Gotham Gazette Tue, 25 Jun 2019 14:26:10 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) 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.

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.  

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 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]

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 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.

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 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.”

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 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.”

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
There's a Long List of Voting Reforms New York Can Pass voting AG april 2016 

AG Schneiderman votes (photo via @AGSchneiderman)

Voter participation has been on the decline across the country for decades now, but is especially poor in New York, where only 29 percent of those eligible cast their votes in the 2014 general elections for state-level positions, including Governor. Whether you measure by eligible or registered voters, the New York numbers are bleak, though they always look worse when using “eligible” - there are nearly 2 million citizens of voting age not registered to vote in New York. In some countries, even states in this one, citizens are automatically registered to vote when they become eligible, so the two numbers are virtually one and the same.

Automatic registration is among a long list of voting reforms that advocates for more participation in the political process want to see passed in New York and elsewhere.

Forty-two years ago, in 1974, 75.4 percent of registered voters cast their vote for Governor of New York, according to the State Board of Elections.

This week, as a competitive presidential primary arrived in New York for the first time in decades, only 19.7 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot Tuesday, according to data from the Election Project, making New York turnout second-lowest for the presidential primary so far.

Nationwide, New York ranks 46th in voter turnout. Worldwide, the United States also ranks next-to-last in voter turnout among similar developed democracies, according to data from the Pew Research Center. In the 2012 presidential elections, voter turnout in the U.S. reached 53.6 percent of voting age population, while in Sweden, it was 82.6 percent in 2014 general elections. Sweden automatically registers voters once they become eligible, as do many other countries that have higher voter turnout, while in most of the United States, the onus is on the citizen to register.

There are a number of factors that contribute to New York’s abysmal voter turnout: registration deadlines far in advance of the election (two of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s own children were unable to vote for him in the primary on Tuesday, because, in Trump’s words, they were “unaware of the rules and they didn’t register in time”); long lines at the polls due to a short voting window; a lack of voter engagement; and voter fatigue (especially of concern with four separate New York election dates this year).

Legislation has been introduced time and again in Albany to improve accessibility and participation by making both registering to vote and casting one’s vote as easy as possible, yet hardly any legislation to enact meaningful reform to New York’s voting system has been signed into law in recent years.

Meanwhile, not only does New York have restrictive voting laws, but in New York City, persistent problems with the Board of Elections came to a head during Tuesday’s primary election after the BOE confirmed that more than 125,000 Democratic voters in Brooklyn had been removed from the voter rolls between since November (2015). This year’s primary election gave rise to a record number of complaints ranging from issues with poll site opening hours late, poorly staffed polling sites, and confusion over poll site locations.

The problems led city Comptroller Scott Stringer to launch an audit of BOE operations and management, announced on primary day, when he called the agency “consistently disorganized, chaotic, and ineffective.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio expressed support of the audit, saying that the BOE’s repeated errors make it clear that “major reforms will be needed to the BOE and in the state law governing it,” as the BOE’s unexplained voter purge “undermines the integrity of the entire electoral process.”

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has also opened an investigation into the BOE. "I am deeply troubled by the volume and consistency of voting irregularities," Schneiderman said in a statement. "That's why we have opened an investigation into alleged improprieties in yesterday's voting by the New York City Board of Elections.” Schneiderman said his office's voter complaint hotline "received more than one thousand complaints" on Tuesday - about six and a half times more complaints were received on Tuesday alone than during the 2012 general election (150 complaints total in 2012).

A significant issue that the primary shined a light on is New York’s registration deadlines - in order to vote in the party primaries, registered voters had to change or declare party affiliation before a deadline in October of last year; while anyone registering anew had until March 25 of this year - reasonably recent, but not the up-to-and-including day-of registration that some want to see enacted.

The state Legislature is now in session, and with three more elections coming up this year, lawmakers could take action on a number of reforms that may help modernize the voting process and improve voter turnout.

Bills have been introduced in the Senate and the Assembly to make voter registration automatic, expand online voter registration, improve New York’s confusing ballot design, allow for early voting, extend registration deadlines, consolidate the state and federal primary election dates, and more. Several resolutions have been introduced in the New York City Council calling on the state to pass some of these reforms, including consolidating election dates and allowing a period of in-person voting prior to election day.

“Voting is the most basic and essential act in our democracy - but the truth is, too few of us bother to do it,” City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said during her Feb. 11 State of the City address, at which time she called on the state to enact several voting reforms, including automatic registration, early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, and same-day registration. “Part of the blame for low voter turnout rests with antiquated voting laws that have failed to keep up with improvements seen in other states,” Mark-Viverito said.

It is entirely within the state government’s power to make voting easier and more accessible, and most of the proposed reforms would also make the voter registration system more accurate and efficient and would reduce costs involved with maintaining the voter rolls and administering elections. Still, the political will has not been there.

Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, a Manhattan Democrat, believes many of the problems with Tuesday’s primary “stem from bad, outdated election laws.”

“We ought to modernize the election laws so that both registering initially and maintaining and updating the registration can be done online and automatically,” Kavanagh told Gotham Gazette, “both to give voters more control over the process and to minimize the extent to which there are errors in the rolls resulting from clerical errors from paper applications.”

Kavanagh has sponsored several voting reform bills in the Assembly, including legislation that would enact automatic voter registration, extend registration deadlines, and allow for same-day voter registration. Though year after year some of these bills have been introduced and passed in the Democrat-led Assembly but not the Republican-controlled Senate, Kavanagh is optimistic that “what has happened leading up to the presidential may be a spur for many real changes.”

Increasing voter engagement and education is as important as increasing accessibility, some say, and a number of initiatives to do just that are underway in New York. There are also efforts that combine the two, including National Voter Registration Day and Student Voter Registration Day - the latter took place in New York City on March 18 this year and got 8,500 students registered to vote.

Besides enacting commonsense voting reforms, officials looking to increase voter turnout should be studying what factors have led to the higher participation rates that exist in certain areas of New York, says Gerald Benjamin, professor of political science and director of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz.

“There are places in New York that have very high turnout - what can we learn from those places?” Benjamin said. “They’re mobilizing organizations to get out to vote, the issues are passionately held and very important to people, so we get highly competitive elections. That’s what gets people to vote.”

“It has to do with old fashioned competition,” Benjamin continued, “meaningful elections, high stakes stuff going on - that drives participation.” Perhaps the most effective ways to increase voter turnout, Benjamin says, are to “increase competitiveness, make the issues locally relevant, and create mobilizing institutions to turn out voters.”

Improving Voter Registration

Voter Empowerment Act
One of the more comprehensive voting reform efforts that has been introduced in the state Legislature in recent years is the Voter Empowerment Act, which seeks to make the antiquated registration process more efficient by expanding online registration and modernizing the way voter information is collected, processed, stored, and shared.

The Voter Empowerment Act would allow certain government agencies that interact with voters to automatically register citizens to vote (unless they opt out); require the state Board of Elections to make certain registration information available to voters online so they may update their information over the internet; automatically update registrations of New Yorkers who move within the state; allow people to register or change their party later in the election cycle (10 days before an election); and permit pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Democratic State Senate Deputy Minority Leader Michael Gianaris, the bill’s sponsor, has pushed for the Voter Empowerment Act to be passed in the Senate for years, as has Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, who has sponsored the Assembly bill to enact the VEA. While one bill to enact the act failed in committee when the Senate Elections Committee voted against it in May of 2014, the latest versions of the bills are currently awaiting committee action in both the Senate and the Assembly.

“Our current voter registration system makes it far too difficult for New Yorkers to get themselves registered and get to the polls,” Kavanagh said in a press release. “Handwritten forms, data entry errors, arbitrary deadlines, and other defects in the system all too often make it difficult or impossible for voters to vote.”

Should the Voter Empowerment Act pass, the legislation would improve the accuracy of New York’s voter rolls by reducing the number of outdated or duplicate registration records. Additionally, switching to a modern voter registration system that transmits voter registration information electronically would save the state and counties money by reducing the costs involved with processing voter registration and maintaining an accurate list with the current error prone paper-based voter registration system.

Automatic voter registration
Automatic voter registration would be major step for New York that could dramatically increase the number of registered voters and, likely, the number of ballots cast. In March 2015,Oregon became the first state to pass legislation to automatically register eligible citizens who interact with the DMV to vote (unless they opt out), and California’s governor signed a bill modeled on Oregon’s law not long after.

Speaking with City and State last year, Senator Gianaris said automatic registration “would register over 2 million people in the state who are eligible but unregistered right now. By way of comparison, in [the 2014] gubernatorial election, a little over three-and-a-half million people voted, so you can imagine what kind of an impact adding over 2 million people to the rolls might have in a situation like that.”

In January, Governor Cuomo announced a proposal that would make New York the third state to adopt automatic voter registration through the DMV. “Why do we make it so difficult for the people to participate? Voter registration should be a presumption, not a hurdle,” Cuomo said during his State of the State address. “Let’s flip the paradigm and automatically enroll voters when they get a driver’s license. They can always opt out.”

Yet concerns have been raised about how the automatic voter registration through the DMV could "skew the electorate in ways that are not desirable or fair," as Kavanagh told the Daily News, since it would significantly increase the number of registered voters in more suburban areas of the state and upstate New York, but would do relatively little to increase the number of registered voters in New York City, where car ownership rates are lower.

That issue could be fixed by expanding the number of state agencies, including social service and health-related agencies, that offer voter registration, so that New Yorkers could be automatically registered to vote through a variety of government interactions. The Voter Empowerment Act would include the State University of New York, City University of New York, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, public housing authorities in the state, and the Division of Military and Naval Affairs as agencies that offer automatic voter registration.

New York City Council Member Ben Kallos has sponsored a number of bills aimed at increasing voter access, including bills that were signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio in December 2014 that expanded the number of city agencies required to offer voter registration forms.

Yet ultimately, the power to decide how and when citizens may register to vote and cast a ballot mainly rests with the state.

Separate bills to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote passed in the Assembly in 2014 and have since been reintroduced during this legislative session, but are awaiting committee action in the Senate. These bills would also require local education boards to adopt policies that promote student voter registration and pre-registration. A resolution calling upon the New York State Legislature to pass, and the Governor to sign the bills (A2529/S857) has been introduced in the City Council.

City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, with colleagues, community organizations, NYC Votes, and others, launched the city’s first Student Voter Registration Day on March 20, 2015, during which time 17- and 18-year-olds were encouraged to register to vote in their schools. After large year two growth, 10,500 students have registered to vote through the program.

Pre-registration is an important part of increasing voter turnout, advocates say, because allowing young people to access the voting system can help to form a lasting habit of civic engagement.

“We know that the earlier you start voting, the more likely you are to maintain that practice,” said Umair Khan, ‎Deputy Counsel to Public Advocate Letitia James and member of the New York City Campaign Finance Board’s Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, during the committee’s Dec. 15 public hearing.

Same-day registration
Same-day registration allows eligible voters to register to vote and cast their ballots on the same day. In New York, eligible voters must register at least 25 days before the election date in order to cast their vote.

Currently, eleven states and the District of Columbia allow same-day voter registration (also known as Election Day registration), and three other states have passed same-day registration laws that have yet to go into effect. Voter turnout is much higher in states that have same-day registration than in those that do not. According to a report on voter turnout in the 2014 midterm elections by Nonprofit VOTE, voter turnout in states with same-day voter registration averaged 12 percent higher than states that do not have such an option.

Making same-day registration a reality in New York would require a change to the New York State Constitution, and bills have been introduced by Gianaris and Kavanagh in the Senate and the Assembly, respectively, to do so. Legislation to implement same-day voter registration is also needed, and bills Gianaris and Kavanagh have introduced legislation to allow same-day registration (in addition to other reforms) in the Senate and the Assembly a number of times. Both bills were referred to their respective election committees at the beginning of this year.

In New York City, meanwhile, the City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations recently laid over a resolution calling upon the state Legislature to pass and the Governor to sign legislation amending the Election Law to establish same-day and online voter registration.

Lowering the voting age
A nationwide campaign to lower the voting age to 16 was launched in December by the nonpartisan group Generation Citizen, which promotes youth participation in civic affairs. In New York, that would require a change to state law (though city-specific enabling legislation may be a possibility).

A number of other countries, including Argentina, Germany, and Norway, allow 16-year-olds to vote. Two cities in Maryland have already lowered their voting ages to 16 in recent years, and efforts to do the same are currently underway in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Across the United States, 16- and 17-year-olds pay taxes on income and can drive in most states. In New York, they are tried as adults in criminal courts. A white paper from Generation Citizen suggests lowering the voting age to 16 could drive demand for better civic education in schools and could ultimately help America’s voter turnout problem.

“We know from our work with young people throughout the City that many of them are eager to have their voices heard when it comes to public policy debates and who is going to represent them in government,” said David Pechefsky, New York City site director for Generation Citizen, at an April 8 rally calling for state lawmakers to enact election reform.

One key argument to lowering the vote age is to help young people develop the habit of voting before they go to college, which often takes them to another geographic area. Voting before college may make people more likely to vote during college, whether by absentee ballot or another means.

Restoring voting rights to paroled felons
Fourteen states and the District of Columbia automatically restore voting rights to individuals convicted of a felony upon their release from prison (the state legislature in Maryland narrowly overturned Governor Larry Hogan’s veto of a bill to extend voting rights to felons before they complete probation and parole in February, restoring the right to vote to some 40,000 recently released Maryland felons). Four states permanently disenfranchise citizens with a past felony conviction, and require a petition to the government to get the right to vote restored.

In New York, voting rights are restored automatically upon discharge from parole after those who have been convicted of a felony have been released from prison (those on probation can vote). Yet legislation currently awaiting committee action in Albany could change that, by amending election law and correction law to allow convicted felons to vote upon their release from prison, even while serving parole.

Bills to restore voting rights to felons out on parole were referred to election committees in January in both the Assembly and the Senate. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, as of 2010, “an estimated 122,018 people with felony convictions are barred from voting in New York,” with 46 percent of those disenfranchised out on parole. That disenfranchisement, supporters of restoring voting rights to felons say, disproportionately affects communities of color and hinders the reintegration process.

Proponents of a change say that allowing voting while in prison and upon release would aid in reintegration and that loss of voting rights has never been a deterrent to committing a crime.

In New York City, a resolution calling on the state Legislature to pass and the Governor to sign the Assembly bill related to voting rights for convicted felons was laid over by the Committee on Governmental Operations in February.

Improving the Voting Process & Election Day Operations

Open primaries
New York is one of the eleven states that have closed primaries, meaning voters must be registered with a political party in order to cast a primary election vote, which excludes independent voters and those who failed to realize they must be registered with a party.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders criticized New York’s closed primary system during a rally in Washington Square Park on April 13, saying, "We have a system here in New York where independents can't get involved in the Democratic primary.”

“Young people who have not previously registered and want to register today just can't do it,” Sanders continued in front of a crowd of many young people, “So this is going be a tough primary for us."

According to the state Board of Elections, out of 10.7 million active voters in New York state, nearly 3 million are not registered with either major party.

New York also has the earliest change-of-party deadline in the country among states with closed primaries. New York is the only state where the deadline to change one’s party does not even fall within the same calendar year as the primary (this time the deadline was October 9), forcing voters to make a critical choice regarding their party enrollment long before many have even had much of a chance to get to know the candidates.

Independent voters protested New York’s closed primary system on April 14, gathering on the steps of City Hall at a rally organized by nonpartisan groups like and Open Primaries to call on lawmakers to adopt an open primary system.

bill to establish an open primary system for all state and congressional elections is awaiting committee action after first being introduced in the Assembly. Legislation to shorten the change-of-party deadline to 25 days before any election has been introduced in both the Assembly and the Senate.

Better ballot design
New York ballots can often be confusing, causing voters to make mistakes which in turn render their votes invalid. The Voter Friendly Ballot Act, sponsored by Assemblymember Kavanagh, would set clear requirements for how ballots should look and create a ballot layout that is easy for voters to read and use.

In 2010, tens of thousands of votes cast in New York were voided after voters filled out their ballots incorrectly. Statewide, roughly 20,000 votes for Governor were thrown out and between 30,000 and 40,000 votes for other candidates were voided, according to a report by Sundeep Iyer and Larry Norden from the Democracy Program at NYU's Brennan Center for Justice.

The Voter Friendly Ballot Act has passed in the Assembly three times, but “died in Senate” in January and has returned to the Assembly.

Early voting
Early voting allows eligible voters to cast their ballots before election day. The small window of time voters have to get to the polls on Election Day, which typically falls on a Tuesday, can result in long lines, and can exclude a number of New Yorkers who simply cannot make it to the polls while they are open.

New York is one of the few states that completely prohibits early voting in any form - 34 states and Washington D.C. allow in-person early voting. Early voting can begin as many as 45 days ahead of an election in some states or simply the weekend before an election in others. According to a report from New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office, in 2012 “approximately 31 percent of all votes nationwide were cast prior to Election Day in November.”

A number of bills to enact early voting are currently pending in Albany. Assemblymember Kavanagh and Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins have sponsored bills that would establish a 12-day early voting period that ends the Sunday before election day. Another bill, sponsored by State Senator Tony Avella, would change the days of voting for primary and general elections from Tuesdays to the first Saturday and Sunday after the first Friday of September and November, respectively.

“While early voting does require some investment and a change in the way resources are allocated, analysis of data in early voting states shows a number of gains that ultimately eased pressure on Election Day,” said Art Chang, member of the New York City Campaign Finance Board and chair of the Board’s Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, during testimony before the Assembly Election Law Committee on Dec. 10.

“Allowing an ample early voting period allows poll workers to gain more experience and troubleshoot problems that occur at the polling place, such as malfunctioning voting machines or bottlenecks in line management,” Chang added. Early voting typically designates a smaller number of polling places that are open during the run-up to election day.

According to a poll conducted by the Census Bureau, 28 percent of those registered voters who did not vote in the 2014 midterm elections said they failed to do so because they were “too busy” (this was the answer with the most frequent response). Early voting and other measures to expand the amount of time citizens have to cast their vote could help to alleviate chronically low voter turnout.

In fact, expanding voting before Election Day was recommended by Presidential Commission on Election Administration in 2014. The report suggested that, “in order to limit congestion on Election Day and to respond to the demand for greater opportunities to vote beyond the traditional Election Day polling place, states that have not already done so should expand alternative ways of voting, such as mail balloting and in-person early voting.”

“Virtually everywhere early voting has been enacted, voter participation has increased significantly,” Chang said during a Dec. 15 Voter Assistance Advisory Committee public hearing.

Currently, New Yorkers can vote early by submitting an absentee ballot, but voters are only allowed to do so if they meet certain qualifications, like begin absent from the county on Election Day, or physically unable to get to the polls due to a disability.

The Vote Better NY coalition has launched a petition calling on Governor Cuomo and the state Legislature to pass the Voter Empowerment Act, the Voter Friendly Ballot Act, and legislation to allow early voting in New York.

Cuomo is supportive of early voting, and included a proposal for early voting in an outline of his 2016 agenda. The proposed legislation to require every county to offer access to at least one early voting polling place that will allow New Yorkers to cast their vote for 12 days leading up to Election Day for every election.

“I think we have a reasonable shot” to get some voting reforms passed this year, Kavanagh said during an April interview, adding that ”the governor effectively put my early voting bill in the budget this year...the governor is on board with some of this.”

Absentee voting
Similar to early voting, absentee voting allows citizens to cast their votes ahead of election day, though without necessarily making a trip to the polls. Absentee voting can reduce long lines at the polls and increase accessibility by making it possible for citizens who, for lack of time, transportation, or physical ability, simply cannot make it to the polls.

Currently, 27 states and D.C. allow no-excuse absentee voting.

Twenty states allow absentee voting only if the voter can provide an excuse that meets the state’s requirements for allowing absentee ballots. New York is one of those states.

With absentee voting, the voter may turn in their ballot by mail or in person. Voting reform advocatessupport allowing no-excuse absentee voting in New York, which would require a state constitutional amendment in addition to legislation, though bills to enact no-excuse absentee voting have yet to pass in either the Assembly or the Senate.

Voting by mail
Voting by mail is on the rise in some Western states, with supporters arguing that voting by mail is a more cost-effective way to administer elections and improves voter participation by making it more convenient to vote. Washington, Oregon, and Colorado conduct their elections entirely by mail, and 19 other states allow some elections to be held by mail.

Oregon has one of the highest voter turnout rates in the country, with 69.5 percent of registered voters casting their vote in the 2014 general election. Both Washington and Oregon saw significant increases in voter turnout after transitioning to “all-mail” elections, according to the Washington Post: “In Oregon, turnout rose from 59 percent in 1998, the midterm election before the state went all-mail, to 69 percent in 2002. Washington’s turnout rose from 64.5 percent in the 2006 midterms to 71.2 percent in 2010, the first year elections were conducted entirely by mail.”

bill sponsored by Senator Liz Krueger, also a Manhattan Democrat, to instruct the state board of elections to study the feasibility of voting by mail, and authorize a pilot program for such voting during the study is currently awaiting committee action. Legislation to allow qualified voters to vote by mail in New York has also been introduced in the Senate.

Consolidating election dates
Frequent elections can result in voter fatigue and decrease voter turnout. New Yorkers dedicated to casting their vote will make four trips to the polls in 2016 (five for those living in New York City’s 17th City Council District, where a special election occurred in February).

As the New York Times editorial board wrote in December, “There is no reason the state primary can’t be held on the same day as the congressional primary, thus eliminating the extra election and saving the state $50 million.” Congressional primaries are slated for June, state-level primaries for September.

There has been support for consolidating the state and federal primaries in the Assembly, as Assemblymember Cusick pointed out at a Dec. 10, 2015 State Assembly hearing on enhancing the voter experience. “We do have a bill that we have passed almost every year in the Assembly to combine [the dates]...That is the goal of our committees, to get the primaries in one day, so we can save the state and municipalities money.”

Holding so many separate elections is not only fiscally wasteful, but also reduces voter turnout. For years, Assembly Democrats have repeatedly introduced legislation to move the primary elections for state-level offices from September to June. In February, the Assembly passed a bill to designate June 28, 2016 as the state’s primary election date for state and federal offices.

One month later, the Republican-controlled Senate passed a bill designating Aug. 19, 2016 at New York’s primary election date for state and federal offices, to the dismay of Democrats, who questioned why Republicans would move the primary to a month typically used for vacation time by many people.

Instant Runoff Voting
Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) allows voters to rank candidates by order of preference. If no candidate passes the minimum threshold needed to win the election, the candidate in last place is eliminated, and votes are redistributed according to the preferences on the ballots. The process repeats until a candidate passes the threshold.

IRV is already used in mayoral elections in cities like San Francisco and Oakland, and even London. Ireland uses IRV in its presidential elections. Supporters of the process say that IRV saves taxpayers millions of dollars by eliminating the need to hold runoff elections, which are typically even more poorly attended than the original election.

In 2013, the Democratic primary for New York City Public Advocate resulted in a runoff which cost New York City $13 million and had significantly lower voter turnout than the initial primary itself - only 5.7 percent, or 345,089 registered Democrats turned out to cast their vote in the runoff election.

A bill to allow instant-runoff voting in primary elections for Mayor, Public Advocate, and Comptroller of New York City passed in the Senate last year before it “died in Assembly” in January. A similarbill, sponsored by Assemblymember Kavanagh, is awaiting committee action in the Assembly.

Better training and conditions for poll workers
Difficulties at New York City poll sites was an all-too-frequent occurrence during Tuesday’s primary, with reports of poll sites opening late, jammed ballot scanners, and poll workers instructing voters to fill out affidavits when ballots weren’t scanning. Some problems can be traced to the fact that the city BOE struggles to recruit and train the 30,000 plus workers necessary to run the city’s poll sites during election days.

Although New York passed a law allowing poll workers to serve “half day” or eight hour shifts years ago, the “BOE has been very reluctant to implement it,” Assemblymember Kavanagh said, due to the “sincere but misguided belief that it will make their lives harder and not easier.” According to Kavanagh, the BOE is now piloting half-day shifts in some places.

It is understandably difficult to find 30,000 people who are willing and able to remain at poll sites from about 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. and accept $200 for about 17 hours of work on one or a few individual days in a given year.

Because of this, few meet the criteria for a recruitable poll worker, creating a situation where, after poll workers are given a “competency test at the end of the training, and [the BOE] often ends up having the poll workers who passed the test and the ones who failed the test work the polls anyway because they don’t have enough people,” Kavanagh says.

A bad experience at the hands of incompetent poll workers can discourage voters from casting a ballot again in the future, or worse - “if that problem is widespread, it can actually affect the outcome of an election,” Kavanagh said.

Comptroller Stringer and others have suggested that the BOE should implement half-day shifts, improve training for poll workers, and raise the wage from $200 per day ($12.50 an hour) to at least $240 ($15 an hour) to improve election day operations.

Reforms to improve engagement
Promoting civic engagement and voter education is also a critical component of improving voter turnout. Bills have been introduced in the City Council that would require the New York City Board of Elections to provide email and text reminders about poll site locations, hours, and upcoming elections; mail voter’s their voting histories, place notices on all discontinued poll sites to direct voters to the proper poll site, and provide a voter guide for all elections.

NYC Votes, the New York City Campaign Finance Board’s voter outreach and engagement arm guided by its Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, runs a number of programs with community partners and city agencies designed to engage with voters in the hopes of increasing civic participation.

Some of those programs include National Voter Registration Day, the city’s official nonpartisan Voter Guide, Student Voter Registration Day, the Youth Poet Laureate program, “I Voted” stickers for city poll sites, NYC Votes Advocacy Day at the state Legislature in Albany, and the citywide Debate Program.

Other election-related reforms
The huge amount of money spent on election campaigns in the United States has led many voters to become frustrated with the corrupting influence of money in politics. In New York, the many calls to close the LLC loophole - which allows limited liability companies to circumvent New York’s campaign donation limits and give large sums of money to candidates through various LLCs - have not yet led to reform.

New York City is moving ahead on reforms to its campaign finance system, which already offers public matching funds and is seen as a state and national model. A package of eight bills was introduced to the City Council in November and will be discussed at a hearing in May. The legislation aims to strengthen the system and adjust it to recent developments outside of city control.

Restrictions on gerrymandering would also help remedy issues with New York’s voting processes, as less gerrymandering would encourage more competition in elections, and thus more engagement. Through a ballot referendum, New Yorkers did pass a new redistricting process last year that will go into effect after the next census.

State Senator Tony Avella and Assemblymember Luis Sepulveda have also introduced bills that would give voters the power to recall elected officials. Nineteen states and Washington, D.C. currently allow voters to recall state officials if a significant number of voters are dissatisfied with the job their elected official is doing.

by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

There's a Long List of Voting Reforms New York Can Pass Fri, 22 Apr 2016 02:54:01 +0000
For 'A Better New York,' Activists Lobby Albany for Election Reform nyc votes Albany

Activists in Albany (photo: @NYCVotes)

On a crisp Wednesday morning, two buses pulled up outside the New York State Capitol in Albany. Their cargo: a delegation of about 100 students, volunteers, and good government activists who travelled from New York City to advocate for voting reform.

It was the second annual "Vote Better NY" Advocacy Day for Election Reform organized by NYC Votes, a non-partisan voter engagement initiative run by the New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB) and its Voter Assistance Advisory Committee.

The delegation left the city at 6 a.m. with the carefully defined objective of pushing state Senators and Assembly members on three voting issues: online voter registration, better ballot design, and early voting.

Splitting into groups of five or six, activists worked the halls of the Capitol and the legislative office building, participating in back-to-back pre-arranged meetings with legislative staff or legislators themselves.

Preparing for its first meeting, one group circled around their leader Onida Coward Mayers, the director of voter assistance at the CFB. "We're not lobbyists," Mayers said in her short pep talk. "You are an individual, a member of the public, and we all want the same thing. We're thanking [our representatives] for their work, but they need to do more. We're holding their feet to the fire."

NYC Votes' advocacy day comes at a time when the Legislature is just getting back to work, filling the vacuum after the budget session. "Everything is budget here till April 1. The budget kinda sucked the oxygen out of the air," said Bryan Clenahan, counsel to Senator Diane Savino, as he addressed the Mayer-led group of activists, which included members of Dominicanos USA, the League of Women Voters, and the NAACP.

The Legislature is in session through mid-June, with lawmakers in Albany a few days most weeks until then. There are many issues on the table that were left out of the budget, including minimum wage, criminal justice reform, and mayoral control of schools, but advocates wanted to make sure that election reform is also part of the discussion.

Advocacy day was an opportunity for many of the advocates to meet their representatives and express their priorities directly. Rob Reynolds, 28, works in tax preparation in Brooklyn. He was one of many independent members of the public, not affiliated with any organization, who joined NYC Votes for Wednesday's trip. "The day was very productive," he said. "We met with a lot of legislators. We shared with them our thoughts and ideas for improving the electoral process in New York. A lot of them seemed very receptive and seemed supportive of our ideas."

Reynolds believes wholeheartedly that New York needs to improve its voter turnout, especially by taking lessons from other states that have a better record. For him, the day was an exciting opportunity to be heard. But it was not without its disappointments, particularly an Assembly member who Reynolds did not want to name publicly, but said was more interested in his own election efforts than expanding the democratic process. "There is an inherent problem when the people who we elect get to choose who elects them and its not right," said Reynolds. "Its not morally fair - in a democracy that's not how it should work."

The numbers in yesterday's delegation are an indicator of an increasing consciousness among New Yorkers that reforming the voting process is necessary, particularly considering that New York hit the historically low point of 28.8 percent voter turnout in the 2014 gubernatorial election.

"Last year we brought 50 people, everyday average New Yorkers to talk about [voting reform]," said Matt Sollars, press secretary at CFB. "This year we brought 100 people and next year we'll bring 200 people, and we're gonna keep bringing more people up here to talk about this until we see real change and we see real modern elections in New York state."

The groups navigated the cavernous halls of the Capitol, even attending meetings with representatives of legislative leaders Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Independent Democratic Conference Leader Senator Jeff Klein.

Through the day, the activists tried to get legislators on board with specific bills. One bill provides for online voter registration through the Board of Elections. Currently, New Yorkers can only register online through the Department of Motor Vehicles. The advocates also asked legislators to support the Voter Friendly Ballot Act, sponsored by Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, which improves ballot design.

Although there was no specific bill on the agenda for early voting, some of the activists were surprised to learn in a meeting with Senator Tony Avella that he had introduced a proposal for weekend voting.

"There was almost unanimous agreement among all the legislators that we met that voting was a top priority and that they were in favor of greater transparency and access to the voting process in principle, but they wanted to read the bills that were at issue," said Bridgette Ahn, president-elect of the Korean American Lawyers Association. "I think an important component of this is establishing a relationship, raising awareness, bringing the information to key decision-makers, following up with them, and continuing on the advocacy front."

At the end of the day, NYC Votes had made its mark. The delegation was recognized both in the Assembly and Senate sessions for its work in promoting voting reform. "We do know the politics still plays after we leave their four walls," Onida Coward Mayers said with cautious optimism. "I'm very proud of the message that we sent that we will be heard," she said. "There needs to be election reform, citizens matter and citizens want change. [New Yorkers] want an easier, friendly, 21st century democracy." 

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

For 'A Better New York,' Activists Lobby Albany for Election Reform Thu, 23 Apr 2015 05:00:00 +0000