Gotham Gazette Sun, 12 Jul 2020 03:15:13 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Voters, Poll Workers Attest to Confusion and Missing Ballots in Another Marred Election voting in the new york of coronavirus

Voting was again challenging in New York City (photo: Edwin J Torres/Mayor's Office)

When Imani Clenance didn’t receive her absentee ballot to vote in the recent June primaries she, like many others, went to vote in person. But at her polling site in Harlem, she realized that her struggle to vote had only just started.

After being given her ballot, she only received one page with Democratic presidential primary candidates on it, but no mention of the Congressional race in her district, District 13, that she knew from the Board of Elections’ website was also going on. Confused, she asked poll workers why the Congressional race was missing from the ballot. Rather than being given the second page of the ballot, Clenance said poll workers proceeded to give her what she described as a condescending explanation of the difference between the President and Congress, as they were seemingly under the impression that Congressional races would be held in November.

Although she had started to doubt herself, Clenance “wasn’t going to leave until [she] was sure,” and spoke with the poll site coordinator, who was also unable to help. She was then given the Board of Elections’ number to call herself, and asked by poll workers to let them know what the BOE said.

Once Clenance finally confirmed with a BOE employee that there should be two ballots, a supervisor was sent to the site, and in the meantime poll workers were able to find the second page of ballots they had not been handing out before. When asked what happens to the voters who had come before her and not given the second page, Clenance said poll workers shrugged and told her that at least they figured it out before lunch.

“This is an unacceptable failing of our electoral process,” Clenance said in her testimony at this past week’s hearing of the New York City Voter Assistance Advisory Committee (VAAC), an annual public hearing to hear from voters about their experiences. “It is bewildering, sad, and, quite frankly, scary, that I should have to explain the difference between a primary and general election to poll workers. That the people running the election site don’t know what elections they’re running.”

Clenance was one of many at the hearing who gave testimony about problems they had while trying to vote in the June primaries, which were held via June 13-21 early voting, June 23 primary day, and vastly expanded absentee balloting as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The VAAC is part of the New York City Campaign Finance Board and its NYC Votes voter engagement arm.

For months, BOE officials had known this year would be different given that the pandemic would make in-person voting dangerous, especially for more vulnerable populations such as older voters or those with pre-existing conditions. Governor Andrew Cuomo had extended eligibility of absentee ballots for the June primary so that the “temporary illness” excuse could include the possibility of contracting COVID-19, and ordered local elections boards to mail all eligible voters an absentee ballot application. The governor has yet to extend that option to the fall general election, which is expected to see massive voter turnout given the presidential election.

The expansion of absentee voting created new difficulties for candidates and voting rights advocates as the widespread use of absentee ballots meant more voter education was needed. And although the decision was reversed by a federal judge, the BOE’s initial cancelation of the Democratic presidential primary created further confusion, with several candidates for state offices telling Gotham Gazette that voters seemed to be unaware that down-ballot races would not be affected even if the presidential primary was canceled, and that the presidential primary was later reinstated.

Problems leading up to the primaries aside, both the members of the VAAC, which advises the New York City Campaign Finance Board on what improvements to elections it should recommend, and private citizens who participated in the public hearing pointed out key issues that prevented people from being able to vote. People not receiving absentee ballots on-time or only receiving one out of two ballots, like what happened with Clenance at her polling site, were the top two issues, according to Deputy Director of Public Affairs at the New York City Campaign Finance Board Amanda Melillo.

“The headline news that we are seeing on election day was just that a number of people didn’t receive their absentee ballots on-time. This is what we were seeing over and over again throughout the day,” Melillo said, going on to list other problems such as technical difficulties, polling sites opening late, long lines, and inaccurate poll books.

On primary day, 30,000 of the over 700,000 people who had requested absentee ballots were still waiting for their request to be processed, according to Gothamist. At the hearing, VAAC members provided updated numbers that had been posted by the New York City Board of Elections of how many people were mailed absentee ballots, but not how many people requested them. The BOE reported more than 750,000 voters had absentee ballots distributed to them, which is 33 times the number from 2016.

Because the Board of Elections is not reporting the number of absentee ballots requested it is unclear how many voters requested but did not receive a ballot. The number of voters who did not receive the absentee ballots they requested or who received them too late to return them in time for their votes to count will be a measure of voter disenfranchisement, if the number is ever known.

Melillo said to improve the BOE should use existing software to allow voters to log-in to a portal and track their absentee ballots throughout the mailing process. She also said the process for dropping off absentee ballots at poll sites, a lesser-known option that was available this cycle, needs to be streamlined, as does the process for counting absentee ballots.

Still, many voters, like Brooklyn resident “TM,” who testified at the hearing, did not receive their absentee ballots. When TM went to vote in person at 6:30 a.m., one of the two ballot scanners at her poll site was already broken, and she was told she was in the wrong polling site despite having looked it up beforehand. She, like others who testified, was given an affidavit ballot. Also like others who testified, TM faced further issues while trying to vote.

“And when I went into the booth, I noticed that I had only received one page of the ballot and the presidential and the delegate ballot was missing,” TM said. “And I asked the volunteers if I could get an extra page, and no one seemed to know anything about another page.”

TM said she ended up receiving her absentee ballot later that day, and eventually went through a process to replace her initial ballot with that one. This required her to plead her case as to why she wanted to override her vote in front of a judge through a Zoom call. She received approval from the judge and was able to vote.

Some who testified at the hearing were the very confused poll workers described by others, like Juliana Pesavento who worked at an Atlantic Ave. polling site in Brooklyn. Pesavento said she took a class several months prior and received her assigned location a week in advance.

“My experience was a scary, shocking inside look at our poll working system,” Pesavento said. “We can register as many people to vote as possible, but if the actual poll system fails there is truly no point.”

Pesavento said although she and other workers showed up on-time at 6 a.m., the poll site coordinator did not arrive until an hour later. She said she received no overview of what ballots there were or guidance on what to do for people who wished to drop off their absentee ballots in person. She also did not receive information on what safety precautions should or would be taken due to the pandemic, she said, something another poll worker who testified at the hearing mentioned as deterring people from volunteering for the job.

VAAC members cited the need for improved poll worker training and encouraging more people to utilize early voting as potential solutions to these problems.

Laura Mueller-Soppart, who also testified at the hearing, was unable to obtain an absentee ballot and could not vote in-person because she was in Chicago, she said. Like many who spoke at the hearing, Mueller-Soppart said she was happy to hear that the VAAC would be recommending ways to improve voter experiences for the fall, but was still disappointed with the recent elections.

“We talk a lot about how to do it better,” Mueller-Soppart said. “But the baseline has to be that voters can vote.”

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

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Voters, Poll Workers Attest to Confusion and Missing Ballots in Another Marred Election Mon, 06 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
What New York City Voters Need to Know About the June Primary Elections voting in new york during coronavirus

What voters need to know to vote in June (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

The images of Wisconsin voters standing in line last month starkly illustrated how COVID-19 has triggered a health emergency for our democracy. Here in New York, elections have been postponed or canceled in response to the pandemic. We are taking the first steps towards voting in a new way, via mail-in absentee ballots. With all of these rapid changes, it is no wonder voters are confused about what steps they can take to cast a vote safely and help maintain the health of our democratic system.

In response to these unprecedented circumstances, the Mayor’s DemocracyNYC Initiative and the NYC Votes/Campaign Finance Board have convened a consortium of community-based organizations, good government groups, and advocates to get the word out about voting safely to the hardest-hit communities. Our goal is to make sure voters in these underrepresented communities have the information they need to make use of absentee voting as a safe and effective alternative.

Here is the critical guidance New Yorkers need to safely exercise their right to vote -- and to keep our democracy healthy -- on June 23.

First, all eligible voters may cast a ballot by mail. To do so, city voters must request an absentee ballot by June 16. The Board of Elections will mail voters an absentee ballot application this month with a postage-paid return envelope. But there is no reason to wait. We encourage as many voters as possible to request an application online. Requests can be made online at a new website created by the city’s Board of Elections: The application is now available in Spanish, Chinese, Bengali, and Korean.

Absentee ballots will not be mailed out to all voters; only voters who request an absentee ballot will receive one. Thanks to an executive order from Governor Cuomo, anyone who wants to vote absentee due to the coronavirus pandemic should indicate “temporary illness” as the reason for requesting a ballot.

Voting by mail is a safe and effective way to exercise the right to vote during this public health crisis. Governor Cuomo’s executive order allowing all voters to cast a mail-in ballot means New Yorkers will not face the awful choice between voting and protecting their own health that voters in Wisconsin were forced to make.

As New York contemplates re-opening, in-person voting will be available for the voters who need it. The best way to vote in-person is during the early voting period, June 13-21, when fewer people will be at the poll sites. For the health and safety of everyone, especially poll workers, those who can should vote by mail-in ballot.

The second critical point is that primary elections are happening, whether the Democratic presidential primary is held or not (that matter is currently being decided by the courts). Important primary races for Congress, State Legislature, and municipal offices will be decided on June 23. The vast majority of neighborhoods across the city will have at least one primary contest on that absentee ballot.

To vote in most primary elections, voters must be enrolled in the party holding the primary under rules set by the parties. The state’s look-up tool ( is the best way to check whether your voter registration and party affiliation status makes you eligible to vote in a primary.

While the path is clear to vote safely by mail in June, we are concerned that New Yorkers will not have that option in November. Governor Cuomo’s order making the risk of contracting coronavirus a valid excuse for voting absentee will expire after the primary election. These changes should be considered for future elections to allow safe and secure voting in November.

Voters should not have to choose between health and enjoying the privileges of citizenship. In time of crisis, it is critical New Yorkers participate in choosing who will lead our city in the coming months and years of rebuilding. We urge all eligible voters to request a mail-in ballot and be a part of making those critical choices on June 23.

The undersigned civic leaders are launching a nonpartisan outreach campaign this week to guide New York voters through the 2020 elections. New Yorkers can request an absentee ballot for the June primaries online at To request a ballot by phone, or for help with voting questions, call the Board of Elections hotline 866-VOTE-NYC (1-866-868-3692).




Wayne Ho

President & CEO

Chinese-American Planning Council (CEC)

Betsy Gotbaum

Executive Director

Citizens Union

Prof. Ester Fuchs


Columbia University, WhosOntheBallot

Edward Cuesta

Executive Director

Dominicanos USA

Eliana Santos


Dominicanos USA

Laura Ladd Bierman 

Executive Director

League of Women Voters of NYS

Karen Cummings

Community & Govt Affairs Liaison


Laura Wood

Senior Advisor & General Counsel

Mayor's DemocracyNYC Initiative

Bitta Mostofi


Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs

John Park

Executive Director

MinKwon Center for Community Action

Amy Loprest

Executive Director

NYC Campaign Finance Board

Dr. Sarah Sayeed

Chair & Executive Director

NYC Civic Engagement Commission

Megan Ahearn

Program Director


David Estrada

Executive Director

Sunset Park Business Improvement District

Jarret Berg



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What New York City Voters Need to Know About the June Primary Elections Mon, 18 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
A Decade of Voting in New York City: 21% of Registered Voters Didn’t Cast a Single Ballot; 3% Voted Every Time primary voting flcm

Voters in New York City don't vote very much (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

New York has, in recent years, become known for low voter turnout, and while the arithmetic of getting voters to the polls has always been foggy, new findings shed light on both the details of the city's turnout problem and factors that impact which potential voters actually cast a ballot.

Late last week, the New York City Campaign Finance Board released its latest Voter Analysis Report, an annual review of voting behavior in New York City in the previous election cycle, providing a comprehensive glimpse of the off-year 2019 elections. But this year the report also includes a ten-year, longitudinal study of millions of individual voters, the places with the best and worst electoral engagement, and the factors that have influenced voter participation.

"This is the agency’s most comprehensive look at voting behavior in New York to date," the report declares.

The study analyzed the voting patterns of over 4.6 million New Yorkers between 2008 and 2018 to score turnout based on a person's eligibility to vote in an election compared with the number of times they exercised that right. A shocking 21 percent of registered voters did not cast a ballot for the entire decade. Only 3 percent of voters voted every time they could.

The study also identified a number of variables that correlate to turnout. Analysis of the data shows a trend toward lower turnout in areas with a high proportion of voters without party affiliation. The proportion of naturalized citizens had a relatively strong negative correlation with a district's voting. Conversely, the percent of the population over 50 and the percent with a high school diploma had a strong positive correlation on turnout.

The report aggregated individual participation scores to find how well each borough fared. It found the Bronx had the lowest participation of any borough with a score of 24 out of 100, while Manhattan had the highest score of 34. Brooklyn and Queens each scored 28 and Staten Island scored 29 (the citywide score was 28).

Plenty of Registered Voters, Not That Many Voters
Reformers seeking to improve voter engagement have long-considered registration and participation the two essential components of the turnout puzzle. The new study suggests that registration efforts alone do little to ensure consistent voting.

"People often talk about how we have a registration problem in New York, but what we've found is that people are registered to vote. They are just not turning out to vote," said Allie Swatek, the the Campaign Finance Board's director of policy and research, in an interview. "The participation score captures that problem: how often people turn out to vote in elections that they are eligible to vote in."

The analysis is unique, she said, because it takes the long view of behavioral information that is not typically available at the local level. (The CFB has published the data used for the study on the city's Open Data portal.)

In 2008, New York City was home to 4.6 million registered voters (including 3.1 million Democrats, 530,000 Republicans, and 827,000 party-unaffiliated voters). As of February 2020, there were over 5.3 million registered voters in the city, with the number of Democrats hitting 3.6 million, Republicans hovering at the 2008 level, and just under 1 million unaffiliated voters (999,000), often called “independents.”

In the 2018 gubernatorial race, the most recent major executive office to be voted on in the city, roughly 2.1 million New York City residents voted, a sharp jump from the 1.2 million who voted in the 2017 mayoral general election. Meanwhile, 2.7 million New York City voters cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election.

Demographics and Turnout
The report, which aggregated individual voting data within census tracts, also used statistical modeling to determine which demographic factors correlated to better or worse participation.

The factor with the strongest negative "impact on voting behavior" in a region was the percent of residents with no party affiliation. Areas with larger proportions of residents aged 50 and older and areas with a high percentage of high school graduates tended to have high levels of voter turnout.

Other factors like the percent of the population of particular racial groups impacted the likelihood to vote, according to the report. The percent of the population that is Latino had a slightly negative correlation with voting, while the percent of the population that is Asian or white had a strong positive correlation. The percent of a population that is black was not strongly correlated with turnout.

"This indicates that Black voters turn out in roughly the same numbers as White residents in New York City and so do not contribute significantly to our model," the report states.

The percentage of a population that is naturalized citizens was among the factors with the strongest negative correlations to voting.

“This analysis shows that the City and State need to do a better job at prioritizing outreach in immigrant communities, where many are first-time voters learning how to participate in the process,” said Javier H. Valdés, co-Executive Director of Make the Road New York, an immigrant advocacy group. “As we continue to work toward reforms that expand democracy in the city and the state, our communities need real resources for outreach and voter education to raise both registration and turnout rates to levels that will ensure full and equal representation.”

An analysis accompanying the report also found a significant overlap between the districts with the highest COVID-19 infection rates and the lowest turnout in 2019. The figures showed that four of the five districts with the highest rate of positive coronavirus testing also had below average voter turnout for the general election last fall. All four of those districts had high numbers of naturalized citizens and relatively low education attainment.

The Voter Analysis Report includes a snapshot of the 2019 election, which had very few high-profile races and predictably saw low turnout. The turnout, a low 17 percent, compared with 39 percent the previous year (2018), came as little surprise to seasoned observers of New York City and State elections, despite the presence of new, long-sought reforms.

For the first time, New Yorkers statewide had the opportunity to vote early for nine days leading up to the November Election Day. In New York City, elections administrators established 61 early voting poll sites across the five boroughs. The new system, passed by the State Legislature and Governor Cuomo in 2019 after Democrats took control of both legislative chambers, is intended to ease the burden of voting by providing more options to voters and more opportunities to trouble-shoot snafus to election administrators.

Not many New Yorkers took advantage of early voting in its first year, a scenario expected and welcomed by reformers who wanted to see the dramatic changes implemented first during an election that promised lower stakes and a lighter load for administrators. Citywide, only 1.3 percent of registered voters voted early, compared with the marginally higher 1.9 percent statewide, according to the CFB.

"While early voters represented a small percentage of the total registered voting population, about 7.6 percent of actual voters chose to vote early, indicating it was possibly a popular method for those who were likely already planning to vote," the report reads.

"Changes to voting behavior take time. Without public education and clear messaging about how to access civil rights, there is a very real risk of public confusion and mistrust over changes to the rules of the road," wrote Jarret Berg, a voting rights attorney and founder of Vote Early NY, in an email to Gotham Gazette. He says it is too early to draw firm conclusions about the merits of early voting in New York City, particularly as the program continues to evolve and the number of poll site options expands.

“Early voting was widely successful in New York this November," wrote Sarah Goff, Deputy Director of Common Cause NY, a good government group that helped fight for its passage. "There were fewer lines on Election Day, and if there were any hiccups, there was ample time for the Boards of Elections to address the issues. Now more than ever, voters need options so they can vote safely. New York lawmakers must continue to adequately fund early voting so New Yorkers can vote on their own schedules.”

"We certainly shouldn't lose sight of that now, especially as early voting will prove to be one of the most important tools we have to reducing density and long lines during the pandemic," Berg added.

While reporting low participation in the first year of early voting, the CFB thinks the program should be expanded. The report recommends enhancing early voting in the city by adding additional sites, creating cluster sites for larger catchment areas, and siting polling places near public transit.

Recent and Desired Reforms to Spur Participation
For nearly two decades, government watchdogs have lamented New York's declining voter participation, blaming it in large part for the political entrenchment they say has enabled corruption and shut out sunlight across city and state governments.

New York in recent years has consistently ranked among the bottom ten states in voter turnout. After corruption charges took down some of the state's most powerful leaders and 2018's "blue wave" -- with historically high turnout in the first midterm elections of the Trump era -- gave Democrats full control of the Legislature and Executive Chamber, state lawmakers enacted a number of reforms aimed at improving access to the ballot box. The 2019 election cycle had few competitive contests drawing people to the polls, but it did offer New Yorkers that first taste of the state's new voting paradigm, which includes an early voting period and synchronized state and federal primaries, while pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds also went into effect.

The new Campaign Finance Board Voter Analysis Report contains a number of recommendations to improve access to the polls, many of which were left on the table after last year's historic spate of reforms. Among them are automatically re-enfranchising people on parole, enacting automatic and online voter registration, and passing a State Constitutional amendment authorizing election-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting.

At the city level, the Campaign Finance Board is pushing for a robust public education campaign around ranked-choice voting, which New Yorkers adopted in a referendum last November to go into effect in 2021 for special and primary elections. It also suggests increasing the number of language interpreters at the polls, a perennial goal of reformers and some elected officials.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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A Decade of Voting in New York City: 21% of Registered Voters Didn’t Cast a Single Ballot; 3% Voted Every Time Tue, 05 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Communities Hit Hardest by Coronavirus Outbreak Have Had Lower Voter Turnout: Report cast vote potus

 A new report looks at coronavirus and voter turnout correlations (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

Neighborhoods with historically low voter participation are among the areas hit hardest by the novel coronavirus, according to a new analysis by the New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB), a factor that threatens to compound the crisis' fallout in low-income communities of color.

Four of the five zip codes with the highest rates of COVID-19 infection out of those tested also had voter turnout below the citywide average in the 2019 general election, which included a small number of electoral races and a series of ballot referenda. Many of the neighborhoods overlap regions of the city with large populations of naturalized citizens and low rates of educational attainment, areas that have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak, physically and economically.

In Corona, Queens, where 79 percent of people tested have had the virus, only 12 percent of registered voters went to the polls in 2019, compared with a citywide turnout rate of 17 percent, according to the CFB analysis. Queens Community District 4, which includes Corona, is 50 percent Latino, and nearly two-thirds of residents are foreign born, according to another CFB report. Seventy-one percent of the population has graduated high school, compared with 81 percent borough- and city-wide. The annual median household income in the community district is about $11,000 less than the citywide median.

In New York City and State, where voter turnout is already among the lowest in the country, groups that are historically underrepresented are now in the greatest need of aid.

Zip codes covering East Elmhurst, Elmhurst, Jackson Height, and Cambria Heights -- all in Queens -- saw the next highest rates of coronavirus infection. All but Jackson Heights had below average voter turnout in 2019 and large populations of naturalized citizens.

"Our analyses have indicated that the same neighborhoods that have historically seen lower turnout in elections, are also amongst those hit hardest by the pandemic, raising significant concerns about the impact on important upcoming elections," reads the analysis from NYC Votes, the Campaign Finance Board's voter engagement arm.

“It’s shocking, but not surprising, to see that our most disenfranchised communities—immigrant communities and communities of color, who are disproportionately on the front lines as essential workers in the COVID-19 pandemic—are the least protected from harm,” said Perry Grossman, a senior voting rights attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union.

"We must ensure that all New Yorkers, but especially those in the most impacted neighborhoods, have clear information on how to vote safely during coronavirus," reads an email sent Monday from NYC Votes to its general mailing list.

"We're partnering with Democracy NYC and a variety of nonprofit organizations on plans to get out the vote this June and November using texting, peer-to-peer calling, and other digital and decentralized approaches to organizing," the email says, referring to the civic engagement office within the Mayor's Office. A spokesperson for the CFB said those plans are still in formation but will be announced soon.

2019 was an off-year for elections in New York and though it boasted some notable features, including the state’s first-ever early voting period and referenda to amend the New York City Charter, it had few contests drawing people to the polls. Turnout in the general election was less than half the 39 percent of the year before, according to the CFB, a historic election that saw turnout skyrocket as New Yorkers cast ballots in high-profile contests at the state and national levels.

The data accompanies (but is not part of) the CFB's 2019 Voter Analysis Report, the latest in its required annual examination of the prior year’s election cycle and, this year, including a look at the past ten-year period as the decade concluded. The findings may shine a light on the common factors in coronavirus spread and voter turnout.

The ten-year analysis found that, among other things, age, high school graduation, and status as a naturalized citizen strongly correlated with rates of voter turnout. A high percentage of voters over 50 in a census tract tended to correlate to higher turnout over the study period, as did high school education. Status as a naturalized citizen correlated with lower turnout.

Of those other neighborhoods with the highest COVID-19 infection rates based on who’s been tested, Elmhurst is also in Community District 4, along with Corona. Cambria Heights, which is in Eastern Queens, is part Community District 13, which is over two-fifths foreign-born, according to data from the New York City Department of City Planning (the CFB report did not cover Community District 13). Only 29 percent of Community District 13 residents over the age of 25 have earned a bachelor's degree, compared with almost 37 percent citywide.

While older age has long correlated with higher turnout, it now poses new challenges for eligible voters wishing to cast ballots at poll sites, where social distancing is notoriously difficult. For seniors, the group most likely to be killed by COVID-19, going to the polls has become an unviable choice of civic life and the risk of death.

New York has already postponed and cancelled some elections, and Governor Andrew Cuomo recently signed an executive order requiring all eligible voters to receive an absentee ballot application for the upcoming June party primary elections, which are mostly for congressional and state legislative seats. Voters can also request an absentee ballot online.

But without much of the infrastructure of voter engagement -- from community-based service providers to peer-to-peer interaction -- on top of the public health impacts of the coronavirus, experts fear the city's most marginalized groups will again vote at lower rates, perhaps more so, and be left with even less influence among elected officials, who are known to pay greater attention to those who put them into office.

“We must ensure these marginalized groups have better access to the ballot box—including more and more convenient early voting sites; more voter education and outreach, especially around absentee ballots; and better language assistance—so they can hold government accountable for meeting their health, safety, and other critical needs,” Grossman said.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Communities Hit Hardest by Coronavirus Outbreak Have Had Lower Voter Turnout: Report Mon, 04 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Protect Democracy with Vote-by-Mail and Online Registration voter reg day1

Next potential steps for voting in New York (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

The following is an excerpt from the 2019-20 NYC Votes Voter Analysis Report

Novel and frightening barriers to voting have the potential to upend the entire crucial 2020 election year in every state. The challenges of in-person voting during a pandemic are clear and significant. Elections traditionally provide a time for citizens to gather together in large numbers to engage in the practice of democracy. But restrictions on public gatherings recommended by public health authorities in response to the spread of COVID-19 cast regular poll site operations in a new light. 

In jurisdictions around the country, many voters wait packed together in long lines to make their voices heard. Institutions that regularly serve as poll sites may be justifiably concerned about allowing potential carriers to pass through their doors—especially senior centers or schools. While early voting opportunities can provide space for voters to follow physical distancing guidelines, they offer no such protection to the dedicated poll workers who interact with each voter requesting a ballot.

In response, many election experts and advocates have advocated for prompt and widespread adoption of vote by mail.

Washington State, for instance, mails ballots to every registered voter 18 days before each election. Voters can mail their ballots back or return them to designated ballot drop boxes by the end of Election Day. Four other states—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, and Utah—conduct all-mail elections.

In New York State, mail-in or absentee voting is available only to voters who can attest to a specific reason they will be unable to appear at the polls, either for absence or illness. By executive order, Governor Cuomo expanded the meaning of “temporary illness” to cover those seeking to stem the spread of COVID-19, and mandated that every voter should receive an absentee ballot application in the mail. However, its effects are temporary. As issued, it applies only to elections through June 23. By whatever means are available, expanded access to vote by mail should be offered to New Yorkers on a permanent basis.

What we’ve learned in this moment is that universally-accessible vote by mail is not merely a turnout-boosting convenience. It can provide necessary resilience for our democratic system when the logistics of in-person balloting become impossible or impractical to maintain. It is one of a series of critical measures that should be available to administrators to ensure the continuity of our elections. New York should act promptly and decisively to implement it here.

The COVID-19 response effort is also shifting the way that organizers and campaigners approach the work of engaging voters. Traditional methods of registering voters will need to be rethought and campaign plans will need to be redesigned to adapt to the reality of an election year conducted during a pandemic. At minimum, a response that preserves New Yorkers’ access to elections through crises will require New York to finally end its reliance on a paper-based voter registration system that depends heavily on face-to-face interaction to bring new voters into the democratic process.

Times of crisis can force hard choices upon us; they demand we articulate our values and protect the things we value most. Elections are essential, particularly and especially in these difficult moments. In just the last twenty years, New Yorkers have come together to vote in the wake of a terrorist attack and in the aftermath of a destructive storm. Each instance demonstrates anew that our election laws and systems badly need flexibility to ensure elections can adapt effectively to public challenges like this one.

Democracy will persist — if we choose it.

Amy Loprest is the Executive Director of the NYC Campaign Finance Board, which runs the nonpartisan voter engagement initiative NYC Votes. Read the full 2019-20 NYC Votes Voter Analysis Report. On Twitter @NYCCFB & @NYCVotes.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Protect Democracy with Vote-by-Mail and Online Registration Sun, 03 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
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
Employee in Lower Manhattan Building Home to Several City Agencies Tests Positive for Coronavirus de blasio coronavirus

Mayor de Blasio delivers a coronavirus briefing (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

An employee at 100 Church Street in Lower Manhattan, where a number of city agency offices are located, tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week. Mayor Bill de Blasio has not disclosed the revelation publicly, even as city employees and members of the public continue to conduct business there.

The information that a building occupant tested positive for the novel coronavirus came to city agencies from both City Hall and the building's management company, SL Green Realty Corp., according to an email shared by the New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB), which is housed in the building, after a Gotham Gazette inquiry. According to a CFB spokesperson, notice of the positive case came on Monday evening.

In an email sent Tuesday morning, the CFB notified prospective candidates coming in for a scheduled training on compliance with the city's campaign finance laws that the agency had received the reports that a person in the building had tested positive.

"The person works in a different floor and elevator bank than our offices and will not return until they are symptom free for a minimum of 24 to 48 hours," the CFB email read, in part. "While we are proceeding with today’s training, out of an abundance of caution, we wanted to let you know this information in case you wish to modify your plans or postpone your attendance," it said.

A city employee told Gotham Gazette the notice from City Hall did not contain any guidance about whether agency staff should continue coming to the building at 100 Church to work.

Ten candidates still arrived at the CFB offices for the Tuesday training, according to the CFB spokesperson. The agency is now cancelling all in-person training sessions and moving to video conferencing.

100 Church Street is also home to the city's Law Department, Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), Office of Administrative Trials, Mayor's Council Against Poverty, and the city's Business Integrity Commission, to name a few. There are also a number of private corporate tenants.

The Mayor's Office did not respond to multiple requests for information about whether there have been other confirmed cases in the building and what immediate steps it is taking at the address. Employees at several agencies Gotham Gazette spoke with are still reporting to work in person. A midday visit to the building Thursday showed business apparently proceeding as usual, albeit with fewer people than usual passing through the lobby.

Several of those agencies housed at 100 Church Street are regularly visited by members of the public. Candidates receiving CFB training, civilians filing police misconduct complaints with the CCRB, and participants in public hearings held by the Business Integrity Commission all pass through its lobby, for example. Some agencies, like the CFB and CCRB, also send staff out into the field, either to conduct local trainings, investigations, or even monthly board meetings. The CCRB, which often holds its board meetings outside the building at sites across the five boroughs, postponed its March board meeting in the Bronx on Wednesday.

At a Thursday press conference at City Hall, de Blasio announced that the city was nearing 100 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus and declared a state of emergency. He said he expected the number of cases to continue to rise and announced a number of moves to mitigate spread, including that 10% of the city’s workforce would soon be encouraged to work from home, while another 20% would be moved to staggered shifts to reduce crowding on mass transit. The mayor did not mention specific agencies or buildings.

In an email statement from SL Green, Chief Operating Officer Edward V. Piccinich said of the COVID-19 case at 100 Church Street: "SL Green continues to take aggressive and proactive action across our portfolio to protect the health of our tenants, following guidance from City, State and Federal health officials. At the property level we have taken precautionary measures by increasing frequency of cleaning and disinfecting commonly touched surfaces."

"We are in constant communication with our tenants and their employees about these measures and to monitor any potential exposure," the statement read. "When a confirmed case is identified, we immediately conduct decontamination and promptly respond with commercial grade remediation of all tenant-accessible areas of the building. These actions are communicated quickly to all employees in the building to ensure a safe environment at all properties in our portfolio."

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Employee in Lower Manhattan Building Home to Several City Agencies Tests Positive for Coronavirus Thu, 12 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
New Bill Would Close Loophole for Reporting on Independent Expenditures to Influence Ballot Referenda ballot ref

Brad Lander and others in support of ranked-choice voting (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

City Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat, is introducing legislation on Thursday that would close a loophole in city campaign finance law that currently allows groups to hide their donors when they try to influence voting on a ballot referendum.

The city’s campaign finance law is fairly robust, having been updated repeatedly over the years to reduce the effect of big money on politics, including independent expenditure groups that seek to sway elections. But the law only requires independent expenditure committees to disclose their contributors to the Campaign Finance Board when they spend money to favorably or negatively affect a candidate’s campaign for elected office. The law does not require that for ballot measures, such as the five that were approved by voters in November of last year.

The five ballot questions, created by the 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission, encompassed 19 specific proposals related to issues of police oversight, land use policy, civic engagement, budget procedures, and election reform. Three outside groups together spent nearly $1.3 million to affect how New Yorkers voted on some of those questions, but the sources of that money do not need to be disclosed under current law, something Lander’s bill seeks to address.

The vast majority of that spending, about $1.1 million, came from the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting NYC, which supported the first ballot question that established ranked-choice voting in some municipal elections. The committee was backed by, among many others, good government groups that have generally been supportive of election and campaign finance reform. Common Cause New York, the leading group behind the ranked-choice voting push, supports the legislation and was involved in drafting its language, according to Lander’s office.

The New York City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus spent $5,000 to oppose that first question. Another independent expenditure committee associated with the Police Benevolent Association, the union representing rank-and-file police officers, spent a total of $158,406 in opposition to every ballot question. Most of that spending, $139,870, was directed at the second question, which gave greater powers to the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), a watchdog agency that investigates allegations of abuse of power and wrongdoing by officers.  

None of the groups were required to report how they had raised their funds and from whom. Taking notice of that loophole, which was also criticized by the New York Daily News editorial board, Council Member Lander told Gotham Gazette soon after the election that he intended to introduce a bill to amend it.

“In 2014, on the heels of the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision, we created the strongest disclosure law for independent expenditure spending on behalf of candidates,” he said in a statement this week. “We’ve already seen evidence that it is working to reduce opaque spending to promote or oppose candidates. Now, we’re taking the next step to bring the same transparency to ballot propositions on the other side of the ballot.”

Lander’s bill would require any independent expenditure committee that spends more than $1,000 on a candidate or ballot referendum to disclose the expenditure to the New York City Campaign Finance Board. It would also require the identification of any individual who gives more than $1,000 to an independent expenditure committee and that a committee that spends more than $5,000 in the year before an election to impact a candidacy or ballot measure disclose the entities that contributed to it, as well as the “owners, partners, board members and officers” of those entities.

It also mandates the disclosure of the identity of any individual who gives $25,000 or more to an entity that contributes more than $50,000 to an independent expenditure committee. The disclosure requirement would also extend to literature and election ads. The bill would take effect on January 1, 2021.

Campaign Finance Board Executive Director Amy Loprest applauded the bill. “New York City’s disclosure laws are the strongest in the country, and this legislation will mean that voters have full transparency when independent groups try to influence the outcome of a ballot initiative,” she said in a statement.

Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor of Reinvent Albany, another good government group that supported popular passage of ranked-choice voting, said in an email, “We support making the donors to campaigns regarding ballot proposals more transparent, and appreciate Councilmember Lander focusing attention on this gap in the city's campaign finance laws.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

New Bill Would Close Loophole for Reporting on Independent Expenditures to Influence Ballot Referenda Wed, 26 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Effort Launched to Double Youth Voter Turnout in New York City we power nyc nyc votes bmcc cuny

A participant in #WePowerNYC (photo: BMCC)

Voter and youth engagement leaders are launching a new effort to increase voter turnout among young people in New York City.

The #WePowerNYC campaign was announced on Friday by NYC Votes, the voter engagement arm of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, in partnership with CUNY Votes at a summit at Borough of Manhattan Community College that included student leaders from more than 15 colleges and universities around New York City.

According to NYC Votes, #WePowerNYC seeks “to mobilize one of the city’s most underrepresented voting populations – young people” and “uplift voices, build power, and develop leadership skills among New Yorkers in their teens and twenties.”

The project, which hopes to encourage engaged youth to mobilize their peers, aims to double youth turnout in 2020 and 2021. According to NYC votes, while New York City voters under 30 participate in presidential elections at about the same rate as the larger voting population, those "young voters" participate in local elections at far lower rates. In the most recent mayoral election in 2017, young voters turned out at only 13.5%.

“People don’t know the importance of voting for the state and local elections and how much that actually influences things,” said Margaret Stone, a student at the City College of New York.

“Our vote is our voice,” said Staci Emanuel, CUNY’s university-wide coordinator for voter registration, urging students to register to vote. “What matters most to you in government, comes down to your vote, so let your vote be your voice.”

Students attending the event -- and all others -- are encouraged to take a pledge to vote in the 2020 elections and by taking the “Text to Vote” pledge. Registered students who sign up will receive information on voting and election day reminders. Students can text "CUNYvotes" to 917-979-6377 to receive those reminders as well as “prompts to encourage their friends to vote.” Or, instead of texting, students can go to the website that’s been set up for the initiative.

Chloe Cardinale, a CUNY Service Corps intern and student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is working to register high school students across New York City to vote. Cardinale saw the summit as an excellent opportunity to learn about techniques to drive voter registration among youth.

“When I registered to vote in high school, they just gave me the form, and I had no idea what I was doing,” she said. “I filled it out wrong three times because no one informed me about anything. Giving individuals more information can help them accurately make the choice they want to make.”

NYC Votes is trying to double youth voter turnout -- to about 250,000 voters under 30 -- in New York City for the 2021 mayoral election through a two-year campaign, including partnerships with nonprofits, businesses, community organizations, and others.

Friday's day-long summit with CUNY Votes included two workshop sessions where students were taught how to create change amongst their peers, a Q&A with Professor Frank Deale of University of Pennsylvania Law School, and a discussion around voter rights.

“This campaign was created by and for NYC youth,” said Sabrina Castillo, Director of Outreach and Partnerships for NYC Votes, in a press release announcing the #WePowerNYC initiative. “High school and college students were involved throughout the planning and conceptual stages, and going forward our youngest staff members and student leaders will take the lead in execution.”

There are three main elections in New York this year: the April presidential primary, the June congressional and state primary, and the fall general election, all of which will include an early voting period as well as the ‘election day’ itself. New voters must register by April 3 in order to vote in the April 28 presidential primary.

by Bessie Liu for @GothamGazette

Effort Launched to Double Youth Voter Turnout in New York City Sun, 23 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000