Gotham Gazette Fri, 21 Feb 2020 03:31:23 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) State Senate Set to Move Automatic Registration Amid Early 2020 Voting Package and cuomo westchester kc office

(photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

State lawmakers are poised to make a second attempt at launching the process to legalize automatic voter registration for eligible New Yorkers who interact with certain government agencies.

Mirroring the auspicious beginning of the 2019 session, which in the first weeks saw a historic spate of voting reforms passed by the new two-house Democratic majority, lawmakers say another package of election bills, including automatic voter registration (AVR), is likely to pass the State Senate as soon as Thursday, with an Assembly companion in the near future.

“We’re starting [Thursday] with a package of bills expanding on voter rights,” Senator Liz Krueger said Wednesday afternoon on the Max & Murphy podcast. “We did a whole package on improving access to voting and voter rights last year...we have more bills that we intend to pass relating to expanded access to voting and improvements in early voting.”

“We’ll be passing 9 or 10 bills,” Krueger said, “making sure that we have a system for automatic voter registration” and a variety of changes to early voting laws, including “exempting public schools from being early voting locations” given the burdens it can place on school facilities.

A press release from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office outlining his 2020 agenda, sent just after his State of the State speech Wednesday, expressed support for automatic voter registration, claiming that it will improve registration and turnout rates and making additional commitments to make the program accessible through the internet. “We will ensure that all automatic voter registration opportunities are available online and we will enable New Yorkers to simply apply to register to vote on the State Board of Elections website if they choose to do so,” the press release said.

Voting reformers in New York have sought some form of automated voter registration for years but were stymied by a divided Legislature, particularly the Republican-controlled Senate majority. The Democratic takeover of the Senate won in 2019 allowed the chamber to pass an “opt-out” AVR system, where applications for services at designated state and local agencies -- like the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Department of Health -- would be integrated with voter registration forms, unless the service-seeker affirmatively declines to register.

Days before the end of the 2019 session, the Assembly, also controlled by Democrats, pulled its version of the bill due to an error in the language that meant people attempting to opt-out might be inadvertently opting in. In a joint statement in June, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, promised to revisit the legislation in the next session.

“Due to a significant technical issue with the Automatic Voter Registration Act (S6457A /A8280A) that would have impacted the intent of the legislation, the Senate Majority will recall the bill and introduce a corrected version. We will pass this updated bill at the next available opportunity when we are in legislative session,” the statement read.

“It’s very simple. It was just a typographical error that provided the opposite instruction of what should have been in terms of how a form should have been filled out,” explained Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat and the bill’s Senate sponsor, in an interview Tuesday.

“We did make a commitment to pass it at the first available opportunity in the next session, this upcoming session,” he added. “Now you are hearing that we are true to our word and are, in fact, passing it.”

Legislative leaders were quick to tell the public that postponing the legislation until 2020 would not have an effect on its implementation date. “This action will not impact the implementation of this corrected legislation because, like the original legislation, it does not go into effect until 2021,” wrote Stewart-Cousins and Heastie in the June statement. However, the language of the bill provides a range of when it can go into effect, depending on when the State Board of Elections establishes the infrastructure to implement it, with a deadline of two years after it becomes law. If the bill passes both houses of the Legislature this year and is not signed by the governor until the end-of-the-year deadline, AVR may not be implemented until December 2022, after the next statewide election.

Reformers believe automating registration and other voting changes will make it easier to participate in elections, especially for people who have been historically disengaged from the democratic process. Combining agency service applications with voter registration forms means individuals will have to provide the necessary personal information -- like name and address -- only once. Under an “opt-out” system, service recipients have to take affirmative action only when they are choosing not to register to vote or when they want to be affiliated with a particular political party for the purposes of voting in a primary -- all of which will be possible on the integrated form.

The government agency that interfaces with a potential voter is responsible for submitting the registration form to the State Board of Elections, which then transmits the form to local election administrators.

During debates over the bill, immigration advocates and critics alike expressed concern that an AVR system would capture people ineligible to vote, endangering people with precarious immigration statuses and enabling voter fraud. Those concerns were compounded when the state passed the Green Light law, which allows undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses and took effect toward the end of last year.

Lawmakers responded to those concerns in the original legislation by including safe harbor language that outlines a presumption of innocence for someone who fails to opt-out, even if they are ineligible to vote. The legislation also affirms that registering to vote automatically does not constitute a claim to citizenship, which could otherwise jeopardize an immigrant’s legal status.

“People who are not citizens should not be registering to vote, and we want to make sure the law does not accidentally create that scenario,” Gianaris said.

As Krueger said, the State Senate plans to pass a host of other voting reforms Thursday, a number of which build on the state’s new early voting system established in 2019, as first reported by NY1’s Zack Fink and the New York Daily News. The Assembly is expected to consider the package in the near future, according to the Daily News.

“The Senate Democratic Majority will rollout legislation empowering more New Yorkers to take advantage of early voting opportunities and exercise their Constitutional right to vote,” reads a Wednesday advisory, previewing a Thursday morning press conference to be led by Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, just before the Senate holds its second day of 2020 session. “These bills build on the historic voting reforms passed under the Senate Democratic Majority during the 2019 Legislative Session.”

A spokesperson for the Assembly sponsor of AVR said discussions in that chamber are happening. “Assemblywoman Walker is meeting with Assembly leadership regarding AVR and we are eagerly awaiting [its] passage,” wrote a spokesperson for Assembly Member Latrice Walker, a Brooklyn Democrat who is carrying the bill in the Assembly, in an email. Speaker Carl Heastie’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The package the Senate appears poised to pass, possibly with the Assembly following suit, also includes changes to authorize counties to set up portable early voting sites, meaning local boards of elections may set up additional polling locations to serve hard-to-reach areas for a shorter span within the early voting period. Other bills expected to pass the Senate Thursday deal with the criteria for siting early voting locations, including one that bars the use of public schools -- a source of conflict during the first year of implementation. Others would require more public notice about elections and college campuses to have designated polling places.

“New York ranks among the bottom states in voter participation and our majority has made a concerted effort to go from among the worst to among the first in the country,” said Gianaris. “That’s why we did early voting, we’re moving towards same-day registration, we’re moving towards making it easier to vote by mail, and AVR is an important plank in a democracy agenda that is going to make it easier for more people to participate in the process.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

State Senate Set to Move Automatic Registration Amid Early 2020 Voting Package Wed, 08 Jan 2020 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

Read more by this writer.

Legislature Evaluates Inaugural Early Voting Period in New York, Looks Ahead to Daunting 2020 Election Year Wed, 20 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
In Its First Year, Early Voting May Give Glimpse of Modern New York City Election voting gen election may office

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Major changes are coming to the way New Yorkers cast ballots as the New York City Board of Elections prepares to roll out early voting for the first time later this month. In a sort of test-run during a very quiet election year, the Board will be opening up the polls for nine days leading up to Election Day and is taking the opportunity to pilot new technology that can make voting easier and more accessible.

Throughout 2019 New York City elections administrators have had the immense task of expanding voting days from a single day to ten days -- in a city of over 5 million registered voters -- thanks to recent changes in state law. Early voting passed in January as part of a host of election reforms long sought by good government advocates, which finally gained legs when Democrats took control of both chambers of the State Legislature. It begins for the first time in just two weeks.

There will by 61 early voting poll sites across the five boroughs open for varying hours from October 26 through November 3, followed by Election Day, which this year falls on Tuesday, November 5 (there will be no voting on November 4).

What voters experience at the early voting sites will be markedly different from the traditional voting experience New Yorkers are used to, including changes from the more paper-based past. Given it is something of a pilot year, Election Day itself will be a hybrid of old and new.

“What we’d like to be able to do, if we can make this change,” BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan told Gotham Gazette in an interview this week, is give voters and poll workers a taste of the coming changes prior to the presidential election in 2020, “so that people will be a little more familiar with the process.”

There is little on the ballot this year, though there is a citywide special election for Public Advocate and charter revision proposals that could alter voting and governance in the city. There are also some local races, like the Queens District Attorney election and judicial contests. Turnout is expected to be very light this year, before a massive showing in 2020.

As part of this year’s reform package, state lawmakers not only created the early voting program, but authorized local elections boards to use electronic poll books for the first time, a move critical to implementing early voting but one that comes with its own logistical hurdles.

To help administrators meet the demands of the new voting process and comply with the state laws that created it, the BOE has created new positions to coordinate early voting operations in each of the five boroughs and has expanded and updated it’s poll-staff training. These preparations, among others, will soon be tested.

Many voters who take advantage of early voting will be casting their ballot at a poll site different from their assigned Election Day site. By replacing the limited and cumbersome paper poll books used to look up voter registration information, electronic poll books will allow poll sites to track whether a voter has already cast a ballot and enables early voting sites to serve a wider spread of election districts, each with its own unique ballot.

The shift to early voting requires a large amount of digital technology, in addition to e-poll books, all of which has to be backed up, secured, and operated by the Board’s temporary poll-site staff. During the early voting period, the New York City BOE will use the new e-poll books and a ballot-printing system known as “ballot-on-demand,” which syncs with the voter rolls to produce the correct ballot without each early voting site having to be stocked with what could otherwise be a prohibitively large range and number of pre-printed ones.

“Any Line, Any Time”
The ballot-on-demand and e-poll book systems together allow the BOE to pilot a concept Ryan is calling “any line, any time” in the early voting days.

Typically on Election Day, a voter has to check in to a specific table assigned based on Assembly and/or election district where they are given the proper ballot from a pre-printed pack stored in shrinkwrap.

According to Ryan, starting this year when a voter enters an early voting site they will be checked in by a poll worker at one of usually ten e-poll books at each location and will be given a ballot by another poll worker stationed near a ballot-on-demand printer. The system is supposed to create more simplicity for voters and efficiency for poll workers, and is one the BOE believes it can reproduce at Election Day sites in the future.

The new procedure means staff at early voting sites require a different type of training from Election Day poll-site staff.

“That is a difference in the way we currently run elections and our hope is that that will work well, we’ll get rid of those A to L, M to Z lines,” said Ryan, referring to the assigned tables. “Here, for early voting, if there’s a line at one you’ll go to the next one and so on down the line. You’ll basically be able to go to the shortest line, or the empty slot.”

“We’re very encouraged based on our preliminary assessments that this will be something that can be replicated for all of our Election Day sites,” he added.

But execution by the BOE remains to be seen, and there are limitations. The way the system is set up this year, voters may only cast ballots at their assigned early voting site (as opposed to any early voting site in their borough or across the city), which may not be the same as their Election Day poll site and could be further from their home. The differences may cause confusion and the limitations in convenience undermine the intended purpose of the new voting system.

Jarret Berg, an election lawyer and founder of advocacy and watchdog group Vote Early NY, told Gotham Gazette the BOE decided to invoke an exception in the law that allows the city to assign voters to specific early voting sites. “This is one of my top grievances with the program they have. Frankly, it is my top grievance,” he said, indicating his preference that the city allow voters to cast a ballot at any early voting site in their county (also known as borough) or even citywide.

Spoon Feeding on Election Day
Election Day will look differently in the first year of early voting.

Rather than the 61 locations open during the early voting period, a New Yorker who chooses to cast their ballot on Election Day -- November 5 -- will arrive at their local poll site, one of over a thousand operating citywide. The greater number of poll sites means each is serving a smaller number of election districts and has to furnish fewer pre-printed ballot variations.

On Election Day, e-poll books will be used to check in voters, which involves matching a signature with the one on their voter registration, but they will not be connected to ballot-on-demand printers. Instead ballots will be supplied the old-fashioned way from the packs.

Part of the concern with undertaking the “any line, any time” approach on Election Day was the sheer newness of it, Ryan said.

“The fear was, we’re doing it for the first time. So we didn’t want to introduce too much to our poll workers and have too much change but we also have to recognize that we didn’t want to impose too much change on the voters either, because they have to get used to the new system,” said Ryan.

“So we figure we’ll spoon feed it a little bit,” he added. “The voters that vote early will get used to the new way of doing it. The voters that go to vote on Election Day will get used to a new piece -- that being the e-poll pad.”

Kate Doran is a member of the city’s League of Women Voters who has been attending commissioners’ meetings to monitor the BOE’s progress on implementing early voting. “I think they’ve been cautious. I think that they are trying not to make mistakes,” she told Gotham Gazette.

Preparing for the Big Day(s)
In order to get to where the board feels it needs to be by the start of early voting this year, Ryan and his staff have to ensure that each piece of technology will be able to carry out its function or be easily replaced at a polling location, and that the locations themselves could accommodate the technology.

The most essential task was finding early voting locations -- often school buildings, churches, or community centers -- that had the necessary space and power capacity to run machines, and that could be open for an extended period of time.

“It is an imposition on the regular operations of these facilities. That was, first and foremost, the biggest concern -- finding suitable sites,” said Ryan.

Some of the sites are feeling that imposition. Gothamist reported this week that some principals have been caught off-guard by their schools being used as early voting sites over two weeks this fall. In some cases, the Department of Education didn’t inform principals until weeks before the early voting period is set to start, in the middle of the first months of the school year.

The boroughs with the fewest early voting sites will be Manhattan and Staten Island, which will each open nine this year. Brooklyn will have the most with 18.

Good government groups have sought internal BOE documents under the Freedom of Information Law to determine how the city came up with the poll sites it chose. The groups also want to know why voters will only be permitted to vote at one early voting site, “when the law's default position is that each voter should be permitted to vote at any site in their county of residence,” according to Perry Grossman, a voting rights attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and a signatory on the information request.

Ryan says the BOE purchased 10,000 e-poll books in order to have sufficient numbers for each early voting and Election Day site, plus extras for training purposes and back-up. According to BOE meeting minutes, the e-poll books are part of a four-year, $19.1 million contract that also includes software, maintenance, and training.

Each early voting poll site will have roughly 10 books -- some will have eight, some may have 11 -- that will each connect to its own ballot-on-demand printer. The e-poll book vendor, the St. Louis-based company KNOWiNK, was chosen because it had integrated ballot-on-demand and e-poll book devices and tested them for compatibility.

Ryan says in the BOE’s testing so far that has proven to be true, but the Board is still in the process of testing to make sure the printers will be able to produce every ballot style (including the 7.5 point font for the ballot referenda questions). While the board has set out a one-to-one ratio of e-poll books to printers, the machines are capable of operating at a ratio of up to four-to-one, which will allow poll sites to continue running even if some printers break down.

The city of Philadelphia was recently in the process of contracting with KNOWiNK to supply e-poll books for elections this year, but the plug was pulled when compatibility issues were discovered with another company’s voting system, ES&S’s ExpressVote XL. Ryan claims he has been assured by both KNOWiNK and Philadelphia elections administrators that the problem would not impact New York City because the BOE is not using Express Vote or even a similar piece of technology. (In March, according to a BOE letter obtained by NY1, Ryan urged the State Board of Elections to use the ExpressVote XL before it could be fully tested and certified, but was denied the request and the devices were ultimately not cleared by the State Board for New York City. Last year, NY1 reported that Ryan had been a member of a secret advisory board at ES&S since 2014 and had received trips, hotels, and dinners on the company’s dime. Ryan resigned from the ES&S advisory board after the story broke.)

Connectivity and Election Security
One of the main functions of e-poll books is to prevent double-voting at early voting sites or on Election Day. The devices communicate with one another to note when a voter has checked in and received a ballot. They are connected both internally with the other machines at the poll site, and externally to machines at other poll sites through wireless signal provided by contracts with Verizon and AT&T.

“Under the old way, there was no way to check this. If you were a rogue and went from location to location and attempted to vote, there would be no way for the system to know because your name would be signed in a book at some other location and you couldn’t share it,” Ryan said.

To ensure that the e-poll books work as intended, the BOE has purchased wireless routers called Cradlepoints to boost signal at poll sites. The devices are each customized with SIM cards from Verizon and AT&T, which they can toggle between depending on signal strength to ensure connectivity.

For security purposes, the Cradlepoints will arrive at poll sites in a military grade case with a padlock and a tamper-proof seal.

“A missing red seal would be a red flag, literally and figuratively, to a poll worker that something was done with that,” said Ryan. The devices’ hardware is complicated and the human error of temporarily hired poll workers can lead to mishaps, so the city will be using machines designed to function as long as they are plugged in, with no additional set-up.

The security of the e-poll books themselves have been kept under wraps. Ryan says the books have been programmed with internal security measures, which he cannot discuss publicly. According to Ryan, the books as compared to a traditional tablet have “significantly more robust cybersecurity and encryption, et cetera, to make sure the information can’t be tampered with.”

The BOE was required by law to submit within 60 days of early voting a security plan to the State Board of Elections if it planned to store any voting material remotely during the early voting period. The City recently reported that as of the last week of September, no plan had been submitted. The State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services tested the cybersecurity of e-poll books earlier this year, but a representative told Gotham Gazette the agency could not discuss any of its findings.

The BOE is still in the process of testing the Cradlepoints at each site, which Ryan says simply requires turning it on and seeing if it connects to the e-poll books. The e-poll books themselves are essentially tablets that connect to a wireless signal the same way a mobile device would. Should a Cradlepoint go down, the board will have backups in zones throughout the five boroughs, to be delivered to the poll site, rather than having it be serviced by a limited number of technicians (a similar method of using technicians to repair broken ballot scanners last November led to chaos at the polls).

To manage the overhaul of voting days, sites, and technology, the BOE has created dedicated positions to assist in the implementation of early voting. There are two early voting clerks in each borough -- one Republican and one Democrat, mirroring the board’s bipartisan structure -- to serve as point people in the rollout of early voting.

While Ryan says the clerks have been hired to assist borough chiefs and deputies he also says their roles haven’t been fully determined and will likely vary from borough to borough.

“We’d certainly like to segregate early voting to the extent that we can,” he told Gotham Gazette, referring to differentiating those operations from Election Day operations.

By the same logic, the BOE has divided its poll-site staff into Election Day workers, who will need to be trained on using e-poll books and setting up the poll sites differently, and early voting workers who also need to be brought up to speed on the ballot-on-demand printers.

“The training has been rather robust,” said Bill Meehan, who has been a poll-site worker in Jackson Heights for roughly a decade and poll-site coordinator for half of that time. The five-hour training he attended in late September was more hands-on than ones he’d been to in the past, he said.

“The mechanics of [the e-poll books] worked really well,” he said. At a poll site, voters will simply be asked to give their names and poll-site staff will enter the first couple of letters of the first and last names into the devices. “It pulls everything up. And if it doesn’t, then you go with the date of birth. And then it pulls it up. But it gives you everything you need. It’s right in front of you.”

Ryan is hoping to expand the early voting system to Election Day sites in the future and is treating the 2019 election as a test run. This year happens to be the one in every four-year cycle where there is little on the ballot in New York. With fewer, low-profile races (namely, the Public Advocate race, some judicial positions, Queens District Attorney, and five ballot referenda on changes to the city charter), turnout is expected to be lower than midterm, presidential, or mayoral election years, giving administrators a chance to introduce the new methods to the public.

But the BOE is also now grappling with the task of rolling out so many new components in the truncated period between when early voting was passed in Albany and takes place in New York City.

The preparation “wasn’t without concern and it wasn’t, certainly, without work,” Ryan told Gotham Gazette.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

In Its First Year, Early Voting May Give Glimpse of Modern New York City Election Thu, 10 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
With Under a Month To Go, Board of Elections Mum on Shift to Electronic Poll Books poll pad e poll book

(photo: knowink)

With just one month before New York rolls out early voting for the first time, it is unclear exactly where the city’s Board of Elections stands on acquiring and readying new technology considered essential to the new voting system.

BOE commissioners and staff have been discussing the acquisition of electronic poll books at board meetings since January, when the State Legislature passed and Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law establishing early voting and authorizing counties to purchase the new tech, which enables implementation of early voting. In June, the State Board of Elections approved three vendors that counties could contract with, and the same month the city BOE appeared to have chosen one.

But as of late September, the city board has been silent on its progress toward purchasing the 10,000 e-poll books it says it requires, much less loading them with the voter rolls and training staff to use them.

Early voting sites in all five boroughs will open on October 26, but the BOE has given no word on the status of various aspects of the e-poll book rollout, despite repeated attempts by Gotham Gazette over the course of two weeks.

Electronic poll books are considered a necessary tool in the implementation of early voting because they better allow elections administrators to manage the flow of voters at polling sites scattered around each borough over the course of nine days of early voting, followed by the full slate of poll sites typically open on Election Day.

According to city Board of Elections meeting minutes, the commissioners moved to adopt a $19.1 million four-year contract with an electronic poll book company called KNOWiNK in July, but no contracts have been submitted to city or state fiscal oversight entities. The city BOE did not respond to multiple requests for information by email, phone, and text message leading up to the publication of this story. After an initial exchange with Gotham Gazette about scheduling an interview with Executive Director Michael Ryan, a BOE representative stopped responding.

A number of other unanswered questions remain. Where the city BOE is in terms of acquiring supportive technology like back-up generators and wireless network connections are under wraps, as well as any efforts to test machines, meet security needs, or transfer voter registration data.

“In theory, that’s all done ahead of time and preloaded,” said Jarret Berg, an attorney, election reform advocate, and founder of Vote Early NY, referring to programing each electronic poll book with the city’s voter roll. Berg, who has met with elections administrators in counties throughout the state to monitor early voting implementation, believes the city BOE is already in possession of the new poll books. A BOE spokesperson provided no information to confirm or deny that possibility.

Running New York City elections has been a largely paper-based operation. Currently, poll workers use physical poll books to look up voter registration information and provide voters with a ballot. The paper books are cumbersome and limited to the names of voters assigned to a particular poll site.

Electronic poll books provide a way to track whether someone has already voted at one or another site, preventing overvoting during the early voting period. They can also contain larger voter rolls than the paper books, allowing poll workers to identify a voter’s registration information and direct them to the proper poll site, even if they arrive at the wrong voting location. They should also speed efforts to look up registrations in the voter rolls at various points in the process.

“We are hoping the new electronic poll books will help us eliminate human errors in poll sites,” wrote John Conklin, director of public information at the State Board of Elections, in an email. He said they will also enable county boards of elections and the five-borough New York City BOE to track wait times and voting patterns to identify where adjustments may need to be made in future elections.

“Most of all we hope it will improve the voting experience and get feedback from the electorate,” he wrote, saying he did not have specific knowledge of the city BOE’s roll-out of electronic poll books.

The Adjustment Period
Elections in New York City are run by county boards in each of the five boroughs under the umbrella management of the city BOE. The State Board where Conklin works is a separate entity that provides some policy-making and oversight around state elections and campaign finance laws, but does not in most cases directly administer local elections.

Under the new state law, counties are required to open poll sites for nine days in the lead-up to any primary, general, or special election. The first round of early voting statewide will take place from Saturday, October 26 through Sunday, November 3, ending two days before Election Day. By law, counties must have at least one early voting site for every 50,000 registered voters open during each day of the early voting period, and late hours are required on at least two weekdays. New York City will have 61 sites open across the five boroughs during the early voting period.

Each county is responsible for developing its own specific electronic poll book implementation plan, including procuring the technology, training staff, and deploying the machines, according to Conklin. Because this is the first year local boards have been authorized to use electronic poll books, the State Board may field questions and provide guidance to the jurisdictions planning on using them.

“While we hope that the e-poll book systems offer efficiencies in various processes, such as voter check in and updating of information, any time a new component, technological or not, is inserted into an existing process, there may be an adjustment period,” Conklin wrote.

The city Board of Elections has already failed to meet in a timely fashion certain requirements of the law that created early voting. As The City recently reported, the BOE missed a deadline to notify registered voters of their assigned early voting location 65 days before an election, while also posting the information to its website late, and only after an inquiry from The City.

“We expect that there is a bit of a learning curve and we know that,” Berg told Gotham Gazette. “This timetable, in fairness to the administrators, was very truncated.”

Acquiring New Technology
Earlier this year, the State BOE began piloting electronic poll book systems in local elections in Albany, Tompkins, Madison, and Onondaga counties. In June, it issued a list of three approved vendors that county boards could contract with.

The decentralized nature of elections administration means the State BOE is not involved in local efforts to implement electronic poll books, like selecting an approved vendor or negotiating contracts. “We do not have direct oversight over procurement. Most counties bought them using their local procurement agencies,” Conklin told Gotham Gazette.

New York City elections administrators, however, appear not to have gone through either the state or city comptroller’s office to get approval for their contracts.

“The procurement did not fall under OSC [Office of the New York State Comptroller] jurisdiction and did not receive that contract. You should probably reach out to NYC BOE for it,” wrote Matthew Sweeney, the assistant communications director at Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office, which reviews contracts involving state funds.

A spokesperson for New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer told Gotham Gazette that no contract had been submitted to the office for registration.

Board minutes from June indicate the city BOE would follow rules set out by the Public Procurement Board when purchasing the new poll books. Those rules require “all contracts, agreements, contract changes, change orders, amendments, modifications, contract time extensions, and “Buy-Against” procurements [to] be presented to the Comptroller for registration.”

It is not unusual for city agencies to submit contracts to the comptroller after they have already begun. According to a report by Stringer’s office, “In FY18, 80% of all new and renewal contracts arrived at the Comptroller’s Office for registration after their start date had already passed.”

The city BOE’s budget comes from New York City allocations, but the state has a plan to reimburse counties for certain early voting expenses, including equipment purchases like electronic poll books.

The city BOE’s total budget in the current fiscal year is $246 million, of which $21 million will go to purchasing electronic poll books and another $75 million for early voting operations, according to the board’s meeting minutes. Some of these expenses will be reimbursed by the state.

The state allocated $14.7 million in capital funding for electronic poll books in all 62 counties, and another $10 million from the aid to localities budget for early voting operations to be distributed at a rate of $15,000 per early voting site. The Auburn Citizen reported in June that New York City’s five counties would receive a total of $8.5 million from the state for 57 poll sites (the city now plans to open 61 sites). New York City BOE meeting minutes from mid-July indicate the state will reimburse $5 million specifically for electronic poll books.

According to the BOE meeting minutes, the city Board began discussing the implementation of new early voting procedures and electronic poll books almost immediately after the law was changed. By mid-February, according to the minutes, the BOE’s chief contracting officer was looking into potential vendors and the commissioners were already expressing concern with the truncated timeline to bring electronic poll books to the city.

By May, the city BOE’s executive director, Michael Ryan, had met with numerous jurisdictions and an election consultant and reported the conclusion that, “Electronic Poll Books are essential to proper Early Voting management and operation,” the minutes read.

After what appears to be extensive evaluations in which three committees were set up to score vendors based on “user experience,” “technology,” and “feasibility,” the city BOE chose a St. Louis-based company called KNOWiNK, which sells electronic poll book systems and is one of the three vendors approved by the State Board.

KNOWiNK also had the capacity to provide another technology known as ballot-on-demand, which enables poll workers to print a voter’s unique ballot on-site at a polling location, allowing individual early voting sites to accommodate a wider catchment of the electorate. Together, electronic poll books and ballot-on-demand create a streamlined voting experience and a simpler process for arranging poll sites.

On June 11, according to minutes, the city Board of Elections adopted a motion to begin contracting with KNOWiNK under Public Procurement Board rules. On July 16, the BOE approved a four-year contract for $19.1 million. The contract includes $405 per poll book, $4 million for software, and $1 million a year for maintenance and licensing.

KNOWiNK did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls requesting information about any contracts or contract discussions with the New York City Board of Elections.

The contract discussed in the minutes included another $48,000 for training, though it is unclear what exactly that money will go to. The last mention of training in city BOE meeting minutes was on August 27, when Ryan reported to commissioners that the poll worker training video had been updated to include information on electronic poll books. In that same meeting, Ryan told the Board that 12,000 of the roughly 21,000 general election poll workers had received training, but that “Early Voting poll workers will receive separate Early Voting training.”

Challenges Ahead for the New System
New York City BOE meeting minutes provide a sense of the multifaceted operation to determine the new technological needs of the largest metropolitan democracy in the United States. But the city Board of Elections has provided no recent comment on how close it is to meeting those needs.

Adding new technology to the system comes with additional obstacles that must also be addressed before the early voting period begins. During the June 25 primary elections, the city BOE experienced connectivity issues with the mobile wifi hotspots it used and in July Ryan reported to the Board that his staff was exploring other providers.

Power is another concern. In late August, Ryan informed the Board of a discovery that some poll site outlets could not provide the amperage electronic poll books and ballot-on-demand require. The minutes state, “The Board’s long term plan would be for the poll site to update their electrical capabilities in the designated poll room.” In the meantime, it appears the Board is exploring options to secure generators, which are also necessary in the event of a power outage.

There may also be security steps that must be taken. According to The Citizen, KNOWiNK and other vendors were evaluated on cyber security as part of the state’s pilot program by the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services and the New York State Technology Enterprise Corporation. Chet Lasell of DHSES told Gotham Gazette the agency could not disclose specifics about its cyber assessments due to “internal protocols and security considerations.” NYSTEC did not respond to a request for comment.

The new voting system, intended to make voting easier and improve the state’s low turnout record, will change the way New Yorkers experience elections, not only next month, but for years to come. This year, with few items on the ballot and little voter turnout expected, is seen as an important warm-up for the 2020 election cycle, which is likely to see high turnout.

“This is not just about staff that needs to be trained and brought up to speed. I think we have to break a bunch of bad habits among the public,” said Berg, adding, “I’m fond of saying, we need to grow a culture of early voting.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

With Under a Month To Go, Board of Elections Mum on Shift to Electronic Poll Books Thu, 26 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Dates, Deadlines, Elections & Ballot Questions: Everything You Need to Know for Fall 2019 in New York City may bdb first lady mccray

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

One out of every four years, there are few elections on the ballot in New York City, with almost no competitive races at the city or state level. Such is the case in 2019, the year after congressional, state legislative, and statewide races, and the year before the presidential, congressional, and state legislative races.

But New Yorkers will this fall have the opportunity to vote on several ballot proposals that could make fundamental changes to the City Charter, the document that governs central powers and functions of elected offices, city agencies, and local elections. And, there is also the culmination of the high-profile race to become the next Queens District Attorney, multiple special elections, and the first test-run of early voting and electronic poll books, both passed in Albany earlier this year. There would be two other district attorney races, but both the top prosecutors in the Bronx and Staten Island have gone unchallenged this year.

There are also important deadlines that voters must heed ahead of November 5, Election Day, which could affect their ability to participate in next year’s presidential and other primary elections. The presidential primary in New York is set to take place April 28 (Governor Andrew Cuomo had proposed moving the state and congressional primaries, currently scheduled for June, to the same date but the state Legislature rejected the idea).

It’s also noteworthy that this election will mark the halfway point between New York City mayoral elections, meaning it is exactly two years until the next mayor is selected.

Election day is November 5 this year, but there are also nine days of early voting, which is launching in New York for the first time.

Friday, October 11 is the last day to register to vote in the 2019 general election. Registration applications must be delivered in person to the New York City Board of Elections or mailed with an October 11 postmark (it must be received by October 16 to be processed). The Department of Motor Vehicles also processes online voter registration applications for individuals with a valid state driver’s license, permit or non-driver ID, and social security number.

October 29 is the last day for voters to postmark an application to receive an absentee ballot, while November 4 is the last day that voters can apply in person for an absentee ballot.

November 4 is also the last day when absentee ballots must be postmarked and mailed in order to be counted. The ballot must reach the BOE by November 12 at the latest. Voters can also have their absentee ballot delivered by another person to the BOE by election day. 

The BOE offers voter registration forms in five languages and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs supplements those with forms in 11 additional languages.

Governor Andrew Cuomo also signed an executive order last year that grants conditional pardons on a case-by-case basis allowing parolees under post-release community supervision to vote.

Separately, if a voter changes their address on their registration by October 16, the BOE must process it by the general election.

New York will also roll out nine days of early voting for the November general election, after it was approved by the state Legislature and signed by Cuomo earlier this year. From October 26 to November 3, polling sites will open for varying hours across the five boroughs. There are 61 sites in total – 18 in Brooklyn, 14 in Queens, 11 in the Bronx, 9 each in Manhattan and Staten Island. (There will be no early voting on November 4, the day before Election Day.) Voters are assigned to specific early voting sites, which they can fine here along with poll site hours.

To facilitate early voting, the BOE will for the first time utilize electronic poll books, which were also approved by the Legislature and Cuomo this year. 

On Election day, all poll sites statewide will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Voters can find their poll sites here (it always makes sense to double check in the days before heading out to vote).

Governor Cuomo has also signed a bill passed by both houses of the Legislature that significantly shifts New York’s deadline by which voters must change their political party enrollment to be able to vote in the next primary election. Previously, for a registered voter to switch party affiliation – from unaffiliated (aka “independent”) to Democrat or Republican, for example – to vote in next year’s presidential primary in April or the federal and state primaries scheduled for June, they had to deliver their application to the BOE by October 11 of this year. But the bill signed by Cuomo moved that deadline to February 14, 2020.

What’s On The Ballot
In New York City, there are two special elections, one citywide and one City Council, taking place in the general election, as well as the general election for Queens District Attorney, and a variety of judicial elections. (District Attorneys Darcel Clark of the Bronx and Michael McMahon of Staten Island will both get another term by uncontested elections.)

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a Democrat who was elected in a special election in February, must defend his seat this year in order to serve the remainder of the term that runs through 2021. His opponents include City Council Member Joe Borelli, a Staten Island Republican, who has acknowledged his extremely slim chances of victory in a city where Democrats overwhelmingly outnumber Republicans, and Libertarian candidate Devin Balkind. Borelli has also said he’s running in part to discuss the powers of the office and make it clear that the public advocate should hold the mayor accountable.

Williams’ election kicked off a nonpartisan special election in May for his City Council seat, in Brooklyn’s District 45 which covers Flatbush, East Flatbush, Midwood, Marine Park, Flatlands and Kensington. The seat was won by Farah Louis, who previously served as Williams’ deputy chief of staff. Williams had, however, endorsed her opponent, Monique Chandler-Waterman, a non-profit leader. 

Chandler-Waterman attempted to challenge Louis in the June 26 primary but was unsuccessful yet again. Louis faces only one active challenger, Anthony Beckford, in the general election, but she is expected to win easily and serve out the remainder of the term through 2021.

In Queens, Borough President Melinda Katz eventually won a recounted and drama-filled Democratic primary over her closest competitor, public defender Tiffany Cabán, and is expected to win easily in the general election over Republican nominee Joe Murray, a defense attorney and former NYPD officer (Murray is a registered Democrat but received a Wilson-Pakula certificate from the Queens Republican Party in order to appear on their ballot line).

In July, the 2019 Charter Revision Commission approved five overarching questions to place on the ballot, containing 19 proposals in all that cover issues such as elections and redistricting, government ethics, police accountability, the city budget, and land use policy. Voters throughout the five boroughs can cast a “yes” or “no” vote for each of the five questions, and they each need a simple majority of votes cast to be approved.

Read all about them here:  Charter Revision Commission Gives Final Approval to 19 Proposals in 5 Questions to Appear on November Ballot

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated. 

Dates, Deadlines, Elections & Ballot Questions: Everything You Need to Know for Fall 2019 in New York City Sun, 08 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
More Sites, Better Democracy: Board of Elections Must Get Early Voting Right de Blasio early voting new york city

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Early voting has finally come to our state, but it won’t work in our city unless the City Board of Elections ensures there are enough voting sites. That needs to happen, and it needs to happen now for our 3 million immigrants, our communities of color and every New Yorker who has a hard time voting on Election Day.

Later today, the BOE is due to announce how many early voting poll sites New York City will have for the November election – the first time New Yorkers will have the right to vote early.

The preliminary list the BOE released last month, which included just 38 sites, was not enough and seemed designed to undermine the idea of early voting itself. Let’s think about how preposterous just 38 voting sites would be in a city that stretches out over 300 square miles, and how far out of the way New Yorkers may need to travel to get to the nearest early voting site assigned to them. For example, if you live in upper Manhattan but want to vote early near your job downtown, or even if you want to vote close to home but the nearest of just 38 sites is too far, you won’t be able to under BOE's plan. This is restrictive and counter intuitive to the spirit and letter of the law, which is supposed to make voting as convenient as possible. New Yorkers deserve more time to participate in our democracy, not just on Election Day.

Early voting gives New Yorkers nine days before Election Day to cast their ballot – including two weekends. That isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity for millions of citizens whose schedules are filled to the brim with work, school and/or family commitments. The fact that until now New York State has restricted voting to a single day has contributed to two awful realities: voter turnout has been at historic lows and Election Day is plagued with long lines for those who do show up to exercise their right. This is on top of arcane, confusing rules that are near impossible to comprehend, particularly for limited-English-proficient New Yorkers and immigrant citizens.

The last November General Election was a prime example of many of the challenges New Yorkers faced when they went out to the polls, making lines even longer than usual. At one point, ballot scanners that had been malfunctioning all day at M.S. 80 in the Bronx all broke down, bringing voting to a dead stop. This same problem at St. Cecilia's in Greenpoint led to hundreds of voters waiting up to four hours to cast their ballot. At other sites like Christ Church in Bay Ridge, the size of the new ballots caused a myriad of scanning problems that led to similar, massive delays.

The problem will only get worse as the BOE continues to ignore calls for reform and as New Yorkers get more energized for upcoming elections.

We have a chance to make things right. This year, the New York Legislature did its job and passed a package of election reforms, including early voting. But the BOE – which is funded by New York City and yet independent of City control – isn’t living up to its responsibility.

Under the current proposal, more than a third, or 21 out of a total of 51 City Council districts, wouldn’t have a single early voting site. In the borough of Queens alone, there are almost 1.2 million voters and more than 1 million immigrants. Yet, the BOE’s initial plan sited just seven early voting locations in the whole borough. With xenophobia and racism rearing their heads at the highest levels of government, the BOE has effectively excluded immigrant neighborhoods and communities of color from proximity to early voting sites, suppressing the voices of minorities in our elections. The BOE can and must do better.

Today we’re waiting to see whether the BOE takes up the City’s offer and expands its original 38 sites to 100. With the 2020 elections fast approaching, it’s vitally important that we maximize opportunities for our city’s five million registered voters. Their voices guide the City in all that it does.

This is a moment that should anger anyone who believes in democracy, anyone who believes in the empowerment of our City’s immigrants, and the rights of all eligible voters to make their voices heard.

New York City has provided $75 million for a robust early voting program, and now the BOE needs to step up to the plate and do its job by making early voting available to every registered voter, in every borough. Otherwise, the promise of early voting and of this democracy will be betrayed.

Bill de Blasio is Mayor of New York City. Steve Choi is Executive Director of the New York Immigration Coalition. On Twitter @NYCMayor & @SteveChoiNY.

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

More Sites, Better Democracy: Board of Elections Must Get Early Voting Right Mon, 27 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Examines Board of Elections' Readiness to Implement Early Voting, Poll-Site Interpretation voting gen elect

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

The New York City Board of Elections, a state entity funded by the city, has a less-than-stellar reputation for running elections and has long been resistant to going beyond the letter of state law in improving voter access and participation. And this year, the city BOE must contend with a new state mandate to create an early voting program for potentially millions of voters, as well as a push by the city to provide broader poll site interpretation services in immigrant communities.

At a Tuesday hearing of the New York City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, officials from the BOE testified to the complexities of implementing the new early voting mandate by the November election.

The state Legislature recently approved the program, which requires nine consecutive days of early voting before Election Day and, according to the provisions of the law, a minimum of 34 poll sites across the city. The state also passed legislation to allow the use of electronic poll books at poll sites. The state BOE approved regulations for early voting on Monday and the city BOE faces a deadline to declare its chosen sites on Wednesday, May 1.

While Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday called for the BOE to offer 100 early voting sites across the city, offering the board $75 million to do so, the BOE does not appear ready to meet the mayor’s request. Not long after BOE executives testified before the Council, the board's commissioners voted to approve 38 early voting polling sites for November, inviting criticism from the mayor and others.

There will be 10 sites in Brooklyn and seven each in the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan, and Staten Island. The board also determined early voting hours, which will vary based on date leading up to the November 5 Election Day. Voters will receive their early voting poll site assignment from the BOE. 

The City Council committee hearing also delved into a new bill proposed by Brooklyn Council Member Mark Treyger that would require the Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, a nonpartisan entity housed under the New York City Campaign Finance Board, to provide interpretation services at poll sites in several languages beyond what is currently required by state and federal law.

The bill would help facilitate the work of the city’s newly created Civic Engagement Commission, approved by voters in a ballot referendum last year, that is charged with, among other things, developing a poll site interpretation services program. Still, the city BOE has repeatedly argued that it is not under the jurisdiction of city laws, but of state laws, complicating matters.

Early Voting Poses Challenges
New York has long been a laggard in voter turnout and election reform, and it became the 38th state to approve early voting this year. But the program is a monumental lift, particularly for the five boroughs of New York City, home to 8.5 million residents.

The recently approved legislation to create the program requires one early voting site for every 50,000 registered voters in a county and no more than seven sites, though local counties have the discretion to add more. The 2020 state budget includes $10 million in funding for early voting and $14.1 million for electronic poll books for the entire state, distributed according to a formula that the state BOE must create.  

On Monday, Mayor de Blasio offered the city BOE $75 million to establish 100 polling sites for early voting (he included an additional $21 million for the purchase of electronic poll books in his executive budget proposal last week).

“We have to get early voting right, and we're saying very clearly to the Board of Elections, we'll put our money where our mouth is,” de Blasio said.

At the Tuesday Council hearing, New York City’s new and first chief democracy officer, Ayirini Fonseca-Sabune, emphasized the importance of instituting a robust early voting program. “If a significant percentage of New York City voters vote during the early voting period, we may be able to reduce some of the strain that we see on our Election Day systems that has led to breakdowns at polling places,” she said. “Lines will be shorter, poll sites will be less crowded.”

She noted that early voting also correlates with higher participation, and stressed that seven sites in each county are “not sufficient to accommodate the needs of voters in New York City.” She pointed out, for instance, that Brooklyn would essentially have the same number of sites as upstate counties one-fifth the registered voters.

BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan, a few hours before the board's commissioners make their early voting decisions, repeatedly emphasized that early voting is a complicated endeavor and that the city must take a cautious approach in order to establish a strong foundation for the program that will allow it to grow and improve over time.

When the program was approved, the city did not have the infrastructure in place to implement it, he said, and is in the process of creating it, including providing a system of ballots on demand to voters. Among the issues is that the board must approve a new vendor to provide electronic poll books, which will happen in June, and then has to train poll workers in the new systems.  

Ryan stressed that the board is willing to work with the de Blasio administration and the City Council to ensure they create an efficient program, but he insisted that in soliciting input from other jurisdictions that have long had early voting programs, the BOE has been warned of the many variables and challenges they face. “The worst thing that we could do is get overly ambitious and not have it work and undermine...voter confidence,” he said, emphasizing the need to phase in a program over time.

“There will be obstacles. Nothing will be perfect...There’s gonna be many lessons learned,” said Dawn Sandow, the BOE’s deputy executive director. As usual, none of the board’s commissioners, political appointees from the local Democratic and Republican parties who are confirmed through the Council, testified before the Council. Those commissioners make many essential decisions to BOE operations, which are carried out by Ryan, Sandow, and their employees.

Voting reform advocates celebrated the passage of early voting and praised the mayor for offering a massive boost in funding. But even they cautioned at the hearing that the BOE must be careful in implementing a new system that could cause confusion among both voters who must use it and the poll workers who must administer it. Some also raised concerns about cyber security and urged the BOE to ensure adequate firewalls and redundancies to protect election systems and the integrity of individual votes.

Interpreting State Law and City Mandates
As a creature of state law, the BOE has consistently opposed the mayoral administration and City Council’s efforts to impose new mandates on its operations. Since 2017, it has refused to abide by a local law requiring the postage of signs when a poll site is moved. More recently, the city again ran up against the BOE when it attempted to provide language interpretation services in poll site buildings.

By state and federal law, the BOE is only required to provide interpretation services in five languages -- Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, and Bangla -- which city officials and advocates say is insufficient for New York City’s population, which speaks hundreds of languages.

The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs had additionally sought to provide services in Russian, Haitian Creole, Yiddish, and Polish within poll site buildings during the February 26 special election for public advocate. But the BOE sued the city, arguing that since the interpreters were not hired and trained by the board, they would be engaging in a form of electioneering and therefore must remain at a distance of at least 100 feet from a polling site.

A state judge rejected the BOE’s argument and did not issue an injunction against the city, allowing interpreters into poll sites. But the BOE has appealed and that ongoing litigation could determine whether the city can continue to provide those services for future elections.

Both Tregyer’s bill and the new Civic Engagement Commission would create a much more expansive interpretation services program. “Language access is not electioneering,” Treyger said, accusing the BOE of essentially taking actions that are “nothing short of voter suppression.”

But the BOE’s Ryan said the city should rather await the legislative process playing out at the state level. At the hearing, he pointed to bills introduced in February in the state Senate and Assembly that would preempt the city’s efforts if they pass.

“There really is no daylight, Councilman Treyger, between your position and the board’s position,” Ryan said. He noted that if the BOE were to provide interpretation services for any  particular linguistic group without being legally required to do so, it could give other groups the potential to sue under the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution. “What we’re simply asking for is a structure, a legal structure, some authority to tell us legally ‘This is what you need to do,’” he said.

The de Blasio administration seemed to hedge its bets on Treyger’s proposal. MOIA Commissioner Bitta Mostofi said the administration supports the intent of the bill but did not express direct support for it. She said the CEC, rather than the VAAC, should be tasked with implementing it and that the bill was just one of the elements of implementing a program. “There should other factors that are taken into consideration when establishing where the services should be and what those services should be,” she said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City Council Examines Board of Elections' Readiness to Implement Early Voting, Poll-Site Interpretation Tue, 30 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
In State Budget, More on Voting, Little on Ethics, and Half-Baked Campaign Finance Reform Cuomo presentation budget

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/governor's office)

The 2020 state budget agreement between Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature is one of the most consequential legislative packages to have passed in several years and enacts sweeping changes to the state’s criminal justice system, mass transit in New York City, voting laws, health care, environmental protections, and more. But government reform advocates are disappointed by what they see as half-measures on campaign finance reform and the exclusion of broader improvements to state procurement processes and government ethics reforms.

Over the last three months, the state Legislature, under Democratic control for the first time in nearly a decade, quickly acted to pass several voting and campaign finance reforms that Democratic elected officials and candidates, including Cuomo, have backed and campaigned on for years.

The Legislature approved early voting, consolidated the state and federal primary into one day in June, enacted pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, and reduced contribution limits for limited liability companies to $5,000, greatly narrowing the infamous “LLC loophole.” Cuomo signed those bills into law. The Legislature also passed resolutions to amend the state constitution to allow no-excuse absentee ballots by mail and same-day voter registration -- the resolutions will have to be passed again by the next Legislature seated in 2021 and will then have to be approved by voters in a referendum.

The budget deal passed early Monday morning included additional measures and funding for voting, election, and campaign finance reforms approved in previous months. The headline, though, was the compromise to mandate a binding commission that is meant to create a public financing program for state elections and must issue a report by December 1. The commission’s recommendations will become law unless the Legislature overrides it during a special session before the end of the year.

[Read: Cuomo, Legislators Agree to $175.5 Billion Budget with Congestion Pricing, Criminal Justice Reform and Commitment to Public Campaign Financing]

“On public integrity and anti-corruption issues, the governor and the Legislature have fallen short because they failed to put reforms in statute,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a government reform group. “On voting, they’re making very good progress in modernizing the state’s voting system...the Legislature and the governor have exceeded expectations I’d say. That’s really the lone bright spot on good government in the budget.”

Campaign Finance
The governor and Legislature couldn’t come to an agreement on implementing a public financing system with lower contribution limits for candidates and a small-donation matching program, owing largely to opposition in the state Assembly where Speaker Carl Heastie publicly raised doubts about having enough votes to approve the proposal, despite prior support for such a program when Republicans controlled the Senate.

In the end, the budget agreement sets the state on the road to creating a system through a commission, which will have binding authority and $100 million in appropriations (the Legislature can still amend the commission’s recommendations within 20 days of the report being released). “It is too complicated,” Cuomo said at a news conference on Sunday of approving a public financing model. “It’s not a simple system to put in place, it’s especially not simple statewide.”

Advocates say there isn’t enough clarity in the commission’s guidelines and have vowed to hold the feet of the governor and Legislature to the fire. The Fair Elections for NY coalition called the budget a “missed opportunity” to enact reform. The coalition of advocacy, community, and labor groups organized a massive push for a public financing program modelled on the one used in New York City, calling for a 6-to-1 match in public funds for every qualifying dollar that a candidate raises through the program (the city’s program was recently expanded to an 8-to-1 match).

“The value of this commission will be determined by the quality of its appointees and the public process it offers to allow every day New Yorkers and experts to shape the outcome,” the coalition said in a statement. “We intend to hold our elected officials accountable to their promises and make sure New York actually delivers a historic victory without poison pills.”

Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, said a public financing program should have been included in the budget, considering that Democrats have been pushing it for years. “Now that the task is put to a commission, the leaders must act swiftly to appoint qualified, independent members with a track record of public service, and a commitment to creating a robust small donor public financing program,” he said in a statement. “All must ensure a participatory process that is transparent to the public. Nothing less is required to secure the public’s trust.”

Nine commission members will be appointed -- two each by the governor and majority and minority leaders of both legislative chambers. The final appointee must be chosen through consensus by all of the appointing parties and approved by the governor. Camarda from Reinvent Albany noted that the commission will have to approve a system through a majority vote, which is not guaranteed, nor is a 6-to-1 match or any independent enforcement of a new system. Camarda also pointed out that New York’s sky-high contribution limits for those who do not opt in to the program won’t be lowered, disincentivizing candidates from participating.

When laying out his 2019 agenda late last year, Cuomo had called for completely banning corporate donations to political candidates, but that measure did not make it into the budget.

Another Cuomo proposal that was not included in the budget was a complete closure of the so-called LLC loophole. LLCs allow individuals to circumvent contribution limits by shielding the identities of donors and, until recently, had the ability to donate as much as $65,000 to gubernatorial candidates. The Legislature brought those donation limits down to $5,000, in line with limits for corporations, but that does not completely preclude the loophole from being exploited.

The governor had also proposed greater donor disclosure requirements for 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations, which he said were contributing to a plague of independent expenditures in state elections, but some charged was another attempt by the governor to target groups that have been critical of him. Those proposals were left out of the final budget as well.

Voting and Elections
The final budget agreement includes $10 million in funding to localities to implement a 10-day early voting program, approves three hours (up from two) of paid time off on election day, authorizes electronic poll books with $14.7 million in funding, and expands voting hours at upstate polling sites to bring them in line with New York City and its surrounding suburbs (6 am to 9 pm).

The budget also mandates that the Board of Elections create an online voter registration system that allows voters to submit applications with electronic signatures. Advocates and elected officials had also tried to push the Legislature to approve automatic voter registration for the state, but to no avail.

Though the governor had proposed several government ethics reforms in his executive budget proposal, barely any made it into the enacted budget. The proposals included mandated disclosure of tax returns by candidates for elected office, expanding the state’s Freedom of Information Law to the state Legislature (it currently covers the executive branch), banning state employees from volunteering on their employers’ election campaigns, and a “Lobbying Code of Conduct” to penalize violations of lobbying laws among other lobbying restrictions.

But the only proposal that was approved was one that prohibits lobbyists, political action committees, labor unions, and a person registered as an independent expenditure committee from giving loans to candidates and political committees. What remains to be seen is whether the governor will follow through on a pledge to unilaterally ban those who do not voluntarily follow the code of conduct from lobbying the executive chamber.

‘Clean Contracting’ and Economic Development Accountability
The budget leaves in place weaknesses in state contracting processes that advocates say led to recent pay-to-play scandals, and corruption convictions, in Albany, particularly among officials and donors in Cuomo’s inner circle.

Though Cuomo had proposed several procurement reforms in his executive budget proposal, “Nothing got done in statute,” said Camarda. The governor reached a deal to restore the state comptroller’s pre-audit authority over certain state contracts -- powers stripped in Cuomo’s first year as governor -- but did not give it the backing of law in the budget and legislators do not appear to have fought for it to be in statute.

Cuomo had also expressed support for stronger oversight powers for the state inspector general over SUNY- and CUNY-affiliated nonprofits, which were not passed with the budget. SUNY-affiliated contracts were at the center of a major bid-rigging scandal that led to the corruption conviction last year of Alain Kaloyeros, a former top economic development aide to Cuomo, and prominent donors to Cuomo’s campaign.

The budget does appropriate $500,000 to administratively implement a “database of deals,” which is meant to outline projects receiving state economic development benefits. But the appropriation does not detail whether the database would be created in a way that would make it transparent or easily accessible. Advocates have pushed to make it downloadable and machine-readable for easy analysis. “None of the functionality that we would want to see in a database is specified,” Camarda said. “A bigger problem is there are no requirements as to what information should be included and there are no definitions.”

Cuomo did include a specific provision in the budget that expands his authority over the Public Authorities Control Board, a direct response to the undoing of the deal to bring an Amazon campus to Queens. Cuomo has repeatedly blamed the failure of the deal on the state Senate’s nomination of Amazon-opponent Senator Mike Gianaris to the PACB, which would have final approval of a portion of the subsidies offered to the tech giant. The new budget allows Cuomo to remove a member of the PACB who oversteps, or threatens to overstep their authority.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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In State Budget, More on Voting, Little on Ethics, and Half-Baked Campaign Finance Reform Mon, 01 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Historic New York Voting Reforms Must Be Funded, and Followed by More Changes to Improve Our Democracy gov cuomo votes

(photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)

On January 14, the New York State Assembly and Senate made their mark on New York voting history. After over 100 years without meaningful reform, legislators passed six bills that will significantly increase voter access to the polls and the reach of their voices. On January 25, Governor Cuomo codified this historic expansion and signed those bills into law. Important legislative priorities such as early voting, pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, registration portability, and the consolidation of our state and federal primaries are now state law. Our legislators also took a significant step toward changing our constitution to allow for same-day registration and no-excuse absentee voting by mail.

It is important to note amidst the celebration of grassroots and advocacy groups who have been fighting for these reforms that our work, and the work of our representatives, is not complete. Transformative reforms such as automatic voter registration, the restoration of the voting rights for people on parole, establishing a universal right to vote, and shortening the deadline to change party affiliation were starkly absent from the legislation passed. Many of these common sense reforms are long overdue.

Our elected representatives have received well-deserved praise for taking decisive action in the process of bringing New York’s voting laws into the 21st century by prioritizing and passing legislation that was stymied for far too long. However, not only is there more to do, but New York is once again faced with the unfortunate and unnecessary lack of transparency that has become synonymous with state government in Albany.

Voting reform has the exciting potential to bring more people into the democratic process. But New York will not be a leader in democracy until the process of governing embodies openness, accountability, and greater participation. Reform must not stop with the passage of the aforementioned voting legislation, but requires inclusion of the once-honored legislative processes of hearings, debate, and public comment. Our elected representatives, as they consider and take further action, should seek out the voices of their constituents.

New Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins says their work is not done, and so we too must continue to work and hold our representatives accountable until no one is left behind and New York is the embodiment of a democracy we can all be proud of.

As the chief executive of New York State, and the keeper of the state budget, Governor Cuomo is now tasked with implementation and ensuring new reforms are appropriately funded. It is concerning that his proposed executive budget lacks specific funding allocated for early voting. Just last year, Cuomo, in the face of intransigence and hostility in the state Senate, allocated $7 million for early voting in the executive budget. When this year provided with passed legislation to sign and implement, why would the governor not designate funding specifically for early voting in his budget?  

Cuomo states that the cost of early voting will be covered by the consolidation of the federal and state primaries combined with the new sales tax revenue to be collected from the elimination of the internet tax advantage. Neither of these revenue streams will be available to county Boards of Elections in time to fund early voting in 2019. It is puzzling why now, at this historic moment, the governor would withhold designated funding for a reform he supports and for which he allocated money only a year ago.

During his “First 100 Days” speech given in December, Cuomo criticized the federal government's attempts to disenfranchise voters, and stated that "we have to do the exact opposite and improve our democracy.” The reality is that to improve our democracy after over a century of inaction, it is going to take money. And to prove a commitment to the reforms being passed by the Legislature, the same reforms he himself has called for throughout his tenure, the governor must commit real dollars for implementation this year.

The governor and the leadership of the Assembly and Senate must stand true to their promises and ensure these reforms are appropriately implemented and adequately funded. Now is the time for clear, decisive action. It is not the time for unfunded promises, backroom deals, or excuses. Do not give us reform in name only. There must be a line item in the budget to specifically and sufficiently fund early voting.

All interested parties should work together to make sure the counties are provided with funding and support so that they are prepared for these changes and voters can take advantage of them seamlessly. Voting reform advocates statewide will continue to fight so that we the people can access our most fundamental right to vote. We believe in our elected representatives and we know they can get this done.

Nicole Hunt is on the executive committee of Brooklyn Voters Alliance, a grassroots group dedicated to strengthening democracy in New York State. On Twitter @msnicolemh @bkvoters.

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Historic New York Voting Reforms Must Be Funded, and Followed by More Changes to Improve Our Democracy Thu, 07 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
WATCH: Agenda 2019: Movement Expected on Reform, But What Will It Look Like? mnn agenda ep2

(photo: @MNN59)

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

mnn59 agenda ep2As part of Agenda 2019, the project from Gotham Gazette and City Limits, hosts Ben Max and Jarrett Murphy were joined on Manhattan Neighborhood Network by State Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, and Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause NY, to discuss reform issues and the year ahead. Topics included voting and election reform, government ethics reform, and campaign finance reform. Krueger's new Democratic majority in the state Senate are pledging to work with the Democratic Assembly majority and Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo to usher through a long list of stalled reforms, but what will actually get done? And what should it look like? Watch:

 Gotham Gazette:

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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WATCH: Agenda 2019: Movement Expected on Reform, But What Will It Look Like? Thu, 06 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000