Gotham Gazette Sun, 31 May 2020 11:10:48 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) New Queens Borough President Special Election Date - Same as Party Primaries - Causes Confusion for Candidates, Officials mashup six

(l-r top) Richards, Crowley, Constantinides, (bottom) Quinn, Yin, Miranda

After being postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak, the Queens Borough president special election was rescheduled to take place on June 23, causing broad confusion among the candidates running for the seat and likely a logistical headache for election administrators since a separate primary for the position is also set for the same day.

The special election, which was triggered when Queens Borough President Melinda Katz was elected the borough’s district attorney, was originally scheduled for March 24, with an early voting period preceding it. But the winner of the election would only have served till the end of this year. Party primary elections would be held in June, followed by the general election in November, which would determine who serves the remainder of the term, which ends December 31, 2021.

Now, both the special election and the primary are scheduled for the same June date, coinciding with New York’s primary election for congressional and state legislative seats, according to an executive order signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. The governor also moved the state’s presidential primary from April 28 to June 23. The June election will also have the required early voting period (June 13 through June 21).

Special elections are nonpartisan, which means any registered voter can cast a ballot, and candidates do not run on established party lines but must create their own. Primary elections, on the other hand, are “closed” and only allow voters registered with the relevant political party to cast a vote.

But officials have now scheduled for the same day the special election to see who will be Queens Borough President for the rest of the year and the primaries to determine nominees for the November general election that will determine the officeholder for 2021. According to New York City Board of Elections general counsel Steven Richman, this means that voters will receive different ballots depending on their party affiliation, with some eligible to vote in both the special election and the Democratic primary, and some only eligible for the special election. It is unclear if there will be any other party primaries for the seat.

There are six candidates on the special election ballot for Queens Borough President, while the primary ballot has yet to be set. The candidates include City Council Members Donovan Richards and Costa Constantinides; former City Council Member Elizabeth Crowley; retired NYPD Sergeant and police reform advocate Anthony Miranda; former Queens Assistant District Attorney Jim Quinn; and Dao Yin, a community activist. They are all registered Democrats. [Read about their visions for Queens and the role of borough president.]

It’s an unprecedented situation, and the candidates themselves have received little clarity from election authorities. At the same time, the candidates also worry that by June, the coronavirus pandemic will have yet to subside and that voters need easier ways to vote while still staying safe from exposure.

“There’s some ambiguity still,” said Crowley, in a brief phone interview. “I'm confident in my electability as both a candidate in the special and the primary, but I want to know about the rules of fundraising and how you keep two elections separate.”

Crowley said she wants the New York City Board of Elections to make it easier for people to vote, particularly if they’re continuing to mostly shelter at home in June. “I would like to see the Board of Elections give every voter an absentee ballot. They already pay money to send voters information about where they should vote and where their early voting sites are. With that, they should also send them the ballot in case they're not able to go, they can vote by mail.”

In a statement on Tuesday, Constantinides said that votes cast in early voting, which had briefly begun in mid-March before the election was cancelled, should still be counted. He also called on the BOE to automatically mail absentee ballots to every registered Queens voter, rather than have people apply for them as is currently required by law.

Currently, state election law only allows absentee ballots by mail for specific circumstances, and none of them account for the situation currently facing the state. State legislators have proposed expanding the criteria, but their proposals have yet to advance in the Legislature.

Constantinides also called for a new cycle of public matching funds administered by the New York City Campaign Finance Board. The CFB administers the city’s campaign finance programs and candidates are required to file separate spending and fundraising disclosures for each election. It’s unclear how the CFB will be able to monitor campaigns for separate elections held the same day.

In a letter to city and state leaders last week, CFB executive director Amy Loprest recommended that the special election be scheduled for June 23, but with the winner serving the remainder of the term through December 2021. She insisted that the administration of two elections set for the same day would be a nightmare and would also confuse voters. “The recordkeeping that will be required of candidates, and the subsequent CFB audit of expenditures, will be borderline unmanageable,” she said.

Miranda echoed those concerns. “They're going to have to relax the absentee ballot process and ensure that everybody is getting an absentee ballot at home,” he said. He also criticized the “lack of clarity” from election officials about the rules governing two simultaneous elections. “You cut down the ability for candidates to communicate with the constituents, and you have no clarity in the message of health or the rules and regulations that govern this particular campaign,” he said.

“The health of voters and poll workers remains our primary concern, and moving the election is a way that will help us accomplish that,” said Council Member Richards, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “But we also need to educate voters on the process for this election, which requires guidance from the Board of Elections and the Campaign Finance Board. Elections are a crucial component of our democracy, and we must ensure that they are conducted properly.”

Quinn praised the governor’s decision to reschedule the election. “This is an incredibly trying time for our nation, our city, and in particular, our home borough of Queens, which continues to be a hot spot in the Coronavirus outbreak,” he said. “More than 10,000 of our friends, family and neighbors have contracted COVID-19 and more than 200 Queens residents have lost their lives. Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone affected by this virus. As we navigate this ‘new normal,’ we will continue to make the health and safety of New Yorkers our top priority and do our part to stop the spread. I have no doubt that we will emerge from this stronger than ever and more united in support of a strong, safe and healthy New York.”

[Read: In Special Election, Borough President Candidates Offer Different Visions for Queens]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

New Queens Borough President Special Election Date - Same as Party Primaries - Causes Confusion for Candidates, Officials Tue, 31 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Push for Online Voter Registration Bill as Coronavirus Prevents Registration Drives voting

Coronavirus complicates voter registration efforts & voting itself (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

A bill before the state Legislature expanding online voter registration in New York City has taken on particular urgency amid the coronavirus pandemic, its sponsors say, as in-person voter registration drives become impossible and New Yorkers are told to avoid leaving their homes but for essentials and emergencies.

The New York City Board of Elections currently only allows an individual to register to vote online through the Department of Motor Vehicles website. But any potential voter must first have a DMV-approved identification. In New York City, at the end of 2018, 3.8 million people had driver’s licenses in the city, which has a population of over 8.5 million, though many are under voting age of course. Driver’s licensing rates tend to be higher in rural and suburban counties, compared to the city’s dense and transit-rich boroughs.

The New York City Council attempted to open up the voter registration process through legislation under which the city’s Campaign Finance Board created an online voter registration portal that was ready last year. But the Board of Elections imposed additional burdens on the process, making it even more onerous than registering by mail, amid contradictory opinions about whether the city had the authority to create such a portal.

A bill sponsored in the State Legislature by Senator Zellnor Myrie of Brooklyn and Assemblymember Michael Blake of the Bronx, both Democrats, would give the Campaign Finance Board the express permission to launch that portal. It has passed the Senate’s election committee, which Myrie chairs, but has not yet moved to a full chamber vote or anywhere in the Assembly. Both legislators say it is particularly important that it be approved as the coronavirus crisis brings the state to a virtual standstill.

“We need to find every possible way to make sure democracy stays intact,” said Blake, in a phone interview. “We need to make sure that people are able to exercise their democratic rights. And just because someone is unable to go outside and live their lives should not mean that democracy should stop.”

The pandemic has already led to upheaval in the state’s democratic processes. Two special elections in New York City, for a Brooklyn City Council seat and Queens Borough President, as well as the statewide presidential primary were all postponed to June 23 to coincide with the congressional and state legislative primaries. Governor Andrew Cuomo suspended ballot petitioning and reduced the threshold for getting on the ballot.

Along the lines of the online voter registration push, there are calls for expanding automatic absentee and mail-in voting.

“Moments such as this, the crisis and challenge should lead to us having creativity,” Blake said. He said he has been raising his bill as well as expanded voting measures with leaders in his chamber. “We don't know when this will end. So what we should be doing is doing everything possible to make sure people are part of the process. You're using your phone to get news updates, you're using your phones to check on your loved ones. You should be able to use your phones and laptops to be registered.”

The registration deadline for new voters to participate on June 23 is May 29, and the deadline for the November 3 general election is October 9.

In a statement, Senator Myrie said, “If there ever was a time to bring New York’s democracy into the 21st century, it’s now. While we know there are a lot of issues on the table right now, our commitment to this issue hasn’t changed and we will continue to work with our colleagues to get it done.”

The Legislature is doing modified, social-distance appropriate voting in Albany this week as legislators and Governor Cuomo attempt to finalize a state budget by the April 1 deadline of the new fiscal year. As usual, many policy issues are on the table as well as fiscal ones.

Myrie and Blake aren’t the only ones pushing for their bill to become law. Jessica Rosario, a 21-year-old junior at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, has launched an online petition calling on the governor and Legislature to approve the bill and is working with other youth activists to organize a virtual day of action. “We're supposed to be socially distant but I think that we could still be socially aware at the same time,” she said in a phone interview.

She noted that the only other means of registering if you don’t have a DMV identification is if you print out and mail a form to the Board of Elections. “I don't know about anyone else but I'm in Queens, and I don't really feel like it's safe to go out if you don't have to for food or medical purposes,” she said. “And not everyone has a printer. Not everyone has that access.”

“I feel like it's never been more important than right now for things to move digitally. We have education moving digitally, people working remotely. Why not create a digital space for democracy?”

If the bill should pass, the Campaign Finance Board would be able to launch its portal almost immediately. The bill would then become redundant in 2021, when the state Board of Elections is meant to launch a statewide registration portal.

"We urge our state leadership to protect our democracy during this emergency by establishing an online voter registration system that all New Yorkers can access,” said Amy Loprest, executive director of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, in a statement. “With in-person voter registration events shut down, we are concerned that young voters and naturalized citizens, in particular, will be disenfranchised during this critical election year.”

"The NYC Campaign Finance Board's online registration system is a sensible, secure and timely alternative to paper applications and in-person registration efforts during this unprecedented public health crisis, “ said Luis Feliz Leon, a spokesperson for DemocracyNYC, a de Blasio initiative aimed at improving voter participation in the city. "We hope the City Board of Elections will work with the CFB to accept voter registrations submitted this way."

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated with comment from a spokesperson for DemocracyNYC. 

Push for Online Voter Registration Bill as Coronavirus Prevents Registration Drives Mon, 30 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Key Details Emerge for How Ranked-Choice Voting Will Work in New York City primary voting chi bdb

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Though a new system for holding many city elections was overwhelmingly approved by voters last fall, new details about how ranked-choice voting will actually work continue to emerge.

Ranked-choice voting, which will apply to only special and primary elections for New York City government positions, allows voters to rank up to five candidates in order of preference. If no candidate hits a majority of votes, a system of vote redistribution based on second and possibly subsequent choices is executed, with ballots initially cast for the last-place candidate assigned to each of those voters’ second choices, and so on until a winner is crowned.

While several potential benefits, including the end to costly, low turnout run-off elections, helped lead to the passage of ranked-choice voting, concerns have been raised about educating voters on the new, complex system before its 2021 implementation.

Under ranked-choice voting, how the results are tabulated, when vote tallies are reported, and when unofficial winners are declared have implications for the way New Yorkers understand election results.

Newly evident details about the methodology for tabulating and reporting ranked-choice voting results in New York City are now surfacing, including areas in which the New York City Board of Elections has discretion. They come amid concerns over the recent debacle at the Iowa Democratic presidential primary caucuses and a nationwide call to remove chaos and misinformation from elections -- while New York City contests have seen their share of controversy and uncertainty.

Supporters of ranked-choice voting say it will encourage more civility in campaigning and require candidates to reach a larger base of support, with candidates hoping to be named either first or second choice on as many ballots as possible, while also eliminating the need for party primary run-offs. The 2019 Charter Revision Commission, created through City Council legislation, proposed amending the City Charter to establish ranked-choice voting (among over a dozen other proposals). Voters approved the amendment including ranked-choice voting with 73.6 percent support, while all the other proposals on a wide variety of topics also passed with similar degrees of support.

Jurisdictions using ranked-choice voting allow voters to rank candidates as ‘first choice,’ ‘second choice,’ ‘third choice,’ and sometimes more (the city will allow up to five, though voters can still just select their top choice for a position and leave it at that). If no candidate wins a majority of first choice votes upon the initial counting, the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated and their votes are reassigned to the second choice candidate listed on each of those ballots. That process is then repeated as needed until a winner is declared.

Gotham Gazette has learned that, if no candidate hits a majority of votes and candidate elimination is triggered, under the law a winner will not be announced until all but two candidates have been eliminated and all ballots with other candidates listed first are redistributed among those top two finishers.

This differs from the way most jurisdictions using ranked-choice voting in the United States tabulate votes. According to the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, of the 15 jurisdictions that use ranked-choice voting to elect a single winner, all but two stop the counting and declare a victor as soon as any candidate reaches more than 50 percent of the vote.

“A close reading of the Charter shows that the 2019 Charter Revision Commission selected a far less common version of Ranked Choice Voting for New York City, and very few New Yorkers, including many legislators and advocates, realize that,” wrote Rachel Bloom, policy director at Citizens Union, a good government group, in an email to Gotham Gazette.

While falling into the minority of ranked-choice voting methods, experts say the city’s so-called “down to two” approach provides a fuller picture of the electorate’s position. They say it adds to the value of ranked-choice voting by showing a wider breadth of support for the winner in a crowded special or primary election.

“Running the count down to the final two gives you a better sense of a candidate's mandate and what coalitions they may have formed or have available to them as electeds,” wrote Christopher Hughes, the policy director and general counsel at the Resource Center, who has worked with governments and advocates throughout the country on adopting and implementing ranked-choice voting, in an email to Gotham Gazette.

A City Council source said that running the tabulation down to two is a transparency measure and will not affect which candidate ultimately wins.

But making vote tabulation more complicated, in any sense, could also have negative side effects in terms of informing voters.

At a press conference last week in Lower Manhattan and again Tuesday on WNYC radio, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a Democrat and likely 2021 mayoral contender, claimed election results will not be reported after polls close on the night of an election using ranked-choice voting. In almost all recent elections in New York City, unofficial results have been known and publicized the night of the election. Instead they may not be announced for days or may trickle-in in pieces, with the first round of counting published days before the final outcome is known -- or both.

“We are definitely not going to know on primary night in June of 2021 who the winner is. It’s going to take potentially days...You’re hearing it here, now, 17 months before the election,” Johnson said on WNYC.

He cited the length of time it will take to count votes, eliminate candidates if none reach a majority of highest rank votes on the initial count, and redistribute the votes as needed. 

But the true calculus is not as cut and dry and when results are announced depends on the discretion of election administrators, who have yet to publicly discuss how ranked-choice voting will be executed. Under New York State election law, the New York City Board of Elections, which administers elections in the five boroughs, must report unofficial election results on the final night of an election after polls close. But the City Charter amendment creating ranked-choice voting gives the city BOE discretion to decide whether to, on the night of a special or primary election, report just the first round of tabulation or the results of all rounds.

According to the City Council source, the BOE will ultimately have to make a rule about its approach to reporting. The board must issue a report in June on its plan for implementing RCV in 2021, but is not explicitly required to include a determination on the reporting method then.

A spokesperson for the city BOE said it was too early to say which approach the board would take and that staff would be meeting with voting technology vendors in March to discuss the options.

In a phone interview, Michael Ryan, the New York City Board of Elections executive director, said the nuances of ranked-choice voting mean a candidate elimination might not be triggered until after absentee and affidavit ballots are counted.

“The Speaker’s statement is correct. There are going to be contests, maybe not all of them, but there are going to be contests where the outcome will be an open question for a much longer period of time than we have become used to in the city of New York,” Ryan said.

“The Speaker’s prediction is based on the findings by the Charter Revision Commission,” wrote a Council spokesperson in an email. 

Unofficial election night results differ from the certified election results, which can come days or weeks after an election. In New York, election administrators have 13 days to declare official winners. To reach the official results, all votes including absentee and affidavit ballots have to be tabulated.

“In most RCV jurisdictions the election administrators have communicated to press/candidates/voters how and when results of the RCV count will be released,” Hughes wrote by email. “Most places tend to get unofficial round-by-round results out in the 24 hours after an election, but first-time implementations may take a bit longer as people work out the kinks in the process.”

The kinks, according to Hughes, are not necessarily a matter of technology. “The additional rounds of counting, if needed to determine who the final two candidates are [and] their vote shares, don't take much additional time because the software used to run the count is fairly efficient at this point,” he pointed out.

With the potential that first round tabulations can yield different vote leaders than the final “down to two” count, partial or piece-meal reporting could confuse voters and diminish confidence in the final results. “We definitely won’t know that night, we may not know the next day, and people should understand that that night candidates are going to...stand at a lectern and say, ‘ra! ra!’ but not be able to say who actually won or not,” Johnson said Tuesday of election results and the nights of special or primary elections (which now come after a period of early voting in New York for each election).

The 2021 election cycle, which will be the city’s first using ranked-choice voting, will be incredibly busy, especially for the June Democratic primaries, with hundreds of candidates expected across races for mayor, comptroller, public advocate, the five borough presidents, and all 51 City Council seats. Many of those contests will be for “open seats” with no incumbent running, traditionally leading to more candidates in the running and increasing the likelihood that ranked-choice voting will involve more triggered candidate elimination, vote redistribution processes.

Along with clarity and planning from the city Board of Elections, elected officials and advocates are calling for an education campaign so that voters know how ranked-choice voting works, both from voting and vote-counting standpoints. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, also a Democrat and likely mayoral candidate, has already pledged to start holding educational workshops.

“Clarity is needed so we can begin a comprehensive voter education program in advance of the 2021 primary where RCV will go into effect.  RCV education is not only about how to vote but also how results are calculated. The last thing we want is voters not understanding why a certain candidate won,” Bloom wrote.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Key Details Emerge for How Ranked-Choice Voting Will Work in New York City Thu, 20 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Bill Allowing Online Voter Registration in New York City Moves in State Senate, Stalls in Assembly bill online voter

State Senator Myrie, middle, is pushing his online voter registration bill (photo: @SenatorMyrie)

Last year, the New York City Board of Elections hobbled a City Council effort to create an online voter registration portal for city residents, claiming it conflicted with state law. But the state Legislature may take steps to correct that situation this year by clarifying the law and allowing an online portal that would act as a test case for a statewide system slated to launch next year.

The New York City Council passed a bill, sponsored by Council Member Ben Kallos, in late 2017 that mandated that the Campaign Finance Board build an online portal to expand access to voter registration. Currently, the state only allows online registration through the Department of Motor Vehicles website and requires an official DMV driver’s license, permit, or non-driver ID. This effectively shuts out many New York City residents who rely on mass transit and do not have a DMV-issued document.

The CFB created the portal and was ready to launch it in June of last year. It would have allowed residents to fill out the form online, with an electronic signature, and the CFB would then transmit the information to the City Board of Elections for processing. But a week before the site was to go live, the BOE added an additional hurdle that essentially negated the purpose of the portal – commissioners voted that, after receiving a form from the CFB, the BOE would mail the form to the potential voter, who would then have to return it with their physical signature. The process would have been slower than mailing in a registration form.

At the time, the State Board of Elections’ Democratic and Republican commissioners had contradictory positions on whether signatures collected electronically would be acceptable under state law, even though a legal opinion from the state attorney general’s office had already put that question to bed in 2016. This year, legislation sponsored by Brooklyn State Senator Zellnor Myrie, chair of the Senate’s elections committee, and Bronx Assemblymember Michael Blake seeks to clarify state law and give the city the necessary authorization to begin collecting registration forms electronically.

The law would go into effect immediately and would be repealed 90 days after a statewide registration system becomes operational. The registration deadline for this year’s April 28 presidential primary is April 3. The deadline to register for the June 23 state and congressional primary is May 29, and the deadline to register for the November 3 general election is October 9.

“An online voter registration system that all New Yorkers can access is long overdue,” said Amy Loprest, executive director of the CFB, in a statement. “This legislation will make it easier for millions of city voters to register and vote in this critical election year.”

Though the bill has not moved in the Assembly, it was passed by Myrie’s Senate committee last month and he is hoping to see it approved by the full Senate and Assembly as soon as possible. “Time is of the essence,” he said in a phone interview, stressing the importance of launching the portal in a presidential election year when turnout is massive, with this year’s expected to be even moreso. “It allows for the state to see how this system rolls out.”

Neither Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s nor Assemblymember Blake’s office provided comment on the status of the bill in their chamber.

A trial of online voter registration by New York City would help inform the state’s effort, Myrie noted. Last year’s state budget included legislation that ordered the state BOE to create an online voter registration system for the entire state by January 2021. Once that system takes effect, it will supersede the city’s.

“As we have seen the national discussion hit a fever pitch, there will be many folks interested in registering and getting engaged in their democracy and we want to make that as easy for them as possible,” Myrie said.

He pointed out that it will require few resources and would barely be a burden for the Board of Elections. “This is not a labor-intensive endeavor,” Myrie said. “This is a system that has already been built, that has already been designed. Let's give the city the authorization to have it up and running. And then we can see whether or not the state should adopt it as a model statewide.”

Myrie seems to have the support of Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. "We are committed to making it easier for eligible New Yorkers to vote, that is why this session we built upon the historic voting reforms of last year by making improvements to early voting and passing automatic voting registration. We look forward to reviewing this bill as a Conference to ensure it works as intended,” said Senate Majority spokesperson Mike Murphy, in a statement.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is also a supporter of the online voter registration effort and was critical last year of how the BOE meddled in it. “The City Board of Elections should allow the CFB’s online voter registration system to roll out immediately, so thousands of New York voters can register this year for the critically important 2020 elections,” said Luis Feliz Leon, a spokesperson for DemocracyNYC, the office the mayor launched to improve voter participation in the city, among other things. “The Administration appreciates that the Legislature is taking a close look at this issue.”

BOE spokesperson Valerie Vazquez said in a text message, “No comment on pending legislation.”

“New York City’s online voter registration system is ready to go for all the people who are inspired to vote in the presidential election and the coming primaries,” said Council Member Kallos, in a brief phone interview. “Thank you to State Senator Zellnor Myrie for getting this done in the Senate and we’re looking to the Assembly to get it done and the governor to sign it in time to enfranchise a whole generation of voters in time for the presidential election.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Bill Allowing Online Voter Registration in New York City Moves in State Senate, Stalls in Assembly Wed, 12 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Push Begins to Educate New Yorkers About Ranked-Choice Voting Ahead of 2021 Implementation eric adams wcbs

Eric Adams, Susan Lerner, and Alicka Ampry-Samuel, right (photo: @AlickaASamuel41)

A push is now underway to ensure voters are educated about the new ranked choice voting system New York City will be adopting for some elections starting in 2021, and it is being driven by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a top contender in the mayoral race where the new format will first be tested.

At a press conference Wednesday in front of New York City Board of Elections headquarters in Lower Manhattan, Adams, along with Brooklyn City Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel and Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, urged the mayor and City Council to include $10 million in the next city budget toward public education ahead of the implementation of ranked-choice voting, which was approved by voters this past November. He said the allocation would be offset by the money saved in costly run-off elections, which tend to have extremely low turnout and are obsolete in a system using ranked-choice voting, and should be geared to engaging historically disenfranchised groups.

Ranked-choice voting will be a “major shift” in how elections are run and “it’s imperative that we get it right,” Adams said of the new voting method where voters can select up to five candidates in order of preference during special and primary elections (but not general elections) beginning in 2021, and votes are reapportioned as needed until a winner hits 50%. “That is why we’re asking the City Council, the Speaker, as well as the Mayor of the City of New York, to allocate the necessary funds so that we can have the proper education on the ground.”

In addition to the call for city funding, Adams announced he would be holding forums at Brooklyn Borough Hall and is encouraging his fellow borough presidents to do the same in their boroughs. The speakers at the press conference also called attention to the city Board of Election’s effort to use a new paperless touch-screen voting machine, which they say is less accurate and secure than the current hybrid system, which election experts consider a “gold standard.”

The push comes amid an unfolding fiasco in the Iowa Democratic caucuses, as a newly adopted and undertested app-based reporting mechanism has failed to report the full results of the state’s voting Monday. “The Iowa debacle should be a wake-up call for how we integrate new technologies into our election systems,” Adams said in a press release Wednesday.

Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rate candidates in order of preference rather than having to cast a vote for just one, at least for New York City special and primary elections beginning in 2021. If no candidate wins a majority of votes on the first counting, the last place candidate is eliminated and their ballots are redistributed to the remaining candidates based on those voters’ second choices. The process of elimination and reapportionment continues until one candidate receives a majority of support.

Advocates say the system has a number of benefits in addition to eliminating the need for run-off elections, which currently occur after a primary election in the city when no candidate garners more than 40 percent of the vote. Ranked-choice voting reduces the risk of so-called “spoiler” candidates -- candidates who have no chance of winning but still take votes that could otherwise advantage a more viable candidate -- by not forcing voters to choose between their top choice and another alternative other than in ranking them. Supporters also say it forces candidates to adopt a broader message and appeal to voters outside their base, and that winners are ultimately indicative of more widespread support.

Ranked-choice was approved by voters last fall as part of a referendum to amend the City Charter. It came after a coalition of election reformers pushed the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, tasked with proposing amendments to voters based on public input and an analysis of the city’s primary governing document. Barring unforeseen special elections, which are called when an elected official steps down mid-term, the first races using ranked-choice voting in New York City will be the June 2021 primaries for mayor, other citywide and boroughwide positions, and the entire City Council. 

The implementation will come on the heels of a slew of election changes passed by state lawmakers in 2019, including early voting and electronic poll books, and primaries moved to June.

Adams and Ampry-Samuel, both Democrats, said the focus of educational outreach should be groups that have been politically marginalized in the past.

“We need to be proactive and invest now as a city in educating our most vulnerable communities and voters to avoid disastrous errors and potential disenfranchisement,” said Ampry-Samuel, who represents parts of Bed-Stuy, Brownsville, East Flatbush, and Crown Heights and will be up for reelection in 2021.

“Black voters have been loyal to the Democratic Party for decades. It is disrespectful and a failure to our communities when we neglect to prepare them for the changes. We are now introducing new technologies and systems that can also be confusing to our aging New Yorkers,” she said.

Asked whether she would be pushing legislation to support the effort to engage historically disenfranchised New Yorkers in conjunction with the push for funding, Ampry-Samuel said: “We are working with the Council now and our advocates to make sure that we have legislation in place to make sure that our voters are protected. But in addition to that, because right now we are in the budget season and we are negotiating that city funding, we are making sure we are putting enough funding -- $10 million -- in place to educate our voters.”

“This education must be on the ground,” and should occur through “door-to-door outreach, [at] train stops, in our school system,” and reaching “our new young people who are graduating from high school and will be voting for the first time,” Adams said.

Parallel to the funding push is Adams’ plan to hold forums about the RCV as part of an effort to boost civic engagement. “The details are still being determined but we look forward to rolling these forums out soon,” Jonah Allon, a spokesperson for Adams, told Gotham Gazette.

Adams is expected to be competing in the 2021 Democratic mayoral primary along with possible contenders such as Comptroller Scott Stringer, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, former city and federal official Shaun Donovan, former city veterans affairs commissioner Loree Sutton, and Dianne Morales, recently-departed CEO of Bronx social services nonprofit Phipps Neighborhoods.

Lerner and Adams also raised concerns on Wednesday about the city BOE’s push to get a new voting machine, the ExpressVote XL, certified for use by the New York State Board of Elections. They said the system, which uses an electronic touch-screen with no accompanying paper record, is less reliable and accurate than the current system, and has been almost universally criticized by election security experts.

The city currently uses a system in which voters mark a paper ballot that is then scanned by an electronic machine. Lerner said switching to a new system, when the current system is considered a good model, is a waste of taxpayer money.

Another caveat is the potential conflicts of interest for New York City BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan, who is accused of receiving gifts from Election Systems & Software, the company that makes ExpressVote XL, and is pushing the state board to certify the technology. Lerner’s Common Cause New York last week asked the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board to investigate Ryan’s connection with ES&S, which they say includes being flown across the country to conferences and serving on an advisory board for the company (after reporting by NY1 he stepped down from the advisory board).

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Push Begins to Educate New Yorkers About Ranked-Choice Voting Ahead of 2021 Implementation Wed, 05 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Ballot Set for Queens Borough President Special Election After Unprecedented 'Lottery' 1 flushing meadow

Queens BP special election is March 24 (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

In low-turnout and low-information elections, like the typical special election in New York City, the prominence of a candidate’s name on the ballot can go a long way -- and that depends largely on the order in which the candidates are listed. Traditionally the subject of gaming by campaigns, for the March special election to name a new Queens Borough President, the order was determined by an unprecedented method: random draw.

“Three candidates filed simultaneously so the order of the ballot is going to be determined, by rule of our commissioners this past Tuesday, for the first three candidates that filed, via the lottery,” said Tom Satte, the ballot coordinator at the New York City Board of Elections, as he announced the outcome like the host of a lottery drawing. He was sitting in the BOE offices in Lower Manhattan in front of a large bingo wheel as another staff member turned, pulled, and read numbers off the colored balls inside.

Normally, ballot order is determined on a first-come, first-serve basis, where candidates are listed in the order in which they submit the requisite number of qualifying petition signatures starting on the submission date set by the BOE. But in the special election to replace former Queens Borough President Melina Katz, which has already seen its share of ballot-access wrangling among nearly a dozen potential candidates, three prominent campaigns -- those of Elizabeth Crowley, Donovan Richards, and Jimmy Van Bramer -- turned in their petitions within two minutes of one another, a margin narrow enough to lead elections administrators to consider using the novel approach for what they say is the first time.

On January 6, the third day to file petition signatures, Crowley, Richards, and Van Bramer, all current or former Democrats in the City Council, each delivered more than the required number of valid signatures and accompanying documentation between 9 a.m. and 9:02 a.m. Following a recommendation by the board’s legal staff and in compliance with state rules, the BOE voted to hold a random drawing among the three candidates to determine who’s name would appear first on the ballot.

“This is the first time that this specific issue happened,” said BOE General Counsel Steve Richman in a presentation to commissioners last Tuesday. “A fourth candidate filed at 9:06, Costa Constantinides, so I guess he’s not applicable [under our rules] because it’s four minutes later.”

The final order on the ballot will be Richards, Crowley, Van Bramer, then Constantinides (another Democratic Council Member), followed by Jim Quinn, Dao Yin, and Anthony Miranda. Van Bramer had dropped out of the race, citing his mother’s health, before the bingo drawing, but since he submitted valid signatures in time, his name will appear on the ballot.

Miranda, a former police sergeant who initially did not qualify because of a technical error on his cover sheet, was added to the ballot following a rare successful appeal. Quinn is a prosecutor and 42-year veteran of the Queens District Attorney’s Office and Yin is a businessman from Flushing.

In order to get on the ballot, candidates must obtain a set number of signatures from eligible voters, which varies depending on the office sought. For the Queens Borough President special election candidates needed to submit 2,000 valid signatures of registered Queens voters by the January 14 filing deadline. In partisan elections, like party primaries, the signatures must come from voters registered with the given party, but city special elections are non-partisan meaning candidates don’t run on traditional party lines, and any registered voter in the district could provide a valid signature. All Queens voters are eligible to vote on March 24, the special election day, and the nine days of early voting beforehand.

Candidates usually seek more than the minimum signature threshold -- often by a factor of three -- because once petitions have been submitted, campaigns try to challenge the validity of their rivals’ signatures in an effort to knock them off the ballot. The ability to submit enough signatures early and to challenge the signatures on an opponents’ petition is usually the sign of a well-organized and well-resourced campaign, and is part of the election calculus of campaign strategists.

The Queens Borough President special election was officially declared by Mayor de Blasio at the beginning of the year, when Katz took office as Queens County District Attorney after winning a crowded and closely-watched race in 2019.

Nine candidates, two of whom failed to get on the ballot, filed with the New York City Campaign Finance Board. In the first filing period all the candidates reported raising a collective $1.4 million in private contributions.

Of the roughly $858,000 spent in the race as of the January 16 filing, the biggest spenders remaining -- Crowley and Constantinides -- are also the only two thus far receiving public matching funds through the city’s campaign financing program. Crowley has spent about $232,000 and received $498,000 in public matches. Constantinides trails slightly, having spent $213,000 and received $477,000.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Ballot Set for Queens Borough President Special Election After Unprecedented 'Lottery' Tue, 04 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
As Calls for New Board of Elections Head Resume, Council Member Ulrich Pursues Post cm eric ulrich epc

Council Member Eric Ulrich (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

With 2019 voting in the books and a major election year on the horizon, a behind-the-scenes effort is underway to replace the executive director of the New York City Board of Elections, a quasi-city agency with a reputation for mismanagement and political patronage. City Council Member Eric Ulrich, a Queens Republican, is expressing interest in the position and says he may soon have the support necessary to be appointed by the board’s commissioners.  

The BOE is essentially a state entity but is funded in the city budget. The board itself is composed of ten commissioners, two from each borough, with one Democrat and one Republican as nominated by the local party leaders. The commissioners then appoint an executive director to handle the day-to-day operations of the agency and its staff. Ryan, an attorney from Staten Island, has served in that position since 2013, but like his predecessors he has struggled to professionalize the agency and has faced calls for his resignation.

As this year’s election season, the first with early voting and other recent reforms in place, is wrapping up with final votes counted and results certified, legislative bodies at the city and state levels have been taking stock of the BOE’s performance. And while Ryan and the agency have received some praise for the inaugural early voting period, long-standing interest in him being replaced has led to a new flurry of activity, Gotham Gazette has learned. That activity includes Ulrich’s pursuit of the position, he said during a Friday interview.

While the City Council does have the power to confirm BOE nominees put forth by the borough leaders of the two political parties, the BOE’s structure under the law means that the Council can scrutinize the agency’s performance in oversight hearings, but cannot mandate any reforms. That has proven to be a constant source of frustration after repeated instances of failures by the BOE to conduct efficient elections.

For instance, after the 2016 presidential primary, it emerged that thousands of voters had been improperly purged from the voter rolls, prompting a $20-million offer from Mayor Bill de Blasio to make much needed improvements, which the board rejected. The board later conceded that it violated state and federal laws for the voter purge. During elections, long lines at the polls and broken-down voting machines are common sources of frustration. The board has also been criticized for failing to inform voters when their poll sites are moved, among other complaints.

Government reform groups and elected officials have sought to pressure the BOE to improve, criticizing its hiring, often based on political patronage, and contracting processes. The BOE, however, has been resistant to those external calls. Ryan, as the face of the board, has borne the brunt of the criticism and has been the cause of it as well.

Last year, just weeks after an abysmally managed Election Day, NY1 reported that Ryan had accepted paid trips from a voting machine manufacturer that supplies the city and stands to gain further from Ryan’s sway and insights. The mismanagement of the election and the subsequent conflict of interest allegation prompted wide calls for Ryan’s resignation, including from City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, and other elected officials and good government groups. 

Though the BOE did receive some praise for this most recent election, it will have its work cut out in 2020. There are three major election events next year – the presidential primary in April, state and congressional primary in June, and the general election in November. Turnout will also be much higher than in 2019, which saw few competitive races across the city. 

“We’ve seen long-standing issues with the executive director of the [BOE],” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a government reform advocacy group, specifically citing the conflict of interest issues, which led Ryan to announce changes to his behavior. “He has been leading the board in a direction which is very disquieting, where the business plan of the vendor seems to be taking precedence over the needs of the voter.”

Lerner emphasized the need to professionalize the ranks of the BOE and, to the extent possible short of state law change, move it in a nonpartisan direction. 

That’s a task that’s easier said than done. The nominations of BOE commissioners by the county party bosses are rarely contested, particularly considering that they are approved by their allies in the Council. Lerner said the process should be more public facing. “Voters and the public interest must be first and foremost as we go into the 2020 election,” she said. “Voters seem to have no role in our election and election administration process. It's just backwards. We have an antiquated 19th-century approach to election administration.”

She added, “If there's going to be a change, it should be made now, because there's a lot that needs to be done to gear up for 2020, including getting procedures in place, locations and procedures for early voting, we need more professional staff and quickly, and to run it all effectively.” 

Council Member Ulrich, who is term-limited from running for his current seat again in 2021, the next city election cycle, told Gotham Gazette he has had conversations in recent weeks with county leaders from both parties about the job. “I'm very interested in going into the Board of Elections and turning that place around,” he said in a phone interview. 

“The Board of Elections is in dire need of reform. It has been, for a very long time, a dysfunctional place and I would say most New Yorkers lost confidence in the board’s ability to conduct efficient elections a long time ago,” Ulrich said. “And the board hasn’t done a very good job of restoring the public trust or confidence in how the Board of Elections actually carries out the election.”

Ulrich, one of three Republicans in the 51-member City Council, is not a partisan hardliner and is far more moderate than most members of his own party, often finding common ground with Democrats on legislation. He regularly argues in support of campaign finance and voting reforms that are opposed by most Republicans, but he is also not closely aligned with any Democratic power-brokers.

“I don't have the same political constraints that someone else might have,” he said. “I would really be able to go in there and truly be independent and manage the agency more effectively than it is currently being managed.” Acknowledging the major task at hand with both reforming the operations of the BOE and implementing the elections of 2020 (and beyond), Ulrich said he would aggressively act to clean up the agency and that he has enough familiarity with its operations to be able to hit the ground running.

In order to be appointed executive director, Ulrich would need the votes of six commissioners on the board. He said he’s counting on affirmative votes from the four Republican commissioners – there is a vacancy for the Republican commissioner from the Bronx – and said that he has spoken with Democratic county leaders to court their support. He said, though that only certain Democratic leaders appear open to his candidacy.

Ulrich said that commissioners appointed by the more powerful Queens and Bronx Democratic county machines are “very much opposed” to him replacing Ryan. The Queens and Bronx Democrats helped elect Johnson as speaker of the Council. It’s unclear what role Johnson or those two county parties are playing in the process of possibly replacing Ryan in leading the BOE.

“There are some county leaders in the city of New York who like the status quo, who like the patronage jobs, and who don't want anything to change,” Ulrich said. “And that is to be expected. I don't expect to win over their support. But I think that there is definitely momentum for changing the leadership of the Board of Elections, and there's frustration on the part of some others who feel like the places is operating, not in the 21st century.”

“It doesn't take a political scientist or rocket scientist to know that the Board of Elections desperately extreme makeover,” he added.

Neither Johnson’s nor de Blasio’s office provided Gotham Gazette with comment for this article.

A source familiar with the backroom negotiations told Gotham Gazette that Ulrich is currently close to securing five votes, indicating that at least one Democratic commissioner is willing to back him as he pursues a sixth and decisive vote. Ryan is a Staten Island Democrat himself, adding complication to how the borough’s leadership may act; Brooklyn Democratic leadership has often acted in opposition to that of Queens and the Bronx, and Manhattan Democrats are the most open to various compromises.

Lerner, for one, said she would support Ulrich to be the next executive director. “To the extent that there's an ongoing desire to replace the executive director with someone who is reform-minded and has a good track record of working with people across the political spectrum, Eric would be a good choice," she said when asked about his candidacy. “Replacing Mike Ryan with another person whose primary focus is on keeping the political leadership happy would be a tragic misstep as we go into 2020.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Ben Max contributed to this article.

As Calls for New Board of Elections Head Resume, Council Member Ulrich Pursues Post Sun, 24 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Legislature Evaluates Inaugural Early Voting Period in New York, Looks Ahead to Daunting 2020 Election Year senator mich giana

(photo: Senator Michael Gianaris)

At post-election oversight hearings in New York, where voting is perennially plagued by episodes of malfunction and inefficiency, it is not common to hear politicians praise election administrators. But praise for both the city and state boards of elections was one of the overriding themes of a Wednesday hearing held by state legislators, convened to examine the inaugural implementation of early voting in New York State.

As officials commended both bodies’ efforts to adjust to a slew of new voting reforms in a short 10-month window, they also looked ahead to the 2020 election cycle with some concerns. Among them are how elections administrators plan to run the new and far more complicated early voting system during a year when turnout is expected to be very high given the presidential election, as well as congressional and state legislative races. The hearing also highlighted findings made during the state’s first early voting period, which was largely seen as a test-run for future election cycles.

“The board has often been a punching bag for people upset about the administration of elections but in this case you deserve credit for doing it right and doing it well. This was a first time endeavor for a lot of folks,” said Senator Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat, speaking to New York City Board of Elections Executive Director Michael Ryan at Wednesday’s hearing in Manhattan, held jointly by the Senate and Assembly.

“That being said, we got through the one piece, but now next year is going to be the regular season, and we are going to have to anticipate a much larger turnout and a much larger demand,” he added. The presidential primary will be in April, followed by congressional and state primaries in June, and the general election in November.

The State Legislature passed early voting this January as part of a host of election reforms that advocates had long pushed for with scant results when Republicans controlled the Senate, a longtime reign that ended after the 2018 elections. With Democrats in control of both houses and the executive chamber this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bills into law on January 24, officially starting the clock to implement early voting by the November general election.

Going forward, the statute requires early voting to be offered for nine days leading up to election day in primary, general, and special elections, including weekends and evening hours. Counties are required to establish at least one in-person early voting site for every 50,000 registered voters. The sites must be accessible and secure, and must have the capacity to store sensitive voting material and machinery for the entire period they are being used, a big ask for many public facilities.

According to unofficial results tallied by the State Board of Elections, 2.98 million ballots were cast statewide in this fall’s elections, including 256,251 ballots cast during the early voting (many ballots including absentee and affidavits are still being counted).

In New York City, where five counties (the boroughs) fall under the city Board of Elections, total turnout was unofficially 737,918, of which just over 60,000 were cast early. The overall turnout was more than three times turnout in 2015, the last city election without a mayoral contest.

Ryan pointed out that over the nine day early voting period, poll sites were open a total of 74 hours, 14 more than was required by statute. A source of some controversy, city administrators selected 61 facilities to use as early voting sites, fewer than the number many advocates and elected officials wanted to see, but more than required. To staff them, 6,140 poll workers were hired and trained and an additional 31,238 were trained to work on Election Day.

To ensure early voting sites could accommodate a wider catchment of election districts and ballot layouts, and to help ensure that voters don’t vote multiple times in the same election, state lawmakers authorized counties to purchase electronic poll books that could track a voter’s ballot from an early voting site to an Election Day poll site.

New York City purchased 4,714 electronic poll book tablets from a St. Louis-based vendor whose technology was compatible with so-called “ballot-on-demand” printers, which could produce a voter’s unique ballot on the spot, rather than requiring early voting sites to stock a prohibitively large range of pre-printed ballots.

The printers produce ballots that do not have perforated edges, one of the factors blamed for the high volume of ballot scanner jams in what many described as a disastrous 2018 election. That year, the city saw unprecedented (for recent times) turnout of roughly 39 percent of registered voters, compared to 14 percent this year. Yet, for an off-off-year election with few high-profile races, the turnout this year was relatively high. In 2015, just 6 percent of registered voters went to the polls. There were additional races and ballot proposals that helped drive turnout this year, including a special election for public advocate and charter revision questions, but many also point to a continued Trump era boom in voter participation.

Despite the turnout, the city BOE recorded only 77 instances of jammed scanners over the entire early voting and Election Day period, Ryan proudly reported.

The positive results discussed Wednesday were couched by the daunting prospect of having to repeat the process at least three more times in a presidential election year. That number could be greater in some jurisdictions, like Queens where Borough President Melinda Katz’s election to district attorney will mean a special election is held in the first few months of the year.

Among the concerns raised by both elected officials and administrators is the fact that early voting sites will need to be open to the public for more than 30 days next year to meet the nine-day statutory requirement plus additional time to prepare a site. That can be a difficult task for schools, churches, and community centers, which the city used this fall to serve as centers where voters could cast ballots early.

At the same time, voting rights advocates and elected officials are pushing for more early voting sites to make the new system more accessible.

“The one site per 50,000 voters standard already permits counties to designate too few early voting sites to guarantee equitable access, but the provision that allows the state’s most populous counties to provide far fewer sites per voter is unworkable,” wrote Perry Grossman, a voting rights attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, in his testimony to the legislators.

“We did notice where there were more [early voting sites] there was an increased [voter turnout] percentage,” said Robert Brehm, co-executive director of the State Board of Elections, earlier in hearing.

Another desire of the advocates is to have early voting sites that any voter can use, rather than having to be assigned to one, as was the case this fall. Only four local boards, including New York City’s, had assigned early voting sites, but many of them, especially in rural counties, had only one site overall.

Educators and parents throughout the city raised a number of concerns this year about using schools as early voting sites including security and the length of time students would be without their gymnasium or cafeteria. Of the 61 early voting sites in New York City, 33 were in public schools, whereas only one other county in the state used a school for early voting, according to a recent report in Gothamist. The de Blasio administration is now urging the city BOE to designate sites other than schools, Gothamist reported.

But schools are an attractive choice for election administrators juggling a number of considerations including whether sites meet accessibility requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act and whether they would cost the city additional funding to use.

Brehm says renting space is not something that has been widely done before but it may be an option boards of elections will consider in the future to meet the demands of a growing culture of early voting.

“We need broader authority from the State Legislature to designate locations, and some structure of what compensation should look like for these locations,” Ryan, the city BOE executive director, told the lawmakers Wednesday.

Reacting to the idea after the hearing, Senator Gianaris told Gotham Gazette, “If we are going to do that we should not open it up to wide discretion, there should be set parameters for what the city is willing to pay so that you don’t get into some extraneous negotiation where all of the sudden you’re paying much more than is justified for this.”

“The State Board recognizes that of any topic, poll site designation, will be in the forefront of conversation for many election cycles,” reads the State Board of Elections report on early voting, which was presented Wednesday.

Funding was a general concern for Brehm and his colleague, Co-Executive Director Todd Valentine, who said counties were forced to deploy new resources to meet the demands of dozens of voting reforms passed in Albany this year, without additional money from the state. The funding could go towards communications, additional training, security, and a host of other needs still being evaluated in the post-election season.

Brem pointed out that using new technology, like electronic poll books, and the new early voting system in general has raised new questions about what communications and training local boards need to undertake.

One issue raised by a number of lawmakers was the scannable card mailed to voters, intended to streamline the check-in process at poll sites. The cards are not mandatory to vote but poll workers were instructed to ask for them, only as an option, to help move the lines. Many voters reported being confused by the question and believed they were being told the card was required in order to receive a ballot. Some voters believed they were being asked to show ID to vote.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Legislature Evaluates Inaugural Early Voting Period in New York, Looks Ahead to Daunting 2020 Election Year Wed, 20 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Williams Remains Public Advocate; Katz Next Queens DA; Ranked-Choice Voting on Its Way; & More: Election Results 2019 37538369094 848cd1720a c

(photo: Gotham Gazette)

After about 60,000 New York City voters took advantage of the first early voting period in city history, albeit during an especially quiet electoral year, more than 650,000 others went to the polls on Election Day 2019, providing mostly expected results and approving multiple controversial ballot proposals to change city elections and governance. This year provided a helpful initial test run for early voting and all that goes with it, such as electronic poll books and a lot of poll-worker training, before what is expected to be an incredibly tense and busy 2020 election year, with especially high turnout for the presidential election, as well as those for Congress and the State Legislature.

After winning a special election earlier this year, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a Democrat, was reelected Tuesday to serve the rest of the term through the end of 2021. Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, also a Democrat, was elected Tuesday to become the next Queens District Attorney, a four-year term beginning at the start of 2020. Council Member Farah Louis, who replaced Williams in the City Council after winning her own prior special election, also retained her seat and can serve through at least 2021.

And the relatively small number of New York City voters who turned out this fall (about 15% of the city's 4.8 million active registered voters) -- from the inaugural early voting period and on Election Day -- also approved 19 specific changes to city elections and governance with overall “yes” votes on five ballot proposals. Those changes include instituting ranked-choice voting for party primary and special elections; bolstering the agency that investigates and prosecutes certain allegations of police officer misconduct; and making several tweaks to ethics, budgeting, and land use laws.

Along with those candidate races, there were a variety of judicial elections around the city, and some candidates with regularly-scheduled elections -- namely Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark and Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon -- ran unopposed. It was a slightly more exciting election year than expected given the special elections for Public Advocate and City Council, and the Queens District Attorney Democratic primary that ended with Katz winning in a recount.

Adding to the intrigue was the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, which put the 19 proposals in five questions on the ballot. With all the questions approved by voters, the following changes are among those that will be instituted (some of the language is directly from the charter commission’s materials):

-Ranked-choice voting for party primary and special elections for the offices of Mayor, Public Advocate, Comptroller, Borough President, and City Council Member. This will begin on or after January 1, 2021.

-The time to hold a special election after a city office is left vacant is extended to 80 days.

-Alters the structure of the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) by adding two members, one from the Public Advocate and a joint appointment by the Mayor and the City Council, who would also serve as chair.

-Provides that the Council directly appoints its members to the CCRB.

-Requires the Police Commissioner provides a detailed explanation to the CCRB when deciding to impose discipline on an officer that differs from the level of discipline recommended by either the CCRB or the NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Trials.

-Allows the CCRB Board to delegate its subpoena power to its Executive Director.

-Allows the CCRB to investigate potentially false official statements made by an officer it is investigating and to recommend discipline, if appropriate.

-Provides a minimum budget to the CCRB sufficient to fund CCRB staff equal to 0.65% of the number of uniformed police officers, unless the Mayor determines that fiscal necessity requires a lower budget.

-Extends the post-employment appearance ban for elected officials and certain senior appointed officials from one year to two years for employees/officials who leave city service on or after January 1, 2022.

-Amends the structure of the Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB) by replacing two members now appointed by the Mayor with one member appointed by the Comptroller and one appointed by the Public Advocate.

-Limits the political activity of COIB Board members by prohibiting participation in campaigns for local elected offices, and reducing the maximum amount of money that they can contribute to the amounts that candidates can receive from those doing business with the city ($400 or less, depending on the office).

-Requires that the Citywide M/WBE Director report directly to the Mayor and be supported by a mayoral office of M/WBEs.

-Requires advice and consent by the City Council for the Mayor’s appointment of the Corporation Counsel.

-Allows the city to use a “rainy day fund” to save money for use in future years, such as for addressing unexpected financial hardships. (Changes to state law will also be needed for this rainy day fund to be usable.)

-Sets guaranteed minimum budgets for the Public Advocate and Borough Presidents at or above their respective Fiscal Year 2020 budgets, adjusted in future fiscal years by the lower of inflation or the percentage change in the city’s total expense budget (excluding certain components), unless the Mayor determines that fiscal necessity requires a lower budget.

-Requires the Mayor to submit the revenue estimate to the City Council by April 26 (instead of June 5).

-Requires the Mayor to submit budget modifications to the Council within 30 days after the submission of any periodic update the city’s financial plan during the year.

-Provides a ULURP Pre-Certification Notice Period by requiring the Department of City Planning to transmit a detailed project summary of ULURP applications to the affected Community Board, Borough President, and Borough Board at least 30 days before the application is certified for public review, and to post that summary on its website.

-Provides Community Boards with additional time to review ULURP applications certified for public review by the Department of City Planning between June 1 and July 15, from the current 60-day review period to 90 days for applications certified in June, and to 75 days for applications certified between July 1 and July 15.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Williams Remains Public Advocate; Katz Next Queens DA; Ranked-Choice Voting on Its Way; & More: Election Results 2019 Tue, 05 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
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

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Do New Yorkers Know About the Ballot Questions They Can Answer This Fall? Tue, 22 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000