Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/2693 Wed, 16 Oct 2019 12:55:40 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Automatic Voter Registration is Good for Service Members, Veterans, and All New Yorkers https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8582-automatic-voter-registration-is-good-for-service-members-veterans-and-all-new-yorkers https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8582-automatic-voter-registration-is-good-for-service-members-veterans-and-all-new-yorkers vet day parade

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


When I reported to my first duty as a Junior Officer of the United States Navy, my senior officer told me: “Your job is to take care of your people. Your people will take care of the ship.” This advice holds true outside the service: take care of your people, and they will take care of their  family, their community, and their country.

It holds especially true when it comes to New York’s more than one million eligible voters who are not registered to vote. As a member of the armed services and as a veteran I’ve faced the burden of having to register to vote in multiple states, particularly here in New York, where the registration process is cumbersome, time-consuming, and inefficient. Now imagine if our state government systems actually worked together to reduce the bureaucracy for New Yorkers trying to navigate them. One significant way the U.S., and New York in particular, can make sure all can take part in the democratic process is by passing Automatic Voter Registration (AVR).

The idea is simple: instead of placing the onus of registration on individuals, eligible voters are automatically registered to vote by the state when they interact with a government agency.

Under New York’s current system, when someone moves within the state, they’re required to take the proactive step of updating their registration information. With AVR, the process would be made seamless. For example, if applying for a driver’s license or registering for classes, your info would be transmitted to the Board of Elections without any further action required on your part.

Critics argue that voters should take some responsibility for their registration but making it easier to register and preventing people from having to chase bureaucracy is a small price to pay, particularly for those who have borne the burden of war. The fact is, registration rates among active service members are consistently lower than among Americans generally. This is especially true in New York, which has the fifth largest veteran population of any state and is saddled with chronically low rates of registration.

For mobile or hard-to-reach populations like service members, as well as low income communities and communities of color, AVR would prove particularly effective, allowing your registration to follow you instead of vice versa. That also goes for military veterans suffering from physical or mental illness.

Beyond making the experience easier, AVR would also bring our agencies into the digital age. Imagine if our state government systems actually worked together to reduce bureaucratic wrangling that has come to define New York’s electoral process.

My career after the military has involved working with clients on digital transformations. I have observed organizations that I work with benefit from taking down the walls that separate their information systems. AVR is no different in the level of efficiency it would generate.

By now many of us are familiar with the 2016 incident in which the New York City Board of Elections erased 200,000 voters from the rolls. The reason for incidents like this is that our agencies tend to be siloed. New York requires residents to go online and fill out a separate form to register to vote, despite the fact that numerous agencies already collect the necessary information required to fill out voting forms.

AVR would break down these walls. A visit to the DMV or a Medicaid office would enable those agencies to electronically transmit your registration information to the BOE in a form that can be read by a computerized registrant list – saving time and money.

One study found that online and automated voter registrations saved Maricopa County, Arizona over $450,000 in 2008. It cost 33 cents to manually process an electronic application and an average of 3 cents to use a partially automated review process, compared with 83 cents for processing a paper registration form.

We have the opportunity to facilitate voter registration and make the process simpler while ridding our voter rolls of duplicates and eliminating incorrect and out-of-date addresses.

That’s why I went to Albany during a recent legislative hearing to share my experience.

Maintaining and protecting democracy requires more than service-men and -women going in harm’s way. It also requires providing citizens with not only the liberty, but the realistic ability, to exercise the right to vote and participate in the democratic dialogue.

We need to take care of our people by making it easier for all eligible voters so they can take care of our ship - this country. To ensure the full enjoyment of the rights for which my fellow veterans and I fought, and our current service-members continue to fight, the New York State Legislature should pass automatic voter registration this session.

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Dolpha Freeman is a former U.S. Naval Officer and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. Dolpha currently works in a digital transformation consulting practice and resides in the Hudson Valley.

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Automatic Voter Registration is Good for Service Members, Veterans, and All New Yorkers Sun, 09 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
For Senators and Advocates, It’s How, Not Whether, to Implement Automatic Voter Registration https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8561-senators-advocates-implement-automatic-voter-registration-new-york https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8561-senators-advocates-implement-automatic-voter-registration-new-york myrie avr

Senator Zellnor Myrie at Thursday's pre-hearing rally (photo: @SenatorMyrie)


Following several reforms to the state’s election and voting laws that were passed by the state Legislature and signed by Governor Cuomo earlier this year, the New York State Senate’s elections committee seems poised to move ahead with legislation to implement a system of automatic voter registration.

At a public hearing on Thursday in Albany, the elections committee, chaired by Democratic Senator Zellnor Myrie of Brooklyn, heard testimony from experts, election officials, voting reform advocates, and immigrant advocates, all of whom agreed that New York must implement automatic voter registration (AVR). The hearing came just after a crowded and energetic rally in the capital, led by the Let NY Vote coalition, at which legislators of both houses and advocates called for passage of AVR.

The key questions apparent on Thursday were whether AVR has support in the Assembly and from the governor, and what type of AVR system should be adopted -- a split opinion was clear at the hearing, which was called in part to help sort out the different proposals.

In 2016, Oregon was the first state to approve AVR, and since then, 17 other states and the District of Columbia have also adopted the system. In New York, which has consistently ranked low on voter registration and turnout, Myrie said AVR is “critically important to our democracy.”

“My goal is to bring New York from worst to first,” he said, with reference to the package of bills passed earlier this year, which included an early voting program set to launch this fall.

There have been several bills on AVR introduced this legislative session in the Senate and Assembly. Besides massively increasing the number of registered voters in the state -- roughly 2 million New Yorkers are eligible to vote but not registered -- AVR also promises to reduce the costs of election administration, make voting more efficient, and expand access for the state’s most vulnerable populations including low-income communities, people of color, and young people.

It would also complement the many reforms that the Democratic-controlled Legislature passed this year, including early voting, pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, and portability of voter registrations The Legislature also consolidated the state and federal primary and approved the use of electronic poll books, and crossed one of three thresholds for other reforms, including same-day voter registration, that require a change to the state constitution.

The State Board of Elections showed its own split on the idea of AVR. In testimony submitted to the committee, Todd Valentine, the BOE’s Republican co-executive director, said, “Forcing inclusion against the voter’s will is an act of a top-down government. And saying that there’s an ‘opt-out’ clause is really flipping the script on free choice – the choice is made – you are in. This violates a citizen’s basic free speech rights, which includes expressing displeasure
with the electoral process by not participating.”

Robert Brehm, the Democratic co-executive director, who testified in person, supported it. “Certainly, automatic voter registration is an important reform,” he said, also hinting at the disagreement within the Board. “We have a bit of an ideology issue there,” he said.

Dustin Czarny, an elections commissioner in Onondaga County, and chair of the Democratic Caucus of the New York State Elections Commissioner Association, called AVR an “egalitarian benefit” and said the Legislature must pass it to build on the successful reforms from this session. “I’m here to caution against the feeling that maybe we’ve done enough, because we can never have done enough when it comes to voter access,” he said.

Though there was generally consensus at the hearing about the benefits of AVR, the panellists testifying before the committee disagreed over whether AVR should be implemented through a front-end or back-end system, or some hybrid of both.

In a front-end system, voters that interact with specific state agencies for different purposes – such as the Department of Motor Vehicles – would be automatically given the option to register to vote and choose one or no party affiliation, or opt out. In a back-end system, the state would use databases of New Yorkers maintained by different agencies to determine who is eligible to be registered and transmit that information to the state Board of Elections to add them to the voter rolls. The BOE would then inform those individuals by mail, giving them the option to choose their party affiliation or to opt out and not be added to the rolls.

Of the states that have passed AVR, only Oregon and Alaska implemented a back-end system. But both approaches have their weaknesses, experts said.

A back-end system could inadvertently enroll ineligible individuals such as undocumented immigrants and legal non-citizen residents, which could open them up to deportation or threaten their chances of obtaining citizenship. It could also enroll voters who want to maintain their confidentiality, such as survivors of domestic and sexual abuse.

Voters would also not be immediately affiliated with a party, which could lead to confusion because of New York’s closed primary system and early deadlines for switching party affiliation -- nearly six months before a primary. Voters, particularly in New York City, tend not to respond to mailers from the BOE, which means they could miss the opportunity to fix any issues with their registration.

But a front-end system would require agencies to ask an individual about their eligibility and citizenship, a fraught question particularly in a state with a large immigrant population among whom the federal government under President Donald Trump has created an atmosphere of heightened fear.

Other experts and advocates raised concerns about the lack of training among agency personnel about registration procedures and the dearth of accomodation for people with limited English proficiency. At an agency point of service, under constraints of time and with other priorities in mind, individuals could make mistakes.

Sean Morales-Doyle, counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, warned against a back-end system. “We don’t want people getting registered without knowing it,” he said, insisting that an AVR system should have protections for vulnerable communities and that it should be implemented through multiple agencies, including the DMV, which already processes voter registration applications.

But Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said her organization tended to prefer the back-end system and emphasized that there are ways to filter information on voting eligible New Yorkers without adverse consequences. For instance, she noted that the Department of Health serves a far broader population than the DMV and has more than 6 million people registered for Medicaid, which tracks their status. “So we’re not asking the agency to ask citizenship questions that they’re not already asking,” she said.

It is often noted even under the current registration system that centering the DMV favors suburban and rural areas over urban centers given that city-dwellers are less likely to interact with the DMV.

Lerner urged the committee to ensure several provisions in any bill that passes, including creating a working group of agencies and advocates to study which agencies are best to implement AVR, ensure the security of collected data, and to require regular reporting on how the system is being implemented.

Morales-Doyle, Lerner, and others generally agreed that AVR should involve multiple agencies, and that some flexibility should be built into the legislation to allow more agencies to implement it.

Sean McElwee, founder of AVR Now and co-founder of Data for Progress, also supported a back-end system, noting that from analysis of Oregon’s program, 44% of those registered through AVR cast a ballot in the 2016 election. “In the Oregon system, more than 90% of people do not opt out, so they’re either added to the rolls or have their registrations updated,” he noted. “In Colorado, prior to switching to a back-end system, only one in three people chose not to opt out.”

Senator Michael Gianaris has introduced a bill that would implement back-end AVR, and he argued at the hearing that he would rather put the onus of a registration system on the government rather than individuals. His bill contains a safe-harbor provision that would prevent an individual from being liable for a mistake in the state voter rolls. “An error in the statewide voter registration list shall not constitute a fraudulent or false claim to citizenship,” his bill reads.

But immigration advocates weren’t reassured by the provision, noting that federal enforcement agencies do not give immigrants the benefit of the doubt in such cases. “They do not weigh intent. They do not weigh method of registration,” said Amy Torres, director of policy at the Chinese-American Planning Council.

That sentiment was shared by Wennie Chen, senior manager of civic engagement at the New York Immigration Coalition, and Monica Vargas-Huertas, deputy northeast director of NALEO Educational Fund. “Errors that can cause serious negative collateral consequences are more likely to go unnoticed until it’s too late in a backend system,” said Vargas-Huertas.

With eleven session days left in the legislative year, the Assembly has yet to even discuss the issue of AVR. “We will talk about it with our members,” said Mike Whyland, a spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, in an email.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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For Senators and Advocates, It’s How, Not Whether, to Implement Automatic Voter Registration Thu, 30 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Now’s the Time for Automatic Voter Registration in New York https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8170-now-s-the-time-for-automatic-voter-registration-in-new-york https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8170-now-s-the-time-for-automatic-voter-registration-in-new-york primary voting parkslope

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Over the last several decades, 15 states across the country – both red and blue – have modernized their voting laws, including our neighbors in New Jersey and Massachusetts. Unfortunately, here in New York we remain mired in the past, refusing to implement reforms to fix the state’s poor electoral system and erecting arbitrary barriers to voter participation.

The results are clear: New York routinely has some of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country. In 2018, New York ranked 48th in turnout. Also important to this discussion is that in the midst of the 2016 election, upwards of 200,000 voters were illegally purged from the voter rolls in Brooklyn due to errors at the New York City Board of Elections.

Now, more than ever, New York has an obligation to make it simpler – not harder – for people to vote.

This legislative session in Albany, we can make real change. New York can move our elections into the future by passing Automatic Voter Registration, or AVR.

The idea behind AVR is simple: instead of putting the burden of registering to vote on individuals, the state automatically registers them when they interact with government agencies and they can elect not to participate if they so choose. Here’s an example of how it would work.

When an eligible voter goes to the DMV or enrolls in Medicaid, he or she is already supplying a variety of data – name, birthdate, address, etc. From that single interaction, New Yorkers can and should be able to sign up for the service they’re seeking and register or update their voting information.   

Automatic Voter Registration would securely collect and electronically transfer the data of eligible voters to the state Board of Elections, which would then send a pre-paid postcard to the voter to give them the chance to opt out of registration. If the individual doesn’t opt out, he or she is added to the rolls.

It's simple, it’s commonsensical, and it promotes civic engagement. AVR not only allows more individuals to participate in the democratic process by easing the registration process, it also ensures that voter rolls are accurate and up-to-date.

And we know it works.

In Oregon, for instance, 94 percent of individuals who interacted with the DMV and were eligible to vote were registered. Research suggests that 44 percent of the new registrants subsequently voted, leading Oregon to have the largest turnout increase between 2012 and 2016 of any state. In 2018, it had one of the highest turnout rates in the country.

AVR also saves the state money by eliminating the costs of provisional ballots, costly paper transactions, and manual data entry. Across the country, localities have saved an average of about $3.54 in costs per registration by moving from a paper to an electronic method.

And the time freed up allows election officials to focus less on data entry and more on running elections smoothly and efficiently. That’s something New York desperately needs.

The question is whether we have the will.

Here at home, polling released by a new New York advocacy effort, AVR NOW, from Civis Analytics shows there is positive support for AVR in almost every single New York state Senate district. Statewide, a supermajority of 64 percent of New York voters support AVR. That’s not surprising here in New York because even the most casual voter knows our elections are dysfunctional.

This session, New York has a chance to modernize our elections, tear down arbitrary barriers to voting, and reaffirm that our state works for all the people.

We should seize it.

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State Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens is the incoming Deputy Majority Leader and author of New York's Automatic Voter Registration bill. Sean McElwee is a policy analyst, writer and co-founder of Data for Progress. On Twitter @SenGianaris & @SeanMcElwee.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Now’s the Time for Automatic Voter Registration in New York Wed, 02 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000