districts in the country will be determined next year, making it one of the most important upcoming elections in New York City.

New York’s 15th Congressional District is geographically one of the smallest, with 730,000 people living within its lines. Nearly 97% voted for Barack Obama in November of 2012, making it the most Democratic district in the country. This means the congressional election will be determined in the June primary, not the November general.

For almost 30 years, this district has been represented by the consistently progressive voice of José E. Serrano, who announced his retirement earlier this year. This vacancy is an opportunity to bring new leadership into the House and this district, but it also carries a significant obligation to continue the progressive legacy of the Congressmember while blazing a new trail to effect change.

As the State Senator representing part of this Congressional District, I know well the needs and challenges of this community. The 15th Congressional District faces significant obstacles that are exacerbated by the current federal government. We need bold leadership who fights for fair housing and treats public housing residents with respect; who recognizes that healthcare is a human right; and who stands up for all residents of the district, regardless of citizenship status. The 15th Congressional District also needs a leader who sets an unparalleled ethical standard, just like our retiring Congressmember has done for decades. The work cannot stop; we need someone who will double down on the fight ahead of us.

I believe in public service, and in the positive impact government can have on people’s lives. This belief drove me to run for the State Senate in 2010 and it has been at the center of my efforts in office.

This past year, the State Senate regained the Democratic majority and passed a slew of progressive legislation that New Yorkers badly needed, including the Dream Act, the Reproductive Health Act, criminal justice, voting, and housing reforms, driver's licenses for all, gun regulations, and LGBTQ protections -- among others. I was also given the great honor to chair the Senate Health Committee, a position that had never been held by a person of color or a Bronxite, despite the disparities these groups have faced in accessing healthcare for generations.

The New York State Senate is enacting true change and fighting to help all New Yorkers thrive, but our work is far from done. This responsibility has influenced my decision to not seek the open seat in Congress next year. Representing my community in the State Senate has been the greatest honor of my life, and it is exactly where I believe I can best serve for the foreseeable future. This is particularly crucial since state government is one of the most effective checks and balances on the great national threat from Washington, D.C.

Nonetheless, I cannot ignore the importance of this election at such a critical moment.

The Federal Administration makes a mockery of our democracy daily, and actively works against the communities of my district, the Bronx, and New York City. As we look at a crowded field of Democrats vying for this seat, one thing is clear -- we have a serious responsibility to identify and unify behind a strong leader who will speak on our behalf and will join the new class of Congressmembers that reject the status quo of corporate politics. The 15th Congressional District deserves the very best, and I look forward to hearing from the candidates and eventually endorsing someone who will fight for that same standard for our community and our country.

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State Senator Gustavo Rivera represents parts of the Bronx and chairs the Senate's health committee. On Twitter @NYSenatorRivera.

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6 Real, Meaningful Changes New York’s New Campaign Finance Commission Should Pursue


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(photo: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)


New York State government has often failed to address our biggest challenges. Surprisingly, during the 2019 legislative session real protections for renters were approved over the objections of New York’s powerful real estate industry. Congestion pricing for Manhattan’s central business district was written into law, along with far-reaching climate change legislation. Cash bail was abolished for most crimes, and bump stocks that cause rifles to fire like machine guns were banned. Women’s rights and LGBTQ rights were enhanced in important ways.

Yet, efforts to reform the electoral process stalled after a few notable successes. To revive momentum, Governor Cuomo and the Legislature created a commission and charged it with issuing rules to implement public campaign financing by December 1. The commissioners were named last week and are about to set to work.

Structural change to New York State’s campaign finance system is crucial. The ease with which legislative influence is traded for money in Albany has created a culture of corruption that promotes special interests above the public interest.

We have yet to come to terms with rusting bridges, crumbling infrastructure, and failing public transit networks. Public housing slides further into disrepair daily. Young people of color are denied quality education. Nearly 1 million New Yorkers have no health insurance. The public will be ill-served on these and other matters if legislation responds to the demands of the highest bidders.

As the campaign finance commission begins its work, here are six ways to ensure our state elected officials represent everyone, not just the wealthy and powerful.

1. New York needs lower election contribution limits, a cap on campaign expenditures, and a ban on donations from political action committees, businesses, and unions.

Current law allows candidates for statewide office to accept the obscene amount of $47,500 from a single contributor, and more than $65,000 if they face a primary. State Senate candidates can accept $18,000, aspiring Assembly members more than $9,000. The threshold for all these offices should be lowered to $5,000 so that no single contributor can hold sway over an official. Candidates should also be subject to an overall campaign cap of $1 per constituent to limit the quest for cash.

2. New York should join 29 states that wisely ban elected officials from fund-raising during the legislative session. Cashing checks while passing laws creates the undeniable appearance of corruption. Violators should be forced to forfeit all of an event’s contributions, along with a penalty of an equal amount, into a public election fund.

3. New York should establish a statewide public finance system that mirrors New York City’s. Candidates who meet minimum thresholds should receive $8 of public matching funds for each dollar of a donation up to $250. This would encourage candidates to seek support from all their constituents, not just the rich.

4. Candidates for public office should be required to release five years of federal and state tax returns to enable voters to determine how official decisions might affect a lawmaker’s pockets.

5. Increasing New York’s ban on lobbying after government service from two years to five would provide a greater buffer against the risk of lawmakers trading votes for the promise of future employment.

6. The campaign finance commission should signal support for legislation sponsored by Senator Liz Krueger to strengthen the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE).

She has proposed a nine-member commission with five selected by the chief judge of New York and the presiding justices of each of the state’s four appellate divisions, and the remaining four chosen by elected officials. Decisions should be determined by a majority vote.

In addition to overseeing lobbying, the new JCOPE should exercise enforcement power over campaign finance so that the crucial elements of the Albany Arrangement’s pay-to-play culture are monitored by a single entity.

These proposed reforms will diminish the corrosive influence of cash on politics. Transparency and accountability will rise, and the public interest will displace special interests as the most important influence on our lawmakers. The campaign finance commission has a rare opportunity to effect long-lasting improvements to our democracy. They should seize the moment and act boldly.

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Chris McNickle is a historian, author, and businessman. On Twitter @NYChrisMcnickle.

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