Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/510 Mon, 28 Sep 2020 05:52:02 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) 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
     

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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."

***
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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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.

***
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
‘The Electorate Has a Bias for Youth and Energy’: Younger Candidates Take New York Politics by Storm https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9734-new-york-2020-young-candidates-state-legislature-candidates-student-debt-climate-change https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9734-new-york-2020-young-candidates-state-legislature-candidates-student-debt-climate-change 2 youth wave

Queens Assembly candidate Khaleel Anderson (photo: @KhaleelAnderson)


A younger generation of Democratic political candidates — which has grown up amid the Great Recession, growing inequality, rising costs of higher education and massive student loan debt, the ticking time-bomb that is climate change, and other crises including, now, the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout — has been offering ambitious policy goals and great urgency around achieving them, resonating with voters and finding success in their runs for office.

In recent election cycles, New York has seen many younger candidates win their bids for state legislative and congressional seats, one facet of the Democratic Party’s internal reckoning that shows an ascendant left wing in part led by a new generation of activists and candidates.

Some, but not all, of these candidates are democratic socialists, a far left brand of politics with a young base, as shown by support for U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, the septuagenarian figurehead of the progressive movement in America, who won 65% of New York voters aged 18-29 in his 2016 Democratic primary contest against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who won every other age group, according to CNN exit polling data. And although the movement has not found victory through either of Sanders’ two presidential bids, down-ballot races have told a different story.

And that story is of a generational shift underway in New York politics, with major potential implications for public policy coming out of the state capital in Albany, not to mention other power centers like New York City Hall and borough-based Democratic Party organizations. It is also already manifesting itself in the state’s and city’s representation in Congress and impact on the national stage.

The recent trend of New York electing both younger and further left candidates kicked off with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s June 2018 primary victory over then-Rep. Joe Crowley, with the then-28-year-old democratic socialist shocking the world and immediately becoming a national standard-bearer for those of her generation and politics.

Then came September 2018 victories of now-State Senators Alessandra Biaggi, Jessica Ramos, Zellnor Myrie, and Julia Salazar, all in their twenties or thirties when elected as progressive insurgents against more moderate, older incumbent Democrats. All went on to easily win their general elections, as is the norm in almost every New York City electoral district given Democrats’ heavy voter enrollment advantage. In a Brooklyn swing district, Democrat Andrew Gounardes, then-33, beat Republican Martin Golden, then-68, helping the Democrats win back a State Senate majority and advance a long list of priorities.

Then came 2020, and a combined state and congressional (and presidential) June primary day amid a pandemic and massive resultant socio-economic crisis.

Younger, left-leaning candidates, often supported by many progressive groups and individuals, won a long list of Democratic primary victories. They ran on policies that, in sum, included single-payer health care, more urgent efforts to combat climate change and foster a “just transition” to a green economy, free public college, greater tenant protections, higher taxes on the wealthy, homes and jobs guarantees, more education funding, marijuana legalization, decriminalization of sex work, and, during the pandemic, rent cancellation.

The winning candidates included Khaleel Anderson, 24 years old; Zohran Mamdani, 28; Phara Souffrant Forrest, 31; Emily Gallagher, 36; and Jenifer Rajkumar, 38, all of whom won primaries for the State Assembly, along with Jabari Brisport, 33, who won a State Senate primary; and Ritchie Torres, 32, and Mondaire Jones, 33, who won Congressional races. Jamaal Bowman, 44, also won offering generational change and far-left ideology in his challenge to 73-year-old incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel, and other Assembly candidates in their forties, Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas and Marcela Mitaynes, beat incumbent Democrats while offering a far-left message.

Souffrant Forrest, Mamdani, and Brisport were all endorsed by New York City’s branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, an organization that also backed Salazar and Ocasio-Cortez in 2018 and 2020, and had six of its seven endorsed candidates win this election cycle (DSA-backed Samelys Lopez lost to Torres in the 15th Congressional District primary).

Growing dissatisfaction with government and social conditions is something Torres, one of the youngest people elected to the City Council in modern times and likely to soon be one of the youngest elected to Congress, says has contributed to the success of younger elected officials, who are often those challenging incumbents.

“We’re living in an anti-establishment moment. When the electorate has a bias for youth and energy. I think if you have a young insurgent running against an established politician who’s been entrenched in office for decades, the young insurgent has a greater advantage now more than ever,” Torres said. “At a time of peak suffering, the argument for insurgents might be helped because if you have been entrenched in office for decades, and your district is in the same position that it was when you first entered public office, does your tons of experience really matter?”

Brisport, who is further to the left of Torres, nonetheless voiced a similar sentiment and said the reason for more young people challenging incumbents is their want for bigger changes.

“It is predominantly younger people that are unseating incumbents, are making up this new guard and I think that speaks to a hunger and a thirst for much bolder progressive policies throughout New York,” said Brisport, currently a middle-school teacher and of central Brooklyn, in an interview. “My generation, millennials and below us, Gen-Z, we are seeing firsthand capitalism really unfurling on itself, runaway income inequality, a world where we don’t see ourselves as eventual homeowners in the way our parents did, our American dream is no longer to get a house and 2.5 kids the dream is just to survive this nightmare, this hellscape of capitalism that we live in where rents are spiraling out of control, health care — you’re lucky if you have it and if you don’t you’re confined to a lifetime of medical debt — and if you’re Black, indigenous, person of color, you might just get shot by police for the crime of existing. It’s a confluence of factors that is extremely terrifying for people in my generation and revolutionary politics is much more alluring in a scenario like that.”

Some of those more progressive policies have seen more support from young people: a 2019 Quinnipiac University poll found that New York State residents aged 18-34 were the biggest supporters of congestion pricing (at 62% in favor), stricter gun laws (70%), legalizing marijuana (84%), and protecting abortion rights (80%).

And, although only 36% approved of single-payer health-care generally, if it were to decrease health care costs (even at the cost of raising taxes), they were the biggest supporters of single-payer health-care, too, at 57%. Younger people are more open than older generations to raising taxes if it means reducing individual health-care costs. Nationally, a poll conducted last year by the Institute of Politics (IOP) at Harvard Kennedy School found that 51% of those aged 18-29 support free public college for those from families making $125,000 a year or less and free community college for all — even if it costs $47 billion a year.

“I’ve seen multiple recessions, I’ve seen, in many ways, the failures of capitalism again and again and again kind of replayed ad nauseum,” said Mamdani, currently a housing counselor and of western Queens, in an interview. “There is a real fear with regards to health-care and with regards to debt, specifically student loan debt. We have seen, in many ways, much of capitalism’s promises, we have seen the terms and conditions of those promises in our lifetime. And generations older than us, there have been more of the promises delivered to them, while for us that promise has been extinguished and now it’s all of the fine print.”

Attaining higher education and employment are two interwoven issues for young people: higher education costs are rising (by over 25% in the last decade, according to a CNBC analysis of The College Board data), while a college degree is becoming more and more essential to find employment (as a 2014 report from Burning Glass, a labor market analytics company, shows). And most recently, during the coronavirus pandemic, young New Yorkers were most affected when it comes to losing employment — unemployment of those aged 16-24 skyrocketed from 6.6% to 35.2% from February to May, according to a report by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer. For the city writ large, it had gone from 3.5% to 19.9%.

Anderson, currently a supplemental instructor at his alma mater, Queens College, and likely to be the youngest member of the state Legislature next year, noted that many struggles young people face — from affording higher education to getting a job to paying for rent — contribute to one another.

“Young people, we’ve got to focus on ensuring that we can have a future,” Anderson, of southeast Queens, said in an interview. “Whether it was succumbing to gun violence, whether it was succumbing to student debt, whether it was not being able to afford health-care, whether it’s living in the Rockaways in the Rosedale section of the district and facing constant flooding, these are the things that young people are genuinely concerned about and that’s how my politics will be guided.”

Anderson, who got started in politics as an organizer with the Rockaway Youth Task Force, went on to explain that he believes young people are at the center of many different issues, from being the most common perpetrators and victims of gun violence, to being those disserved by failing school systems, to being unable to afford housing, sometimes due to student debt.

“We’re at the epicenter of everything and until someone comes in like myself and other young leaders who will come behind me, comes in and understands the youth perspective and how we need to continue to invest in youth so that all of that trickles down and translates to everyone else, you will continue to see these problems perpetuate,” Anderson said.

Tenants’ rights, specifically, have been a cause many younger people are rallying around, according to Cea Weaver, a longtime housing activist who helped push stronger rent regulations through the Legislature last year and is the campaign coordinator of the Housing Justice for All coalition.

“New York’s a majority-renter city and it always has been,” said Weaver, who is 31. “So, I think, when you’re talking about New York City, I think it’s been a little bit surprising just how few elected officials have really centered renters’ rights. But I think as people become more active and as the housing market is more and more out of control, I think we’re just seeing a whole generation of younger electeds who are responding to a younger tenants movement.”

Many of the younger state candidates elected in 2018 — particularly Myrie, Biaggi, Ramos, and Salazar — ran on platforms centering tenants’ rights and in opposition to big real estate interests, including promises not to accept donations from developers. Housing was a key issue they had to distinguish themselves from their incumbent opponents, who were generously supported by the real estate industry.

Since then, many more candidates — incumbents and insurgents alike — have taken pledges not to accept real estate donations, and in 2019 historic legislation was passed by the State Legislature and signed by Governor Cuomo to increase protections for millions of rent-regulated tenants.

And it’s an issue that was at the center of many of the recent primaries, such as in Gallagher’s race against incumbent Joe Lentol, where her support of canceling rent contrasted with Lentol’s work in passing a more moderate rent voucher bill, and in Mamdani’s, where he highlighted his opponent breaking her pledge not to accept real estate donations.

Canceling rent is one policy challengers like Gallagher, who sometimes shared similar platforms with their also-progressive opponents, distinguished themselves. While many current Assembly members, like Lentol, dismissed the policy as unrealistic and having the potential to hurt small landlords, Gallagher argued it was essential to help those facing extreme financial insecurity due to the pandemic and who could not pay their rent (the bill in the Legislature would not cancel rent for those who could afford to pay and would provide relief for smaller landlords).

“A lot of these voters, they identify with someone who has student debt, or hasn’t lived in the community as long or hasn’t been paying rent themselves as long in the community and therefore are paying a higher part of their income to live on,” said Jerry Skurnik, a long-time political consultant at Prime New York and former aide to Mayor Ed Koch, in an interview. “I can’t prove it but I’m assuming Joe Lentol, because he lived in his community for 70 years, probably was paying less rent per square foot than Emily Gallagher did, not that he did anything unfair by doing that.”

Like other challengers discussing their own challenges with bills and burdens, Gallagher used her experiences struggling to afford rent to connect to voters during her campaign, and had previously said that, were she not in a rent-stabilized apartment, she likely would not have been able to live in the northern Brooklyn district, which has been home to massive development and accelerated gentrification over the past decade-plus.

“For something of this magnitude, for the times we’re living in,” said Brisport, an extreme measure like canceling rent “is fine, and it should be expected to think completely outside of the box. What’s the alternative, you’re just going to evict a million people? How is that not worse? From a moral standpoint, yes. From a public health standpoint, for the economy, everything, it would actually be more disruptive to have hundreds of thousands, over a million evictions happen in New York than to cancel rent and then have a small fund for landlords.”

Gallagher and Briport, among other younger progressive candidates, held out their personal experiences as renters in New York City in connecting with voters and activists who are passionate about tenants’ rights, according to Weaver.

“A lot of the people who are the young folks in elected office right now are also rent-stabilized tenants,” Weaver said. “Every single candidate is taking the housing crisis much more seriously than their predecessors…We have younger folks who are willing to think creatively about what a solution would look like in this movement and who don’t have decades of housing policy telling them that the most important thing is to bail out the real estate industry.”

But some see defeating older, experienced Assembly members, like Joe Lentol, as a huge loss to the community. Bob Liff, Senior Vice President of George Arzt Communications, said although he has nothing against newcomers like Gallagher, Lentol and others provide a lot of value due to their experience and the connections they build over time.

“What you’re losing is an awful lot of institutional memory,” Liff said in an interview. “And when you’re at a certain age and you think that you are inherently soiled by your experience, well that’s all well and good, until you realize you don’t know where the bodies are buried. These people do because they buried them.”

Liff — who through his firm is a spokesperson for the Brooklyn Democratic Party but was speaking only for himself, he stressed — criticized some younger candidates, especially those in the Democratic Socialists of America, for being seemingly unwilling to acknowledge valid points against them or their policies, such as the fact that the organization does tend to perform best in gentrified areas, and that some of their candidates come from wealthy backgrounds while offering their working-class messaging.

“I’m hopeful, I just think that as you mature hopefully you understand that you need more allies, and that the way that you get more allies is not to trim your sails but to respect the idea that other people might have different views and you might have to work with them. I mean, God forbid, settle for half a loaf,” Liff said, referencing his belief in the necessity to find compromise to achieve meaningful legislation. “It’s an argument for the idea that this country changes in an evolutionary rather than in a revolutionary way. But you can’t tell me that we’re not better off than we were in the 1950s.”

Liff mentioned Ocasio-Cortez as someone he believes has done a great job fighting for her policy goals while also working with her colleagues in Congress.

Brooke Smith, 39, is student body president at CUNY’s Medgar Evers College and a supporter of Anderson. When living in the Rockaways years ago, she saw Anderson volunteering in front of the supermarket, getting signatures for the state senator at the time. Two years later they met again on a bus for a CUNY advocacy trip, and by the end of the day he had shared with her his plan to run for office, and moved her and her husband to donate to him. That donation allowed Anderson to reach the minimum required for him to open his campaign account.

As someone who is not technically a millennial but has worked with many young people pushing for a tuition freeze and free CUNY education, among other things, as a student representative, Smith has a unique perspective on the younger generation, and said she sees a sense of entitlement Liff described as a negative in a more positive light.

“What I’ve noticed is that the younger generation, they’re a lot more radical than the two generations above them,” said Smith, who has also been an advocate for families who have stillbirths after losing her daughter in 2014. After the more radical civil rights era, subsequent generations were more hesitant to seek significant change and reform, she said, until now. “They’re kind of experiencing all the privilege that they should. Not really feeling different. They feel entitled to certain things because they do feel worthy, that they belong here, that they deserve the same treatment, things of that nature. So now, as they start to actually see some of the things that some of these other generations were talking about, they have become more radical because they feel more empowered because of the entitlement that was given to them from several generations down. So, I actually think it’s a beautiful thing because it’s causing a whole different level of change.”

Smith also feels the lack of government experience candidates like Anderson have can also be a plus, as it means they are not as invested in the status quo, echoing a similar sentiment Weaver made regarding old guard politicians’ approach to housing policy.

“That sense of entitlement is going to push them to not really fall into the culture that much,” Smith said. “They’re so radical that I feel like there’s a fearlessness, so I expect to see [Anderson] be able to stand up and bring up to the table that most people are afraid to mention because of their colleagues, because of the things that they have to go back-and-forth with each other, because he’s not coming from that culture.”

Torres similarly said that insurgents' lack of political experience and work on the outside of government is becoming more and more of an advantage, and less of a disadvantage, in these races. A liberal who does not identify as a democratic socialist and has in fact been very critical of the DSA while agreeing on several issues, Torres’ primary win in the Bronx resulted in the DSA’s only local loss of this election cycle. He sees the recent success of younger candidates generally as a sign that people want change, and as many of them are activists, that they want someone used to challenging those in government.

“Young elected officials tend to function as advocates rather than as insiders,” Torres said in an interview. “I think the greatest change is that politics is going to become as much about the outside game as it is about the inside game.”

He said he is part of a generation that “has been failed by the government,” and referenced the rising costs of housing, healthcare, and higher education. Growing up in public housing himself, he said he felt abandoned by the federal government — one of the reasons he recently ran for Congress, which historically has played a greater role in the funding of public housing. After beating the Bronx Democrtic Party’s chosen candidate in his 2013 primary win, Torres has had an independent streak during his Council tenure, and been one of the most vocal critics of Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fellow Democrat.

Torres noted that the only wholly consistent characteristic of the successful insurgents mentioned is their younger ages, suggesting that voters are looking at more than just the policies candidates support.

“Voters are not so much voting for a particular ideology, they’re largely voting for change,” Torres said. “For a new generation of leadership. Because even among the elected officials there are considerable ideological differences.”

Liff and Skurnik both mentioned that, similarly, discontent during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and 1970s led to a movement of young insurgents running against the establishment and for change. Skurnik said Democratic Congressional Rep. Eliot Engel, who recently lost his seat after being outflanked from the left and outworked by Bowman, the democratic socialist former middle school principal, got his start in politics during this time as an anti-war politician. Engel was first elected to the State Assembly in 1977, when he was 30 years old. Lentol also entered office at the age of 30, in 1973, and was often seen as one of the major progressive leaders in the state, especially when it came to criminal justice reform.

“That would be unfair to the incumbents who do grow and do embrace these issues,” Liff said, mentioning how although Lentol was originally for the death penalty, he ended up playing a pivotal role in ending it in New York State. “And the reason there’s been progress on these issues is because they have, in fact, understood the political forces, the fairness, the justice, the inequality issues.”

Similar to those who were motivated to join politics during the Vietnam War, or after Watergate, Skurnik said the election of President Donald Trump in 2016 had a similar effect.

“I would say more Trump than anything else. Trump energized people, generally progressive people, to get more involved and pay more attention,” Skurnik said.

One policy area Trump has motivated movement on is climate change, as he has denied it is happening, called it a “hoax,” took America out of the Paris Climate Agreement, and appointed officials to top posts who have rolled back environmental regulations.

The New York City Sunrise Movement, a youth-led advocacy group focused on electing politicians who recognize the dangers of climate change and support legislation such as The Green New Deal, has had significant success in New York, including by putting major resources to help elect Bowman.

“Trump is a caricature of what was already wrong with American politics, and so I think that he has kind of exaggerated everything that was already going wrong and made it painfully obvious to everyone so that you could no longer possible ignore it,” said Grace Cuddihy, a 16-year-old member of the group.

The NYC Sunrise Movement itself was founded in 2018 and has made substantial efforts to support politicians that oppose Trump’s policies. In New York, they have helped to get many of their endorsed candidates into office, including Mamdani, Brisport, Souffrant Forrest, and other insurgents who won in 2020, as well as some in 2018, including Ocasio-Cortez, Biaggi, and Myrie. Fourteen of their 16 endorsed candidates won this year, many of them younger progressives.

Cuddihy said the organization made 60,000 calls for its endorsed candidates, and its national branch — which she is also a part of — made hundreds of thousands of calls just for Bowman.

“It really is my future and my life and because I am so young — they say we have nine years left, I’m going to be 25,” Cuddihy said, referencing some of the most disastrous projected impending consequences of climate change. “As someone who can’t vote…watching democracy deteriorate before my eyes and not being able to go to the voting booth and do something about it has motivated me to be more active in terms of phone-banking and volunteering for candidates and organizing for political leaders.”

And although the Green New Deal championed by Ocasio-Cortez and many other but not all New York representatives has not gained as much traction in Congress as activists would like, New York has passed significant climate change and green economy legislation that included investments in renewable energy and enacted goals to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and 100% clean power by 2040.

But candidates such as Brisport and Mamdani want more ambitious climate policies, such as making energy a public utility and having New York divest pension funds from fossil fuels (something being pursued to an extent at the city level but not at the state level).

“The threat is right here, it’s already here, it’s happening and the urgency is so right there for my generation that the notion of strong redistributive policies, shifting billions of dollars from the wealthiest people into fighting climate change isn’t some laughable idea, it’s a necessary thing to do,” said Brisport.

While younger and more progressive voters recently helped elect candidates with ambitious left-wing agendas, such as Brisport, it is yet to be seen what the impact will be on the legislative bodies they are entering. When a wave of progressives like Myrie, Biaggi, Ramos, Salazar, and Gounardes helped Democrats to win back the State Senate in 2018, it resulted in sweeping legislation at the state level — although some of the most ambitious far left policy goals were left on the back burner, forming the platforms of some of this year’s insurgent left-wing candidates.

Skurnik thinks a similar thing will happen in 2021, as incoming members will push the state farther left, but not all the way, with policies such as those focused on tenants’ rights.

“They will move more incumbents, the establishment people, to a more progressive position. Maybe not as far as they say they want to go,” Skurnik said. “I don’t think they’re gonna cancel rent, but I think they will do other things for tenants that, three or four years ago, weren’t even on the horizon.”

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by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected to note that NYC Sunrise did endorse Ocasio-Cortez in the 2018 Democratic primary.

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‘The Electorate Has a Bias for Youth and Energy’: Younger Candidates Take New York Politics by Storm Tue, 15 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Where De Blasio's Push to Borrow Billions Stands https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9733-where-de-blasio-push-to-borrow-billions-stands-new-york-city-budget-layoffs https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9733-where-de-blasio-push-to-borrow-billions-stands-new-york-city-budget-layoffs 1 billions push

The Financial Control Board meets (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio has until the end of September to present a state fiscal oversight body with a plan to find $1 billion in savings that will help balance the city budget for the current fiscal year. In lieu of a federal aid package to help replace lost tax revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic, the mayor and labor union leaders are pushing the Legislature and Governor Cuomo to allow the city to borrow billions of dollars to cover operating expenses, a proposal that many city and state leaders have generally balked at but might soon be seen as necessary if the city wants to avoid thousands of municipal layoffs.

Both City Comptroller Scott Stringer and City Council Corey Johnson initially opposed a borrowing plan but have warmed up to it in recent weeks. State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has pointed out that the de Blasio administration has yet to lay out a detailed plan that takes into account uncertainties, particularly about future revenue. Legislative leaders have similarly demurred on giving their approval, while Cuomo has expressed opposition to the idea.

The approval of the $88.2 billion city budget for the 2021 fiscal year, which began July 1, was predicated on the mayor’s promise that he would negotiate with labor unions to find $1 billion in recurring savings going forward or be forced to resort to mass layoffs. By October 1, the mayor has to present that savings plan to the state Financial Control Board (FCB), which monitors the city’s fiscal practices.

Short of identifying those savings, and without federal stimulus funds, the mayor has warned that the city will be forced to lay off roughly 22,000 municipal employees. Preparations for those layoffs began last month and, on Monday, the city was meant to send out 30-day layoff notices to workers. But the mayor said he would delay that process as discussions with union representatives continued and as labor unions sought to convince state leaders about the borrowing plan. “What our labor partners asked for is time to bring back the Legislature, to talk to the Legislative leaders and members and ask them to come back on an urgent basis,” de Blasio said. “I've said we will work with them on that, but it's going to be a day to day basis.”

Even as he held out some hope for federal help, the mayor has for months pursued long-term borrowing permission from Albany, which he now argues is essential to overcoming the city’s fiscal woes. Since May, he has been asking the Legislature to authorize borrowing to pay for the city’s operating expenses. His latest plan is to borrow $5 billion, to be paid off over 30 years. The mayor has expressed confidence that the city’s tax revenues, including personal income tax, will rebound as the city recovers and will be able to accommodate the added debt. He specifically said that he expects property taxes, which are an important base of revenue, to remain strong.

According to a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget, the city would add about $70 million in annual debt payments for every $1.5 billion borrowed. For the current fiscal year, the city’s debt payments amount to $7.4 billion, and will increase to $8 billion for the next fiscal year. Paid through the annual operating budget, the debt service payments are virtually all for capital expenses.

The $5 billion would not only cover the labor savings for this year but also nearly the entire expected $4.2 billion budget gap for the next fiscal year. In order to come within the $1 billion of closing this year’s gap, de Blasio dipped significantly into the city’s reserves, using $4 billion of roughly $6 billion the city had set aside.

At his daily news briefing on Thursday, de Blasio reiterated the call for borrowing, warning that the city also faced the prospect of budget cuts from the state, which has its own $13.3 billion fiscal gap to worry about. That includes $8.2 billion in state aid to localities for education and healthcare, among other things.

“[O]ur central concern, of course, is where is the federal government with the stimulus? Well, nothing yet. Where is the state government with long-term borrowing? Nothing yet,” de Blasio said.  “In fact, there's a threat of cuts from the state government that will cause us to have to cut even more New York City personnel...Let's get to the work of figuring out what is healthy and safe for New Yorkers. And then let's get to the work of giving us the resources to actually protect people. And what Albany needs to do is give us that long-term borrowing authority.”

The city has lacked the power to unilaterally borrow funds for operating expenses since the state passed the Financial Emergency Act in 1975, when the city overleveraged itself to the brink of bankruptcy, in part by borrowing for operating expenses. That legislation, which also created the Financial Control Board, was meant to rein in the city’s shoddy fiscal management and ensure that the budget was balanced each year. The city could only plan to spend as much as it expected to receive in revenue. Borrowing authority was last granted to the city after 9/11, when the city was given permission to borrow as much as $2.5 billion, though it did not avail of the full amount.

The lessons of the 1970s, however, haven’t faded, which is why Cuomo, the state Legislature, and fiscal watchdogs have all been reluctant to support the mayor’s recent borrowing proposition.

Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this article, but in May he said it was a “fiscally questionable” notion. On June 29, the governor again made it clear that he has misgivings about the proposal. “What is the loan? How do you pay it back? What is fiscally responsible?” he said. “Borrowing in of itself is not a great thing, but it’s not a bad thing. The question is how much? How are you going to repay it? What do you think is going to happen with the economy?” As governor, Cuomo chairs the Financial Control Board and has recently taken more of an interest in its workings. As NY1 reported in July, Cuomo nominated three close associates to the board – former Secretary to the Governor Steve Cohen, former City Comptroller Bill Thompson, and sitting Secretary of State Rossana Rosado – who were all confirmed. The board’s other three members are de Blasio, DiNapoli, and Stringer.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has expressed support for giving the city borrowing authority, according to a NY1 report. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, on the other hand, has been circumspect to approve the city’s borrowing proposal, but has also not ruled it out entirely.

“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 statement to Gotham Gazette.

In a June 27 statement, Stewart-Cousins had also said the Senate was “open” to allowing limited borrowing authority, but stressed the need for more detail from de Blasio. “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,” she said at the time, noting that there were still several months until layoffs were on the table.

Spokespeople for Heastie did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

DiNapoli has significant reservations about the city being granted borrowing authority. “There are too many unanswered questions right now to say if borrowing would be prudent,” he said in a statement. “Those unanswered questions include whether this year’s balanced budget will hold, whether there will be additional federal aid, whether economic progress will ease budget gaps in the out-years or whether the risks I and others have identified will make the situation more difficult. We certainly know that in the long-term, borrowing your way out of a problem, and committing future budgets and burdening future taxpayers, is not the best solution if it can be avoided.”

Stringer, who had previously warned against the amount of total debt the city could take on if it borrowed in the billions, recently seemed warmer to the idea. But he nevertheless emphasized that it would have to be approved with strict controls and an airtight spending plan, which, if it exists, the mayor has not presented publicly and his office did not provide to Gotham Gazette despite a request.

“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 Thursday 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.”

De Blasio has said that he does not want carte blanche to spend all $5 billion and that the long period of repayment will impose a manageable burden on future budgets. “We do not want to use that authority if we don't have to,” he said Thursday. “For example, if a [federal] stimulus was passed and made us whole, we wouldn't borrow at all. If we only needed to use a small amount of the borrowing, we would use a small amount. But when you're talking about repayment on a 30-year basis, the debt service is quite modest. It does not change the fundamental reality of the budget.”

Fiscal watchdogs have argued that the city need not borrow funds nor implement layoffs to close the $1 billion budget gap. The Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit group, released a report on Wednesday that recommended a series of steps including reducing the costs of employee benefits (particularly health care spending) and implementing broader productivity reforms.

There are also several bills before the state Legislature that would increase taxes on the wealthy to raise more revenue, but they have been resoundingly rejected by the governor who has warned that it may drive high-income residents out of the state. Surprisingly, de Blasio has shared a similar sentiment despite his long-standing support for such taxes. The Democratic majorities in the two legislative houses have been in talks aimed at deciding which revenue-raising measures to pursue.

City Council Speaker Johnson has also recently shifted his opposition to long-term borrowing and has said the Council will discuss and vote on a resolution, sponsored by Council Member Helen Rosenthal and introduced on August 27, calling on the state Legislature to approve it. “Layoffs should be a last resort,” Johnson said in a Thursday statement to Gotham Gazette. “The State should give the City borrowing authority to avoid layoffs. That does not mean the City should not look for savings where it can.”

“I think that New York City deserves the authority to borrow funds to meet our immediate needs given the impact of COVID-19 on our revenue,” Johnson said at an August 27 virtual news conference. “When we do borrow, it needs to be responsibly to avoid the absolute worst options becoming our only options like a significant number of layoffs for workers and families at the height of a dire economic recession.”

The Council hearing on the resolution will be on September 21, and it may be voted on in committee and, if it passes there, by the full Council later that week.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, also a Democrat and likely mayoral candidate like Stringer and Johnson, told Gotham Gazette he too beleives the city should be granted borrowing authority, but he also offered caveats and criticism. “Because the City has waited to find necessary cost savings, Washington is failing New York, and we must not balance our budget on the backs of Black and Brown New Yorkers, I believe some borrowing may now be necessary to avoid even deeper inequality," Adams said in a Friday statement. "However, the City must also explain its plan to pay the debt and find a dollar in savings for every dollar borrowed. I believe we can identify these savings without laying off City workers or cutting vital services on which lower-income New Yorkers depend. We also must consider temporary revenue raisers like an ultra-millionaires tax and a fairer property tax system.”

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams has also lent his support to long-term borrowing, stressing that it would help prevent cuts to crucial services for New Yorkers. “This is a fiscally-sound and clearly-necessary strategy to meet the current economic crisis without further irreparable damage to vital programs and the New Yorkers who rely on them,” he wrote in a June 28 op-ed for Gotham Gazette, just prior to the passage of the city budget. “Borrowing is not a radical idea. Unlike short-term borrowing, it is not an imprudent proposal. In past crises, we have taken on long-term debt and been able to move forward and build a strong recovery. I believe we must do so again, and fear if we do not, that recovery will not come.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: this story has been updated with comment from Eric Adams and info on the hearing on the City Council resolution, and then updated with a new date for the Council hearing on the resolution.

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Where De Blasio's Push to Borrow Billions Stands Thu, 03 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
A Redistricting Power Grab https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9722-new-york-redistricting-power-grab-independence-state-legislature-district-lines https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9722-new-york-redistricting-power-grab-independence-state-legislature-district-lines new york state legislature senate chamber electoral

Inside the State Senate chamber (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


The New York State Senate and Assembly, both now in Democratic hands, last month gave first passage to several changes to an earlier constitutional amendment, adopted in 2014, creating a so-called Independent Redistricting Commission to redraw district lines every ten years for those two houses and the state’s Congressional districts. If passed by the Legislature again next year, and then approved by the voters, these amendments to that earlier amendment will go into effect in time to be used for the drawing of district lines in 2022. That would mean that the version approved by the voters in 2014 would never be used. Every one of the 40 Democrats in the state Senate voted for these changes. In the Assembly 91 of the 101 Democrats were in favor — while nine members, all from outside New York City, voted against. 

Truth be told, I was not a big fan when we New Yorkers voted to place the so-called Independent Redistricting Commission in the state constitution in 2014. I say “so called’ because there was nothing independent about the commission. Eight of its ten members, two each, were appointed by the majority and minority leadership of the Assembly and Senate, and the commission’s recommendations went back to the two houses for adoption. If they failed to pass, the Legislature retained the final authority to do the job itself. 

In my view, self-interested politicians should not decide on any of the conditions or rules under which they are elected or reelected. Truly fair redistricting, I thought then and think now, requires the final decision on district lines to be made by persons who meet two basic criteria: they are not seeking election in those districts and are not beholden to anyone who is. 

For decades, divided partisan control of the state Legislature produced New York’s infamous bi-partisan gerrymander. Republicans controlled drawing the lines for the Senate, Democrats for the Assembly, and then they voted for each other’s plans.  The so-called Independent Redistricting Commission amendment was a response to reformers’ pressure to do something about this. It was the appearance of action masking the absence of real change, accepted by some as “a good first step.” 

The 2020 proposed constitutional amendments if adopted will bring a welcome end to two practices long used by Republicans to retain Senate control: Increasing the number of seats in the body and counting downstaters imprisoned in GOP-dominated upstate rural areas - and not allowed to vote - as residents there, beefing up their population, and therefore their legislative representation. If the amendments pass the size of the Senate will be fixed at 63 members and the provision of a previously passed statute will be constitutionalized, to assure re-enumerat[ion] of incarcerated persons..[at] their place of last residence for the purposes of drawing district lines.”

Less savory, other changes first passed this July would undo two provisions of the original 2014 amendment designed to protect the interests of the minority parties in both houses (at that time the Republicans in the Assembly and the Democrats in the Senate). These are the alternative voting rules specified for the commission to recommend a redistricting plan, and the two houses to approve its recommendations, under alternative partisan circumstances in the Legislature.

To send a plan to the Legislature a redistricting commission now requires seven votes, including that of at least one of the two appointees of each of the four legislative leaders. (This explicitly specifies the mathematical consequence of requiring a supermajority of 7 in a group of 10 members to act, when each of four leaders appoints two commission members.) This provision protected the minority parties in each house, not always previously looked after by their co-partisans when deals were reached between the two majorities. It was also an insurance policy for the then-precarious, now-vanquished, Republican majority in the Senate. 

In the 2020 proposed amendment, just given first passage, the seven-person super-majority has been kept, but the requirement that at least one of these be chosen by each appointing authority has been removed.

The size of the majority in both houses required to pass a commission-recommended plan under the provision in place differs, based upon whether control of the legislature is divided or in one party’s hands. If divided control (the case when the original amendment was passed) a simple majority is needed in each house. If one party controlled both houses (the case now) two-thirds in each house is required. 

Then as now Assembly Democrats held more than two-thirds of the seats in that body. The Senate, however, was closely divided in 2014. This supermajority requirement potentially empowered the Senate Democrats in the redistricting process to a greater degree than before. It also preserved leverage for Republicans if they lost control of the Senate, as then appeared inevitable and has, of course, since occurred. 

Finally, what if deadlock occurred in the commission? (Not an unlikely eventuality, if experience is any guide.) The commission was then to send its most supported option or options to the Legislature, where an affirmative vote of 60% in each house would be needed to pass one of these plans, or an alternative.  

The changes passed this year make the required majority 60%, both if the two houses of the Legislature are in the hands of a single party or the commission is deadlocked. They also make it explicit that, absent a commission recommendation, the Legislature may adopt a plan of its own devising.

Democrats now hold 40 of 63 Senate seats (63.5%), enough to control the outcome of redistricting under the new revisions in all partisan circumstances, but not enough if there is deadlock on the commission under the unrevised rules. Hence, assuming they can retain this size majority this November, or grow it, and the proposed constitutional amendments gain the required second passage and voter approval, redistricting next year and the year after will be more firmly in the hands of the Democratic majorities in both houses. 

The complexity is admittedly a bit mind-boggling, but it comes down to this: The Democratic majority members in the state Legislature – many of whom are self-declared champions of political reform – want to alter a constitutional provision passed to achieve independent legislative districting before it has ever been used, giving themselves greater control of the process. Ironically, the untested provision itself almost certainly achieved only the illusion of reform. Also ironic, given New York’s politics and demographics, there is no chance that districts can be created that will place Democratic control of both houses at risk in the years ahead. With their current ample majorities, Assembly and Senate Democrats could advance real independence in drawing district lines for themselves and for Congress with little or no political risk. But instead they have chosen to preserve the illusion of reform, while further empowering themselves to act in their own self-interest. Maybe Plunkett of Tammany Hall was right after all: “Reformers are only morning glories,” at least on some mornings in July.

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Gerald Benjamin is Emeritus Founding Director of The Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz.

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

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A Redistricting Power Grab Mon, 31 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000