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Citizens Union

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Making Voting Easier

Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

voting made easy
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With change in the air as Americans watched the inauguration of a new president and the start of a new year, New York's leaders are setting their agendas for 2009. This month Gov. David Paterson delivered his first State of the State address, focusing on the economy and the challenges facing New York. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's State of the City also emphasized an economic recovery plan. Both executives spoke about education and infrastructure issues, as well as the tough choices government will have to make this year. What was clear in both of their addresses -- mostly from what Paterson and Bloomberg did not say -- is that during these difficult financial times reform will be left on the sidelines, particularly election changes that would make casting ballots easier and more secure for New Yorkers.

In November, Paterson asked New York Secretary of State Loraine Cortes-Vazquez to issue a report analyzing the 2008 election and highlight potential reforms that could increase voter participation. Cortes-Velazquez's report is set to be released in February. Despite the impending report and pleas from advocates, however, many wonder how much of a priority election reform will be for this administration. With a new year ahead, voting advocates and many voters have their own ideas about changes big and small that would make the election process more accountable, more secure and more accessible.

Early Voting

The excitement surrounding the 2008 elections caused record voter turnout nationwide. Voters headed to the polls early in states that allow people to cast ballots before Election Day. The rules for early voting vary from state to state and can range from allowing residents to cast absentee ballots without citing a reason to establishing early voting centers with voting machines.

In New York, state law allows absentee voting only by residents who are absent from the county or too ill to vote in person on Election Day. Despite that, New Yorkers, apparently unaware that early voting is not permitted here, headed to their borough election offices days before the Nov. 4 election to cast their ballots. The New York Times reported that between 50,000 and 60,000 absentee ballots had been received by Oct. 28, and some voters waited up to two hours at their borough office to obtain and cast an absentee ballot. Their votes were included with those cast in person on Election Day. In a press conference, Marcus Cederqvist, executive director of the city Board of Elections, speculated that stories from other states might have led New Yorkers to believe early voting was available here.

Voter advocates have begun pushing for a change in the New York State constitution and state law that would allow voters to cast ballots before Election Day using an absentee ballot without requiring the voter to provide an excuse. No-excuse absentee voting would increase the number of people who would vote in advance of the election and ultimately boost turnout.

Register, Then Vote

Another election change aimed at making voting easier and more accessible to voters is Election Day registration, also know as same-day registration, which is currently allowed in nine states. Election Day registration lets voters both register and vote on the day of the election. In some states, voters are required to fill out an affidavit ballot, and after their eligibility has been verified, the vote is counted. In other states, voters register at a central location and then, on the same day, vote at their local polling place. Still others allow same-day voting if the voter casts a ballot before Election Day.

New York State offers none of these options. Instead people must register to vote at least 25 days prior to the election.

In 2004, New York ranked 46th in voter turnout across the country, and in the last five presidential elections (not including 2008), New York State voter turnout failed to exceed 51 percent of the voting age population. In contrast, in three of the states with Election Day registration -- Maine, Minnesota and Wisconsin -- voter turnout in the 2004 presidential election exceeded 70 percent.

In New York, Assemblymember Michael Gianaris sponsored bill A. 4488 during the 2007-2008 legislative session, which would have amended state election law to implement Election Day registration. This bill has not been reintroduced yet for this session.

Those lobbying for the change cite New York's abysmal voter turnout rates as a key reason for implementing same-day registration. Opponents, on the other hand, argue that the process would be too costly, would create more work for election officials and, if improperly implemented, make elections more vulnerable to voter fraud. None of the nine states with Election Day registration, however, reports increased voting fraud.

Universal Registration

Another election reform that has been receiving attention is universal registration. Under this practice, the government would compile a list of all citizens eligible to vote and use it as the official roster of voters. Anyone on the list would automatically be registered and would only have to show up on Election Day and vote. Lists would be compiled either from census records or by adding names from different municipal or state lists, like social service recipients or people registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Proponents argue that universal registration would eliminate the problems voters encounter with not being on the rolls on Election Day and increase voter participation. A recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice entitled "Universal Voter Registration" examines the link between registration barriers and voter participation. At a recent City Council hearing, state Board of Elections commissioner Douglas Kellner said, "The concept is quite simple: Every citizen over 18 year of age, who is not incarcerated for a felony conviction and who has not been declared judicially incompetent should be entitled to vote. Period."

Other Reforms

Even without bold changes such as these, voting advocates argue that steps can be taken to improve the election process in New York. Modernizing election agency Websites, improving hotline capacity, better training for poll workers and increased access to the polls for disabled voters are among the many changes advocated by organizations like the Brennan Center, Citizens Union, Common Cause/NY, New York Public Interest and Research Group, the League of Women Voters of New York, the Women's City Club of New York and Center for Independence of the Disabled.

For some though, these small-scale reforms -- and the slow or nonexistent progress of the state's election agencies and city and state elected officials to implement them -- signal a need for greater changes to the structure of New York's election administration. Citizens Union (whose sister organization, Citizens Union Foundation, publishes Gotham Gazette) plans to issue a report in the coming weeks that discusses the importance of reforming how elections are run and a departure from what it characterizes as the old way of voting.

While reforming elections in New York state may not top anyone's agenda, at least publicly, for 2009, voters and advocates will no doubt continue to tell their legislators "out with the old, in with the new" when it comes to voting procedures in the state.

Andrea Senteno is program associate for Citizens Union Foundation, which publishes Gotham Gazette.

Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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The $67 Million Question

By David Fischer

With so many New Yorkers suddenly out of work after September 11th, the city government set up a series of much-publicized job fairs at Madison Square Garden. Tens of thousands of the unemployed came in search of work, and according to the city's Human Resources Administration, more than 1,250 people found it. The agency also set up the Twin Towers Job Link system, four job centers scattered throughout the city that offered a variety of services to sudden job searchers, such as the use of phones and computers, as well as a database of available jobs.

To people not following the city's track record in workforce development, this effort might have seemed impressive. But nobody who knows what Boston or Seattle or many other cities have been doing, was impressed with New York City's last-minute scramble -- least of all the federal government. That is why the feds gave New York City just $25 million in a National Emergency Grant for the re-training of workers who had lost their jobs. This sum is only enough to re-train about 6,000 workers, or about six percent of those who had been thrown out of work in October alone.

Why so little? "It's difficult to make the case for more," replied Marilyn Shea, the city's regional administrator with the United States Department of Labor, "when there's so much unspent money."

Yes, that's right. In this crisis time of dizzying budget deficits and daunting unemployment figures, New York City has been sitting on a pile of unspent federal workforce funds -- $67 million, to be exact. The city has been so slow in using these funds that the feds and the state now have set a deadline of June 30 for the city to spend the money. Whatever the city does not spend by that date will be handed over to New York State, which can then redistribute it to other areas that have made better use of their funding.

So, it is literally the $67 million question: Will the city use this money it was given for job training programs, or will it lose it?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg inherited this mess from his predecessor in City Hall. Rudy Giuliani did not think highly of job training, and neither did the man he appointed as commissioner of the Human Resources Administration, Jason Turner.

Focused on cutting the welfare rolls, Giuliani and Turner somehow viewed job training as a means for poor New Yorkers to continue dependence and put off getting a job.

The city's economic boom during the 1990's helped camouflage the harmful aspects of this approach, producing tons of low-wage service jobs filled by individuals coming off welfare. But this did nothing for the hundreds of city employers starving for skilled workers.

Ironically, those few programs in which the agency did work directly with employers produced occasionally spectacular results, including a project with Sun Microsystems. Sun trained and placed a dozen former welfare recipients as computer network administrators. But the city pursued precious few customized training initiatives like this with specific employers, even though they would guarantee job placements, and classroom-based training was entirely out of the question. More typically, then, the city's approach meant that many of those formerly on welfare were now working, but still poor.

This was not what Congress intended when it passed the Workforce Investment Act in 1998. Under the act, local business people are supposed to take the lead in making policy, through what are called Workforce Investment Boards. But while many states took advantage of an option to implement the new law early and thus got a head start on setting up their programs, New York did not get started until mid-2000.

New York City formed a "provisional" Workforce Investment Board just days before the federal deadline to do so on June 30, 2000, and has created just one of the one-stop job centers mandated by the act and intended to serve as the primary means for delivery of services to job seekers. Los Angeles, by contrast, has 18. Houston has 12. Even Tampa has five.

New York's Workforce Investment Board soon proved to be largely powerless. At a recent New York City Council hearing, the head of the board, Stuart Saft, observed that to the Giuliani administration, the board was "the functional equivalent of a speed bump [There was] a strong concern that the board would interfere with whatever the philosophy was with respect to employment and training."

That philosophy proved insufficient to address the employment crisis that arose after September 11. Efforts elsewhere, however, were bolstered by systems already in place. Boston, for example, was able to set up an emergency one-stop center at Logan Airport, where thousands had been laid off after the attacks. Essex County, New Jersey soon followed suit at Newark Airport. Across the country, local areas were using already-thriving workforce networks to craft creative and effective emergency responses to an economic shock that was felt far beyond New York City's borders.

We have an opportunity in New York to make a break with the failed policies of the past. City Hall has signaled a newly pragmatic approach to workforce development. Unlike their predecessors, both Commissioner Verna Eggleston of the Human Resources Administration and Commissioner Betty Wu of the city's Department of Employment have been saying all the right things. Eggleston, for example, has made clear that employers will now be preferred customers for her agency, and has called for increased collaboration with the city's Economic Development Corporation to work with businesses in training employees.

To move the issue forward, however, Mayor Bloomberg himself has to get involved. The one constant of all the cities that have succeeded with workforce policy is that the mayor has taken an active role. Besides, no one has more credibility with the business community than this mayor.

Additionally, the Workforce Investment Board must be empowered to fulfill its legal function as the primary voice in setting job training policy in New York. The board is key in getting employers involved, figuring out where job growth will occur, and determining what training really works and what does not. Our ultimate aim should be to make sure that workforce development is an integral part of economic development in our city.

David Fischer is project director for workforce development issues at the Center for an Urban Future

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Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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