Gotham Gazette

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The Fine Print On Your Ballot That Isn't Fine Print

2019 sample ballot al 5 crc qs

(a sample ballot - back side, with charter revision questions)

Some of the biggest decisions voters can make on New York City’s ballot this fall will be in the fine print.

The 19 city charter amendments being put before voters will appear on the back of the ballot in miniscule, 7.5-point font. The proposed amendments, presented in five “yes” or “no” questions, cover large swaths of the city’s core governing document and if approved have the potential to alter key components of how the city operates.

They include instituting ranked-choice voting for some elections, beefing up police department oversight, and more. A number of the changes are consequential but technical in nature and require voters to read a degree of granular detail. Language chosen by the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, certain legal requirements, and the desire to avoid a two-page ballot led the New York City Board of Elections to the 7.5 font that is of concern to election watchdogs.

“Generally speaking, as a matter of legibility one of the top [Election Assistance Commission] recommendations is to use a minimum 12-point font size for paper ballots, which of course aligns with public expectations as well,” according to Jarret Berg, a voting rights lawyer and co-founder of the nonpartisan election watchdog VoteEarlyNY.

In an election expected to have especially low turnout, and for ballot referenda, which in New York already tend to have lower response rates, the small font and the complexity of the questions could mean a very small number of voters will decide the outcome of the reforms. The ones that do will, for the first time, have an opportunity to cast ballots during nine days of early voting -- from October 26 to November 3 -- in addition to Election Day, November 5.

The city’s 2019 Charter Revision Commission developed the proposed amendments and the ballot language, but the city’s Board of Elections is responsible for the layout of the ballot, including the font size of the referenda.

“In fairness, I think the City Board would prefer -- all things being equal -- to offer a larger font size, but given several competing ballot layout and election administration considerations, providing a reasonable font size continues to be deprioritized,” said Berg.

There are a number of concerns and regulations the Board of Elections must take into account when designing the ballot, some of which conflict. Ballot questions, like the five that deal with issues of city elections and governance, must be written separately from the names of candidates according to rules set at the state level. According to the Board’s executive director, Michael Ryan, the ballot-reading machines require referenda to be printed on a separate sheet or side of the ballot in order to be properly scanned.

The Board of Elections tried using a two-page ballot to accommodate referenda during last year’s election to disastrous effect. That election, which included races for governor, Congress, state Legislature, and others, was marked by very high turnout, which along with the two-page ballot and inclement weather resulted in machines having to scan excessive volumes of paper and led to frequent malfunctions.

This year, there are very few elections to be decided. Each of the five questions appearing on the ballot contains three to five paragraphs of text covering multiple provisions (a total of 19). To keep them on a single sheet of paper, the board chose to squeeze all the questions onto the backside of the ballot using the tiny font.

The small font size “is so you could fit it onto a single page,” Ryan said in an interview. “We avoided as much as we could the prospect of going to a second page for all of the reasons we found out in November [2018].”

To assist voters, each poll site will be equipped with magnifying glasses at each privacy booth and poll workers have been trained to inform voters that ballot questions are on the back, according to Ryan. The ballots themselves instruct voters to flip the page with large arrows accompanied by the text, “Remember to vote on both sides.”

But Ryan is also encouraging voters to familiarize themselves with the ballot before they arrive at the polls using the BOE’s new website. The recently-launched site has a simple web address -- -- and is designed to be more user-friendly than the previous one. The homepage prominently features a poll-site locator where voters can enter their address and find out where they are assigned to vote during the early voting period and on Election Day (for most voters those sites are different). It can also show voters a preview of their unique ballot so they can review the candidates and ballot questions in advance.

“The days of waiting till you get to the poll site to figure out what you’re doing should be over. The information is available,” Ryan said. (There has also been some media coverage of the ballot questions, of course.)

The Board of Elections did not decide on the language or length of the questions it was responsible for laying out. That was done by the Charter Revision Commission, which developed them in conjunction with the city’s Law Department. The commission settled on the five question categories and the provisions within them over the course of many months of deliberations, soliciting recommendations and feedback from the public on nearly every dimension of the city charter.

“The BOE did not give a strict word length. We didn’t know how they would lay out the ballot but we attempted to balance providing clear and reasonably comprehensive questions while also providing enough background to allow voters to make intelligent decisions,” Marissa Solomon, the commission’s communications specialist, told Gotham Gazette.

Solomon said the Charter Revision Commission and the Law Department attempted to avoid lengthy descriptions while also steering away from legal jargon.

“The Board of Elections has informed us that abstracts, which contain more detail than the questions on the ballot, will also be available at polling places for voters who want more detailed information on one or more questions,” she added.

The layout of the ballot has been a focal point for election reformers and good government groups for years. It was something advocates sought to address this year when the State Legislature came under Democratic control for the first time in close to a decade.

“While there are several valid considerations that go into ballot design and layout, this is another area...where New York’s election law and practice has failed to keep up with modern notions of accessibility and basic fairness,” Berg told Gotham Gazette.

In March, the Legislature passed the Voter Friendly Ballot Act (VFBA), which codifies several design best practices that proponents say will make it easier for voters to understand and navigate the ballot. The bill has not been signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo; a spokesperson told Gotham Gazette that the legislation is under review.

The VFBA “does a number of interrelated things. It removes various requirements that are currently in law that make it more difficult to design the ballot effectively,” said Senator Brian Kavanagh, the bill’s sponsor, in an interview.

Right now, the ballots must have various images like party symbols and an index finger icon pointing toward candidate names, which take up space. The law “requires certain things to be all caps even though document usability professionals would tell you that all caps is not a particularly useful way” of increasing legibility, according to Kavanagh. “So some of the effects of that would be that you’d have more space on the ballot, especially on the other side of the ballot,” he said.

In terms of font size, the bill’s drafters focused on candidate names over ballot questions. “There is no mandate about font size for something like text of a referendum,” said Kavanagh, referring to the provisions of the bill.

“The thing that dictates the small size in New York City is something the city should change administratively,” he added.

Kavanagh believes one of the problems with the font size of ballot questions is that they have to be printed in multiple languages on the same page. He claims one way to fix that is to have multiple ballot styles with fewer languages printed on them.

“The city Board has the ability to do that and they have resisted that. I think they are concerned that administratively it’s hard to have different ballot styles,” he said.

Kavanagh admits having enough language-specific ballot styles would be a logistical challenge for the BOE. “But in my view it is far outweighed by the simple principle that people have to be able to read their ballots relatively easily,” he said, adding, “so I think it is a mistake for the city to be using 7.5-point font for these important questions that voters need to consider.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: Breaking Down the Consequential Questions on Your Ballot

Rachel Bloom and Susan Lerner

(photo: @Gothamgazette)

October 23, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: The Consequential Questions on Your Ballot

rb sl podcastThere are 5 consequential questions on the New York City ballot this fall, each of which poses changes to city elections or governance for "yes" or "no" reponses from voters. Two leading goverment reform experts -- Susan Lerner of Common Cause NY and Rachel Bloom of Citizens Union -- joined the podcast to discuss each of the five ballot questions and whether voters should approve or disapprove them.

(Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. Gotham Gazette does not take positions on ballot referenda or candidates for office.)

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy."

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Do New Yorkers Know About the Ballot Questions They Can Answer This Fall?

jack hts bus

(photo: @Charter2019NYC)

Just seven people trickled in from the rain to attend the information session in the Lower Gallery of the Bronx Museum of the Arts last Wednesday night. Despite the low turnout, the small group has the potential to reach dozens or even hundreds more people because most of those who attended represented organizations. They had come to the museum that night to gather information to bring back to their members about the proposals that will be on this year’s ballot, whereby voters will approve or disapprove 19 changes to New York City governance and elections.

The event was part of the outreach strategy of the 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission, which has held an information session in each borough to educate the public on the five ballot questions -- containing the 19 suggested city charter amendments -- that are about to go before voters across the five boroughs.

The commission was created through City Council legislation to explore the charter and propose amendments for New Yorkers to approve or reject, and its work is now coming to fruition -- early voting begins Saturday, October 26, and runs through Sunday, November 3; Election Day is Tuesday, November 5.

In the end, the commission put forth various proposals that amount to significant changes, though not an upheaval of how city government works. But for the amount of change contained in the five ballot questions and the granular detail of each one, the commission faces an uphill battle to get the word out, and its partners in city government are not doing much to help. Meanwhile, the commission did its work during the one year of the four-year election cycle with the fewest political races on the ballot to help drum up interest and participation.

“I wanted to come because I had heard about some of the prior sessions but have not had the opportunity to come to one,” said Kerry McLean of Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation, who had braved the weather to find out how the amendments could impact her constituents.

“We’re getting a lot of information now, but there was not a lot of information,” she told Gotham Gazette.

The Bronx outreach session came after others in Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens, and just before the Manhattan session the next night. An initial round of info sessions in each borough took place in September. (There were a series of other open meetings and public hearings leading up to the commission issuing its proposals that also offered the public opportunities to learn about the process and participate in it. The commission received hundreds of recommendations from civic leaders, good government groups, and everyday New Yorkers, eventually winnowing them down to the 19 in five categories, from elections to police oversight to city budget, and others.)

On Wednesday night, the Charter Revision Commission’s staff gave an initial overview of the scope of the commission’s work and how it functioned.

There was a bit of an echo in the room where the four commission staff, in commission-branded t-shirts, spoke and answered questions. Tables were set up along the walls on either side of the room, each dedicated to a different ballot question, where the seven members of the audience would stop and listen or ask questions. Rows of empty foldable chairs stood between the tables.

Following the opening remarks, the group began the more intimate discussion of each ballot question where they took advantage of the opportunity to probe for more details.

The Charter Revision Commission is now in the final weeks of outreach to inform voters about what they will see on the ballot and the implications of each proposal. The proposed amendments deal with a wider range of issues than charter commissions in recent decades. They fall into five categories, each with its own ballot question: elections, Civilian Complaint Review Board, ethics and governance, city budget, and land use.

The question getting the most public attention is number one, which would institute ranked-choice voting for party primary and special elections. The change would allow voters to select candidates on the ballot by preference rather than choosing just one and is backed by a coalition of advocates. It would eliminate run-off elections and is intended to ensure more inclusive, positive campaigning where winners of crowded races are chosen with a wide base of support.

Perhaps the most controversial proposal is one that would give the Civilian Complaint Review Board the ability to prosecute officers who lie under investigation, which is one of the planks under Question 2. That provision initially failed during a vote of the Charter Revision Commission, but was later approved after some commissioners sought a revote. Along with four other pieces, approval of Question 2 would strengthen the CCRB’s oversight of the NYPD and alter its structure slightly. While many police reformers want to see it passed, the largest police officers union is mounting a campaign to defeat it.

Other significant pieces of Questions 3, 4, and 5 include extending the prohibition on former government officials lobbying city government from one year to two years; creating independent budgeting for the public advocate and borough presidents; a significant step toward the city being able to create a “rainy day fund” for budget savings; and giving more notice to community boards getting about land-use applications.

The commission was created by the City Council in partnership with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and then-Public Advocate Letitia James. Appointees came from Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Mayor Bill de Blasio, as well as James, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and the five borough presidents. No single office held a majority of the appointments, but Johnson selected the chair.

According to representatives, the commission has reached approximately 1,500 people at in-person info sessions, panels, and fairs and has shared its educational materials with over 3,000 civic and community groups throughout the city. There are roughly 5.2 million active registered voters across the city, a very small percentage of which are expected to turn out this fall.

“A major strategy of the outreach team has been to try to reach as many leaders as possible because we can only do so much with our small team,” said Marissa Solomon, a spokesperson for the Charter Revision Commission, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

Commissioners and the Charter Revision Commission’s staff have presented at meetings of community boards, political clubs, and unions; civic groups like the Association for Better New York and the League of Women Voters; professional networks like the New York City Bar Association; at public libraries and in college classrooms. They have done radio, television, and podcast appearances. Subway and bus ads are running in English, Spanish, Bengali, Korean, and Traditional Chinese, according to Solomon.

Despite its efforts, the public likely remains uninformed about the content of the ballot proposals and even what role an appointed commission plays within the branches and auspices of city government. Several attendees at Wednesday night’s info session came into the meeting with the belief that the city’s Charter Revision Commission was involved in state efforts to deal with public campaign financing and fusion voting, which are being addressed in a separate commission created by Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature.

According to Solomon, the commission had a budget of between $1 million and $1.4 million for the full ad campaign, which is comprised of television, radio, print, transit, and social media ads, including a commercial hosted by the stars of Comedy Central’s “Broad City.”

She said to get the word out about the five-borough information sessions, the commission advertised on social media and sent information to news bulletins like the ones published by City & State, NY1, Politico New York, and the Associated Press. The commission has just 1,118 Twitter followers.

The info sessions held last week are the last scheduled before voters go to the polls, but Solomon believes the number of individuals engaged “will grow exponentially as Election Day draws closer.” She says this will be done largely through additional speaking engagements being organized with specific groups where the demand for information or the potential for broad reach is high.

The city’s Campaign Finance Board has been leading its own parallel outreach through its civic engagement initiative, NYC Votes. Throughout the month the CFB has been conducting an email campaign dedicated to each ballot proposal in the lead-up to the early voting period beginning October 26, though it is not clear how many subscribers those e-blasts have.

Information on each proposal is also part of the CFB’s voter guide, which is mailed to voters and available on its website, including statements from advocates for and against each proposal. NYC Votes has rolled out a paid social media campaign about the new early voting format with ad placements on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and a video directing voters to its website where they can access the Voter Guide.

"This year’s election is an opportunity for New Yorkers to start their early voting habit now--before we vote for president in 2020, and for mayor in 2021. With five important questions on the ballot, there isn't a better time to take advantage of New York's new early voting law," said Eric Friedman, Assistant Executive Director for Public Affairs at the CFB, in a statement.

But outside of the Charter Revision Commission and the Campaign Finance Board, few if any other city entities appear to be reaching out to voters.

Mayor de Blasio’s relatively new DemocracyNYC initiative, headed by Chief Democracy Officer Ayirini Fonseca-Sabune, is geared toward civic engagement and has been more focused on educating the public on the early voting system, according to administration spokesperson Jose Bayona.

“We work to complement the outreach of other agencies, including those doing outreach on the ballot questions,” Bayona wrote in an email, without providing specifics other than saying that the office has been directing voters to the CFB’s NYC Votes website.

A representative of City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who was instrumental in creating the charter commission, pointed to examples of tweets and a radio appearance in which Johnson directed voters to learn more about the proposed amendments.

“As a sponsor of the legislation that created this historic Charter Commission, Speaker Johnson has been vocal about urging New Yorkers to make their voices heard on our city’s constitution. The Speaker will continue educating the public about this opportunity through Election Day,” wrote the spokesperson.

Neither Johnson nor the larger Council that he heads nor other top elected officials appear to have made much, if any, effort to get the word out about the existence of the ballot measures, much less urging voters to turn out to approve or disapprove them.

The city Board of Elections has little on its website about the ballot questions other than a sample ballot that includes them, but there is nothing greeting visitors to the site that indicates all New York City voters will have the five questions to answer when turning up to the polls.

Vivian Carter, a Bronx-resident who attended Wednesday night’s info session, heard about it from City & State’s calendar of public events. “Well, I know about ranked-choice voting because there’s been a lot of discussion about it and, to be honest with you, I really haven’t seen too much in the media about what the four other proposals are,” she told Gotham Gazette.

“It’s just good to hear from these people that were involved and put this together. The fact that the Charter Revision Commission staff are here made me more interested in coming,” she added.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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