Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/351 Fri, 28 Feb 2020 03:40:29 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) 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
As Election Proceeds, Affidavit Ballot Bill at Center of Queens Controversy Continues to Languish https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8895-election-approaches-no-apparent-movement-on-affidavit-voting-bill-queens-controversy-cuomo https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8895-election-approaches-no-apparent-movement-on-affidavit-voting-bill-queens-controversy-cuomo gov cuomo casts

(photo: the governor's office)


Few New York elections go by without controversy, and this year’s relatively quiet slate has been no exception. As voters head to the polls during the inaugural early voting period and heading into Election Day, one major question that came up during the June primary continues to hang over the general election.

A bill that could change the way provisional affidavit ballots are counted as soon as this year is languishing in Albany, having passed both houses of the state Legislature in June. The bill would make it harder to disqualify those ballots on technicalities if the intention of the voter is clear, thus keeping some number of voters from disenfranchisement.

The legislation was the subject of controversy during the Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney earlier this year, a race that was decided in a recount, with many affidavit ballots left uncounted. While it’s unclear if any general election race, in New York City or elsewhere in the state, will be anywhere near as close, the bill would impact whether some votes are counted.

“The bill protects otherwise-eligible voters from having their ballots thrown out on highly-technical, unfair grounds. Had it been signed in a timely way after passage on June 12 and 13, this protection would have been in place for the June primaries and the 2019 general election,” said Jarret Berg, a voting rights lawyer and elections watchdog.

“Instead, the safeguard is either being ignored or intentionally delayed as elections they would help to improve come and go," he said, adding that the law would go into effect immediately and wouldn’t cost the state or localities anything to implement.

Caitlin Girouard, a spokesperson for Governor Andrew Cuomo, told Gotham Gazette Tuesday that the legislation was “under review.” As of Thursday, it had not been sent to the governor by the Legislature or called to his desk by Cuomo, the two mechanisms that would force the governor’s decision to sign or veto it much more quickly ahead of the final December 31 deadline.

Registered voters in New York City have the opportunity this fall to cast ballots for public advocate, Queens District Attorney, a Brooklyn City Council seat, some judicial positions, and five referenda containing proposed amendments to the city charter. For the first time in New York State, polls are open during a nine-day early voting period, which began October 26 and ends November 3. Election Day is Tuesday, November 5.

After the primary polls closed in June and the close race headed toward counting absentee and affidavit ballots, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and public defender Tiffany Cabán, along with their respective teams of lawyers, fought over reinstating ballots disqualified by the city’s Board of Elections. As a recount unfolded, one major question became which affidavit ballots would be counted and which wouldn’t, a debate that often starts with the envelope containing the ballot.

Appearing before a judge, lawyers for the two candidates argued over validating discounted ballots, often discarded on the basis of minor technical errors, like failing to put a return address on the ballot envelope or not listing a previous address, despite a qualified voter making a clear vote in the race.

Many of the disqualified affidavit ballots were believed to favor Cabán, while absentee ballots, often cast by older voters, favored Katz, in part due to targeted campaigning by the borough president. Cabán supporters pushed for Cuomo, a Democrat, to sign the affidavit ballot bill during the recount in hopes of preserving more of those votes. Legislators passed the bill weeks before the primary election, but the governor would not sign it after the ballot counting had begun. Cabán ultimately lost by about 60 votes, with more than 350 potential votes uncounted, according to a court filing related to the race.

“With that portion of the election cycle over, it is my hope that the governor gets this legislation on his desk and signs it before November 5 so that those ballots can be appropriately considered under what is a much more reasonable standard,” said Assemblymember Kevin Cahill, a Hudson Valley Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors.

"We are very supportive of this bill and believe that where a voter's intent is clear, their ballot should count,” wrote State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the Senate Elections Committee, in an email to Gotham Gazette. “The will of the legislature is clear from the passage in both houses so it is our hope, given the importance of every election, that the bill is signed as expeditiously as possible."

Leroy Comrie, the bill’s Senate sponsor, did not respond to requests for comment.

Affidavit and absentee ballots are placed in individual envelopes and have “a variety of other circumstances associated with them that could put them at risk of being considered technically flawed,” said Cahill. One of those circumstances is the fact poll workers hired by the city Board of Elections often advise voters on how to fill out affidavits, according to Cahill, which he says makes it unfair to penalize ballots for technical errors.

Voters use affidavit ballots when they believe they are registered to vote but are not found in the voter rolls at a poll site. Roughly 2,800 affidavit and 3,400 absentee ballots were reportedly cast in the high-profile Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney.

As it became clear the vote was close and headed to a recount, some called on Cuomo to sign the legislation and allow more votes to be counted. Part of the concern, expressed by some, in enacting the legislation before the recount had finished was that it would change the rules of the game by which voters and the poll workers often advising them had been operating.

“The rule is the rule,” Cahill said.

“We wouldn’t want to be impacting a result, after the fact. That wouldn’t be fair,” he added, in apparent reference to changing the rules of how certain votes are counted after they’ve been cast.

Given that Cuomo did not sign the bill before early voting began, the same issue is now at play for the general election. Generally speaking, the legislation is not seen as beneficial to particular candidates, but many believed more affidavits were likely to be for Cabán than Katz in the Queens primary because she appeared to be the favorite of newer, younger, more transient voters who may have been more likely to have to fill out an affidavit ballot.

“This legislation is not a partisan issue, nor does it help or hurt any particular candidate or party in any given election, and it has already passed both houses,” said Berg.

“It’s not that radical a bill,” Cahill said, “it really is just a common sense piece of legislation that says…[a voter] should be permitted to have that vote counted notwithstanding some minor technical differences between what that ballot says and what the law requires.”

The decision to send a bill to the governor for enactment is, practically speaking, a collective one among the Assembly, the Senate, and the governor’s office, according to Cahill. The chamber that first passes a two-house bill is responsible for sending it to the governor’s office; if it is sent to the governor and not signed or vetoed within ten days, in most cases it becomes law. If Cuomo’s administration is not prepared to address the legislation, sending the bill to his office for consideration could lead to its demise, he said. The governor can also at any time call to his desk a bill that has passed both houses.

“It is a shared decision when a bill gets sent to the governor. If it gets sent prematurely before the governor’s office wants it, we’re putting the bill at risk of being vetoed just for procedural reasons and we don’t want to have that happen,” Cahill warned.

“But in this case we are very anxious for this bill to get before the governor, to be on his desk and get his signature so we can start to have people’s votes counted when they should be,” added the member of the Assembly, which was the house to first pass the affidavit bill.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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As Election Proceeds, Affidavit Ballot Bill at Center of Queens Controversy Continues to Languish Sun, 03 Nov 2019 04:00:00 +0000
With Trump in Office, New York Democrats Show Urgency, and Infighting, on Women's Rights https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6732-with-trump-in-office-new-york-democrats-show-urgency-and-infighting-on-women-s-rights https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6732-with-trump-in-office-new-york-democrats-show-urgency-and-infighting-on-women-s-rights cuomo women's equality act

Cuomo in 2013, via The Governor's Office on flickr


With President Donald Trump taking office and Congressional Republicans chipping away at the Affordable Care Act, including a provision that guarantees cost-free birth control, New York’s Democratic lawmakers are scrambling to fortify protections for women on the state level.

Citing the threat of Trump’s administration, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Saturday that he has instructed the Department of Financial Services -- which regulates insurance companies -- to require commercial insurance providers to cover contraception and “medically necessary” abortions without asking for a co-pay.

The announcement was timed to coincide with women’s rights marches that took place in New York City, Washington D.C., and across the country, as well as the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which despite efforts from the Democratically-controlled New York State Assembly, is not fully codified into state law. Republicans who control the state Senate have refused to pass such a law, though many abortions would be legal in New York even if the Supreme Court, bolstered by a conservative Trump appointee, were to overturn the landmark 1973 ruling. A 1970 New York law permits abortions until 24 weeks of pregnancy.

Cuomo’s contraception and abortion coverage announcement came on the heels of legislation introduced by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and passed by the Assembly earlier this month. Called the Comprehensive Contraceptive Coverage Act, the bill, which has not yet been introduced in the state Senate, would codify the co-pay-free contraception provision in the Affordable Care Act.

Cuomo’s women’s health push has received a lot of praise, including from Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who called the DFS regulation “an important step forward toward ensuring that women have control over their reproductive lives.”

However, members of the Assembly took issue with the governor’s action, saying the regulatory change lacks the permanence of a statute. “We think a law would be the strongest solution,” said Michael Whyland, spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

Assembly Member Kevin Cahill, who sponsored the Assembly version of the legislation, said the DFS regulation falls “very seriously short” of the intentions of the bill’s authors and decreases the likelihood of Schneiderman’s bill being introduced in the Senate, which remains under GOP control.

“We are talking about the contraceptive rights that are now at risk because of actions that are being taken in Washington that could have been thoroughly protected through legislation,” said Cahill, a Democrat representing Kingston. “Now the legislative path is significantly less likely because of [the governor’s] action.”

Cahill noted Cuomo’s regulation does not include coverage for male vasectomies, which can take the onus of contraception off of women, or emergency contraception, otherwise known as the “morning-after pill.” The new regulations also omit language authorizing midwives to prescribe or distribute emergency contraception and an educational component to the bill.

“He didn't consult with us at all, and to the best of my knowledge, the attorney general heard about it in a press report,” Cahill told Gotham Gazette. “While it appears on its surface to be laudable, it may have actually made the situation significantly worse."

In response to Cahill's comments, a spokesperson for the governor, Abbey Fashouer, said, “The Governor is taking immediate and decisive action to secure women’s reproductive rights, regardless of what happens at the federal level. To be clear, this doesn’t preclude legislative action, or apparently, grandstanding. This decisive action may rob some individuals of a headline later, but it does ensure that the reproductive rights of millions of New Yorkers are protected today.”

Cuomo's office also noted that vasectomies are not included in the governor's DFS regulations because they are part of the ACA, but not New York insurance law, where birth control for women is covered.

Democrats will continue to push state legislation as opposed to executive regulations since, as Trump is showing on the federal level, executive actions can be rolled back by a new executive.

While state law already mandates that contraceptives be covered without co-pays and bars insurers from denying any type of surgery -- including surgical abortions -- Cuomo’s version clarifies that the law will not change if ACA is repealed. In addition, the new DFS regulation would ban charging co-payments for abortion and requires that insurers provide coverage of birth control for up to 12 months from the initial prescription.

During his campaign, Trump vowed to “repeal and replace” the ACA, otherwise known as Obamacare, and has said he would appoint a Supreme Court justice who opposes Roe v. Wade -- though he has backtracked on both positions in media interviews.

Two of Trump’s first actions in the Oval Office were a vaguely worded executive order toward repeal of the ACA and another to reinstate a ban on spending for reproductive health services for organizations abroad, which is expected increase infant mortality and maternal death rates around the globe.

Toppling Roe v. Wade, which would require at least two new Supreme Court justices, is more complicated than the president has made it seem, but even if it happened, it is not likely to have as much of an impact in New York as it would in, say, South Carolina, according to a new report from the Center for Reproductive Rights. As Trump has pointed out in interviews when expressing somewhat conflicting support for overturning Roe v. Wade, “if it ever were overturned, it would go back to the states.” During a 60 Minutes interview he added of women seeking abortions in states where it would then be illegal, “they’ll have to go to another state.”

Early this year the state Assembly also reintroduced a second bill, the Reproductive Health Act, which updates New York’s law to align with Roe v. Wade. Abortion has been legal in New York since 1970, three years before the Supreme Court decision. Codifying Roe v. Wade on a state level would remove outdated criminal statutes that apply to abortion practitioners when a woman is more than 24 weeks pregnant, add language that prioritizes for the health of the mother over the fetus, and expand the list of medical professionals that could perform abortion to include 21st Century professions, such as physician’s assistants.

These inconsistencies, and the criminal statutes, continue to result in many women being denied care, according to the NYCLU. Last year, Attorney General Schneiderman issued an opinion, stating that abortion be allowed after 24 weeks if the fetus is not viable or the mother’s life or health is threatened, as specified by Roe v. Wade, but advocates say New York doctors are still deterred from treating women with sometimes life-threatening health conditions who are more than 24 weeks pregnant.

Though Democratic lawmakers have been pushing this bill for years, Senate Republicans have blocked the motion. In 2013, an effort by the Independent Democratic Conference -- a breakaway group of Democrats that caucuses with Republicans -- to move the bill in the Senate failed. In the 63-seat Senate, 30 Republicans and two Democrats, Ruben Diaz Sr. and Simcha Felder, voted it down. Diaz Sr. and Felder, who also caucuses with Republicans, are still in the Senate and unlikely to support the abortion protections, though Diaz Sr., a Bronx minister, may run for City Council this year and leave the Senate if victorious.

Candice Giove, the spokesperson for the IDC and its leader, Sen. Jeff Klein of the Bronx, told Gotham Gazette, "The Independent Democratic Conference is the only Senate conference whose members are 100 percent pro-choice." Giove's comment is an apparent reference to Diaz Sr. Giove did not make clear whether the IDC plans to push the Senate GOP to take up passage of stronger abortion protections into state law this year.

“We are hopeful that the IDC will support the bill and put their action behind it,” Lieberman of the NYCLU said during a press conference call on Thursday morning. “We know from polling that’s been done that New York is 70 to 80 percent pro-choice. New Yorkers overwhelmingly support the codification of Roe v. Wade and women’s’ rights.”

The codification of Roe v. Wade into New York law was the tenth of ten planks in Gov. Cuomo’s Women’s Equality Agenda, which the governor attempted to push over several years. Cuomo said the Legislature must pass all ten planks together, but as the Senate continued to balk on the abortion provision, Democrats including Cuomo and the Assembly majority opted to pass the nine other planks, which include equal pay provisions, protections for domestic violence victims, bans on pregnancy discrimination in workplaces, and more.

Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, has been criticized for not doing enough to flip the Senate to Democratic control, and for creating in 2014 the Women’s Equality Party, which appears to have been mostly an election year gimmick aimed at hurting the Working Families Party.

A spokesperson for Senate Republicans did not return a request for comment about where the conference majority stands on the abortion bill.

Another criticism of the new Cuomo regulatory directives came from Bill Hammond, director of health policy at the Empire Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank. Hammond said the governor’s move undermines the legislative process and noted that without a provision to address additional expenses incurred by insurance companies, this rule could drive up healthcare premiums.

On the Empire Center’s blog, The Torch, Hammond also questioned why abortions are exempt from co-pays, but other medically necessary procedures, like childbirth, for example, are not.

“If this rule change stands, expect a parade of provider and consumer groups to seek similar consideration from DFS in the months and years ahead,” he writes.

A spokesperson from DFS noted that there will be a 45-day public comment period before the regulations are finalized. The rules will go into effect 60 days later. Trump has promised a Supreme Court nominee next week, but U.S. Senate Democrats, led by New York’s Charles Schumer, have pledged to fight any nominee who is not moderate.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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With Trump in Office, New York Democrats Show Urgency, and Infighting, on Women's Rights Thu, 26 Jan 2017 05:00:00 +0000