Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/510 Mon, 26 Oct 2020 23:55:52 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Max & Murphy Podcast: Phara Souffrant Forrest on Her Campaign for Assembly https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9847-max-murphy-podcast-phara-souffrant-forrest-assembly-mosley-election https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9847-max-murphy-podcast-phara-souffrant-forrest-assembly-mosley-election phara lux crown

Phara Souffrant Forrest (photo: Phara for Assembly)


October 21, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Phara Souffrant Forrest on Her Campaign for Assembly

Phara Souffrant Forrest, a candidate for State Assembly in Brooklyn, joined the show to discuss her Democratic primary win over incumbent Walter Mosley, her platform, why the general election is being contested, the rise of the Democratic Socialists of America in New York City, and more.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org.

Max & Murphy · Episode 255: Phara Souffrant Forrest On Her Campaign For Assembly

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Phara Souffrant Forrest on Her Campaign for Assembly Wed, 21 Oct 2020 04:00:00 +0000
A Change New York Must Make to Protect Safety Net Providers and Their Clients https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9819-change-new-york-protect-safety-net-providers-and-clients https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9819-change-new-york-protect-safety-net-providers-and-clients spk co jo br bell

Health care professionals (photo: John McCarten/NY City Council)


Finalizing a budget can be chaotic in the best of times. This year, we hammered out the last details of the state’s $177 billion spending plan as the COVID-19 crisis was approaching its peak in New York State. 

It was in this context that the Legislature agreed to a little-noticed recommendation from the Governor’s Medicaid Redesign Team II (MRT II) that strips a critical federal benefit from health-care providers and patients in New York. Luckily, we have until April 1, 2021 to undo this mistake. I will be working non-stop over the next seven months to do just that, along with a coalition of advocates and Medicaid patients as part of the Protect the Safety Net campaign. 

The MRT II pushed through a provision in the budget that would “carve out” a pharmacy benefit from the state’s Medicaid managed-care program and shift payment to a fee-for-service reimbursement. The commission claimed its goal was to lower costs and increase transparency, but in reality this provision would devastate Ryan White Clinics, federally-qualified health centers, safety net hospitals, and other safety net providers in the 340B drug discount program. In Monroe County, for example, Trillium Health, Jordan Health, and the University of Rochester Medical Center all rely on 340B to provide essential services to families in our community. 

The federal 340B Drug Discount Program protects safety net providers from drug price increases and gives them access to pharmaceuticals at discount prices. This includes HIV/AIDS clinics that receive support under the Ryan White CARE Act as well as community health centers that have been on the frontlines of fighting COVID-19. 340B providers rely on this funding to operate food pantries, provide transportation assistance, STI screenings, mental health and wellness programs, and run harm reduction programs – services that are often grossly underfunded by the state.

If the carveout is not reversed, many patients across New York State will simply have nowhere to turn. These are not savings that should be made on the backs of those who can ill afford these cuts. 

The 340B Program is under constant threat from Big Pharma, which has tried to distort and undermine the program since it was established with broad, bipartisan support back in 1992. For the pharmaceutical industry, a discount program for Medicaid patients just means less profit. For short-sighted bureaucrats in Albany, it’s a chance for accounting gimmicks that allow them to claim “savings” that would actually harm the vulnerable New Yorkers they are supposed to be serving. 

The Medicaid commission chose the worst possible time to experiment with changes to New York State’s safety net. 340B providers care for patients in communities that have been hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. If these providers are forced to eliminate services, more patients will be forced to go to hospital emergency rooms for care – swamping our hospital system and driving up costs while leading to poor health outcomes. 

This would also threaten the progress we’ve made in fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Ryan White Clinics have built comprehensive models of health care and social services to address the diverse needs of their patients. This comprehensive model of care is only possible because of the clinics’ participation in the 340B program. 

In the weeks and months ahead, New Yorkers will be hearing a lot more about this issue. The New York chapter of Ryan White Clinics for 340B Access recently launched a campaign to Protect the Safety Net, led by advocates and Medicaid patients. We’re going to keep fighting until the state reverses course and restores this critical benefit for the most vulnerable New Yorkers.

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Assemblymember Harry Bronson represents Rochester and surrounding areas. On Twitter @HarryBBronson.

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

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A Change New York Must Make to Protect Safety Net Providers and Their Clients Tue, 13 Oct 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Could a Tax on Stock Trading Help New York Fill Its Massive Budget Hole? https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9821-could-tax-on-stock-trading-help-new-york-cuomo-fill-budget-hole https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9821-could-tax-on-stock-trading-help-new-york-cuomo-fill-budget-hole rings op bell

Gov. Cuomo at the New York Stock Exchange (photo: Darren McGee/Governor's Office)


This story was published in partnership with New York Focus, an independent, investigative news publication covering New York state and city politics, as part of its launch.
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As the pandemic roiled markets in the spring, New York recorded surging revenue from an obscure tax on Wall Street stock trading. From April to June of this year, according to state tax department data, it collected $2.9 billion—more than double the amount it notched over the same period last year.

But that money never made it to state coffers: New York does not actually keep the tax revenue. Instead, since 1981, it has rebated the money to investors, meaning that, in practice, the stock transfer tax is little more than an administrative hurdle for brokers’ legal teams.

A proposal to start collecting the dormant tax has seen growing support in the state Legislature, following a staggering pandemic-spurred drop in tax revenue and state funding cuts to localities, which could deepen without an infusion of funds. The bill, which is one plank in a campaign led by progressive labor groups and activists, would end the rebate, allowing tax authorities to begin collecting the revenue again.

Opponents of the legislation center their argument on the threat of capital flight. If New York imposed the tax, they say, firms would move their residency or trading activities to another state to escape it—a notion that may be keeping even some progressives spooked.

Neither the Assembly nor the State Senate, both led by Democrats, has moved the relevant legislation. While the Assembly majority has long-favored several revenue-raising measures, Senate leadership recently formed a working group to examine possible strategies for filling the state's multi-billion-dollar budget gap in lieu of federal aid. Governor Andrew Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, has resisted calls for new taxes, and argues that the stock transfer tax proposal would undermine New York’s position as a global financial hub.

“In the digital age it would be even easier for transactions to simply be moved out of state to avoid the tax,” Freeman Klopott, Cuomo’s budget spokesperson, said in a statement to New York Focus.

The reasoning echoes a recent memo circulated by lobbyists for the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), reviewed by New York Focus, which argues that the tax would place heavy operational burdens on brokerage firms. “To avoid these additional costs, trading activity will naturally migrate to areas outside New York,” the memo reads.

But tax experts say that most frequently threatened avoidance strategies are unlikely to succeed. Traders would struggle to evade the tax, even if they moved out of state, those experts say. The New York Stock Exchange is unlikely to pack up and leave, since it doesn’t pay the tax itself but passes it on to investors. And investors are unlikely to stop trading on the exchange anytime soon, economists say, since New York’s trading hub far outstrips its closest rivals in high liquidity and low transactions costs—and would even after reinstituting a small tax on stock sales.

What transactions are in New York’s jurisdiction?
In order to impose a tax, the state needs “nexus”: it needs to show that the transaction occurred within New York’s jurisdiction.

But when most trading is electronic, what does nexus mean, anyway? The financial services industry is heavily concentrated in New York, but many operations—especially data storage and communication technologies—are housed in New Jersey and Illinois. Both of those states are currently seeing fierce pushback against similar efforts to impose a financial transaction tax.

Lawmakers seeking to tax finance say lobbyists’ arguments can seem like a game of whack-a-mole. Depending on which state is attempting to impose a tax, the securities industry may contend that what really confers tax jurisdiction is the location of trading firms, the location of exchanges, or the location of data centers. Failing those arguments, lobbyists argue that the industry is largely conducted beyond state borders, in the global financial cloud.

The stock transfer tax currently in place—the one that is immediately rebated—is levied on nearly all stock sales that occur “within New York State.” On paper, it imposes a tax of 1.25 cents on a sale of stock worth $5 or less a share, rising with the price of shares. Under the bill to begin collecting that tax again, a transaction would be subject to the tax “if any activity in furtherance of the transaction occurs within the state or if a party involved in the transaction satisfies a nexus with New York state which shall be defined as broadly as is permitted under the United States Constitution.”

Could New York’s tax department really collect taxes under that ultra-broad definition?

The short answer, experts say, is: probably.

The United States has not seen a new financial transactions tax imposed in decades, meaning there is a lack of litigation on the issue—so it’s not clear which way courts would rule, if the STT were implemented and challenged. Even so, legal experts think a recent Supreme Court ruling means investors lack attractive options that put them beyond the long arm of New York’s tax authority.

What if trading firms moved out of state?
If a firm moved to New Jersey but continued trading on the New York Stock Exchange, New York would likely still have substantial enough connection to impose a tax, attorneys familiar with state residency requirements say.

Before the rise of online commerce, state tax authorities imposed sales tax on businesses with a brick-and-mortar presence in that state. In the 2018 decision South Dakota v. Wayfair, the Supreme Court relaxed the older “physical presence” requirement, noting that states are “confronting the complexities of defining physical presence in the Cyber Age.” Explaining that out-of-state tax exemptions had become “a judicially created tax shelter,” the Court expanded states’ ability to impose taxes remotely.

Timothy Noonan, a partner at Hodgson Russ LLC who specializes in litigation on tax residency in New York City and State, said Wayfair appears to give New York broad authority to tax trades that are requested in other parts of the country.

An investment firm seeking to avoid the tax might try to argue that it is unconstitutional for New York to tax an out-of-state firm, Noonan said. But the case would be hard to make.

“I think the government would point to the Wayfair case—point to the trend indicating that nexus, in 2020, is a lot easier to establish,” he said. “And that an economic presence, such as trading over the New York Stock Exchange, is enough to create that taxable nexus.”

The current trend, Noonan said, points toward more decisions like the one in Wayfair.

Darien Shanske, a tax professor at UC Davis Law School, told New York Focus that firms would probably not be able to escape the tax by leaving the state.

“If everything is the same, except that instead of yelling into your phone on the New York Stock Exchange [floor], you’re yelling into your phone in New Jersey—but all the other machinery is the same—then that still looks like New York has a good claim to tax that transaction,” he said.

Furthermore, Shanske said, New York’s tax department “is notorious for being persnickety.” The Department of Taxation and Finance has aggressively brought cases seeking to tax financiers who work from second homes in Connecticut or Vermont—and won them.

“The idea that the New York revenue authority is just going to be like, ‘Yeah, you moved to New Jersey, I guess we can’t tax you anymore’—that’s just not how it’s gonna go,” Shanske said.

Alternatively, an investor seeking to avoid the stock transfer tax might point out that trading is conducted through the New York Stock Exchange’s out-of-state servers.

But here, too, tax attorneys say it would be tricky to skirt New York’s jurisdiction. Since Wayfair, courts appear to care less about where sales transactions take place—whether in New Jersey, Panama, or cyberspace.

“Even if the servers are in the cloud,” Noonan told New York Focus, “if you follow the sales tax issue in the Wayfair case, an economic presence is enough to create that nexus. And the economic nexus here, the nexus of the transaction, would be, ‘We don’t care where the servers are, we don’t care where the traders are. It’s happening on the New York Stock Exchange. That gives us the nexus—the jurisdiction—to tax it.’”

What if the New York Stock Exchange left altogether?
What if the entire New York Stock Exchange relocated? (Many—though not all—of the equity purchases under the stock transfer tax are conducted on the NYSE.)

If the New York Stock Exchange moved to another state, Shanske said, this could pose a more serious threat to transfer tax collections, making it harder for the revenue authority to argue that NYSE’s stock trades remained within their tax nexus. Still, it would be a matter of degree.

“How much of the New York Stock Exchange has to move, or shift its business, before the connection is too slight? I’m not sure,” Shanske said. “It’s something of an unknown.”

Historians have cast doubt on the suggestion that the Exchange would pick up and move, pointing out that the NYSE threatened to move to New Jersey immediately after New York initially adopted the tax in 1905, but never followed through. Others point out that the Exchange already pays a premium to maintain its operations in high-rent Manhattan.

James Parrott, a tax policy expert and economist at The New School, said the battle is more a matter of political negotiation than about the marginal costs of algorithm-driven trading. If the stock tax is enacted without the acquiescence of industry, he said, brokers might retaliate.

“Whatever the relocation costs are involved in moving the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ and all of the trading floors out of New York,” Parrott said, firms might be prepared to pay “whatever it takes to evade this.”

To avoid this scenario, Parrott said, stock tax proponents should focus on building public pressure—so that a major undertaking like moving the stock exchange during a lopsided recession, to avoid a tax, would look too politically risky.

What if firms leave the New York Stock Exchange?
Another strategy the securities industry suggests might help investors skirt the tax: why not simply delist from the New York Stock Exchange, and conduct trades over cheaper platforms?

The trouble here, say economists who study stock trading, is that there are few good alternatives.

There’s the London Stock Exchange (LSE), but that floor has had an analogous transfer tax in place since 1694, despite continuous grumbling from traders. The LSE’s levy is frequently cited as a success story for transfer taxes, since it has not stopped the Exchange from consistently ranking among the world’s top exchanges by market capitalization.

Within the United States, economists who have studied stock levies say, investors in search of highly-liquid, low-cost trading platforms have few alternatives to the New York Stock Exchange.

“Even with the reinstatement of the STT, overall transaction costs for firms trading on the New York exchanges would almost definitely still be well below those of alternative trading platforms,” the economists Robert Pollin and James Heintz found.

“One of the advantages of the New York [Stock] Exchange is, with the high volume of trading, your transaction costs tend to be low. So, when you add in the stock transfer tax, it makes less of a difference,” said Assemblymember Phil Steck, a Democrat representing Schenectady and the longtime champion of legislation to revive the STT. State Senator James Sanders, Jr., a Queens Democrat, sponsors the bill in the Senate.

Stephany Griffith-Jones, an economist at Columbia University who studies financial markets, said moving off the New York Stock Exchange would carry other costs, like higher capital adequacy requirements—the amount of capital a financial institution is required to keep on hand—and increased legal risk.

Plus, she said, new markets do not spring up overnight.

“You’re going to want to sell in New York, because that’s where the big markets are,” Griffith-Jones said. “You’re not going to find, in Oklahoma, a lot of people wanting to trade very sophisticated securities.”

‘A backdoor to federal relief’
Far from worrying that the stock tax would push firms to flee to other states, proponents tout the tax as a convenient way to capture new out-of-state revenue. Advocates contrast the STT’s potential to raise revenue from trades in New York and beyond with Cuomo’s escalating pleas for federal funding to replace lost tax revenue, which have so far failed to draw concessions from a gridlocked Congress.

Patrick Nelson, a Democratic Committeeman from Saratoga Springs, said the STT is one in a bundle of measures that could help New York capture a greater share of economic activity.

“We’re simply asking for some of the money back that we use, as New Yorkers, to bail out Kentucky and Mississippi and Florida and Texas and Georgia, and all these other states that take more from the federal government than they pay in,” said Nelson, who is the Democratic and Working Families Party nominee for State Senate in New York’s 43rd district. “It’s a means for us to access some of the money that we pay out to the other states.”

“You could almost think of it as a backdoor to that federal relief, as well,” Nelson added.

‘Salami tactics’
Multilateral financial taxes—designed to span multiple states or governments—are more effective than unilateral ones, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has found. Intuitively, this makes sense: scaled-up taxes offer fewer opportunities for escape.

Although local taxes are more vulnerable to evasion, several existing examples work fine. The same IMF study noted the success of the UK, Hong Kong, and Singapore in imposing STTs without international cooperation. “Unilateral STTs, even if levied on fairly narrow bases, are certainly feasible as witnessed by their use in numerous developed countries,” the study found—especially when imposed in “established financial centers.”

Local financial taxes can also be forerunners to national or international versions. In Europe, individual member states’ existing levies could soon be knitted together into an European Union-wide tax. Likewise, advocates for a state-level STT say it could be a forerunner to the national financial tax supported by senators such as Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).

Griffith-Jones, who has advised efforts to implement a European financial transaction tax, said the securities industry’s lobbying campaigns follow a predictable, divide-and-conquer pattern.

“It’s salami tactics,” she said. “They always do this. When the UK wanted to expand its financial transaction tax, even people on the right of the Labor Party would say, ‘Oh yes, we’ll do it, but only if the U.S. does it. For it to work, it has to be internationally coordinated.’”

While an international tax would be harder to evade than a national one, and a national tax would be harder to evade than a state tax, the question is just how much evasion would occur with a state tax. And many tax attorneys think that at the current level, most firms wouldn’t take on the hassle and cost of evasion.

“There’s clearly some level of stock transfer tax that is sufficiently low that nobody’s going to change their business structure to avoid it,” Shanske said. “And the rate on this tax is pretty low.”

Although debates have centered on the risk of tax flight, there are other considerations for and against reviving the tax. Governor Hugh Carey signed legislation phasing out the tax in 1978, citing concerns that it put New York at a competitive disadvantage.

Opponents say it will cause job losses in the securities industry—which could have ripple effects—and that it will increase stock volatility. Proponents say it will reduce dangerous high-frequency trading by the same firms that have seen record profits amid coronavirus-driven market pandemonium. Still others say that it should be expanded beyond stocks to a broader tax on all financial transactions.

Michael Kink, director of the labor-backed progressive coalition Strong Economy for All, which is helping lead the push for several revenue-raising measures, said advocates would like to see more debate about tax initiatives outside annual hearings on the governor’s budget proposal. Typically, he said, there are too few occasions for on-the-record testimony by stakeholders.

“I would love public hearings as an opportunity to help lawmakers and the public understand the mechanics of all these bills.” Kink said. “Talking about proposals, digging into the details, forcing SIFMA to say in public under oath what they like to whisper and sleaze about in private.”

No 'Urban Neo-Marxists' Here
The stock transfer tax’s putative strength is its political feasibility: it is already on the books. Since the collection infrastructure is already in place, it has been popular among legislators looking for relatively painless ways to raise revenue without authorizing brand-new taxes, and unlike some other revenue-raising proposals being debated, it could immediately help fill state coffers devastated by the pandemic’s impact on existing taxes.

A federal financial tax has also gained popularity. Jared Bernstein, a top economic advisor to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, is a vocal booster of the idea, as is Biden running mate Kamala Harris.

The California senator is no crusader against Wall Street. Her selection for the Democratic ticket drew praise from “titans of industry,” as one banking attorney, who specializes in distressed debt, recently gushed to the Financial Times. Harris is so unthreatening to the securities industry, according to the Wall Street Journal, that traders attributed a recent stock market rally to her selection for the coveted VP slot.

And even Michael Bloomberg, who shot down a proposal to reinstate New York’s STT as mayor, supported a federal equivalent during his 2020 presidential bid.

New York City Mayor Ed Koch supported reinstating the STT as part of an aid package to the city and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, as the city struggled to close a $1.3 billion budget gap in 1982. Koch’s deputy mayor for finance Kenneth Lipper—a Wall Street insider recruited from Salomon Brothers bank—reportedly opened discussions with brokerage houses about reinstating the tax.

“This is not a tax being proposed by left-wing radicals to pillage the coffers of the gentry,” New York Times columnist Sydney Schanberg wrote at the time. “Edward Koch and Kenneth Lipper hardly qualify as urban neo-Marxists.”

Yet the proposal to reinstate New York’s stock transfer tax has been stuck in the same news cycle for two decades: it is perpetually an idea whose time has finally come.

This past summer, as ebullient markets seemed to come unstuck from an underlying economy wracked by the COVID-19 recession, the business press once again reported that lawmakers were considering resurrecting the dormant tax. It’s a familiar pattern: proposals to bring back the STT have routinely surfaced during periods of fiscal strain, and then fizzled.

Now, momentum is building again for a spate of tax-the-rich proposals. Steck told New York Focus that his bill’s revenue-raising potential dwarfs alternatives.

“You’ll hear about the pied-a-terre tax, scaffolding tax,” Assemblymember Steck said. “You’re not going to get anywhere near those numbers.” Meanwhile, he adds, “the governor is an obstacle, because the governor is stuck in 1980.”

“We have this budget hole to plug, and the governor and the [Assembly] speaker [Carl Heastie] want to wait and see if Joe Biden becomes president,” Steck said. “If that happens, they may decide to go with some of the lesser revenue-raisers.”

But eyeing the upcoming legislative session in 2021, Steck is optimistic. With New York facing the most staggering fiscal hole since the 1970s, he said, “there might be no alternative.”

This story was published in partnership with New York Focus, an independent, investigative news publication covering New York state and city politics, as part of its launch. Sign up for its newsletter here.

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Could a Tax on Stock Trading Help New York Fill Its Massive Budget Hole? Mon, 12 Oct 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Sign By the Red X: New York Election Officials Unveil New Envelope to Ensure More Absentee Votes Get Counted https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9787-sign-red-x-new-york-election-officials-unveil-new-envelope-2020-absentee-votes-counted https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9787-sign-red-x-new-york-election-officials-unveil-new-envelope-2020-absentee-votes-counted kings abs oath envelope pg2b

Part of the new absentee ballot envelope design


The New York State Board of Elections has approved a new design for absentee ballot envelopes to be used statewide in the upcoming general election. The new layout, mandated by Governor Andrew Cuomo in an executive order, is intended to make it more obvious where a voter needs to provide a signature in order to have the ballot accepted by elections administrators under state law and avoid mass disqualification of absentee ballots as New York saw during the June primaries.

The design, shared by the State Board of Elections upon request by Gotham Gazette, is actually for three envelopes, which accompany every absentee ballot: an outer envelope, a return envelope, and what is known as the "oath envelope," which a voter must sign to certify they are registered and voting lawfully. The new oath envelopes will have a sizable red 'X' where the signature is required, an attempt to avoid the most common reason absentee votes were disqualified.

The envelopes, which were developed in consultation with Center for Civic Design and local boards of elections, were designed to have either one language (English), two languages, three languages, or five languages, depending on the jurisdiction. The number of languages required is dictated by the federal Voting Rights Act. For example, Brooklyn will have a three-language envelope and Queens will have a five-language envelope.

While Cuomo directed the State Board of Elections to develop the envelopes, they did not require his approval, according to a spokesperson for the governor.

Failing to provide a signature is a key reason absentee ballots were thrown out during the June primaries. The measure could help ensure that thousands of absentee ballots are counted in the general election that may otherwise have been tossed due to a missing oath. In New York City, 23 percent of the roughly 400,000 absentee ballots cast were rejected, "the overwhelming number" of which were for missing signatures on the oath envelope, according to Michael Ryan, the executive director of the New York City Board of Elections, in testimony to the New York City Council on Friday.

"I do not have a specific number but I can tell you that is going to be the vast majority," Ryan told the Council's Committee on Governmental Operations, which was conducting oversight over the June primaries and the upcoming general election, when asked by Chair Fernando Cabrera about the prevalence of the problem.

"This is directly analogous to election day," Ryan said. "A signature is the gateway to the ballot. If you do not provide a signature, you do not get a ballot."

"The only difference between election day and absentee balloting is the signature is captured in a different process but it must be captured nonetheless. And if it's not captured it's not valid," he added.

Election Day is on November 3 and New York's early voting period will be from October 24 to November 1. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, absentee voting eligibility has been extended to all registered voters and hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots have already been requested across the state. In addition to the presidency, many other federal, state, and local offices will also be on the ballot, including Queens Borough President.

Absentee ballots may also be rejected for other technicalities, including for having stray markings on the ballot or extraneous paper in the envelope, or for having an envelope that isn't fully sealed. Several pieces of legislation have been introduced to eliminate these obstacles, but not all of them have passed and been signed into law. One solution that was passed and will be in place for the general election is a measure that requires election administrators to notify voters when their ballot is rejected and give them an opportunity to fix the mistake.

But most of the errors are dwarfed by the frequency of missing signatures. Another reason some absentee ballots were rejected this summer is because the post office failed to postmark them, an issue beyond the control of voters. That was a particular issue in Brooklyn where roughly 4,500 un-postmarked ballots were initially rejected, according to Ryan (the other boroughs lost about 100 ballots each to the postmarking issue, he said), but later counted after a court challenge. In terms of other technicalities, "They really don't occur all that often," Ryan said.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Sign By the Red X: New York Election Officials Unveil New Envelope to Ensure More Absentee Votes Get Counted Fri, 25 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
State Inaction Means New York City Won't Launch Online Voter Registration Before 2020 Deadline https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9771-state-inaction-new-york-city-wont-launch-online-voter-registration-before-2020-deadline https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9771-state-inaction-new-york-city-wont-launch-online-voter-registration-before-2020-deadline online voter sep

Voter registration (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


A bill that would have made it possible for many thousands of New York City residents to register to vote online, which passed the State Senate but stalled in the Assembly earlier this year, is unlikely to pass before the general election registration deadline and would be too late to be implemented even if it did, officials say.

The legislation, first introduced in the summer of 2019, would allow the New York City Campaign Finance Board to open the online voter registration portal it created last year, pursuant to city law, which was blocked by the New York City Board of Elections, citing technical barriers in state law. After a chaotic primary season, the bill was passed by the State Senate's Democratic majority as part of a package of voting reforms, but was held in committee in the Assembly.

Assembly Member Charles Lavine, a Nassau County Democrat and chair of the chamber's election law committee, said the chances of lawmakers coming back into session before the general election was unlikely and the prospect of them taking up online voter registration in New York City was "very, very slim." 

"This was something that came through the Senate very, very late, I think in late July and at that point the Assembly was primarily focused on a bill Latrice Walker had for statewide automatic voter registration," Lavine said, referring to legislation that would require some government agencies to register their clients starting in 2023, a form of which voting reform advocates have pushed for years.

"We still are considering this particular bill, however the likelihood of it being passed in time to make any meaningful difference, any difference whatsoever, this year is not likely," he said of online registration. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie's office and Assemblymember Michael Blake, the bill's sponsor, did not respond to requests for comment on the status of the bill and why it hasn't advanced.

Lavine says it's unclear whether Heastie will call the body back into session before the election. "If we do go back to session, in all likelihood we'll be very preoccupied with issues involving state spending," he said, citing uncertainty around additional federal aid and referring to the state’s immense budget hole due to a massive drop in tax revenue because of the covid-related shutdown.

Matthew Sollars, a spokesperson for the Campaign Finance Board, told Gotham Gazette that at this late stage the portal would not be ready to launch by the October 9 registration deadline to vote in the general election. Early voting is set to occur October 24 through November 1, Election Day is November 3, and every eligible New Yorker is allowed to vote by absentee ballot due to coronavirus concerns.

With the presidency, state, and local offices on the ballot, the fall election is expected to shatter turnout records. State administrators are anticipating turnout to reach 8 million -- nearly three-quarters of the total registered population in a state that regularly lags behind national turnout rates.

The online voter registration bill would let New York City residents register via a Campaign Finance Board website until the state launches its own portal for all New York State residents, which was originally slated for April 2021. But one state election commissioner told Gotham Gazette that work on the state portal had been temporarily delayed due to fiscal belt-tightening, which could mean New York City residents will lack online registration through the consequential mayoral and other city government primaries in June 2021.

Voter registration has long faltered in New York City and State, where election rules are antiquated and cumbersome, and avenues to get on the rolls are limited. But in the first ten weeks of 2020, registration at both the city and state levels exceeded 2016 figures. Then the pandemic hit New York.

In mid-March, around the time Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio declared states of emergency, the rate of registrations dropped significantly, falling below 2016 levels. By June, only about 80,000 New York City residents registered to vote, compared with 155,000 in the first half of 2016, according to the Campaign Finance Board. The divide between New York City and the rest of the state also widened during the pandemic, with new registrants outside of New York City surpassing 140,000 by June.

In 2017, the New York City Council passed a law mandating the development of an online voter registration system that would transmit a voter's information electronically to the BOE. The portal was developed by the city's Campaign Finance Board and ready to launch in 2019, but the BOE said the system, which allowed for only an electronic signature, violated the state's signature stipulations.

In June 2019, the BOE voted to require that people who register through the portal be mailed a separate form that they would have to sign and send back. Good government groups decried the decision, saying it made the city's online voter registration more complicated, not less. Since the decision, the Campaign Finance Board and voting advocates have been pushing legislators to pass the state bill authorizing the city's portal.

"We urge our state leadership to protect our democracy during this emergency by establishing an online voter registration system that all New Yorkers can access,” said Amy Loprest, executive director of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, in a statement on March 31. “With in-person voter registration events shut down, we are concerned that young voters and naturalized citizens, in particular, will be disenfranchised during this critical election year.”

The state law to create statewide online registration by 2021, passed before the BOE ruling and did not address the city's problem.

Currently, the only online voter registration in the state is through the Department of Motor Vehicles and requires a driver's license or other DMV-issued ID. In New York City, where public transportation options are abundant, DMV registrations accounted for only one in ten voter registration forms received by the Board of Elections, according to the Campaign Finance Board's annual election report in 2018.

More than 700,000 eligible New York City residents do not have a state driver's license or other DMV identification, according to a CFB spokesperson, who pointed out that over 430,000 young people (ages 18-29) qualify to be registered but are not.

"This was a bill that I think would have been really good to have passed earlier in the year and signed into law," said State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat, the bill's Senate sponsor, and Lavine's elections chair counterpart in the Legislature’s upper chamber, in a recent interview. "It would have been really helpful for us to give New Yorkers the option to register online, particularly when we have a system that is ready to go."

"It’s frustrating to know that an already created portal to allow New York City residents to register to vote online is waiting for the green light from the legislature at a time when enrollment has dropped significantly from where it was in prior presidential election years," wrote Jennifer Wilson, deputy director of the New York State League of Women Voters, a good government group, in an email.

Lavine said a number of obstacles prevented the bill from passing this year with its Senate companion, including the BOE's own limitations.

"We had staff members who had reached out to the city Board of Elections and they were preoccupied with trying to get ready for the November general election, which is understandable," Lavine said.

"No comment," wrote BOE spokesperson Valerie Vazquez in an email.

"Generally speaking, a lot of bills that concern the city Board of Elections will come from the city Board of Elections, which is not to say that this not a good idea, it is a good idea but it is still being analyzed," Lavine said.

Lavine also blamed cultural differences between the Senate and Assembly that give individual senators greater autonomy from the majority leader. "It is much easier for senators in the majority to get those passed. In the Assembly we have to take into consideration the fact that there are on any given day close to 110 members of the Assembly who are in the majority party. While in the Senate, we have 37 or 38 senators in the majority. Senate staff is allocated primarily to senators and in the Assembly we have a much stronger central staff, so it's a differently balanced system and has been for as long as I've been in the Assembly."

"This is how it goes sometimes. I'm going to continue to push and my hope is that we can get it across the finish line," Myrie told Gotham Gazette.

Even with citywide online voter registration off the table for the presidential election, the system could still be in place for next year's elections for mayor and other city offices. According to State Board of Elections Co-Chair Douglas Kellner, work on the state's online registration portal, which was slated to be up and running by April, had been paused for over four months due to budget cuts in response to New York's fiscal crisis.

"The funding had been suspended by the budget office shortly after the budget was adopted but it was unfrozen thanks to efforts by Senator Liz Krueger a couple of weeks ago," Kellner said over the phone. "So now it's back in process."

The citywide primaries, which are in most districts all but decisive in the heavily Democratic city, will take place in June 2021. Asked whether the temporary budget freeze would impact the April deadline, he said: "Somewhat, yes. As I say it's now back on the front burner and people are working on it, which was not the case from April until mid-August."

[See options for registering to vote by the October 9 deadline for this fall's elections here]

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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State Inaction Means New York City Won't Launch Online Voter Registration Before 2020 Deadline Thu, 24 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Senator Gianaris on Next Steps in New York's Recovery https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9774-max-murphy-podcast-senator-gianaris-new-york-recovery-budget-covid https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9774-max-murphy-podcast-senator-gianaris-new-york-recovery-budget-covid 2 max murphy podcast gianaris

State Senator Michael Gianaris (photo: Senator Michael Gianaris' office)


September 23, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Senator Gianaris on Next Steps in New York's Recovery

State Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens joined the show to discuss next steps in reopening the New York economy, how the State Senate Democratic majority is thinking about addressing the state and city fiscal crises, and more.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org.

Max & Murphy · Episode 250: Senator Gianaris On Next Steps In New York's Recovery

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Senator Gianaris on Next Steps in New York's Recovery Wed, 23 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
New York Has An Incarceration Problem. Letting People Go Is The Answer https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9766-new-york-incarceration-problem-let-people-go-prison-clemency-parole https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9766-new-york-incarceration-problem-let-people-go-prison-clemency-parole ny go is

Governor Cuomo at a correctional facility (photo: governor's office)


The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude, and scores of Black Americans have once again put a spotlight on the brutality of policing in this country. But policing is only one part of a criminal legal system that was founded on dehumanizing and oppressing Black people. There are countless Black lives, including those of Kalief Browder, Layleen Polanco, Benjamin Smalls, and Lulu Benson-Seay, that have been taken away in jails, prisons, and detention centers across New York. Now is the time to address the full spectrum of this racist harm and send people home.

Over 48,000 New Yorkers are incarcerated in jails and prisons across the state, and the COVID-19 crisis we’re experiencing on the outside is substantially worse for people in these facilities. The reality is that COVID-19 was bound to ravage jails and prisons, which have always been breeding grounds for poor health outcomes.

Social distancing cannot be practiced in crowded cages. Proper personal protective equipment is not readily available at facilities made for the people most marginalized in our society. And slowing the spread of the virus is not possible when testing is limited or unavailable. All of these factors make prisons, jails, and detention centers hotspots for the virus, yet New York has done far too little to address this issue. Elected leaders, especially Governor Cuomo, instead added fuel to the fire by leading the charge to roll back historic bail reforms and creating a prison nursing home — all during the peak of the pandemic.

This failure to free more people resulted in lost lives, including my fellow Brooklynite Leonard Carter. Leonard was granted parole in January 2020 after serving 25 years behind bars. He was eager to go home and hug his grandson for the first time. Unfortunately, Leonard died six weeks before his release date even after the Parole Board approved his prison departure. Leonard is one of dozens of people effectively sentenced to death by Cuomo’s prison system during COVID-19.

After months of calls from advocates to address this crisis head-on, the New York State Senate is finally holding a hearing on the impact of COVID-19 in jails and prisons today — Tuesday, September 22. Legislators will hear testimonials from directly-impacted community members and their families, and from advocates who are on the frontlines of reform. But this hearing will mean nothing without action. COVID-19 is a clear and present danger to the lives of every incarcerated individual, corrections worker, and those they come into contact with after their shifts. The time to act is now.

First, we need to send people home and keep them home. The Governor must utilize his clemency power and significantly reduce the elder and immunocompromised populations in prison, in addition to all the people who are within one year of release. The Legislature must meaningfully reduce the incarcerated population while ensuring that more people are not being introduced to the system, especially during this pandemic. That means passing the Elder Parole and Fair & Timely Parole bills in Albany, stopping the reincarceration of people for technical parole violations, and forcefully protecting bail reform from further rollbacks (which caused an uptick in the state’s jail population for the first time in a year).

This also requires improving conditions for people currently inside by offering meaningful and frequent amounts of PPE, including masks, hand sanitizer, soap, and other cleaning and health care products. It means testing everyone for the virus and offering multiple follow-up tests. It means passing the HALT Solitary Confinement Act to put an end to the abusive practice of solitary confinement, which has only increased since the pandemic began several months ago. And it means reconnecting people with their families by offering safe opportunities for visits and regular communication with loved ones on the outside.

We must also remember the more than 300 people in the Buffalo Federal Immigration Detention Facility in Batavia, New York who are similarly experiencing horrid conditions. The federal government must halt its inhumane family separation and detention policies, and instead work towards comprehensive reform that supports our immigrant neighbors and ultimately puts an end to detention centers that are by their nature harmful and deadly.

It is critical that we stand with the tens of thousands of incarcerated New Yorkers and their families and fight for their health and safety like our lives depend on it. Our response to this pandemic is only as strong as the people most harmed in our society, and we can’t let them down any longer.

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Jabari Brisport is the Democratic nominee for State Senate in Brooklyn’s 25th District. On Twitter @JabariBrisport.

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

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New York Has An Incarceration Problem. Letting People Go Is The Answer Mon, 21 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
'This is Not a New Conversation': Southeast Brooklyn Leaders Discuss Causes and Casualties of Rising Gun Violence https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9758-southeast-brooklyn-sharp-rise-gun-violence-persaud https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9758-southeast-brooklyn-sharp-rise-gun-violence-persaud sen rox pers2

State Senator Roxanne Persaud (photo: @SenatorPersaud)


Coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic devastation, crime, particularly gun violence, has increased across New York City, a trend that began even before the coronavirus outbreak but has worsened since. The spike in shootings and murders has been particularly large in sections of Brooklyn. The 19th State Senate District, covering southeastern parts of the borough, including Canarsie, East New York, Brownsville, and Sheepshead Bay, and represented by longtime Senator Roxanne Persaud, has been among the hardest-hit areas. On Wednesday night, Persaud hosted a community conversation on the spike in gun violence in the neighborhoods she represents.

The district straddles the Brooklyn North and Brooklyn South NYPD commands, the former of which has been the subject of citywide attention for its crime rates over the past several months. Specifically, Persaud’s district includes the 61st, 63rd, and 69th Precincts in Brooklyn South and the 73rd and 75th Precincts in Brooklyn North, as well as Police Service Areas 1 and 2 (which cover the city’s housing developments) and Transit District 33.

In the Brooklyn South precincts, while year-to-date changes in shootings are negligible in the 61st Precinct, the 63rd Precinct, centered in Flatlands, has seen 11 shooting incidents so far this year (up 120% year-to-date) and the 69th Precinct of Canarsie,  has seen 30 shooting incidents this year (up 400%), according to the NYPD’s CompStat. In the Brooklyn North precincts, the spike has been larger, in terms of raw numbers, with 74 shooting incidents in the 73rd Precinct, based in Brownsville, so far this year (up 184.6% year-to-date) and 78 in East New York’s 75th Precinct (up 76.7%). Murders are up 81.8% and 144.4% year-to-date in the 73rd and 75th precincts, respectively.

In this context, Senator Persaud hosted the town hall over Zoom with local community and faith leaders, which her office titled “The Causalities and Casualties of Gun Violence.” Participants included Dr. Jeffrey Gardere, a pastor and teacher at the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine; Reverend Timothy Taylor of Hebron Baptist Church, a former Corrections Officer; Camara Jackson, executive director of Elite Learners Inc.; Rabbi Avrohom Hecht of the Canarsie JCC; Brother Paul Mohammad, a member of Community Board 5; Digna Layne, a member of the 73rd Precinct Council; Gardy Brazela, President of the 69th Precinct Council; and, Vincent Riggins, President of the Brite Leadershipship Coalition of East New York; as well as two young people from the district who are members of the NYPD Youth Explorers Program. (The Wednesday evening town hall, broadcast on Facebook Live, had around 50 viewers at any one point during the event.)

The pandemic in many ways has exacerbated an already-existing problem. The rise in murders in Brooklyn North was notable last summer and Senator Persaud, a Democrat, was quick to say that “This is not a new conversation.” She has been holding similar town halls since last November on the issue of gun violence in the district.

“Our kids should be able to walk from one building to another without fear,” Persaud said later. “The violence in our community is taking a mental toll on our community and we have to address that.”

The focus of the town hall was mostly local actions that can be taken to reduce gun violence, with sparing mention of citywide or statewide criminal justice efforts or broader policing policy. Throughout the town hall, Persaud repeatedly stressed the need for the community to “work with our NYPD partners,” striking a far different tone than recent calls from left-wing activists and elected officials to “defund the NYPD” and lining up more with several other Black elected officials who discussed the importance of fair but robust policing in their districts. In fact, none of the participants in the town hall voiced support for moving funds away from the NYPD as a means of solving the current gun violence crisis.

“I’m not fighting against the police. The police have a role in society,” said Persaud, who did support the recent series of criminal justice reforms passed by the Legislature she’s part of in Albany as one of 63 senators across the state, along with 150 Assembly members, which included major changes to bail laws. “We want our communities safe from every entity,” Persaud said. “It’s our kids dying by our hands. We have to stop pointing fingers.” The senator said she wanted the disparate community and faith organizations to coordinate their efforts more.

In addition to people working more closely with the NYPD, among the answers mentioned by Persaud and others involved in the town hall were anti-violence programs in schools, family stability, greater involvement from community leaders and mentorship programs, and increased education funding, particularly for students with learning difficulties.

There was occasional mention during the event of historic underfunding of neighborhoods, such as Brownsville and East New York, in Persaud’s district, particularly with regard to education. “Resources aren’t allocated the same way in our communities as in others,” said Dr. Gardere, who specializes in mental health.

Rabbi Hecht cited lower levels of screening tests for learning difficulties in schools in these underfunded communities as having a domino effect leading to disaffection and later serious consequences for local children. Early intervention is key, Hecht said.

Jackson, whose organization follows the Cure Violence model, said schoolchildren are “never too young” to learn about conflict resolution, adding, “It’s really about allowing our youth the safe space to ask questions,” about gun violence, gang activity, and other community issues. According to Jackson, “Conflict mediation needs to start as early as public school,” but “the programs in the schools are very scarce.”

However, there was an almost implicit agreement among participants that the city and state could not be relied upon to deliver much-needed local funding anytime soon. According to Persaud, “It’s not only about legislation. We’re never going to have enough funding.” She instead said that those in attendance “should all agree to work for the betterment of our community and we hope it will change the youth’s thinking.”

Several participants echoed a few points. Reverend Taylor was among those who stressed various versions of “It takes that entire village,” while expressing nostalgia for bygone days when community members shared collective responsibility for looking after each other’s children and the community knew the local beat cop.

Rev. Taylor says that “We don’t teach ourselves our worth,” which is “more than what [local youth] are settling for.” He voiced support for Senator Persaud’s bill that would add Black history to the public school curriculum. Echoing Senator Persaud, he said, “Sometimes we’re our own worst enemies.”

Riggins, among others, decried the “exit of Black fathers out of the household” as a key contributor to the current conditions in the district, although statistics show that Black fathers are no less likely to be absent from their children’s lives than other American fathers. Later, Jackson noted that in the local community, “The Cure Violence model is actually spearheaded by more men than women.”

Gardy Brazela, the 69th Precinct Council President and Brooklyn’s Community Board 18 chair, said that the rise in shootings was “directly related to gang violence,” adding “[gangs] do not care about your socioeconomic status or property value.” Like Rev. Taylor, Brazela believes that the community “must go back to taking the village approach to raising our children” and that “we’re lacking mentorship in our community.”

“Our young children are under a lot of pressure,” Brazela said, and he believes that adults “need to listen to what they have to say.”

When asked by Senator Persaud if the community has become desensitized to gun violence, Ariel Palmer, one of the Youth Explorers present, recounted how a shooting recently occured near her home and said, “It could be me or anybody that I know.”

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette
   

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'This is Not a New Conversation': Southeast Brooklyn Leaders Discuss Causes and Casualties of Rising Gun Violence Thu, 17 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
As General Election Approaches, Mixed Results for Efforts to Ensure More Votes Get Counted https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9761-new-york-ensure-more-votes-counted-2020-election-absentee-ballots https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9761-new-york-ensure-more-votes-counted-2020-election-absentee-ballots Myrie Gianaris State Senate voting

State Senators & election officials (photo: Senator Gianaris' office)


After the June primaries, when tens of thousands of absentee ballots were rejected on technical grounds or never cast because they were mailed to voters late or not at all, state lawmakers passed a series of measures aimed at correcting some of those mishaps. But several other bills introduced by legislators and pushed by voting rights advocates that could prevent thousands of ballots from being thrown out are still on the table as the clock ticks toward the general election.

Leading up to the June primary, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a series of executive orders to change the rules around absentee voting in an effort to avoid crowded poll sites during a pandemic. The measures extended absentee voting eligibility to all registered voters, required absentee ballot applications be mailed to voters, and guaranteed postage for mail-in ballots.

The unprecedented leap in absentee voting led to a number of new problems for voters and elections administrators that ultimately disenfranchised voters, often without their knowledge. In New York City, 84,000 mail-in ballots were thrown out, frequently on technicalities like having a missing signature or a partially unsealed envelope. In response, state lawmakers introduced a series of bills to ensure more votes are counted, including several related to notifying voters when their ballots might be thrown out.

Some were passed and signed into law in August, but many others remain unmoved as the state's elections administrators brace themselves for a four-fold increase in voters this fall. The early voting period will run October 24 through November 1; Election Day is November 3. The New York State Board of Elections is anticipating 8 million voters including as many as 5 million mail-in ballots, in a state with 12.9 million registered voters.

Two of the signed bills codify key elements of Cuomo's primary executive order and guarantee another election with a significant portion of the electorate voting by mail. The first expands eligibility to vote absentee to the entire electorate during an epidemic or disease outbreak. The second allows voters to apply for an absentee ballot online through the New York State Board of Elections website. (There has been no legislation or executive order that would require local boards of elections to mail absentee ballot applications to all registered voters, as Cuomo mandated in the primaries.)

Others signed into law aim directly at problems that arose from the deluge of mailed ballots during the primaries.

Thousands of the absentee ballots were rejected in June because they arrived at boards of elections offices without a postmark, a problem that was completely outside voters' hands. A new law now requires election boards to count the ballots if they are time-stamped by the board by the day after Election Day, even if they are missing a postmark from the United State Postal Service (USPS).

Another bill seeks to work around the post office by requiring local boards to establish secure absentee ballot drop boxes. That bill is still in committee, but an executive order signed September 8, requires local boards to have drop boxes at early voting sites, Election Day poll sites, and their offices (in New York City, each borough office will have a drop box).

On the same day, Cuomo announced a campaign to raise awareness about the ways New Yorkers can vote, including early voting, an option watchdogs are saying should be more heavily encouraged to avoid the administrative stresses of absentee voting and long lines on Election Day.

As primary day approached in June, many voters still had not received the absentee ballot they had requested from the New York City Board of Elections (BOE). When he testified before state lawmakers in August, Michael Ryan, the executive director of the city BOE, said the absentee ballot application calendar did not grant enough flexibility in normal years and this year posed "an impossibility." A law signed later that month now allows voters to apply for absentee ballots prior to 30 days before an election, which is already giving local boards more time to process and fulfill requests.

A few days after he signed the August package, Cuomo signed an executive order that, among other things, requires local election boards to submit staffing plans and any staffing needs to the state by September 20, a measure to help ensure administrators can process the higher turnout.

Many of the ballots rejected this summer were tossed out because voters failed to sign their ballot envelopes.

One law signed in August would give absentee voters the opportunity to "cure" certain deficiencies on their ballots that would otherwise have them rejected -- namely lacking a signature, having a signature that doesn't match the one on the registration, or having an unsealed ballot envelope. Under the law, local boards of elections must notify voters within a day of detecting a defect and give them an opportunity to contest the rejection or correct the ballot. It extends the same type of due process right to absentee voters that in-person voters have when they sign an affidavit ballot at a poll site. A federal judge in Texas recently ruled a similar practice of rejecting ballots due to mismatched signatures there was unconstitutional.

Cuomo's August order requires the State Board of Elections to design a single "clarified envelope" for all local boards to use, which includes a large red 'X' where a signature is required.

Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat, is chair of the Senate's elections committee and sponsor of several of the bills that passed, including the curing bill.

"Taking away someone's vote for a missing signature or an unsealed envelope really is the embodiment of disenfranchisement," Myrie said by phone Thursday.

"It's not the sexiest legislative highlight and victory but it really was, I believe, one of the most important election law bills we've passed both this year and last year, because of the implications of people knowing and having the opportunity to have their votes count," he said.

"Given the newness of the [mass absentee voting] experience, legislation that allows voters the opportunity to fix unintended, minor and often technical mistakes, is the right way to go," wrote Blair Horner, executive director of New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG), the good government organization, in an email. "Far too many ballots were tossed in the June primary over ridiculously technical challenges."

But several other common mistakes are addressed in legislation that has yet to pass, but could lead to thousands more ballots being counted, their sponsors say.

One bill would extend the same notice and opportunity to cure ballots when they are received partially opened, or closed with glue, tape, or another re-sealing agent. In these cases, the legislation would give recourse to voters to attest that they sent their ballot in the condition it was received in. The bill is still in committee.

A second bill would require absentee ballots to be counted as long as the voter's intent is "unambiguous," even if there are other markings on the ballot.

"It is so easy with a marker to make a mark. What if it's food? I mean, everybody is doing absentee ballots at home, right?" said Assemblymember Amy Paulin, a Westchester Democrat who sponsors the two bills along with Myrie, in a phone interview.

"You don't want any stray marks of any sort when the intent of the voter is clear to eliminate the vote from being counted. And right now it can be challenged," she said.

Myrie and Paulin are not sure whether their bills will pass in time to impact the general election and it is unclear whether the two chambers of the State Legislature will meet in session to pass any legislation before voters go to the polls (or the mailbox).

"We have no idea whether we're going back to session prior to the election," Paulin told Gotham Gazette. "Certainly if we are I'm going to be pushing [the bills] and if we're not then they're still worth doing."

Lawmakers will have to act especially quickly if they are going to pass another proposal that would make it easier to register to vote in time to enfranchise more eligible New Yorkers by this fall’s vote, which includes the presidential election, among many others for Congress, the State Legislature, and more. The bill, which would create online voter registration in New York City through the city's Campaign Finance Board, has passed in the Senate but not the Assembly.

The online registration bill has passed in the Senate but not the Assembly, while automatic voter registration has passed both houses but has not been sent to the governor (or been requested by him) for signing.

"I can't say with certainty when we'll meet again but I do know that if it's the case that we have to move swiftly -- and this is to help safeguard our democracy, particularly in light of the rhetoric that is coming out of the federal administration -- I think that the [Senate] majority has shown that we're ready to take those steps and I expect that we will do the same in this instance," Myrie said.

There isn't much time before the October 9 deadline to register to vote in the general election.

Voting advocates and some lawmakers also want to see the state pay for postage on absentee ballots, as it did during the primaries, but the proposal appears unlikely to move without another round of federal stimulus funding. Between federal and state allocations, New York's elections administrators had an additional $24 million to run elections this year, which has largely dried up, according to State Board of Elections officials. About 40 percent of the 1.8 million voters in the primaries across the state cast an absentee ballot. With 8 million voters expected in the general election, the proposal would likely require the state to pay postage on millions of envelopes.

In response to inquiries about whether the governor planned to issue more executive orders to provide for postage, curing certain ballot errors, and other measures proposed by legislators and advocates, Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the state Division of the Budget, wrote, "The State is providing unprecedented access to the ballot box and just last week the Governor announced a public service campaign to raise awareness that voters now have three options to cast their ballot: early voting, voting absentee, or voting in person on Election Day." He added that the executive order establishing absentee drop boxes has the effect of "negating the need to mail a ballot at all."

"The boards of elections have millions of dollars available to them from previously provided funding from the State and Federal governments and they should make use of those resources as the State is contending with a $62 billion revenue drop over four years," he added.

"In the absence of Federal funding to offset this revenue loss, the State, which funds schools, hospitals, and public safety, will have to make spending reductions, and anywhere we don’t reduce spending will mean deeper reductions elsewhere," he wrote. "This is another reason the Federal government must step up and provide States with necessary resources."

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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As General Election Approaches, Mixed Results for Efforts to Ensure More Votes Get Counted Thu, 17 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Despite Requests, No Sign of De Blasio Plan for Managing Billions in City Borrowing He's Seeking https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9757-despite-requests-no-de-blasio-plan-for-managing-billions-city-borrowing-seeing-state https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9757-despite-requests-no-de-blasio-plan-for-managing-billions-city-borrowing-seeing-state requests despite mayor

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio continues to insist that New York City needs authorization from the state to borrow billions of dollars in operating funds to balance its budget, at least in the absence of federal aid to cover some of the massive loss in revenue from the pandemic fallout. The drastically-slashed new city budget for this fiscal year passed July 1 included $1 billion in undefined labor savings, which de Blasio said could be covered by federal aid or borrowing, or, if neither of those come through, potentially 22,000 laid off municipal workers.

But as he’s beat the drum for authority to borrow $5 billion to be granted by skeptical state government leaders, the mayor has yet to present a detailed plan for how that money would be spent and repaid, creating concern among lawmakers and fiscal watchdogs that he wants a “blank check” for the city.

By the end of the month, the mayor must present the state Financial Control Board, an oversight body, with a plan to find the $1 billion in savings needed to balance the $88.2 billion budget for the current fiscal year. But the city’s budget woes don’t stop there. The budget gap for the next fiscal year is expected to be $4.2 billion, though it could be higher pending revenue forecasts.

For months, the mayor has said that the state Legislature should allow the city to cover those costs through long-term borrowing, at times expressing frustration and exasperation about the unwillingness of his fellow Democrats to act. But they have raised questions and sought a specific plan that de Blasio has yet to provide. Asked repeatedly for any plan that de Blasio may have at this point, spokespeople for de Blasio did not respond to Gotham Gazette inquiries this week. Other relevant parties indicated that there is still no plan.

After initially proposing to borrow $7 billion, the mayor lowered the request to $5 billion, which would be repaid over 30 years. In June, de Blasio wrote a letter to legislators in the State Senate and Assembly pressing for his demand, but it offered few details.

As de Blasio continued to press his case leading up to the finalized city budget, city and state officials -- from Governor Andrew Cuomo to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and City Comptroller Scott Stringer, among others -- expressed skepticism about new borrowing.

On June 27, State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester Democrat, released a statement saying, “New York City is the economic engine for our nation and our state, and so it is a priority for the Senate that it remains economically strong and viable. Prudence requires the development of a plan not rushed through before action is actually necessary, especially when the possibility of additional federal aid remains unresolved. Mayor de Blasio has made it clear we have several months before drastic measures like layoffs would occur and other city leaders have sent mixed signals about the wisdom and efficacy of the current request. The Senate will work with our partners in Government including the Mayor, the City Comptroller, the City Council, the Assembly, and the Governor to help New York City. We are open to approving limited loan authorization but more work needs to be done to develop a consensus around a sound approach.”

A spokesperson for de Blasio expressed disappointment in the State Senate.

More recently, some officials including Stringer and Johnson have changed their stance, albeit while still saying they want to see a real plan from de Blasio. Cuomo has continued to argue against new borrowing by the city to pay for operating expenses, saying the state would ultimately be on the hook.

The mayor and labor union leaders have been lobbying the state Legislature to approve the borrowing authority, which would both remove the need to cut spending on labor and prevent layoffs. “I've been asking Albany for months for something very fair and simple – long-term borrowing, which the city has received in past crises,” de Blasio said on Tuesday. “Hasn't happened. We're running out of options. Now, I do believe labor's working real hard...to help us in Albany and to come up with alternatives. So, I'm going to hold out hope that that's how we can solve this.” 

In a statement after publication, Julia Arredondo, a mayor's office spokesperson, said, "Long term borrowing is the fiscally responsible pathway to the City’s financial recovery. Without it, we face layoffs and steep budget cuts. We have had many conversations with the Council about our plan, and look forward to working together to protect the jobs of hard-working City employees and the programs and services that New Yorkers need and deserve."

The State Assembly nearly voted on the borrowing proposal in June – Speaker Carl Heastie has said he supports it – while the Senate majority remains open to the idea as well. "As we have said from the beginning we are willing to work with New York City to identify the best course forward without hurting working men and women and at the same time pursuing a fiscally responsible course,” said Mike Murphy, communications director for the Senate majority, in a new statement to Gotham Gazette. He did not say whether the mayor had presented a plan to the Senate. An Assembly spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

While Cuomo has so far been cold to the idea of allowing the city to borrow billions of dollars, the state itself has engaged in new borrowing as it struggles with lost revenue and prepares for potential cuts to local aid. Asked whether the mayor had given the state a specific borrowing plan, Division of Budget spokesperson Freeman Klopott pointed to the governor’s comments at an unrelated news conference on Long Island on Wednesday.

“The mayor has said he would have to lay off people if he didn’t borrow. I’m saying layoffs are the last thing you would want to do,” Cuomo said. “They’re the last option, especially in New York City where you have so many problems, you have the homeless problem, you have the crime problem, the city is dirty. So layoffs are the last option. But the $90 billion budget the City has, I’m sure there’s a lot of waste you can find. And that’s what you need to do before you go to borrow or lay off anyone.”

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli had his own tough words for the de Blasio administration. “The city used non-recurring revenue and some questionable savings to close its 2021 budget gap, while revenue continues to lag. The fiscal problems are daunting now but the duration is uncertain, and borrowing cannot become a crutch,” DiNapoli said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “The city must provide a detailed, realistic plan for managing its finances for the next few years before turning to borrowing. It should be a last resort.”

Stringer and Johnson continue to call for a comprehensive plan, which has yet to be produced, for spending and repaying the borrowing. “We are in an unprecedented economic crisis, and so far the federal government has walked away from its responsibility to provide the relief we need,” Stringer said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “The Mayor needs to stop threatening to fire frontline workers and propose a transparent, comprehensive financial plan with borrowing as one component to balance our budget and protect workers while preventing irremediable damage to the economic and social fabric of our City. The Mayor doesn’t get a blank check.”

The City Council was preparing to hold a hearing on September 21 on a non-binding resolution sponsored by Council Member Helen Rosenthal urging the state Legislature to approve the borrowing proposal. Melanie Hartzog, director of the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget was scheduled to testify. But the hearing has been postponed for the second time now. A Council spokesperson said in an email on Friday that they had expected the state Legislature to return to session, which it did not, and will reschedule the hearing once that occurs.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Johnson reiterated his support but explained what he wants to hear from the administration. “I want to avoid layoffs. That is a major reason why I support the ability to borrow long-term,” he said. “The administration has to come and participate in a meaningful way and take questions and answer them and outline their plans, their sequencing, and speak in a very specific, detailed substantive way on what they would use that borrowing authority for.”

He also said that the resolution from the Council, while potentially helpful to signal its buy-in on borrowing, is not what will or should make or break the request.

Rosenthal said in a phone interview that she hasn’t received any indication from OMB that they will provide a detailed plan prior to the hearing, or if one even exists. She said the lack of candor has been “frustrating,” particularly as the hearing was rescheduled to allow OMB officials to testify. “My gut, and I've been saying this for half a year now, is to allow borrowing, but they need to put a little meat on the bones,” she said.

“Here's everything we don't know. The amounts, over how many years. Do they have a plan for timing of paying the money back? Do they have any of those types of specifics and where are they with the labor savings?,” she said. She also noted that the city’s charter-mandated update on revenues and expenditures is due in November, when mid-year budget and four-year financial plan modifications will occur. “Are they starting to have a sense of how revenues are coming in compared to what was budgeted at the end of June?” she said.

“I guess the mayor's folks have a strategy on it,” she said of the overall plan. “I'm not sure what that strategy is because I would imagine the state people who are the ones who have to give us the authority are asking the exact same questions...Common sense would be, I think, that one would want to be as transparent as possible in order to justify to those who are giving you the authority, why you need it, and what your plans are.”

Rosenthal also said she’d been informed the Municipal Labor Committee will meet at the same time as the hearing, which may preclude labor leaders from testifying. “It'd be helpful to know where they are in those negotiations,” she said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated with a statement from the mayor's office.

Note - this article has been updated to reflect that the City Council hearing on the borrowing resolution has been indefinitely postponed. 

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Despite Requests, No Sign of De Blasio Plan for Managing Billions in City Borrowing He's Seeking Wed, 16 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000