Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1613 Fri, 14 Aug 2020 07:39:43 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Bill Allowing Online Voter Registration in New York City Moves in State Senate, Stalls in Assembly https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9134-bill-allowing-online-voter-registration-in-new-york-city-moves-in-state-senate-stalled-in-assembly https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9134-bill-allowing-online-voter-registration-in-new-york-city-moves-in-state-senate-stalled-in-assembly bill online voter

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Bill Allowing Online Voter Registration in New York City Moves in State Senate, Stalls in Assembly Wed, 12 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
State Senate Set to Move Automatic Registration Amid Early 2020 Voting Package https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9037-senate-to-move-automatic-voter-registration-early-voting-2020-election-package https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9037-senate-to-move-automatic-voter-registration-early-voting-2020-election-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.”

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Ben Max contributed to this story.

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State Senate Set to Move Automatic Registration Amid Early 2020 Voting Package Wed, 08 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Ahead of 2020 Elections, Cuomo Signed Affidavit Ballot Bill That Roiled Queens DA Recount https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9034-ahead-of-2020-elections-cuomo-signed-affidavit-ballot-bill-that-roiled-queens-da-recount https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9034-ahead-of-2020-elections-cuomo-signed-affidavit-ballot-bill-that-roiled-queens-da-recount Cuomo signs legislation

(photo: Governor's Office)


In the final weeks of 2019, Governor Andrew Cuomo quietly signed a bill changing the way affidavit ballots are counted, an issue that roiled New York City last summer during the controversial recount in the Queens District Attorney Democractic primary. Borough President Melinda Katz, who had Cuomo’s endorsement, eventually prevailed over public defender Tiffany Cabán by just 60 votes, with hundreds of potential votes not counted -- votes that may have been counted had the governor signed the affidavit ballot bill into law then.

The bill, sponsored by Assembly Member Kevin Cahill and State Senator Leroy Comrie, would allow election administrators to count affidavit ballots when they “substantially comply” with the requirements for filling them out. The law is intended to make it harder to throw out the provisional ballots when the intent of a voter is clear, even if they contain minor errors -- a death sentence for many of the roughly 350 uncounted affidavits in the incredibly close Queens District Attorney primary.

The legislation passed both chambers of the State Legislature in June but went unsigned by the governor until December 20, just ahead of the year-end deadline for taking action. The law takes effect immediately, in time for the March special election to replace Katz, who was sworn in as the borough’s top prosecutor at the beginning of this year.

“When a person clearly evinces their intention on the ballot and they are verifiably qualified to vote, nothing should stand in the way of counting their choices,” Cahill, an Ulster County Democrat, wrote in an email to Gotham Gazette. “Over the last several years, the courts of our state have been inching toward that simple concept and now it is the law of our land.”

Affidavit ballots are provisionally provided to voters who believe they are registered but are not listed in the voter rolls when they show up at a poll site, which could result from a number of factors like when a voter has recently changed addresses. If a local board of elections determines the voter to be legitimately registered, the ballot will be counted.

Among the most common errors during the Queens DA primary were incomplete information on the envelope containing the ballot, including flaws like a voter failing to list an address where they were previously registered.

The new law loosens the criteria for counting a ballot by emphasizing the voter’s intent and explicitly removing failure to list a previous address from the list of disqualifying factors.

Good government groups are pleased the bill has finally been signed.

“We think all votes should be counted, and missing information on an affidavit form should not be disqualifying when a voter's identity and eligibility to cast a ballot can otherwise be determined,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a government watchdog.

During the contentious recount in the close race between Katz and Cabán, many people wanted to see the bill signed to allow more affidavits to be counted, while others were concerned about changing the laws under which voters and election administrators were operating in the middle of an election. Between the conclusion of the recount and Cuomo signing the bill last month, a general election passed with little controversy around affidavit ballots.

“There were more than 900 bills that passed both houses at the end of the 2019 session and had to be reviewed by the Counsel’s Office and the Division of the Budget. It is our responsibility to ensure that the bills, as written, are responsible, enforceable and accomplish their intended purpose,” wrote Caitlin Girouard, a spokesperson for Cuomo, in an email.

The governor’s approval memo, accompanying the legislation, states that before giving his signature he had to secure an agreement with the Legislature to clarify the meaning of “substantially comply” in order to ensure ballots “are not unjustly cast aside.”

During the Queens DA recount in July, Cuomo said, “it’s absurd to say you would apply anything retroactively,” according to a tweet by reporter Emma Whitford, apparently referring to changing the canvassing rules after ballots had been cast. “So it’s really about the [November] election now,” he added when asked about signing the bill, which he did not sign until after that election.

Other Voting and Election Reforms Signed, Take Effect
Cuomo’s signature on the affidavit bill came days after he signed two other voting measures related to absentee voting. The new provisions require absentee ballots to align with the ballots used by voters in-district on election day and for absentee applications for school district elections to be simplified in line with other absentee applications already in use.

Earlier in December, the governor signed legislation passed in June that requires SUNY and CUNY to offer voter registration forms and absentee ballots to students each September and in January of presidential election years.

The affidavit and absentee ballot legislation are among a slew of election reforms passed in 2019 by the State Legislature, newly under Democratic control of both houses. The changes, some of which have already gone into effect and others of which are just being implemented now, include several that election reformers had long sought to make voting easier.

Establishing a statewide nine-day early voting period and authorizing local elections boards to use electronic poll books were in effect for the first time ahead of the November general election. Lawmakers also unified federal and local primaries in June, in an effort to consolidate the many elections New Yorkers may participate in every other year. This year is set to see three statewide election days (presidential primary in April, congressional and state legislative primaries in June, general election in November), but not the four that occurred in 2016.

The reforms also included a change in the party enrollment deadline to within five months of the June primary and having voter registration automatically transfer when moving residences within the state.

Beginning January 1, 16- and 17-year-olds are now allowed to pre-register to vote if they are otherwise eligible, with the registration going into effect when they reach voting age. In October, Cuomo signed the Voter Friendly Ballot Act, which changes the way ballots are designed to improve readability.

In January 2019, the Legislature also secured the first passage of two state constitutional amendments that, if ratified, will allow New Yorkers to register to vote on election day (same-day registration) and apply for absentee ballots without providing a reason for needing one. State constitutional amendments must pass in two consecutive legislatures and be approved by voters in a ballot referendum, so the earliest these would become law is late 2021, if they are passed by the 2021 Legislature followed by voters that fall.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Ahead of 2020 Elections, Cuomo Signed Affidavit Ballot Bill That Roiled Queens DA Recount Tue, 07 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Commission Failure Shows Need for One True Fix for New York Elections https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8961-commission-failure-shows-need-for-one-true-reform-to-fix-new-york-elections https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8961-commission-failure-shows-need-for-one-true-reform-to-fix-new-york-elections voting new york

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Looking at the plan from the state campaign finance commission, anyone who’s had even a passing interest in New York politics is left either scratching their head or gritting their teeth (maybe both). It’s no surprise that the aspects of the commission’s just-completed work that have provoked the most vociferous opposition and passionate debate have nothing whatsoever to do with public campaign financing. On the left and on the right, activists, lawmakers, and good government groups are decrying the elements of the plan that would eventually kill off every minor party in the state and keep other potential new ones from sprouting up.

These recommendations include raising the number of votes necessary to retain ballot access, going from 50,000 to a minimum of 130,000 and making it a biennial rather than quadrennial test. Given recent voting trends, the move would kill off every minor party in the state except one - the Conservative Party. Trust me, as a leader in a political party (the Reform Party) that just lost ballot access under the existing thresholds, I can tell you that getting 50,000 votes is no walk in the park.

Potentially even more alarming, though, is the dramatic increase in the number of signatures necessary to qualify for the ballot statewide, going from 15,000 to 45,000. This increase would reserve ballot access for only the super wealthy or the hand-picked candidates of the political establishment or certain deep-pocketed special interests, very likely keeping new parties from sprouting up (as two did last year to make the ballot: SAM and Libertarian).

If the Legislature allows these new rules to be implemented, it would likely bring an end to New York’s longtime history of having robust and influential minor parties. It’s a tradition that goes back well over a century in our state. So, why do this? Is the public really clamoring for a less crowded ballot with fewer choices? Of course not!

Aside from a scorned governor seeking vengeance on a political rival (Andrew Cuomo and The Working Families Party), there is actually ample reason to think that our current system, where minor party bosses are treated like major power-brokers, doesn’t work well.

We’ve seen time and again over the last half-century example after example of parties with paltry memberships and even smaller vote totals be showered in patronage jobs, direct donations, policy-making roles, and more in exchange for their ballot lines. In some cases fusion voting in this state has produced minor party leaders (baby bosses) who seem like their sole reason for maintaining a party is acquiring of money and patronage, with little regard for anything resembling a coherent legislative agenda.

But to minimize these baby bosses, is it really wise to eliminate the voter options of the Green Party and the Libertarian Party, who rarely cross-endorse major party candidates and provide an important voice for voters that would otherwise be ideologically disenfranchised? No!

Thankfully there is a way to kill off the illegitimate minor parties and their baby bosses without killing of all minor parties and the valuable options they provide to voter: non-partisan elections.

The state Legislature should immediately pursue a shift towards non-partisan elections in order to provide New Yorkers with real choice and competitive, more thoughtful elections. It would work similar to how special elections are run in New York City, and elections in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston, and even cities here in New York like Watertown and Sherrill.

Here’s the novel concept. Anyone who wants to run for office can run. They’d all run on the same ballot under the same rules -- whether running for Governor, State Assembly, County Executive, etc. There would be no Republican or Democratic line on the ballot, and much to the pleasure of Governor Cuomo, no Working Families Party line (and so on). This would mean that the baby bosses wouldn’t be able to demand a job for their incompetent relatives or demand that candidates buy pricey tables at party fundraisers.

So how does all of this help minor parties and allow voters more choice?

Under a system of nonpartisan elections, without the stigma of running as “third party” or “spoiler” candidates, the candidates of minor parties could actually get broad considered and be elected. If you look at places around the country that have nonpartisan elections, we’ve seen many examples of candidates without the endorsement of either major political party getting elected and in some cases launching high-profile and successful political careers.

These include Jesse Ventura in Brooklyn Park, MN; Dennis Kucinich in Cleveland; Oscar and Carolyn Goodman in Las Vegas and even the current Mayor of San Antonio, Ron Nirenberg. Lest anyone think, though, that nonpartisan elections would suddenly allow the fringes of the political spectrum to have unwarranted access to the levers of statewide policy-making, one should keep in mind that cities like Chicago and Boston have consistently elected establishment politicians, whose major party bonafides are without question.

In discussing a switch to a nonpartisan system of elections, there will be some who protest by saying that seeing a partisan label on the ballot offers voters a clue as to a candidate’s ideological belief system. For those folks, I’d ask: what does seeing both Charles Barron and Dov Hikind running as Democrats from Brooklyn really tell you about their ideology? How about seeing judicial candidates nominated by every party on the ballot?

The bottom line is this: if you want voters to have more choices and minor parties to continue to function, but not corrupt the system, the only real choice is nonpartisan elections for every office across the state.

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Frank Morano is an activist and radio host. On Twitter @frankmorano.

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

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Commission Failure Shows Need for One True Fix for New York Elections Tue, 26 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
A Faulty Notion to Restrict Political Party Qualifications in New York https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8916-faulty-notion-restrict-political-party-qualifications-in-new-york https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8916-faulty-notion-restrict-political-party-qualifications-in-new-york gov cuomo participate

(photo: Philip Kamrass/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)


In April, the New York State budget was passed and signed into law. Buried within it was the creation of a commission tasked to write a new law on three aspects of the state’s election code: public campaign finance, “fusion” voting, and political party qualifications. Oddly, though it’s called the Public Campaign Finance Commission, most of the hearing testimony and press coverage has focused on fusion voting and party qualifications. This may be so because the commission’s informal leader, Democratic State Chair Jay Jacobs, has not disguised his desire to eliminate the minor or “third” parties in the state.

Jacobs has suggested raising the “threshold” number of votes required by a political party to achieve and maintain automatic ballot status. This is what “party qualifications” means. It answers an important question that all states must face: How does a group of citizens who form a political party get that party listed on the ballot?

Right now in New York, a party must receive 50,000 votes in each gubernatorial election under its own banner, or on its “ballot line,” as New Yorkers call it. Right now, based on the 2018 election, there are six qualified minor parties in the state: the two most prominent are the Conservative Party and the Working Families Party.

The 50,000 vote threshold is approximately 1% of the gubernatorial vote. Jacobs has proposed quintupling the vote requirement to 250,000, or roughly 5%, and extending to both gubernatorial and presidential races.

Because New York, unlike most states, does not permit minor parties to qualify in any other manner (such as a petition), this would effectively put the minor parties out of existence. It would instantly make New York among the most restrictive states in the nation in terms of ballot access for citizens who are neither Democrat nor Republican. And it is in stark contrast to the trend in other populous states. In the last 20 years, five of the most populous states — California, Texas, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania -- have moved in precisely the opposite direction, reducing barriers to minor party qualification, not raising them. 

More states use a 1% threshold than any other percentage test. The second most popular requirement is 2%. If New York adopted either of those, it would at least be within the realm of the defensible. But any standard greater than 2% not only smells bad, it will likely be ruled unconstitutional in the federal courts. There are dozens of cases holding that overly onerous party qualification rules are unconstitutional. Surely the lawyers on the commission understand that if “equal protection” means anything, it is that “party qualification” rules designed to punish or eliminate minor parties (and the voters who support them) will not stand.

The New York Commission, binding recommendations from which are due by December 1, should also consider the legal problem presented by a 250,000 vote threshold. It will likely be ruled unconstitutional in the federal courts. There are dozens of cases holding that overly onerous party qualification rules are unconstitutional. Surely the lawyers on the commission understand that if “equal protection” means anything, it is that “party qualification” rules designed to punish or eliminate minor parties (and the voters who support them) will not stand.

If the State Legislature wishes to ban fusion voting, it should do so in the proper way: pass a constitutional amendment, and refer it to the voters for approval. In the meantime, this unelected commission should leave the minor parties alone, and not touch the 50,000 vote threshold. The Legislature can consider it in the regular order of business.

The minor parties may annoy the major parties, but democracy is not about limiting ballot access only to those with whom you agree. The commission should resist joining the company of Alabama, Virginia, or the other states that have essentially made it impossible for “third parties” to qualify. Democracy belongs to everyone, not merely the two major parties.

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Richard Winger publishes the Ballot Access News newsletter and website. On Twitter @ballot_access.

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

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A Faulty Notion to Restrict Political Party Qualifications in New York Tue, 12 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Electronic Poll Books Next Step in New York Election Overhaul https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8255-electronic-poll-books-next-step-in-new-york-election-overhaul https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8255-electronic-poll-books-next-step-in-new-york-election-overhaul express poll e poll book

(photo: Elections Systems & Software)


As Democrats in the state Legislature continue a rapid pace of passing legislation to start the new session, the state Senate seems poised to advance another round of election and voting reforms, including approving the use of electronic poll books to administer elections.

Electronic poll books, used in at least 34 states and the District of Columbia, are a fairly simple but significant instrument in making elections more efficient, experts and advocates argue. They make voting faster, preventing long lines at polling sites, save costs in the long run, and are easier to update and maintain compared to the paper lists currently used in New York.

Some advocates also say e-poll books, as they’re often called, are essential in implementing improvements to voter registration processes, which the state Legislature put into motion last month, and helpful in the implementation of the significant shift of early voting, also part of the recently-passed package.

On Monday, the state Senate’s elections committee held a vote and approved a bill allowing electronic poll books, among other items on the agenda. The bill will now head to the Senate floor for a vote. Senator Zellnor Myrie, committee chair and the sponsor of the bill, is confident e-poll books will subsequently be passed by the full Legislature, in advance of this year’s primary election in June. The legislation does not mandate the use of e-poll books.

“The larger reforms that we’ve instituted and that we’re looking at for the rest of the session are going to be made much easier by us modernizing how we see whether or not someone has voted,” Myrie said in a phone interview. “So electronic poll books is something that has wide consensus.”

When Democrats took control of the Legislature this year after flipping the Senate, they quickly passed a series of voting and elections measures including early voting, consolidating the federal and state primary to June, and preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds. They also passed measures to amend the state constitution to implement no-excuse absentee ballots and same-day voter registration -- amendments that will require passage by the next Legislature seated in 2021 and then approval by voters through a referendum.

Advocates say that early voting and same-day voter registration in particular would be far more efficient with electronic poll books.

“Implementing early voting in New York City without electronic poll books would be an administrative disaster,” said Rachel Bloom, director of public policy and programs at Citizens Union, a government reform group. “To have effective and organized early voting in New York, we need to allow for the use of electronic pollbooks.”

Other advocates aren’t as worried but agree that electronic poll books should be the next step for the Legislature. “You don’t need to have electronic poll books to do early voting but it would make it easier,” said Jennifer Wilson, director of program and policy for League of Women Voters of New York State. She noted, for instance, that Texas implemented early voting more than a decade ago but started using electronic poll books about five years ago. But for same-day registration, she said it would be “crucial.”

Jarret Berg, executive director of the New York Democratic Lawyers Council, concurred. “I don’t think it’s an indispensable component but it certainly makes a lot of sense and I don’t see how you could do [early voting] effectively without some kind of real-time reconciliation,” he said. “We need to move away from this really sloppy paper-based system.”

The advocates do acknowledge challenges and concerns about electronic poll books. Among them is the upfront cost that local counties may have to bear for purchasing equipment, like digital tablets, on which the poll books would be stored (localities may look to the state for help in paying for such equipment). Poll workers also tend to be older and could struggle with the technology. “There’s a digital divide,” Berg conceded. Training would be necessary regardless.

There are also concerns about the security of voter lists, made that much more severe after Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. Digital devices could be vulnerable to hacking, necessitating standalone devices that would not be connected to the internet and would have to be individually updated. This is similar to the electronic ballot scanners that are not internet-connected and therefore far less susceptible to hacking.

Myrie is aware of those concerns but, as the advocates also argue, says the benefits outweigh the costs. “This is really about making and administering elections much simpler,” he said. “It allows for cost savings. In the future we’re not gonna have to pay for storage of all these [paper] poll books. It is a much more efficient way to do things so that...some of the lines that we have become unfortunately very accustomed to when we go to vote are reduced by a significant measure if we make the process of checking a registration easier.”

Electronic poll books also have bipartisan support. Before Myrie took over the elections committee, Republican Senator Fred Akshar had sponsored a bill, with companion legislation put forward by Democratic Assemblymember Michael Cusick that was repeatedly passed by the Assembly. Governor Andrew Cuomo also backs the measure but some say his support would have to be backed up with funding to help counties transition to the new system, money he did not include in his executive budget proposal.

“Governor Cuomo proposed a comprehensive set of reforms in the Executive Budget to make voting easier, including authorizing electronic poll books,” Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokesperson, said in a statement. “We will work with the legislature to identify additional resources to the extent necessary.”

Myrie is prepared to push for those resources; as some are already doing when it comes to funding early voting. It’s not clear what the initial and ongoing costs of the e-poll books may be. “Even if its a significant cost, I’ve been saying and will continue to say, to go from worst to first is gonna require some pain,” he said of New York’s voting laws.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note - This article was updated after the Senate elections committee held a vote and passed the e-poll book bill.  

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Electronic Poll Books Next Step in New York Election Overhaul Sun, 03 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Elected Officials, Advocates Push for Instant Runoff Voting https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7650-elected-officials-advocates-push-for-instant-runoff-voting https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7650-elected-officials-advocates-push-for-instant-runoff-voting fair vote sam

Tuesday's press conference (photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)


Several prominent Democratic elected officials and voting reform advocates on Tuesday assembled outside City Hall to call for instant runoff voting in citywide primary elections. Specifically, they said that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Charter Revision Commission, which just began a series of public hearings across the city, should include it among the proposals it puts before voters on the ballot this November.

Instant runoff voting, also known as ranked-choice voting, allows voters to rank primary candidates in order of preference so that if one candidate does not cross the required threshold for victory, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and the votes are redistributed based on the second choice selected by voters who had selected the eliminated candidate first, and so on until a winner emerges. The system prevents what can be costly and labor-intensive runoff elections, such as the one held in the 2013 primary election for public advocate.

Runoffs are currently only required in the three citywide races, for Mayor, Public Advocate, and Comptroller, and occur among the top two vote-getters if no candidate hits 40 percent in the first round of the primary.

Though prior instant runoff proposals originating in the City Council have failed, the group of electeds and advocates sought to seize on an opportunity presented by the mayor’s creation of the Charter Revision Commission. The commission, which is holding hearings across the five boroughs to solicit public input as to what its agenda should be, can consider any proposal presented to it, though de Blasio charged its members with particularly looking at voting access and campaign finance reform. Its recommendations will take the form of ballot referenda to be offered to voters in this year’s general election.

“I am the face of instant runoff, let me remind you,” said Public Advocate Letitia James at Tuesday’s news conference, on the steps of City Hall. The 2013 public advocate runoff -- which James won over then-State Senator Daniel Squadron -- cost an estimated $13 million to taxpayers, surpassing the office’s combined budget for James’ entire first four-year term. James said Tuesday that instant runoffs are the “least expensive and more democratic option” for the city.

“It forces you to appeal to all voters as opposed to one Democratic base,” James added. “And this means more engagement, and less polarization and more democracy. It means listening to people you might not usually listen to and a freer exchange of ideas and is consistent with our principle of democracy and free elections,” James added. She later also suggested that if the mayor’s commission failed to take up the proposal, a separate Charter Revision Commission being created by the City Council, through a bill co-sponsored by James, could step in.  

Also in attendance Tuesday were Comptroller Scott Stringer, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, and City Council Members Brad Lander, Antonio Reynoso, and Ben Kallos, all Democrats. James, Stringer, and Adams are all widely considered to be contenders for the 2021 mayoral race and share overlapping bases of supporters. It’s unclear, though, whether a runoff, instant or otherwise, will come into play in that race and who might benefit from which format. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. is a fourth likely Democratic mayoral candidate, and several others may also jump into the race, creating a crowded field more apt to produce a runoff.

The 2013 Democratic mayoral primary narrowly avoided a runoff, with eventual winner Bill de Blasio earning just above the 40 percent threshold. There was a Democratic runoff in the 2009 primary for public advocate, which de Blasio won. The 2001 Democratic mayoral primary was also settled through a runoff.

“Cities that have adopted instant runoff voting to eliminate runoffs have not only saved millions of dollars but have also improved their democracies by making sure that we are electing our leaders in an election where the most voters, the most diverse voters, are at the polls at one time,” said Grace Ramsey, deputy outreach director for FairVote, a nonpartisan advocacy group, at the news conference. Ramsey noted that 15 cities across the country have already implemented instant runoffs. A FairVote analysis of the 2013 public advocate runoff also showed that the Democratic primary runoff electorate was older, whiter, and wealthier than Democrats overall, and only reflected a 7 percent turnout. It occured on Tuesday, October 1, 2013.

Critiquing the state’s arcane election laws, Stringer said instant runoffs are a “progressive leap” that would allow elections to be decided quickly and efficiently, and he said the mayor’s Charter Revision Commission affords the city a prime opportunity to pursue the policy. “We don’t have to go to Albany and deal with that political dysfunction in order to get this electoral reform,” he said, an apparent reference to that fact that many other voting and election laws are dictated by the state.

In December, Douglas Kellner, the Democratic co-chair of the New York State Board of Elections, testified before the City Council on the 2017 elections and warned them that they had “dodged a bullet” by narrowly avoiding a runoff in the mayoral primary for the Reform Party line. Kellner said at the news conference Tuesday that the state already has the technology and capability to implement instant runoff voting, and reiterated the cost savings associated with implementing the system.  

“We cannot continue to have an 8-track method in an iPhone age,” said Adams, the Brooklyn borough president. “It is time to ensure that the process encourages people to come out. We live in real time, we live in instant time...Let’s make sure runoff elections are a thing of the past and let’s do it in the right way.”

The proposal put forward on Tuesday was not the first attempt at eliminating runoff elections. In 2014, Council Member Lander sponsored a bill to call a referendum on the issue. Mayor de Blasio didn’t support it at the time and has since been lukewarm on the proposal. Asked Tuesday by a reporter if there was any opposition to the proposal, Lander said, “I think it’s just an issue that it’s change and change is not always easy. This is a change to our electoral processes and that’s not something we’re always ready to do.”

As the group was gathered at City Hall, a parallel voting reform effort was being advanced in the state capital as well. The state Senate Democrats, led by Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, unveiled a new report highlighting the shortcomings of the state’s election system that led to an abysmally low voter turnout in the 2016 presidential election. They also released an accompanying package of bills to address voter access and participation. The conference is in the minority, though, and there is limited likelihood that the Republican majority will advance the reforms being sought, such as early voting.

[Read: State Board of Elections Official Says City Must Move to Instant Runoff Voting]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Elected Officials, Advocates Push for Instant Runoff Voting Tue, 01 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Reforming Special Elections & More in Albany https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7617-max-murphy-podcast-reforming-special-elections-more-in-albany https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7617-max-murphy-podcast-reforming-special-elections-more-in-albany mxm logo

Ben Max, left, of Gotham Gazette, and Jarrett Murphy, right, of City Limits


April 17, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Reforming Special Elections & More in Albany

susan lerner cc ny

Susan Lerner of Common Cause/NY is one of the leading government reform advocates and activists in New York. With a recently-passed state budget largely missing any ethics, campaign finance or voting reforms, and a slate of special elections scheduled for next week, Lerner joined the podcast to discuss what is broken and how it should be fixed.

Lerner explains that the political parties have a "stranglehold" on elections in New York, that the state Legislature is clearly not doing the will of the people on key issues like voting and bail reform, and that state government is being "unresponsive" to the plague of corruption.

Lerner also weighs in on issues in New York City around the recently-called charter revision commissions, one by the mayor and one by the City Council, calling it "absurd" that there will be two and expressing hope for a merger. Beyond criticism, though, Lerner provides many thoughts on what should be happening in New York. 

Listen to the full conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the episode through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Reforming Special Elections & More in Albany Tue, 17 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Online Voter Registration on Verge of Passage in New York City https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7314-online-voter-registration-on-verge-of-passage-in-new-york-city https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7314-online-voter-registration-on-verge-of-passage-in-new-york-city polling place

Polling place (photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)


As New York State’s archaic election and voting laws continue to dampen voter turnout, the New York City Council is about to take a step to encourage participation. The City Council’s governmental operations committee will vote on Tuesday, November 14 to approve a bill allowing online voter registration for city residents, Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the committee, told Gotham Gazette on Thursday. The bill is then expected to pass the full City Council on Thursday.

“With the historic low in turnout on Tuesday, online voter registration will be an essential tool to help more residents become voters,” Kallos said in a phone interview, referring to the 22 percent of registered voters who showed up to the polls to vote for mayor. Following the committee vote, the bill will head to the Council floor for a vote at its next stated meeting, he said.

New York’s laws lag behind most other states and voter turnout has been consistently low in recent elections at the federal, state and city level. Nationally, 34 states and Washington D.C. allow some form of online voter registration. Although New Yorkers can submit registration forms online through the Department of Motor Vehicles, only those with DMV-issued identification can do so. “Many people in urban areas, which have higher concentrations of low-income communities of color, may not have drivers licenses because they rely on public transportation,” Kallos said.

Kallos’ bill requires that the New York City Campaign Finance Board, or another agency designated by the mayor, create a website and mobile application where residents can register to vote or update their registration. The agency will have to submit those registration forms to the Board of Elections within two weeks, and the portal will inform applicants when their registration will go into effect. The online form will allow applicants to either upload files with a copy of their handwritten signature, a photo for instance, or directly sign the form using a touchscreen.

“I think it’s long overdue and it’s good to see the City of New York join the 20th century,” Kallos said, hinting that the state’s voting laws require broader modernization. While online registration would make registering easier, to significantly improve turnout -- millions of registered New Yorkers do not vote in local elections -- many point to state-level reforms, such as early voting and same-day registration, which have stalled in Albany, curbed by the Republican-controlled state Senate.

“Anything that can be done to improve New York’s appalling voter participation rate is worth doing,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit that advocates for better election laws. “We live in the 21st century. We shouldn’t have VHS technology in the Netflix age and this makes perfect sense to do what can be done to make it easier for people to register to vote.”

Kallos, a Democrat who represents the Upper East Side, credited Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for paving the way for online registration through an informal opinion he issued in April last year. Schneiderman, who was responding to Suffolk County officials seeking clarity on voter registration requirements, wrote that a registration form completed with an “electronically-affixed handwritten signature” would be consistent with state law.

Although the bill would take effect 18 months after it is signed into law, Kallos urged the de Blasio administration to move quickly. As a demonstration of the ease with which a portal can be created, he built his own fully-functional microsite, which he said took only a few hours. “I hope the city doesn’t wait years or months but gets it done in weeks, days or even hours,” he said, also hoping that every city agency integrates links to the portal in online forms, which isn’t mandated in the legislation.

“The Administration worked closely with the City Council in crafting this legislation,” said mayoral spokesperson Seth Stein, in an email. “We support online registration and making voting more accessible to New Yorkers. We look forward to reviewing the final legislation when it passes the Council.”

Kallos is also hoping that the city’s bill will “convince our colleagues in Albany to bring online voter registration to the state.” The New York State Legislature has been consistently averse to electoral and voting reforms. “Elected officials get elected by the voters that exist, not by the voters who might exist,” said NYPIRG’s Horner. “So there’s a natural reluctance to bring new voters into the system.”

He added, “New York needs a soup-to-nuts review of its elections process with a goal toward making it easier for people to register, making it easier for people to vote, not harder, and that’s what New York does unfortunately right now.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Online Voter Registration on Verge of Passage in New York City Thu, 09 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Taking Up Voting Reform, De Blasio Cites Sanders Campaign as Motivation https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6629-taking-up-voting-reform-de-blasio-cites-sanders-campaign-as-motivation https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6629-taking-up-voting-reform-de-blasio-cites-sanders-campaign-as-motivation de blasio register to vote brooklyn

De Blasio registers a voter (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


As Public Advocate, Bill de Blasio strongly pushed for voting reform in New York, but as Mayor, it has not been high on his list of priorities. Last month, with Election Day around the corner, that seemed to change as de Blasio renewed his call for a system that will encourage voting in a state with one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country.

The advocacy comes just ahead of de Blasio’s re-election year and is spurred in part, the mayor said, by the enthusiasm stirred up by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who de Blasio did not support in the Democratic presidential primary. It also requires action in Albany and an opportunity for the mayor to work collaboratively with Governor Andrew Cuomo, whom the mayor has been feuding with for years, on reforms the two agree on.

On October 13, one day before the state’s voter registration deadline for new voters wishing to vote November 8, de Blasio spent about 30 minutes registering voters in downtown Brooklyn. He then headed indoors for a news conference, where he was accompanied by elected officials, government reform advocates, and representatives of the city Campaign Finance Board. The mayor called on the state Legislature to pass broad voting and election reforms, including same-day voter registration, early voting, “no excuse” absentee voting, electronic poll books, consolidation of primary elections, reformatting ballots to make them more user-friendly, and pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds.

Many of these reforms have been stalled in Albany, and de Blasio declared he was going to be part of a major push to see them passed in 2017, when the Legislature is back in session. “The bottom line is...the laws of New York State discourage participation in the democratic process,” de Blasio said. “Because everyone’s eyes are on election matters right now, we wanted to take this moment to make very, very clear that New York City and all of us here are going to be very, very actively engaged in a campaign to change state law in the coming months to finally make this a state that’s voter friendly, to finally make this a state where people can participate and not be disenfranchised.”

De Blasio had been mostly quiet on these issues over the nearly three years of his term and held the news conference with no chance that Albany lawmakers could enact reforms for the 2016 elections even if they wanted to. But he credits his renewed interest to a reinvigorated national conversation about voter enfranchisement and issues in New York, both highlighted by the Sanders campaign.

The mayor also asked the federal government to clear a backlog of pending naturalization applications, which would add about 57,000 new eligible voters to the rolls in New York alone, and more than 500,000 across the country.

The city expanded its efforts to register voters this year, providing voter registration forms in 16 languages when the state only requires five and allowing registration for people that take civil service exams through the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. The administration also organized a voter registration drive in partnership with 12 street food vendors across the five boroughs, promoted on Twitter with the hashtag #NoshTheVote.

A day after the news conference, the mayor appeared on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show for his weekly “Ask The Mayor” segment. He reiterated his appeal for voting reform, calling the state’s system “arcane” and blaming the “political class” for keeping participation low. “[New York] has got a set of voting standards that are some of the least effective, least inviting in the country,” de Blasio said. “It makes it hard for people to register, hard for people to vote."

The mayor has time and again commended Senator Sanders’ campaign for bringing significant attention to voting reform around the April 19 primary election in New York. There were confused voters who were ineligible but tried to show up and vote for Sanders in a closed party primary, but also mismanagement by the city Board of Elections, with tens of thousands of Brooklyn voters inappropriately purged from the voter rolls ahead of the primary.

At a November 4 news conference, Gotham Gazette asked the mayor why he hadn’t been vocal about voting and election reform earlier, in order to pressure Albany well ahead of the election, and what Governor Cuomo’s role should be in pushing for reforms.

“I think [Governor Cuomo] needs to prioritize these reforms or the people will do it for him,” de Blasio said. He also explained that the Sanders campaign was a key impetus for change, adding, “I think a lot of us were disgusted by the New York State voting laws years ago and thought they were unmovable, particularly with a Republican Senate that was not going to be friendly to voting reform. What’s happened different, I think the Bernie Sanders campaign changed the entire national discussion, certainly what we saw happen in the primary did, but, again, not with such speed that it was going to make it something that could be achieved by the end of this last June.” De Blasio was referring to the June end of the state legislative session.

With the Republicans likely to maintain control of the Senate going into next year, little has changed in Albany and those voting reforms may yet be unmovable. But the mayor has insisted he will work with state legislators and with the governor to push for reform. “I would happily, there’s no question,” de Blasio said at the news conference, when asked if he would work with Cuomo, a fellow Democrat but often the mayor’s political nemesis. “I want to get it done and I’ll work with anyone on either side of the aisle who wants to get it done,” de Blasio said. “So, I could happily work with the governor.”

Although de Blasio has taken inspiration from Sanders, he doesn’t agree with the senator’s criticism of the closed primary system or calls for open primaries in New York. “I believe that parties mean something,” de Blasio said at the Oct. 13 news conference, “and if you’re going to determine the choice of a party, you should be a member of the party.” He said the closed primary system prevents interference from voters that strategically “jump into the opposite primary just for the day and then jump back out.”

De Blasio has also been vocal in his support for administrative reform and even offered the New York City Board of Elections $20 million in funding if it agreed to institute crucial changes. But the board, which is governed by state law and notoriously inept, did not accept the funding.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group, was one of those present at the October 13 news conference. Dadey acknowledges that de Blasio may be late to the effort, but does not fault him for it. “I know personally that he believes strongly in this needed issue of reform but clearly decided to wait until a later time in his term to deal with this,” he said. “That it’s coming on the eve of his own reelection battle is not lost on anyone as to the likely coincidence and the rationale.”

Indeed, de Blasio’s campaign Twitter account pledged a fight for election reform: “We're going to reform NYS' voting access laws, because lack of early voting & same day registration is disenfranchisement, plain and simple,” read a tweet from the account sent out Tuesday morning.

The mayor had other priorities in his first three years, such as implementing universal pre-kindergarten, expanding access to paid sick leave, creating affordable housing, and moving the NYPD into a new era of neighborhood policing while keeping crime down. Voting and election reform, largely state issues, have not been on the mayor’s radar, though his state legislative affairs office has sent memos to lawmakers in support of legislation, which has foundered in the Republican-controlled Senate.

De Blasio has made annual trips to Albany to testify at budget hearings, at which he outlines key city priorities. Voting and election reform have not been mentioned.

“Do I wish that Mayor de Blasio had weighed in earlier on some important reform issues like he did when he was Public Advocate and his first news conference was on public oversight and police misconduct? Definitely, yes,” Dadey said. “But I also know that there are a lot of issues and priorities that needed to be addressed and [voting reform] was simply not one of them, unfortunately.”

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg pushed for his favored voting reforms at different points, and he supports the open primary system that de Blasio does not. (Bloomberg is a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent.)

Governor Cuomo has been in support of the measures de Blasio is now pushing, as has the Democrat-controlled State Assembly, which has time and again passed such bills, which fail in the Senate. Cuomo has not been a forceful public voice on the issues either, even if he does back early voting and other reforms. He’s included them in his State of the State speeches or policy books, but has done little else to publicly promote the reforms.

Despite their agreement on the need for voting and election reforms, there is no indication, other than a few vague comments, that the two will coordinate their efforts to push the issue in Albany.

In his 2015 State of the State address, the governor included a number of voting reforms in his list of legislative priorities, which were echoed in what de Blasio recently outlined. “Governor Cuomo has fought tirelessly to ensure New York's elections are fair, inclusive, and open,” said spokesperson Abbey Fashouer, in an email. “The Governor will continue to work with all state and local partners to strengthen the democratic process and ensure every New Yorker has the opportunity to make their vote count and their voices heard.”

The governor can often bring Republicans to the table on issues that he favors, like the minimum wage, marriage equality, and more. He has not made voting reforms a top priority.

Freddi Goldstein, a spokesperson for the mayor, defended the timing of de Blasio’s renewed efforts in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette. It was important, she said, to piggyback off the election to grab people’s attention. “We need to talk to people when they're listening, and this has been a great opportunity,” she said. Goldstein also sought to dispel the idea that the mayor hasn’t consistently focused on the issue.

The mayor does not submit a legislative agenda to the State but does testify before legislators each year. Although his testimony this year did not include any reference to voting reform, Goldstein said the mayor’s team in Albany works behind the scenes on such legislative issues. “Just because we're not talking about these things publicly doesn't mean we're not working on it,” she said. City Hall issues legislative memos to Albany on bills and has done so on voting and election reform, according to copies of such memos reviewed by Gotham Gazette.

City Council Member Ben Kallos, who chairs the committee on governmental operations, said in a phone interview that “All of these [reforms] should’ve happened before Election Day and if there’s an Albany special session it should be part of that agenda. The voters shouldn’t let their elected officials go back to Albany without getting this done.”

The City Council has consistently advocated for voting and election reform in its annual state legislative agenda, including early voting, instant runoff voting for citywide primaries, and public campaign financing at the state level. De Blasio has said he has concerns about instant runoff voting but hasn’t taken a full position. The mayor has consistently called for campaign finance reform, calling the city’s public matching system a gold standard that the state should follow. Cuomo has professed support for such a system but has not gotten one passed and enacted.

Kallos says he recognizes that the mayor hasn’t been able to prioritize election reform over other items on his agenda. “I think that we needed attention to this in 2014,” he said. “The mayor and I were able to advocate together for universal pre-kindergarten but election reforms weren’t on that list…I think that when we have so few people engaged in voting and such low turnout, people need to put good government on the same plane as things like universal pre-kindergarten.”

He emphasized that elected officials should look beyond their own self-interest and vote for election and voting reform, and that voters need to speak up. “Anyone who waited in line, anyone who had trouble voting, needs to make their voices heard to their elected officials,” Kallos said, “and Albany needs to finally make these changes even if it isn’t in the interest of incumbents…Ultimately in 2017, we will have a vote on the Constitutional Convention, and if Albany won’t act then the electors might.”

Indeed, one of the reasons that those who are supportive of a “yes” vote for a state Constitutional Convention believe it could be an opportunity to institute long-sought government, voting, election, and campaign finance reforms.

Prior to November 8, voting reform was one issue that de Blasio mentioned as a priority if the Democrats were able to take control of the state Senate from the Republicans. While there are two Long Island races still being counted that could change things, it appears that Republicans will continue their hold on the state Senate, putting a dent in de Blasio’s hopes for voting reform and other priorities, like a lengthy extension of mayoral control of city schools.

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, a Manhattan Democrat, has been a staunch proponent of election reform, sponsoring many of the relevant bills that have passed his chamber, and he lays the failure of reform proposals at the feet of Senate Republicans. Kavanagh said he strongly supports the mayor’s and governor’s efforts on the issue, and denied that de Blasio has been passive. “I think [Mayor de Blasio’s] push to focus on changing these laws is important,” said Kavanagh, who participated in de Blasio’s October press conference. “He’s not operating in a vacuum but he’s also not late to the party. He’s been pushing both as mayor and even before he was mayor.”

“I think the appropriate thing is to fault the Republican Senate majority,” Kavanagh said, insisting that the governor and the Independent Democratic Conference in the Senate have also backed the Assembly’s direction on election reform under Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat. “This is not Democratic election reform,” he said. “This is common sense voting reform that will benefit everybody...Republicans and Democrats should be able to agree on these.” Multiple requests for comment sent to Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan’s office were not returned.

Dadey, from Citizens Union, had a few words of advice for de Blasio. “If the mayor is rejoining the fight for voting and election reform,” he said, “then he should really reach out proactively with the non-profit organizations that work with this to develop a collective agenda and strategy plan, but also engage the elected officials who represent the City of New York who are involved in these issues as well. It’s not as if he’s the first elected official to be talking about these issues.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Taking Up Voting Reform, De Blasio Cites Sanders Campaign as Motivation Wed, 16 Nov 2016 05:00:00 +0000