Gotham Gazette Sat, 06 Jun 2020 09:07:05 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Voting in a Pandemic: How New York, and New Yorkers, Must Lead the Way mt kitso pre

New York has made some adjustments to voting amid COVID-19 (photo: governor's office)

This guest column is part of Citizens Union Speakers, a regular series of op-eds written by members of the Citizens Union Foundation community in Gotham Gazette, CUF's flagship public education program. The opinions expressed in these Citizens Union Speakers columns are those of the authors alone, not Citizens Union Foundation, Gotham Gazette, or any other entity.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted nearly every aspect of our lives, including how we will vote this year. In times of crisis in a democracy, it is essential that we proceed with elections. At the same time, we can’t ask New Yorkers to put their health in jeopardy. Ensuring our elections run smoothly will require planning, resources, and flexibility.

With a large slate of primary elections fast-approaching in June and the general election in the fall not far off, New Yorkers must know about recent changes and be prepared to vote safely. This will require additional reforms in the weeks and months ahead.

On April 24, Governor Cuomo issued an order compelling Boards of Elections to mail an absentee ballot application to all eligible voters. This caused a lot of New Yorkers to scratch their heads. Wouldn’t it be easier (and cheaper) just to mail a ballot, rather than an application? Yes, but, the New York State constitution prohibits that from happening. 

We encourage all New Yorkers to take advantage of expanded absentee voting for the June election. A coalition of civic groups and government offices is boosting these efforts with a public education campaign to raise awareness and explain the process so as many New Yorkers as possible vote by absentee ballot. 

But we also need New Yorkers who know -- like everyone reading this column -- to become absentee ballot ambassadors by simply spreading the word among their networks. It takes two minutes to post to Facebook, send a tweet, or even email a small list of people to make sure they know their options.

In some areas, including New York City, you can apply for your absentee ballot online (click here to fill out your form). Voting absentee will not only minimize risk to public health, but also reduce stress on the Board of Elections, which will likely be operating with fewer poll workers.

Since declaring a state of emergency, Governor Cuomo has issued 12 executive orders related to elections. Right now, the governor’s executive orders explicitly apply only to the June elections. However it is not too early to start thinking about the general election in the fall. To carefully manage public health risk, we need to allow everyone who wants to vote by mail this fall to do so.  

We also need to think about how to engage a new generation of voters. Presidential election years are typically when we see the highest spikes in voter registration, particularly among young people who are voting for the first time. Because of COVID-19, voter registration rates have dropped off precipitously.

One barrier is that currently only residents with a New York State ID can register to vote online. This excludes 700,000 New York City residents, including many younger potential voters. The only other option currently available to the unregistered is printing out a form and mailing it in, which excludes the many New Yorkers without printers.

We need to make it easier for new voters to register and vote. Luckily a solution already exists for New York City. The Campaign Finance Board (CFB) developed a system of online voter registration that does not require a photo ID. Unfortunately, it was superseded by state law that doesn’t go into effect until 2021. We do not have a year to wait.

There is a bill in the state Legislature that would allow the CFB’s website to go live and accept voter registration applications in New York City. That bill should be passed and signed into law immediately, given the circumstances we find ourselves in. If the Legislature cannot do it, we urge Governor Cuomo to act via Executive Order.

These are unique times, calling for creative and aggressive solutions, especially when it comes to protecting our democratic processes. We have just a few weeks to ensure strong participation in the June primaries. We have just five months to make sure we get this right for the general election in November that is expected to draw immense interest. A global pandemic will only weaken our democracy if we let it.

Betsy Gotbaum is Executive Director of Citizens Union and Citizens Union Foundation, and former Public Advocate of New York City. As Executive Director of Citizens Union Foundation, she also serves as publisher of Gotham Gazette.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

This guest column is part of Citizens Union Speakers, a regular series of op-eds written by members of the Citizens Union Foundation community in Gotham Gazette, CUF's flagship public education program. The opinions expressed in these Citizens Union Speakers columns are those of the authors alone, not Citizens Union Foundation, Gotham Gazette, or any other entity.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Voting in a Pandemic: How New York, and New Yorkers, Must Lead the Way Tue, 26 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
New York’s Next Step Toward More Justice and Better Democracy parollee restor oped

Questioning which New Yorkers can go to the polls (photo: Gotham Gazette)

Practicing social distancing is by no means easy, but the guidelines are simple: maintain six feet of distance from others, avoid crowded environments, public bathrooms, and shared dining facilities, and to blow off steam, go outside. Stick to the guidelines, health officials assure us, and we can all help protect each other, especially the vulnerable. 

But many of the most vulnerable people during the COVID-19 crisis are those whom most of us will never see and for whom social distancing is simply impossible: people behind bars. Prisons were not designed to prioritize personal space; moreover, many have faced overcrowding for years. At least 462 incarcerated people in New York state have tested positive for the novel coronavirus and 1,204 prison staff have as well. According to the Marshall Project, the number of undiagnosed infections in prisons is likely much higher. Tragically, at least 373 incarcerated people have died across the country from COVID-19 related illness. 

Yet even after facing those conditions while paying their debt to society, many of those who complete their sentences and reenter the public will have no voice in our collective future. That’s because New York, unlike 19 other states and Washington, D.C., denies people on parole for felony convictions the right to vote. It’s time to fix this with new legislation.

To be clear, thanks to Governor Cuomo’s issuance of voting rights pardons since 2018, most people on parole can currently vote. The governor’s staff began conducting a monthly review of everyone recently released on parole and the governor uses his pardon power to individually restore voting rights to each person living in the community and successfully completing the terms of their parole.

But the process is more cumbersome than it needs to be, both for the people rightfully having their voting rights restored and for the government. Moreover, voting rights shouldn’t depend on the discretion of one person. The governor has used his pardon power justly, to welcome people living in our communities into our democracy. But a future governor could depart from that practice—we’ve seen it happen in other states.

That’s why we are among the state senators co-sponsoring Senate Bill 1931. This legislation would make rights restoration automatic upon release from prison and provide those released an opportunity to register to vote right away.

We prioritized democracy reform at the beginning of this legislative session because we’ve heard loud and clear from our constituents that it is what they want. We need to make it the law that people on parole can vote, not just the policy of the governor. These are our neighbors. They work and pay taxes, and they should have a say in choosing those who levy them. They send their children to public schools, and they should be able to decide who oversees those schools.

State after state has acknowledged this obvious truth in recent years. In 2019 alone, Colorado, Nevada, and New Jersey passed laws restoring the right to vote to everyone living in the community, with New Jersey’s governor signing that state’s law this past December.

There is no good reason we shouldn’t do the same, and formally codify the governor’s policy here in New York. The criminal justice system has determined that each person on parole has served their time and is ready to return to their community. We all have an interest in welcoming them back with open arms and encouraging healthy reintegration. Until we change the law and make clear that their voting rights are not something bestowed upon them by the generosity of the governor, we send exactly the wrong message: that their voices don’t matter and they don’t have a real stake in what happens in their communities.

In fact, the history of New York’s criminal disenfranchisement laws makes clear that they were never aimed at accomplishing some good policy goal. They date back to a 19th century attempt to evade the mandate of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—to deny black men the right to vote.

These days the law is still discriminatory, but it also serves to sow confusion and waste government resources. Because the governor has to use his pardon power to restore voting rights, the process is needlessly complicated. Each month, the state corrections department sends the governor a list of everyone released and on parole the previous month. The governor’s staff then individually confirms each person’s eligibility before issuing a voting rights pardon. His staff then continuously monitors the parole status of each of the 30,000 people with a pardon to ensure they remain eligible.

This isn’t just a lot of work, it means that it is still impossible to give a simple, straightforward answer about whether people on parole can vote. Since the restoration process is not automatic, there is a four- to six-week gap between when someone is released from prison and when they have their rights restored. That means people cannot be told they have the right to vote on their way out. And we’ve heard that even people who do have a pardon have faced skepticism or misinformation when they try to register.

The bill we are co-sponsoring would clear up the confusion. It would set thousands of New Yorkers immediately on the path to reengaging in a positive way in their communities, something that has only become more important in the age of COVID-19. We urge our colleagues in the Legislature to join us in passing this bill, continuing New York’s journey to becoming a national leader in democracy.

State Senators Zellnor Myrie and Leroy Comrie represent parts of Brooklyn and Queens, respectively. On Twitter @SenatorMyrie & @LeroyComrie.

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New York’s Next Step Toward More Justice and Better Democracy Sun, 24 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Protect Democracy with Vote-by-Mail and Online Registration voter reg day1

Next potential steps for voting in New York (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

The following is an excerpt from the 2019-20 NYC Votes Voter Analysis Report

Novel and frightening barriers to voting have the potential to upend the entire crucial 2020 election year in every state. The challenges of in-person voting during a pandemic are clear and significant. Elections traditionally provide a time for citizens to gather together in large numbers to engage in the practice of democracy. But restrictions on public gatherings recommended by public health authorities in response to the spread of COVID-19 cast regular poll site operations in a new light. 

In jurisdictions around the country, many voters wait packed together in long lines to make their voices heard. Institutions that regularly serve as poll sites may be justifiably concerned about allowing potential carriers to pass through their doors—especially senior centers or schools. While early voting opportunities can provide space for voters to follow physical distancing guidelines, they offer no such protection to the dedicated poll workers who interact with each voter requesting a ballot.

In response, many election experts and advocates have advocated for prompt and widespread adoption of vote by mail.

Washington State, for instance, mails ballots to every registered voter 18 days before each election. Voters can mail their ballots back or return them to designated ballot drop boxes by the end of Election Day. Four other states—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, and Utah—conduct all-mail elections.

In New York State, mail-in or absentee voting is available only to voters who can attest to a specific reason they will be unable to appear at the polls, either for absence or illness. By executive order, Governor Cuomo expanded the meaning of “temporary illness” to cover those seeking to stem the spread of COVID-19, and mandated that every voter should receive an absentee ballot application in the mail. However, its effects are temporary. As issued, it applies only to elections through June 23. By whatever means are available, expanded access to vote by mail should be offered to New Yorkers on a permanent basis.

What we’ve learned in this moment is that universally-accessible vote by mail is not merely a turnout-boosting convenience. It can provide necessary resilience for our democratic system when the logistics of in-person balloting become impossible or impractical to maintain. It is one of a series of critical measures that should be available to administrators to ensure the continuity of our elections. New York should act promptly and decisively to implement it here.

The COVID-19 response effort is also shifting the way that organizers and campaigners approach the work of engaging voters. Traditional methods of registering voters will need to be rethought and campaign plans will need to be redesigned to adapt to the reality of an election year conducted during a pandemic. At minimum, a response that preserves New Yorkers’ access to elections through crises will require New York to finally end its reliance on a paper-based voter registration system that depends heavily on face-to-face interaction to bring new voters into the democratic process.

Times of crisis can force hard choices upon us; they demand we articulate our values and protect the things we value most. Elections are essential, particularly and especially in these difficult moments. In just the last twenty years, New Yorkers have come together to vote in the wake of a terrorist attack and in the aftermath of a destructive storm. Each instance demonstrates anew that our election laws and systems badly need flexibility to ensure elections can adapt effectively to public challenges like this one.

Democracy will persist — if we choose it.

Amy Loprest is the Executive Director of the NYC Campaign Finance Board, which runs the nonpartisan voter engagement initiative NYC Votes. Read the full 2019-20 NYC Votes Voter Analysis Report. On Twitter @NYCCFB & @NYCVotes.

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Protect Democracy with Vote-by-Mail and Online Registration Sun, 03 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Questions and Concerns About Potential Shift to Vote-By-Mail as New Yorkers Await Further Action from Cuomo 1 good advo

Voting in New York is undergoing major shifts, with more possibly to come (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Amid reports that Governor Andrew Cuomo plans to allow or require voting by mail for all New Yorkers in primary and special elections set for June 23, government reform advocates have raised concerns that the measure could end up adversely affecting the election, while the State Republican Party has promised to sue if the governor follows through.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced several delays in the state’s election calendar and in-person voting may continue to be a risky endeavor in June when the state holds primaries for all the seats in the state legislature and House of Representatives, and possibly for the Democratic presidential nomination, as well as a handful of special elections. In lieu of that, according to a NY1 report on Monday that the governor’s office refuses to confirm or deny, Cuomo is expected to sign an executive order mandating that local Boards of Elections mail out ballots to all registered voters.

Such a measure by the governor would, in theory, help New Yorkers avoid the risk of exposure to the coronavirus while still exercising their right to vote. But with no details yet about the executive order, government reform advocates are anxious that the order could do more harm than good. Asked about the NY1 report, Cuomo spokesperson Caitlin Girouard said only, “We're looking at all options​.”

Cuomo had previously issued an order expanding absentee voting to all who decided to request such a ballot over fears of the virus and in-person voting.

Among the concerns from advocates about the possibility of full-on vote-by-mail are that the local BOEs may only mail ballots to active voters registered with political parties in the state, and miss the more than 970,000 ‘inactive’ voters who are nonetheless registered to vote with party affiliation. (In total, counting voters with no party affiliation, there are 11.7 million active and 1.2 million inactive voters in New York.) Mailed ballots would not make special accomodations for the visually impaired or be an effective substitute for translation services at poll sites. The ballots may also fail to reach the mass of New York residents who have chosen to shelter outside the state or populations like college students who are now living at home.

“We would love to be able to move to a vote-by-mail system in New York, but there are very significant obstacles to a wholesale transition,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, in a virtual news conference on Wednesday afternoon, insisting the the state should only take the step if it’s done in conjunction with in-person voting. “Unfortunately, jumping to an entire vote-by-mail system in New York state would be setting up our elections for failure.”

A majority of Americans, 58% in fact, support voting by mail, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday amid ongoing questions about what form this year’s presidential and other elections will take. But Lerner pointed out that effective vote-by-mail programs, like the ones used in Washington and Colorado, depend on accurate voter rolls, and that elections administrators in New York have been notoriously bad at maintaining their records. The most high profile example of that is the New York City Board of Elections, which illegally kicked 200,000 Democratic voters off its rolls ahead of the April 2016 presidential primary. Voters are often also improperly placed on inactive status, and the BOE may not send a ballot to those voters, who’ve been labeled ‘inactive’ after they fail to respond to a mailer from the BOE requesting confirmation of their current place of residence.

“If New York hastily Institutes a vote-by-mail system, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers and the inactive, over 1 million voters, may never receive a ballot,” Lerner said, calling for an expansion of absentee ballots and doubling the number of early voting days from 9 to 18. The early voting period extends from June 13 to June 21. The city Board of Elections has yet to confirm early voting sites, which it is required to make public 45 days before the election, and there is no information on its website.

The solution is one that the governor has already undertaken, Lerner argued. On April 9, Cuomo signed an executive order that expanded the criteria for requesting an absentee ballot. Voters who are either ill from coronavirus or fear contracting it at the polls can now apply for an absentee ballot.

The New York City Board of Elections is also getting ready to allow voters to for the first time apply for absentee ballots online, according to spokesperson Valerie Vazquez. “The Board is in the final stages of releasing not only an email address to allow voters to send in their application but also an inclusive, user friendly portal that will allow voters to submit their application electronically,” she said in a text message on Monday.

In the news conference led by Common Cause NY, Monica Bartley, community outreach organizer at The Center for Independence of the Disabled New York, pointed out that mailed ballots won’t be available in braille or large print, disenfranchising the visually-impaired. “It would be necessary for the state to provide accessible options for people with disabilities so that we can all vote and not be left out of the process,” she said.

Amy Torres, director of policy and advocacy at the Chinese-American Planning Council, warned against the “false choice between the health of voters and the health of our democracy.” She noted that immigrants with limited English proficiency could be accidentally disenfranchised, and called for “doubling down on the successful reforms like early voting, and expanding options like vote by mail so that our democracy is not only healthy during this time of crisis, but is stronger in the years ahead.”

Just as with immigrants, African-Americans could be particularly impacted in a full vote-by-mail system, said Lurie Favors, general counsel at the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, CUNY. African-American communities have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, she pointed out, and would be hard-pressed to mobilize and educate voters about the changes to the election.

There were also operational concerns. A mail voting system would require the BOE to print and send out millions of pieces of mail, a herculean task for an agency often criticized for its inefficiency and that advocates say is underfunded for its mandate.

Mostly, the experts had questions that have yet to be answered by the governor’s office, but they broadly agreed that it’s too soon to implement voting by mail for the June primary. “Right now, in the middle of the pandemic, New Yorkers do not need to be experimenting with a complete overhaul of their elections against the advice of all experts,” Lerner said.

Torres added, “If advocates are left in the dark on this, it means that even more voters are left in the dark as well.”

The June 23 election day is now just under two months away, with early voting set to kick off even sooner.

The New York Republican Party also shared some of the aforementioned concerns about a potential vote-by-mail program this week, but also worried that it could lead to fraudulent voting, though there is little evidence of that from other states. Nick Langworthy, chair of the New York GOP, said in a statement that such an executive order would be “an illegal and unconstitutional political power grab that will severely undermine the integrity of our elections.”

“Throughout this pandemic, I have worked in good faith with the Governor to make necessary adjustments to our electoral system to protect the safety of New Yorkers, but this executive action crosses a red line,” he added, responding to the NY1 report of Cuomo’s impending action that has still not materialized. “I have been willing to support a system that allows for all New Yorkers to use the threat of coronavirus to vote by absentee ballot, but automatically mailing ballots without proper security measures in place most certainly invites fraud.”

Though he referred to “numerous cases” of problems in a vote-by-mail system, he did not cite any specific examples. He also said he had spoken with elections commissioners across the state who oppose the measure and say it is impossible to conduct a vote-by-mail election, but he did not name them.

Among the issues he noted were ballots arriving late or going to the wrong address, more than one ballot being delivered and bins of ballots that were never delivered – which was apparently the case in the recent Wisconsin primaries where ballots were found after the election at a USPS processing center – and so-called “ballot harvesting'' where an individual collects absentee ballots from several people and delivers them. Collecting a ballot from a voter is not illegal in New York, where someone can be designated for the task by a voter. The only recent example of ballot harvesting fraud was in the 2018 midterms in North Carolina, where it is illegal, and involved a Republican operative who used the tactic to help a Republican congressional candidate.

Langworthy’s concerns echo those of Republicans across the country and even President Donald Trump, who has questioned efforts by several states to expand voting by mail and said it should not be considered for his reelection bid. “Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country, because they're cheaters. They're fraudulent in many cases,” Trump said at a White House briefing after the primary election in Wisconsin, which was held with in-person voting despite the risks from the pandemic, though he did not cite evidence. In March, when Democrats were seeking funding to expand absentee and mail ballots in the federal stimulus package, Trump indicated vehement opposition to it based on politics, rather than principle. “The things they had in there were crazy,” he said in a Fox & Friends interview. “They had things — levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” Neither Trump nor Langworthy seemed to take note that members of the military have voted by mail since the Civil War.

Should Governor Cuomo actually sign an executive order to implement the program, Langworthy said his party would file suit. “The ‘never let a crisis go to waste’ mentality has permeated the Governor’s office and Cuomo is using this pandemic as a reason to expand his powers and force his political agenda through,” he said. “If he goes forward with this, we will be prepared to legally challenge it at every level.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Questions and Concerns About Potential Shift to Vote-By-Mail as New Yorkers Await Further Action from Cuomo Thu, 23 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo Announces Absentee Voting for All in June; What to Know Cuomo voting New York

Gov. Cuomo votes, in person (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Wednesday that he will use his executive authority to allow all New Yorkers to vote by absentee ballot for the June 23 elections, to prevent long lines at the polls that could put people at risk of being exposed to the coronavirus. Elections that day will include party primaries for many seats and special elections open to all voters within the relevant districts.

“I've seen lines of people on television voting in other states. This is totally nonsensical,” Cuomo said at his daily coronavirus briefing on Wednesday, taking stock of presidential primary elections that have continued in other states. “God bless them for having such diligence for their civic duty that they would go stand on a line to vote. People shouldn't have to make that choice and, by executive order, all New Yorkers can vote absentee on the June 23 primaries coming up.”

New York’s presidential primary was originally scheduled for April 28 but the governor moved it to June 23, to coincide with the congressional and state primary elections. Two special elections in New York City, for a Brooklyn City Council seat and Queens Borough President, were also rescheduled for that date, as well as several special elections in other parts of the state.

There is no Republican primary for president after the party cancelled it since President Donald Trump is the only who made the ballot. There’s also a possibility that the Democratic primary could be scrapped, according to a City & State report, since Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign and former Vice President Joe Biden is now the presumptive nominee.

But, there are a variety of hotly-contested primaries still set to take place in June, as well as the aforementioned special elections.

The April 9 executive order from Cuomo suspends a portion of state election law and modifies it "to provide that due to the prevalence and community spread of COVID-19, an absentee ballot can be granted based on temporary illness and shall include the potential for contraction of the COVID-19 virus for any election held on or before June 23, 2020."

It also says that only for elections on or before June 23 of this year, election law is "modified to allow for electronic application, with no requirement for in-person signature or appearance to be able to access an absentee ballot."

Currently, state law only allows an absentee ballot for certain reasons: if a voter is expected to be absent from New York at the time of an election; if they’re unable to vote because of a temporary or permanent illness or disability; if a voter is the primary caregiver for someone who is ill or disabled; if an individual is a resident or patient of a Veterans Health Administration Hospital; or if a voter is in jail waiting for a Grand Jury decision or in prison after being convicted of a non-felony offense.

Cuomo’s order is set to open up the process, though it still relies on voters requesting an absentee ballot, falling short of the full vote-by-mail system that some want to eventually see whereby all voters are sent a ballot without having to take any action besides registering to vote and keeping their current address on file with the appropriate elections entity.

With New Yorkers being encouraged to stay at home short of an emergency and absolutely essential activities, there are ways to get an absentee ballot application without visiting a Board of Elections office.

Voters can obtain an absentee ballot application online from the state Board of Elections, in English and Spanish. The New York City Board of Elections also provides forms in Chinese, Korean, and Bengali.

Voters can also request an absentee ballot by mailing a letter to their local board of election, which must receive the request no earlier than 30 days and no later than seven days before the election. So, the earliest voters can request an absentee ballot for the June elections is May 24, which in part allows time for ballots to be finalized. And for this June’s elections, the letter or an application must be postmarked by June 16 the latest.

New York City voters can also request an application by calling 1-866-VOTE-NYC (1-866-868-3692). The city BOE will then mail the voter a postage-paid application. All voters can designate someone else to pick up an application and absentee ballot if they have a valid reason for not being able to do so personally.

June 22 is the last day to file an absentee ballot application in person or postmark an absentee ballot by mail. If another individual is designated to file the ballot, they must do so by June 23. A mailed ballot must be received by June 30 in order to count.

With the change in election dates, voter registration deadlines have also changed. To vote in the primary, an individual must postmark a registration application by May 29 – it has to be received by the BOE by June 3. May 29 is also the last day to register in person at the BOE offices. A change of address will be processed if the BOE receives it by June 3.

Since New York holds closed primaries, only those voters who have designated a political party on their voter registration can cast a ballot in that party’s primary. The deadline for changing party affiliation, however, was February 14.

It’s also important to note that while election day for June is Tuesday the 23rd, there will be an early voting period from Saturday, June 13 through Sunday, June 21. No modifications to in-person voting have been announced at this point.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this story has been updated with the language from Cuomo's relevant executive order.

Cuomo Announces Absentee Voting for All in June; What to Know Thu, 09 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Next Steps to Ensure Voter Access Amid Coronavirus mbdb flcm co

Major questions about voting during coronavirus hang in the balance (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

As the American people hunker down under a patchwork of evolving emergency orders and health directives, our communities are grappling with extraordinary circumstances disrupting and reorienting our lives and the economy. To flatten the curve of community spread during the increasingly deadly COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Cuomo has placed New York on PAUSE; Health officials have issued stay-at-home and social distancing directives; schools, playgrounds, and non-essential facilities are closed. Further restrictions may be imposed. The duration uncertain.

But when it comes to the fate of civil rights during states of emergency, historically the paradigm is less uncertain—there is an irresistible tendency across the globe for authorities to suspend the normal order in the name of imminent, amorphous threats of unknown duration, leading to the incremental curtailment of freedoms that we take for granted (like unfettered travel, transportation, assembly, and enterprise to name a few). The new normal makes prioritization of due process seem quaint, but it is even more critical when the exigencies of the moment impose security measures that inadvertently raise old voter-access hurdles to new, perhaps insurmountable heights.

In this case we can dispense with skepticism over the emergency itself. The pandemic is most certainly real. But already, COVID-19 has scrambled our democratic process. The Democratic National Committee has postponed its convention as 15 states are postponing 2020 primaries and some are adjusting voting policies so residents aren’t forced to choose between safety and casting a ballot. That’s the goal.  

Now that Governor Cuomo has postponed New York’s April presidential primary and several special elections until June, and gone even further to implement universal absentee ballot access by executive order due to the coronavirus concerns, there is a timely opportunity to rebalance and calibrate reasonable access to civil rights for the moment we are in—a perpetual state of emergency during pivotal 2020 elections. To do so, policymakers in Albany and administrators at the State Board of Elections and our 58 county boards are grappling with at least three significant voter access questions.

First, what changes will need to be made to the traditional election day footprint, from polling place siting and layouts to staffing, to comply with public health directives that will continue to evolve? Second, is there a feasible, fair, and secure way to expand and scale New York’s traditionally limited vote-by-mail program as an alternative to voting in person? And third, what role should New York’s new nine-day early voting period play in calibrating this balance between public safety and voter access?

As counties prepare for consolidated June primaries and the 2020 general election, they do so amid much uncertainty about the trajectory and time-horizon of the COVID-19 pandemic. Will this all be a distant memory by late June? Will the pandemic be with us in November, depressing turnout and spreading even further, as occurred in the 1918 midterms?

Without the benefit of hindsight, policy-makers must plan for a circumstance where it may be impossible to staff or unwise to deploy the traditional sprawling election day footprint, with voters assigned to one of thousands of polling places across the state, many of which are sited in facilities deemed too dangerous or vulnerable to be open to the public today, and based on siting schematics and occupancy assumptions unworkable under the public health directives currently in place.

While we are eager to embrace modern, tech-based approaches to our antiquated voting laws that would obviate much of this conversation, mobile voting is in its infancy and comes with documented and unresolved security pitfalls while perpetuating the digital divide in our communities. Moreover, without any infrastructure in place, it could be folly to roll out an entirely new and untested system now. So what tools are actually available during the present emergency?

To prepare, the State Board of Elections should develop and issue a continuity guidance, to be implemented as needed, that outlines and directs the tools counties should use to maintain access, protect public health, and responsibly reduce the election day footprint. 

First and foremost, local administrators must embrace early voting and the vote-by-mail alternatives available as the principle means for shifting turnout density away from Election Day.

However, New York has a longstanding culture of Election Day voting and is not equipped to entirely jettison that model now. Given that reality, county boards will need to reassess siting plans and have the flexibility to consolidate and reallocate election districts, polling places, and resources, with timely notice of the changes provided to impacted voters. In some cases, alternative sites will be needed so counties can relocate polling places away from the most vulnerable facilities. Boards should adjust traditional staffing plans to account for less poll worker recruitment and apply any resources saved to boosting absentee and early voting processing capacity. 

As sites are evaluated through this lens, resident voters of impacted facilities must be proactively offered viable alternatives to vote. Cleaning and preventive measures should comport with the CDC Guidance on preventing transmission at polling places, including the spacing and cleaning of equipment and high-touch areas, the use of protective gear by poll workers and provision of hand sanitizer and single-use instruments to voters. The U.S. Election Advisory Commission has also issued cleaning guidance for election equipment. 

With regard to expanding and scaling vote-by-mail, the governor's new executive order is a great start, but the state Legislature should return to Albany this spring and codify a public health exception. In March the governor had signaled his approval for such an expansion in his Executive Order 202.2 as a result of COVID-19 concerns. The order permitted any voter to vote by mail “due to the prevalence and community spread of COVID-19” such that “temporary illness...shall include the potential for contraction of the COVID-19 virus” and made accommodations to streamline the application process slightly by allowing voters to apply by email or fax.

In anticipation of conducting 2020 elections in this manner, the bipartisan leadership of the Erie County Board of Elections modified its absentee ballot request form, but uniformity here is highly preferable. Beyond merely extending and expanding this order, policymakers and boards need to use this time well to responsibly address several voting rights concerns and administrative feasibility issues.

To expand vote-by-mail opportunities effectively and fairly, the State should cover the costs of return postage for applications and ballots so voters are not forced to buy stamps. Because New Yorkers have not traditionally voted by mail, they should be invited and encouraged to do so for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency. From there, things get more complicated.

Policymakers in New York have been exploring the feasibility and legality of providing every voter with an absentee ballot without the need for a request, as five states do. But those systems were built and scaled up over time, require significant state resources and advanced planning, and are not a panacea embraced by all communities. Indeed, the Brennan Center for Justice argues that “in-person voting options consistent with public health must also be maintained.”

At a minimum, the county boards should be directed to include notice about a vote-by-mail alternative ahead of each election event. Administrators should streamline ballot requests, a multistep process that often involves two or more snail-mail exchanges. To do so, boards should mail registered voters a postage-prepaid application form with a notice about the upcoming election as well as a link or QR code to permit submission of requests online as an alternative. These methods may permit boards to extend the deadline to request a ballot, and all completed ballots should be counted so long as they substantially comply with formalities and are postmarked by election day, dropped off at polling places, or curbside at the BOE and other convenient locations. Envelopes should be self-adhesive or voters could be instructed not to lick them.

Under such an approach, inactive and recently-purged voters should be sent the mailer as well, along with an affidavit (provisional) ballot if they do apply. Careful, health-based accommodations will be needed for ballot delivery to facilities housing vulnerable residents. 

Other traditional voter protection considerations, like safeguards for persons with disabilities and language assistance for New York’s diverse communities take on new dimensions as more New Yorkers vote by mail, as does the absence of a tracking system for mail ballots and ballot requests. These are not new or hypothetical concerns; boards need to work hand-in-hand with the Post Office to address them. 

For many reasons, expanding vote-by-mail represents part of the 2020 equation for shifting turnout density away from Election Day, along with early voting. Fortunately, New York’s early voting law took effect in 2019 and will be available to all voters across the state for nine days this June and this fall, for at least 60 hours. Most counties allow voters to cast a ballot at any site. Localities can always provide more early voting locations and hours than the law requires, and in 2019 eighteen localities large and small, urban and rural, red, blue, and purple did so for the convenience of more than a quarter-million New Yorkers who voted early. Let’s build on that success.

Long before there was COVID-19, it was obvious to most New Yorkers that directing millions of us to an assigned poll site on the single Election Day was poor policy that placed undue stress on administrators while creating hardship and disincentive for voters. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy provided another reason to avoid placing all our democratic eggs in one basket.

Enter COVID-19, and the withering arguments against early voting—against de-densifying crowded Election Day poll sites by spreading voter turnout across time and space seem ridiculous. And yet there is concern that some administrators who were lukewarm about early voting to begin with may refuse to lean into these programs now, and instead attempt to contract them. 

As daunting as some of these challenges may seem, few of them are actually new. What is new is the public health emergency, the directives to social distance, and the widespread consensus in favor of remedial actions like those discussed here. Moving in this direction would increase access, fairness, uniformity, and predictability for voters, administrators, campaigns, and officials. 

Doing so now, well in advance of upcoming contests, will provide administrators with as much lead time as possible to plan and scale up capacity for increased vote-by-mail processing; will provide campaigns with clear rules before they finalize voter mobilization and turnout strategies; and will allow community-based organizations to educate the public about the changes. Together we can protect public health and exercise our rights, but the time for the State to act is now.

City Council Member Ben Kallos represents parts of Manhattan. Jarret Berg is the co-founder of Vote Early NY. On Twitter @BenKallos & @JarretBerg.

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Next Steps to Ensure Voter Access Amid Coronavirus Wed, 08 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Electeds, Advocates Rally Behind New Bill to Expand Municipal Voting Rights to Some Non-Citizen Residents electeds yr

Thursday's rally (photo: Samar Khurshid)

About 1 million foreign-born New York City residents who have permanent residency status or are legally authorized to work in the United States could become eligible to vote in municipal elections under a new bill introduced before the New York City Council on Thursday.

Sponsored by Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, a Manhattan Democrat, the bill (Intro. 1867) would extend the franchise to green card and work permit holders who can show they have lived in the five boroughs for at least 30 days. The bill is the latest attempt to give immigrant New Yorkers a voice in the city’s democracy, after previous proposals failed years ago. It has the support of 26 other Council Members, a majority in the 51-member body, as well as Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who can sponsor but not vote on bills.

“The immigrant voting right will be expanded, [it] will make our democracy stronger because it will connect close to 1 million New Yorkers with the right to vote,” Rodriguez said, pointing to his own past as a green card holder for years before he was naturalized. He appeared at a rally on the steps of City Hall with advocates from more than 40 groups to launch the #OurCityOurVote campaign, just prior to the bill’s introduction at a City Council meeting.

Allowing a largely disenfranchised immigrant population to vote would make the city’s elections more democratic, Rodriguez emphasized, by requiring candidates running for local office to ask for support from the immigrant communities that they seek to represent but that have no say in who represents them. Immigrants pay taxes that fund city services they rely on. “Allowing more people to vote does not weaken our democracy. It makes it stronger. It brings more people to the table and encourages more involvement,” he said.

As several Council members and advocates after him noted, noncitizen voting is not a novel notion. As recently as 2002, noncitizens could vote in elections to community school boards before they were dissolved by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg after he won mayoral control of city schools from Albany.

“This idea that we’re talking about is not a new idea,” said Council Member Carlos Menchaca, a Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the Committee on Immigration. “We are restoring this ability for our residents who are not citizens to vote.” Other jurisdictions across the country also allow some form of noncitizen voting in municipal polls, including in Takoma Park, Maryland and San Francisco.

Council Member Daniel Dromm, a Queens Democrat who unsuccessfully sought to pass similar legislation in his first term in 2010, noted that 68% of the residents of his district are recent immigrants, and about 55% of his district cannot vote. “This is really about empowerment and enfranchisement of our immigrant communities and other communities as well,” he said. “Because if you have rule by the minority, which is what I have in my district, that is not an American principle. The American principle that we all stand by is no taxation without representation.”

Though the bill has more than the requisite votes to pass, it has yet to receive the support of Council Speaker Corey Johnson. When he was running for speaker, Johnson said he would support voting rights in municipal elections for permanent residency holders. Rodriguez’s bill goes beyond that. Asked about the bill at a news conference on Thursday, Johnson said it could raise legal concerns. “I have to look at it, I haven't done that yet,” he said. “I will go through the legislative process. I'll meet with Councilman Rodriguez and the other folks who are involved, and then we'll have a conversation around it. But I haven't had a chance to sit down, understand the details.”

He later added, “Given that it's really important that we do things by the book, and also given that we have a xenophobic, racist president who has weaponized [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] across the country, I want to be really careful about how we do things.”

Council Member Joe Borelli, a Staten Island Republican, said he intends to vote against the bill. He said in a Twitter thread that the measure should go through a ballot referendum as with other changes to the City Charter. “This way, it can’t be used as a ploy to change the electorate for the current election cycle and benefit anyone now running, and so that our current citizen-voters have a say in whether or not their votes get diluted. This seems like a play to change the election map for the next city races, and devalues New York citizens’ vote in the process.”

Council Member Eric Ulrich, a Republican from Queens, was more direct. “Should Non-Citizen New Yorkers Have the Right to Vote? I say no!” he tweeted.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office did not provide comment on the bill by publication time.

To those assembled outside City Hall on Thursday, the bill is particularly poignant at a time when Republican legislative majorities in conservative states are making efforts to limit access to voting either through cumbersome voter identification measures or through bureaucratic election administration rules. “For too long, members of our communities who live here, work here, raise their families here and pay billions of dollars in taxes have been shut out of the process,” said Theresa Thanjan, manager of member engagement for the New York Immigration Coalition. “We would like to open it up now for them to have a voice in the direction of our city.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Electeds, Advocates Rally Behind New Bill to Expand Municipal Voting Rights to Some Non-Citizen Residents Thu, 23 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
State Senate Set to Move Automatic Registration Amid Early 2020 Voting Package and cuomo westchester kc office

(photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

State lawmakers are poised to make a second attempt at launching the process to legalize automatic voter registration for eligible New Yorkers who interact with certain government agencies.

Mirroring the auspicious beginning of the 2019 session, which in the first weeks saw a historic spate of voting reforms passed by the new two-house Democratic majority, lawmakers say another package of election bills, including automatic voter registration (AVR), is likely to pass the State Senate as soon as Thursday, with an Assembly companion in the near future.

“We’re starting [Thursday] with a package of bills expanding on voter rights,” Senator Liz Krueger said Wednesday afternoon on the Max & Murphy podcast. “We did a whole package on improving access to voting and voter rights last year...we have more bills that we intend to pass relating to expanded access to voting and improvements in early voting.”

“We’ll be passing 9 or 10 bills,” Krueger said, “making sure that we have a system for automatic voter registration” and a variety of changes to early voting laws, including “exempting public schools from being early voting locations” given the burdens it can place on school facilities.

A press release from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office outlining his 2020 agenda, sent just after his State of the State speech Wednesday, expressed support for automatic voter registration, claiming that it will improve registration and turnout rates and making additional commitments to make the program accessible through the internet. “We will ensure that all automatic voter registration opportunities are available online and we will enable New Yorkers to simply apply to register to vote on the State Board of Elections website if they choose to do so,” the press release said.

Voting reformers in New York have sought some form of automated voter registration for years but were stymied by a divided Legislature, particularly the Republican-controlled Senate majority. The Democratic takeover of the Senate won in 2019 allowed the chamber to pass an “opt-out” AVR system, where applications for services at designated state and local agencies -- like the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Department of Health -- would be integrated with voter registration forms, unless the service-seeker affirmatively declines to register.

Days before the end of the 2019 session, the Assembly, also controlled by Democrats, pulled its version of the bill due to an error in the language that meant people attempting to opt-out might be inadvertently opting in. In a joint statement in June, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, promised to revisit the legislation in the next session.

“Due to a significant technical issue with the Automatic Voter Registration Act (S6457A /A8280A) that would have impacted the intent of the legislation, the Senate Majority will recall the bill and introduce a corrected version. We will pass this updated bill at the next available opportunity when we are in legislative session,” the statement read.

“It’s very simple. It was just a typographical error that provided the opposite instruction of what should have been in terms of how a form should have been filled out,” explained Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat and the bill’s Senate sponsor, in an interview Tuesday.

“We did make a commitment to pass it at the first available opportunity in the next session, this upcoming session,” he added. “Now you are hearing that we are true to our word and are, in fact, passing it.”

Legislative leaders were quick to tell the public that postponing the legislation until 2020 would not have an effect on its implementation date. “This action will not impact the implementation of this corrected legislation because, like the original legislation, it does not go into effect until 2021,” wrote Stewart-Cousins and Heastie in the June statement. However, the language of the bill provides a range of when it can go into effect, depending on when the State Board of Elections establishes the infrastructure to implement it, with a deadline of two years after it becomes law. If the bill passes both houses of the Legislature this year and is not signed by the governor until the end-of-the-year deadline, AVR may not be implemented until December 2022, after the next statewide election.

Reformers believe automating registration and other voting changes will make it easier to participate in elections, especially for people who have been historically disengaged from the democratic process. Combining agency service applications with voter registration forms means individuals will have to provide the necessary personal information -- like name and address -- only once. Under an “opt-out” system, service recipients have to take affirmative action only when they are choosing not to register to vote or when they want to be affiliated with a particular political party for the purposes of voting in a primary -- all of which will be possible on the integrated form.

The government agency that interfaces with a potential voter is responsible for submitting the registration form to the State Board of Elections, which then transmits the form to local election administrators.

During debates over the bill, immigration advocates and critics alike expressed concern that an AVR system would capture people ineligible to vote, endangering people with precarious immigration statuses and enabling voter fraud. Those concerns were compounded when the state passed the Green Light law, which allows undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses and took effect toward the end of last year.

Lawmakers responded to those concerns in the original legislation by including safe harbor language that outlines a presumption of innocence for someone who fails to opt-out, even if they are ineligible to vote. The legislation also affirms that registering to vote automatically does not constitute a claim to citizenship, which could otherwise jeopardize an immigrant’s legal status.

“People who are not citizens should not be registering to vote, and we want to make sure the law does not accidentally create that scenario,” Gianaris said.

As Krueger said, the State Senate plans to pass a host of other voting reforms Thursday, a number of which build on the state’s new early voting system established in 2019, as first reported by NY1’s Zack Fink and the New York Daily News. The Assembly is expected to consider the package in the near future, according to the Daily News.

“The Senate Democratic Majority will rollout legislation empowering more New Yorkers to take advantage of early voting opportunities and exercise their Constitutional right to vote,” reads a Wednesday advisory, previewing a Thursday morning press conference to be led by Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, just before the Senate holds its second day of 2020 session. “These bills build on the historic voting reforms passed under the Senate Democratic Majority during the 2019 Legislative Session.”

A spokesperson for the Assembly sponsor of AVR said discussions in that chamber are happening. “Assemblywoman Walker is meeting with Assembly leadership regarding AVR and we are eagerly awaiting [its] passage,” wrote a spokesperson for Assembly Member Latrice Walker, a Brooklyn Democrat who is carrying the bill in the Assembly, in an email. Speaker Carl Heastie’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The package the Senate appears poised to pass, possibly with the Assembly following suit, also includes changes to authorize counties to set up portable early voting sites, meaning local boards of elections may set up additional polling locations to serve hard-to-reach areas for a shorter span within the early voting period. Other bills expected to pass the Senate Thursday deal with the criteria for siting early voting locations, including one that bars the use of public schools -- a source of conflict during the first year of implementation. Others would require more public notice about elections and college campuses to have designated polling places.

“New York ranks among the bottom states in voter participation and our majority has made a concerted effort to go from among the worst to among the first in the country,” said Gianaris. “That’s why we did early voting, we’re moving towards same-day registration, we’re moving towards making it easier to vote by mail, and AVR is an important plank in a democracy agenda that is going to make it easier for more people to participate in the process.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Ben Max contributed to this story.

State Senate Set to Move Automatic Registration Amid Early 2020 Voting Package Wed, 08 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Ahead of 2020 Elections, Cuomo Signed Affidavit Ballot Bill That Roiled Queens DA Recount Cuomo signs legislation

(photo: Governor's Office)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Ahead of 2020 Elections, Cuomo Signed Affidavit Ballot Bill That Roiled Queens DA Recount Tue, 07 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Legislature Evaluates Inaugural Early Voting Period in New York, Looks Ahead to Daunting 2020 Election Year senator mich giana

(photo: Senator Michael Gianaris)

At post-election oversight hearings in New York, where voting is perennially plagued by episodes of malfunction and inefficiency, it is not common to hear politicians praise election administrators. But praise for both the city and state boards of elections was one of the overriding themes of a Wednesday hearing held by state legislators, convened to examine the inaugural implementation of early voting in New York State.

As officials commended both bodies’ efforts to adjust to a slew of new voting reforms in a short 10-month window, they also looked ahead to the 2020 election cycle with some concerns. Among them are how elections administrators plan to run the new and far more complicated early voting system during a year when turnout is expected to be very high given the presidential election, as well as congressional and state legislative races. The hearing also highlighted findings made during the state’s first early voting period, which was largely seen as a test-run for future election cycles.

“The board has often been a punching bag for people upset about the administration of elections but in this case you deserve credit for doing it right and doing it well. This was a first time endeavor for a lot of folks,” said Senator Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat, speaking to New York City Board of Elections Executive Director Michael Ryan at Wednesday’s hearing in Manhattan, held jointly by the Senate and Assembly.

“That being said, we got through the one piece, but now next year is going to be the regular season, and we are going to have to anticipate a much larger turnout and a much larger demand,” he added. The presidential primary will be in April, followed by congressional and state primaries in June, and the general election in November.

The State Legislature passed early voting this January as part of a host of election reforms that advocates had long pushed for with scant results when Republicans controlled the Senate, a longtime reign that ended after the 2018 elections. With Democrats in control of both houses and the executive chamber this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bills into law on January 24, officially starting the clock to implement early voting by the November general election.

Going forward, the statute requires early voting to be offered for nine days leading up to election day in primary, general, and special elections, including weekends and evening hours. Counties are required to establish at least one in-person early voting site for every 50,000 registered voters. The sites must be accessible and secure, and must have the capacity to store sensitive voting material and machinery for the entire period they are being used, a big ask for many public facilities.

According to unofficial results tallied by the State Board of Elections, 2.98 million ballots were cast statewide in this fall’s elections, including 256,251 ballots cast during the early voting (many ballots including absentee and affidavits are still being counted).

In New York City, where five counties (the boroughs) fall under the city Board of Elections, total turnout was unofficially 737,918, of which just over 60,000 were cast early. The overall turnout was more than three times turnout in 2015, the last city election without a mayoral contest.

Ryan pointed out that over the nine day early voting period, poll sites were open a total of 74 hours, 14 more than was required by statute. A source of some controversy, city administrators selected 61 facilities to use as early voting sites, fewer than the number many advocates and elected officials wanted to see, but more than required. To staff them, 6,140 poll workers were hired and trained and an additional 31,238 were trained to work on Election Day.

To ensure early voting sites could accommodate a wider catchment of election districts and ballot layouts, and to help ensure that voters don’t vote multiple times in the same election, state lawmakers authorized counties to purchase electronic poll books that could track a voter’s ballot from an early voting site to an Election Day poll site.

New York City purchased 4,714 electronic poll book tablets from a St. Louis-based vendor whose technology was compatible with so-called “ballot-on-demand” printers, which could produce a voter’s unique ballot on the spot, rather than requiring early voting sites to stock a prohibitively large range of pre-printed ballots.

The printers produce ballots that do not have perforated edges, one of the factors blamed for the high volume of ballot scanner jams in what many described as a disastrous 2018 election. That year, the city saw unprecedented (for recent times) turnout of roughly 39 percent of registered voters, compared to 14 percent this year. Yet, for an off-off-year election with few high-profile races, the turnout this year was relatively high. In 2015, just 6 percent of registered voters went to the polls. There were additional races and ballot proposals that helped drive turnout this year, including a special election for public advocate and charter revision questions, but many also point to a continued Trump era boom in voter participation.

Despite the turnout, the city BOE recorded only 77 instances of jammed scanners over the entire early voting and Election Day period, Ryan proudly reported.

The positive results discussed Wednesday were couched by the daunting prospect of having to repeat the process at least three more times in a presidential election year. That number could be greater in some jurisdictions, like Queens where Borough President Melinda Katz’s election to district attorney will mean a special election is held in the first few months of the year.

Among the concerns raised by both elected officials and administrators is the fact that early voting sites will need to be open to the public for more than 30 days next year to meet the nine-day statutory requirement plus additional time to prepare a site. That can be a difficult task for schools, churches, and community centers, which the city used this fall to serve as centers where voters could cast ballots early.

At the same time, voting rights advocates and elected officials are pushing for more early voting sites to make the new system more accessible.

“The one site per 50,000 voters standard already permits counties to designate too few early voting sites to guarantee equitable access, but the provision that allows the state’s most populous counties to provide far fewer sites per voter is unworkable,” wrote Perry Grossman, a voting rights attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, in his testimony to the legislators.

“We did notice where there were more [early voting sites] there was an increased [voter turnout] percentage,” said Robert Brehm, co-executive director of the State Board of Elections, earlier in hearing.

Another desire of the advocates is to have early voting sites that any voter can use, rather than having to be assigned to one, as was the case this fall. Only four local boards, including New York City’s, had assigned early voting sites, but many of them, especially in rural counties, had only one site overall.

Educators and parents throughout the city raised a number of concerns this year about using schools as early voting sites including security and the length of time students would be without their gymnasium or cafeteria. Of the 61 early voting sites in New York City, 33 were in public schools, whereas only one other county in the state used a school for early voting, according to a recent report in Gothamist. The de Blasio administration is now urging the city BOE to designate sites other than schools, Gothamist reported.

But schools are an attractive choice for election administrators juggling a number of considerations including whether sites meet accessibility requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act and whether they would cost the city additional funding to use.

Brehm says renting space is not something that has been widely done before but it may be an option boards of elections will consider in the future to meet the demands of a growing culture of early voting.

“We need broader authority from the State Legislature to designate locations, and some structure of what compensation should look like for these locations,” Ryan, the city BOE executive director, told the lawmakers Wednesday.

Reacting to the idea after the hearing, Senator Gianaris told Gotham Gazette, “If we are going to do that we should not open it up to wide discretion, there should be set parameters for what the city is willing to pay so that you don’t get into some extraneous negotiation where all of the sudden you’re paying much more than is justified for this.”

“The State Board recognizes that of any topic, poll site designation, will be in the forefront of conversation for many election cycles,” reads the State Board of Elections report on early voting, which was presented Wednesday.

Funding was a general concern for Brehm and his colleague, Co-Executive Director Todd Valentine, who said counties were forced to deploy new resources to meet the demands of dozens of voting reforms passed in Albany this year, without additional money from the state. The funding could go towards communications, additional training, security, and a host of other needs still being evaluated in the post-election season.

Brem pointed out that using new technology, like electronic poll books, and the new early voting system in general has raised new questions about what communications and training local boards need to undertake.

One issue raised by a number of lawmakers was the scannable card mailed to voters, intended to streamline the check-in process at poll sites. The cards are not mandatory to vote but poll workers were instructed to ask for them, only as an option, to help move the lines. Many voters reported being confused by the question and believed they were being told the card was required in order to receive a ballot. Some voters believed they were being asked to show ID to vote.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Legislature Evaluates Inaugural Early Voting Period in New York, Looks Ahead to Daunting 2020 Election Year Wed, 20 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000