Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/2171 Mon, 18 Jan 2021 05:11:57 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Let’s Honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Restoring Voting Rights to Tens of Thousands of New Yorkers https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/10078-honor-martin-luther-king-restoring-voting-rights-new-yorkers https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/10078-honor-martin-luther-king-restoring-voting-rights-new-yorkers MLK Jr arc of justice

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the arc of justice (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)


Today we celebrate the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and in July we will honor and mourn the first anniversary of the passing of Rep. John Lewis, who marched side-by-side at Selma and together championed voting rights as a key aspect of the Civil Rights struggle for Black people in the United States. 

In recent weeks we have witnessed both the best of democracy -- massive voter turnout, particularly among Black Americans, overcoming voter suppression tactics to drive historic U.S. Senate wins in the deep south -- and the worst of democracy -- white supremacists running roughshod through the U.S. Capitol, leaving five people dead.

In recent years, across this country, we have watched in dismay as voter suppression tactics targeting people of color have regained a foothold through both laws and intimidation, with the support of powerful state actors and right-wing militias alike.   

Preventing people from voting was such a significant strategy of Donald Trump’s failed re-election campaign that he went so far as to undermine the U.S. Postal Service in order to limit the efficacy of mail-in ballots. 

Democracy is an act, the late Rep. Lewis stated in his final address to the nation. "The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it."

So what would you say if I told you that New York State retains in its laws a Jim Crow-era voter ban, written explicitly to disenfranchise Black people in the aftermath of formal emancipation? 

The racial impact of the targeted disenfranchisement of individuals on parole cannot be overstated, given how generations of mass criminalization and mass incarceration have targeted Black and Latino communities. Criminal convictions have been used to suppress Black voters since the day we won even the most tenuous right to the franchise. 

New York State, long a progressive beacon in the nation, must take a principled stand against this trend, to promote voting, especially in communities targeted for voter suppression.

One easy immediate fix is to codify Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order on voting rights for people on parole, through legislation currently on the table in the state Legislature (bill S830). The governor’s order provides pardons for the purpose of voting to most people on parole, and is a critical first step; but we must do more.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, only about 1,000 of the 30,000 people who newly received voting rights thanks to the governor’s order actually registered to vote, because of confusion in the process. In addition to ensuring that restoring voting rights is enshrined in the law, the bill would provide notice and an opportunity to register to vote upon release from prison.

There should be no confusion among eligible voters as to whether or not they legally have the right to vote. The continued success of our democracy, undermined substantially during the past four years, depends on this. Iowa, California, Washington D.C., and Florida took significant steps towards righting this wrong in 2020. Will New York State stand up and be next?

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Rev. Kirsten John Foy is President and CEO of The Arc of Justice. On Twitter @KirstenJohnFoy.

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

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Let’s Honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Restoring Voting Rights to Tens of Thousands of New Yorkers Sun, 17 Jan 2021 05:00:00 +0000
How Blockchain Technology Can Boost Voter Confidence in New York City and Beyond https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/10027-blockchain-technology-boost-voter-confidence-new-york-city https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/10027-blockchain-technology-boost-voter-confidence-new-york-city voters on line Queens early

Voters on line for early voting (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Blockchain – many know it is a technology of the moment, but few understand how it works. It’s just one of those things that sounds important, but so many eyes glaze over when the phrase is used. But more and more, the use of blockchain technology is becoming commonplace, and it’s time we consider using it to make sure elections are as secure as possible.

First, the basics.

Blockchain is known as a “decentralized ledger” -- meaning that whenever a change is made to any digital information it contains, the change is recorded in multiple locations with a time and date stamp.  These locations are known as “nodes.” So, it would be next to impossible for someone to simultaneously change any information in all the nodes without detection. That information is incredibly secure.

First used in cryptocurrency, blockchain’s use has expanded in recent years, to facilitate contracts, track supply chains, and conduct business virtually. But its potential in elections is especially exciting.

There are already some examples of blockchain at work in our democratic process. A handful of states have tested mobile application-based blockchain voting, including in the recent national elections. For example, voters in one Utah County had the option to use it to vote; this was so successful that the Utah State Legislature has introduced a bill to allow voting via blockchain in off-year municipal elections as well.

West Virginia also allowed members of the military and Americans overseas to cast their votes via a blockchain-based platform in 2018. When we consider the impact this could have in New York State, it is especially intriguing. After all, the 2021 New York City municipal elections are on the horizon – off-year contests that historically attract relatively few voters.

Here is how blockchain voting would work: Voters would be issued a blockchain ID or unique token whose digital voting activity can be tracked and traced, as we said, up and down the highway of information and right back to the source (the blockchain ID is simply an ID, not something that can track your digital or physical movements).  Registered voters and new voters could authenticate their blockchain ID through an easy-to-verify process, similar to what one does when signing digital contracts or acquiring a driver’s license.

Once a voter’s identity is confirmed and the blockchain ID is authenticated, a platform with an application attached to it would be sync’d, similar to what took place in Utah County and West Virginia.  This could be done in-person at polling stations as well. Once the vote is submitted, the vote is immutable and locked in. Each “voter key” always follows that voter so election boards would know who that voter is -- and where the vote is coming from. Hacking is pretty much impossible.

To be clear: it would be voluntary. No voter would be forced to use this technology. Therefore, it can never be used as a way to disenfranchise voters by creating onerous standards for identification.

Other benefits to incorporating blockchain in voting include:

The results are instantaneous as the time-stamped votes are tallied right away. This helps ensure voter and others know who their leaders are, avoiding the lag time we saw in some races, including New York.

It promotes social distancing in a way that early voting could not as people waited hours to vote in long lines less than six feet apart.

Mobile voting will become the norm for the next generation, already adept at using phones to conduct many daily tasks.

It promotes voter equity. Nearly everyone has a mobile phone, a tablet, an electronic device, or at a minimum access to a wireless hotspot that ensures virtually everyone of all backgrounds has access to the polls, including voters from lower-income neighborhoods, voters stationed overseas, or voters with disabilities. The more ways citizens have to vote securely, the better.

It creates cost efficiencies over time through reduced costs of running elections, including the time saved in faster and more accurate results that could reduce the days of counting votes and need for recounts.

While we should not go from zero to 60 when it comes to blockchain-based voting, we should continue to gradually incorporate its use and build upon its successes to-date. In the future, blockchain voting should be “on the ballot.”

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Chao Cheng-Shorland and Allen Alishahi are co-founders of the blockchain startups ShelterZoom & DocuWalk.

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

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How Blockchain Technology Can Boost Voter Confidence in New York City and Beyond Mon, 28 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
New York City Sees First-Ever Balance Among Early, Absentee & Election Day Voting https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9997-new-york-city-2020-balance-early-absentee-election-day-voting-turnout https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9997-new-york-city-2020-balance-early-absentee-election-day-voting-turnout 4 polling sites

Voting in NYC in a pandemic (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


The first presidential election in New York City to have both early and universal mail-in voting showed a significant portion of the electorate taking advantage of each of the new voting methods.

Across the city, roughly 42% of those who voted cast ballots in-person on Election Day, while 37% voted at an early voting site, and 22% mailed in ballots, according to the New York City Campaign Finance Board. At over 3 million votes citywide, turnout rose by close to 300,000 votes from 2016 figures, although the turnout rate among registered voters was roughly the same (55% in 2020 vs. 56% in 2016), as more people joined the rolls in the intervening four years. Reformers who have been pushing these measures for years, and in some cases decades, say the broad spread vindicates their efforts.

Advocates have sought to make voting simpler and more accessible for years by expanding the number of options to cast a ballot, along with other reforms to streamline voter registration and shore up voter protections. High on the agenda was early voting, which passed the state Legislature and was signed into law in 2019, and universal or "no-excuse" absentee voting, which has not been fully codified but was enacted temporarily by executive order and subsequent legislation during the coronavirus pandemic.

"When we passed landmark voting reforms, including Early Voting, we had no idea how critical they would be to helping more New Yorkers vote during a pandemic," wrote State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat and chair of the Senate's election committee, in an email to Gotham Gazette. For years, election reforms had been blocked by a coalition of Senate Republicans and breakaway Democrats known as the Independent Democratic Conference, one of whom Myrie defeated in 2018 as mainline Democrats took control of the chamber and thus all of state government.

"We expanded access for voters because it was the right thing to do. Of course, this year has been unprecedented and it wound up being even more important for people to have multiple ways, on multiple days, to cast their votes safely and ensure they would be counted," Myrie wrote.

In the general election, over 3 million people voted in New York City, a significant uptick from four years ago, driven at least in part by the atmosphere of heightened political engagement during the Trump years. Only about three-quarters of that turnout was in-person -- either on Election Day or during the nine-day early voting period that preceded it -- the rest were mail-ins.

New York has never before had universal absentee voting, making comparisons to previous years difficult. In the spring of 2020, Governor Andrew Cuomo made it an option for all New Yorkers by making the risk of spreading COVID-19 an acceptable reason for requiring an absentee ballot. The executive order led that number to explode, from roughly 335,000 absentee ballots processed in the 2016 and 2018 general elections, combined, to over 660,000 in the 2020 general election. (The figures do not include the number of absentee ballots that were rejected, which happens to roughly a fifth every election cycle, usually on technical grounds. Some of the rules that led to frequent disqualification were changed by lawmakers in Albany between the primary and general elections this year.)

In 2019, the first year early voting was in effect, roughly 60,000 New Yorkers took advantage of the option in the general election, which saw low turnout typical of a so-called off-years with no high-profile races. In the 2020 primaries in June, there was a massive increase in absentee voting amid some of the worst days of the covid outbreak and few people cast early in-person ballots. That changed drastically in the general election, when the virus was under some control, and after voting advocates and elected leaders, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, put significant effort into encouraging voters who were able to vote early.

Some boroughs had a more even spread among the three voting methods than others.

In Manhattan, the distribution across Election-Day voting, early voting, and absentee voting was virtually even, with roughly a third of voters casting ballots through each option. The rest of the boroughs saw far smaller participation by mail, with the Bronx and Staten Island showing the least affinity for voting by post.

Staten Island had the greatest enthusiasm for early voting with 48% of those who voted in the borough casting ballots that way. The lowest early voting participation rate was in Queens, where only 32% of those who voted did so early in person.

The Bronx, followed by Queens, had the highest participation rates for voting on Election Day, with 49% and 47% of those who voted, respectively, casting ballots in person on the last day before polls closed.

"We've witnessed that flexible voting options better protect our rights and our health, eliminating the need to choose among them, particularly during an emergency. Both 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy caused election disruptions in New York that should never be repeated," said Jarret Berg, co-founder of the nonprofit Vote Early New York. Berg warned the latest figures should be viewed with caution because it is impossible to gauge the impact of factors like the pandemic, "the triumph of 'work from home' technology and culture," and reaction to the Trump administration.

"While the capacity and design of both programs should be further optimized to meet local community needs, the inaugural rollout of early voting and mainstream vote from home was an unquestionable success," Berg told Gotham Gazette. "As the resourcing and infrastructure for these new programs improve and the public becomes accustomed to them, I anticipate the proportion of voters who are comfortable using them will continue to grow."

“More choices means more people voting," wrote State Senator Michael Gianaris, the deputy majority leader from Queens and a long-time advocate for election reform, in an email.

"This year we saw voters in record numbers avail themselves of the multitude of options given to them, which affirms Senate Democrats historic electoral reforms," he wrote. Gianaris is now setting his sights on one of the next election reform battles -- automatic voter registration. A bill that would require certain state agencies to register eligible voters when they provide the necessary personal information passed in July but has yet to be signed by Cuomo.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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New York City Sees First-Ever Balance Among Early, Absentee & Election Day Voting Tue, 15 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Ranked-Choice Voting is Coming; NYC Must Immediately Fund a Public Education Campaign https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9958-ranked-choice-voting-coming-nyc-fund-public-education https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9958-ranked-choice-voting-coming-nyc-fund-public-education early voting pres

Voters at work (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


The combination of early voting, vote-by-mail, and the desire to vote out Donald Trump made 2020 a huge year for voting in New York City. Despite long lines, when voters are given the right resources and awareness, we can raise the level of participation.  

As we turn towards 2021, the next chapter for voting in New York City will be the implementation of ranked-choice voting (RCV) for special and party primary elections for city government positions. If properly implemented, it will further improve our electoral process. But it’s an open question whether our government is up to the task of strong implementation, including extensive voter education, and the lack of effort and funding so far does not inspire confidence.

Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank candidates based on their preferences, from choosing one up to five candidates in order. If a single candidate does not reach 50% of first-place votes, the last place candidate is eliminated and their votes are reallocated to the remaining candidates based on those voters’ second choices, with candidate elimination and vote reallocation continuing until a candidate hits 50%. 

When properly implemented, ranked-choice voting is good for our democracy and our city:

It is a more accurate representation of the electorate and a fairer process.

It empowers voters to make more candidate preferences heard.

It forces campaigns to build broad coalitions -- to focus on winning over a majority of voters in their districts.

It decreases negative campaigning.

Ranked-choice voting will be a major change in how city officials are elected, yet most voters are unaware of what’s coming or how RCV will work. City government, having adopted this new system through a charter revision commission and voter referendum, has a responsibility to educate voters or risk disenfranchising large swaths of voters who are confused by the process. With the first ranked-choice election scheduled for a special election that will culminate on February 2 in Queens’ City Council District 24, a seat recently vacated by Rory Lancman, we cannot allow any more delays in launching a major public education campaign to ensure all voters understand ranked-choice voting. 

After that special election, we will quickly have at least three more special City Council elections, followed by the June citywide primaries for Mayor, Comptroller, Public Advocate, Borough Presidents, and the entire City Council. With such a significant change in how voters will elect these officials, there is no time to waste.

Similar to the 2020 Census efforts, it is critical that the city immediately funds a public education campaign on ranked-choice voting. From sending mailings to voters, to partnering with local organizations and influencers to get the word out, to running television ads, to utilizing digital advertising, the city should be meeting voters where they are. Further, this outreach must be conducted in multiple languages so that voters for whom English is a second language are not left out of the civic process, as they too often are. We must be careful to include historically-disenfranchised communities of color in every part of our electoral process as we transition into ranked-choice elections.

Voting is the most sacred right in our country and a cornerstone of our democracy. With Republicans no longer able to block voting reforms in Albany, our laws are finally catching up with more progressive states and making voting easier. But failure to invest in civic education  following such a major change creates an obstacle to reform, unintentionally suppressing votes.  The implementation and funding of a ranked-choice voting education program is New York City’s opportunity to ensure the success of our new voting system, but only if we step up and take action right now.

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Josué Pierre is a candidate for City Council in the 40th District, in Brooklyn. On Twitter @CitizenPierre.

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

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Ranked-Choice Voting is Coming; NYC Must Immediately Fund a Public Education Campaign Thu, 03 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Mass New York Voter Enfranchisement Awaits a Stroke of the Governor’s Pen https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9957-new-york-automatic-voter-registration-bill-governor-cuomo-sign https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9957-new-york-automatic-voter-registration-bill-governor-cuomo-sign stu voter reg

Voters would have less hassle registering under AVR (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Following the widespread problems in the execution of this year’s elections, it’s clear we need to transform New York’s voting systems from top to bottom. From restoring confidence in the Board of Elections to reducing long lines and wait times counting ballots, lawmakers must take action now to prevent another disaster the next time New Yorkers vote. Thankfully, there is one important fix that can be done immediately: enacting the Automatic Voter Registration legislation that passed the Legislature and is currently awaiting Governor Cuomo’s signature.

There’s no question that 2020 has been an extraordinary year for democracy – and the COVID-19 pandemic presented serious challenges for election administration across the country and here in New York. And while there were record shattering levels of enthusiasm among voters this year, our state continues to fall short. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation report, New York ranks 45th in the nation for registered voters as a percentage of the population. Indeed, there are up to 1 million New Yorkers who are eligible to vote, but remain unregistered.

The best way to ensure that we never have to let the burdens of the registration process lead to low turnout and other complications at the polls is to enact Automatic Voter Registration.

Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) is a simple, secure, and straightforward tool that will immediately increase New York’s abysmal registration rates. Through AVR, eligible voters become automatically registered when they engage with government agencies like the Department of Labor, Department of Motor Vehicles, or a Medicaid enrollment office, provided they do not opt out. The AVR system would then securely transmit the voter’s registration information from those agencies to the State Board of Elections. Had this policy been in effect in 2020, eligible unenrolled New Yorkers filing for jobless claims with the Department of Labor could have been added to the voter rolls automatically. 

New York’s democracy problems pre-date the coronavirus. In 2018, New York ranked 42nd in the nation in voter turnout, and experts believe that this one simple reform is a key to reversing our shockingly low level of electoral engagement. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have passed AVR, including New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Vermont just across our borders. Many of these states tore down obstacles to voter participation with bipartisan legislative majorities or through ballot measures that decisively won with broad support from the public.

The lessons from Oregon are particularly instructive. Since it became the first state in the country to implement Automatic Voter Registration, Oregon’s voter registration rates quadrupled at DMV locations across the state. Indeed, over 90% of eligible voters are now registered. Not only are these newly-registered individuals on the voter rolls, they are actually voting as well. A report found that 44% of these previously unregistered individuals voted in the elections following AVR implementation. And in 2018, Oregon far exceeded the national turnout average with one of the highest rates in the country. 

Unquestionably, last year was a banner year for voting reforms in New York State. With full Democratic control of the Legislature in Albany, it was the first time in memory that laws were passed to make voting more accessible to New Yorkers. The bottlenecked backlog of reforms that included early voting, pre-registration of 16 and 17-year-olds, consolidation of primary dates, and flexibility to change party affiliation helped transform New York away from its status as a state with some of the most arcane and restrictive voting policies.

However, despite this progress, there is still unfinished business as the election made abundantly clear. And AVR is at the top of that list.

We have an opportunity to modernize our state’s broken election system with one of the most popular and common-sense reforms available, one that will enhance registration in particular for underrepresented populations that are too often missed. We simply can’t afford to wait any longer, it’s time for Governor Cuomo to sign Automatic Voter Registration into law now.

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State Senator Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) and Assemblymember Latrice Walker (D-Brooklyn) are the lead sponsors of the Automatic Voter Registration bill. On Twitter @SenGianaris and @TheRealLatriceW.

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

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Mass New York Voter Enfranchisement Awaits a Stroke of the Governor’s Pen Wed, 02 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Efforts Launched to Encourage Early Voting and Avoid Absentee Ballot Headaches https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9792-early-voting-absentee-new-york-city-smooth-2020-general-election-voters https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9792-early-voting-absentee-new-york-city-smooth-2020-general-election-voters 3 early voting influx

Early voting at a poll site can be a breeze (photo: @BOENYC)


As election administrators across the state prepare themselves for a second, larger wave of mass absentee voting this fall, officials and voting advocates are encouraging as many voters as possible to take advantage of the state's in-person early voting option as an alternative to crowded Election Day poll sites and the uncertainty of casting a ballot by mail.

Early voting, first launched statewide in 2019, will be offered this fall from October 24 through November 1 and gives all voters the chance to vote in person at designated poll sites over nine days leading up to Election Day, which is November 3. This year, with all voters eligible to vote by absentee ballot, the New York City Board of Elections is expecting as many as 1 million mail-in ballots, which take longer to count and are prone to being rejected on minor grounds.

Roughly a fifth of all absentee ballots are thrown out each election due to technicalities like missing a signature on the outer envelope, or being partially unsealed. That was no trivial proportion in the June primaries. About 80,000 mailed ballots, out of the 400,000 cast citywide, were rejected on technicalities and the high volume meant officials couldn't deliver election results until six weeks after polls closed on June 23.

Only about 52,000 people across the five boroughs took advantage of the early voting period in June.

While state lawmakers have made some adjustments to election law to help reduce the risk that ballots are thrown out, a number of proposed fixes were never passed, errors in the fall process are already showing up, and timeliness remains a major concern. With another slew of absentee ballots expected this fall, Michael Ryan, the NYC BOE's executive director, recently said election results may not be available until the first or second week of December.

Absentee voting was expanded by executive order this spring and later by state law to ensure voters had an option that didn't require them to risk transmitting or contracting COVID-19 at a poll site. Early voting, which spreads the number of open poll site hours across more than a week, including some evenings and weekends, offers similar protection from often packed Election Day polling places but allows votes to be tallied the same day using ballot scanning machines. The option is looking increasingly attractive to voting advocates, given the stresses of the primaries and anxiety about how the results of the presidential election will be handled, particularly by President Trump.

"The key to protecting voting rights in this climate is ensuring voters are aware of their new options so they can make an informed voting plan, help loved ones do the same, and take early action well ahead of unforgiving deadlines," wrote Jarret Berg, an election lawyer and co-founder of the advocacy group Vote Early NY, by email.

“While voting remotely may be safer and more convenient for some New Yorkers, early voters will scan their marked ballots immediately, just like on Election Day, avoiding potential pitfalls that can jeopardize rights," Berg said, adding that ballots cast during early voting are tabulated in the unofficial results reported on election night.

Elections administrators are also emphasizing the early voting option, as are other public officials like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who recently tweeted that she would be voting early and in person, and encouraging others to plan to do the same.

"Early voting will be a critical part of managing the election, given the anticipated record turnout," wrote NYC BOE Commissioner Tiffany Townsend, in an email to Gotham Gazette. "There will be thousands of new absentee voters, but many more who will prefer to cast their votes in person."

"The additional nine days [of voting] - combined with our dropbox option - will help mitigate potential wait times both outside and inside poll sites. That’s a huge plus," Townsend wrote.

City and state agencies are rolling out a series of public awareness campaigns to educate voters on their options, leveraging partnerships with grassroots organizations and media companies.

All of the funding allocated to promote early voting comes from New York City government or private grants.

The New York City Board of Elections is spending a total of $1.5 million on advertising about the three voting options, according to Valerie Vazquez-Diaz, the board's director of communications and public affairs. That money will go toward advertising in citywide and hyper local newspapers, including non-English publications, as well as subway and bus ads, Vazquez-Diaz told Gotham Gazette. The funding, which comes from city government, includes $500,000 for subway and bus advertising, $600,000 for digital advertising, and $400,000 for print media. NYC & Company, the city's official marketing organization, is also donating ad space to the BOE in the LinkNYC digital kiosks that populate some city sidewalks, according to Vazquez-Diaz.

On top of paid advertising, the NYC BOE will be posting key information on its Twitter and Facebook accounts and has been working with local elected officials, organizations, and community boards to promote the BOE's messaging, using educational toolkits developed by the Board.

Perhaps the most direct messaging will be in the BOE's mailer, which it is sending to each registered voter. The mailer is part of a directive from Governor Andrew Cuomo to local election boards to inform New Yorkers of the three voting options (absentee voting, early voting, Election Day voting). Local boards must include information on how to request an absentee ballot online and the location of each voter’s early voting and Election Day polling places.

The BOE's notice, which it began mailing last week, includes the hours of early voting as well as a magnetic fob that allows for faster, contactless check-in for in-person voting.

Separate from the BOE's efforts, the de Blasio administration is spending roughly half a million dollars to promote early voting through the mayor's DemocracyNYC initiative and the city's Campaign Finance Board, which has a voting awareness initiative called NYC Votes.

DemocracyNYC, which the mayor launched in 2018 to bolster participation in elections, worked with the city's new Civic Engagement Commission to develop a PSA "to encourage as many New Yorkers as possible to vote early if they would rather vote in-person," according to mayoral spokesperson Jose Bayona. The city is promoting the announcement on streaming services and radio, and is also taking out ads in the LinkNYC kiosks and local media, "placing a greater emphasis on the voting early option to cast a ballot," he wrote in an email.

"DNYC is spending $100,000 on streaming and radio advertising, and $37,000 allocated towards spending for a vote by mail PSA in more than 10 languages," Bayona wrote.

With the city facing a massive tax revenue shortfall, DemocracyNYC is working with an informal coalition of voting rights advocates, good government groups, and government agencies dubbed the Elections Consortium, which came together shortly after the coronavirus state of emergency was declared to ensure participation in the 2020 elections, to get unpaid messaging out to key constituencies.

The consortium, which is co-led by DemocracyNYC and the Campaign Finance Board, has produced literature and graphics to address frequently asked questions and is partnering with the nonprofit “F.Y. Eye” PSA network to help disseminate the messaging for free, which Bayona says will help provide timely information to voters in multiple languages.

The Campaign Finance Board (CFB) is putting another $400,000 directly toward an early voting advertising campaign that will launch on October 8, according to spokesperson Matthew Sollars.

Streaming ads will target youth and first-time voters, as well as certain geographic areas, and language and professional demographics, he said. The CFB is also launching a digital campaign emphasizing the convenience of early voting with an eye toward multiple groups of New Yorkers who may require flexibility in voting for different reasons, like parents with child-care responsibilities or food service workers who have long hours and multiple jobs.

The CFB's advertising will appear in over 40 community publications in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Bengali. Television ads will target viewers in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, and mobile advertising and websites and cellphone apps will place geo-specific messaging to people within a half-mile radius of an early voting site, letting them know they can vote nearby.

Posters in English and Spanish are being delivered to over 300 local businesses in the CFB's target neighborhoods, identified because they have large numbers of naturalized citizens and historically low voter turnout, particularly in parts of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, and in many cases the areas hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic.

Outside of New York City, the State Board of Elections, the regulatory agency with oversight over the state's 62 county boards of elections, is promoting early voting this fall through social media and news releases, and is exploring the possibility of paid advertising through a $1.5 million grant from the Center for Election Innovation and Research, which it received last week, according to a spokesperson.

"That is the budget we working with to advertise the three voting options afforded to NYers (by absentee, early voting and election day) as well as promoting the safety precautions taken at poll sites during the pandemic (wear a mask, use sanitizer and expect to socially distance)." wrote Cheryl Couser, deputy director of public information at the State Board.

"We urge voters to make a plan to go vote!," she wrote in an email.

Spokespeople for Governor Cuomo and the state Division of the Budget did not comment on whether any state funds had been allocated to promote early voting. State agencies will be advertising the voting options on their social media platforms, according to a spokesperson for Cuomo.

"New York has to get this right," wrote Betsy Gotbaum, executive director of government reform group Citizens Union and former New York City Public Advocate, in an email. "We know that President Trump will not hesitate to highlight any confusion or delays to undermine the legitimacy of the election. The best way for New Yorkers to vote safely, avoid Election Day crowds, and ensure their vote is counted in a timely manner is to take advantage of Early Voting."

"We are pleased to see DemocracyNYC, the CFB and the NYCBOE in outreach to encourage early voting, and are glad they are targeting resources to young people and our city's diverse ethnic communities," Gotbaum wrote, adding: "It is unfortunate that the state has not allocated similar resources to this effort."

[See the early voting days and hours here; Find your early voting and Election Day poll sites here]

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Efforts Launched to Encourage Early Voting and Avoid Absentee Ballot Headaches Mon, 28 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Sign By the Red X: New York Election Officials Unveil New Envelope to Ensure More Absentee Votes Get Counted https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9787-sign-red-x-new-york-election-officials-unveil-new-envelope-2020-absentee-votes-counted https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9787-sign-red-x-new-york-election-officials-unveil-new-envelope-2020-absentee-votes-counted kings abs oath envelope pg2b

Part of the new absentee ballot envelope design


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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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
As General Election Approaches, Mixed Results for Efforts to Ensure More Votes Get Counted https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9761-new-york-ensure-more-votes-counted-2020-election-absentee-ballots https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9761-new-york-ensure-more-votes-counted-2020-election-absentee-ballots Myrie Gianaris State Senate voting

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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As General Election Approaches, Mixed Results for Efforts to Ensure More Votes Get Counted Thu, 17 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
New York Elections Administrators Lay Out Immense Challenges, Uncertainty Ahead of Fast-Approaching General Election https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9671-elections-administrators-lay-out-immense-challenges-uncertainty-new-york-2020-general-election https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9671-elections-administrators-lay-out-immense-challenges-uncertainty-new-york-2020-general-election Myrie Senate

State Senator Myrie in the Senate chamber (photo: State Senate)


After June saw drastic shifts in how voting in New York is conducted, elections administrators, state legislators, and watchdogs have a long list of changes they want to see enacted before the general election this fall. But above all they want clarity from Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Many of the key players in New York City and State elections testified Tuesday at an oversight hearing held by both houses of the Democrat-controlled Legislature examining the June primary, its successes and failures, and solutions for a safe and efficient general election.

"For many New Yorkers...democracy was functional," said State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat and chair of the Senate elections committee, in his opening remarks at the hearing. "But too many New Yorkers saw their democracy fail them during this pandemic."

"This hearing today is about finding solutions for the voters of the State of New York," Myrie said.

As their remarks showed, administrators are looking at a logistical nightmare unfolding at the feet of a notoriously antiquated and byzantine elections system, which typically conducts 95 percent of voting in person, during a pandemic and with the anticipation of record-breaking turnout.

"We have run elections in times of turmoil," said State Board of Elections (SBOE) co-executive director Robert Brehm, in his testimony Tuesday. "In my lifetime, we've had natural disasters...We've had Hurricanes Irene, Lee, and Sandy on the cusp of elections. And public safety issues -- September 11th is certainly a date that impacted elections."

"But the COVID-19 pandemic has turned out to be longer, more sustained, and much more complicated a world crisis than any of those," he added.

As the coronavirus outbreak unfolded in New York, elections administrators throughout the state contended with a host of issues leading up to the June primaries. Facing a dramatic increase in absentee voting because of the governor's executive order extending eligibility, they still had to ensure that poll sites were safely run as more than half of voters still cast ballots in person.

In New York State, 1,027,234 voters cast a ballot in person on primary day, June 23, and 731,131 voted absentee (38 percent), according to testimony provided by the State Board of Elections. Another 118,108 New Yorkers voted in person during the early voting period, fewer than half the roughly 256,000 voters who did in 2019, despite there being 17 more early voting poll sites.

With over half of voters opting to vote in person in June and the surge in turnout expected for the general election, which will include the presidential race, elections commissioners throughout the state are looking for ways to ensure proper staffing amidst a pandemic that is keeping people home -- especially older New Yorkers who make up a bulk of the state's poll workers.

The additional bureaucratic hurdles of shifting to a more mail-oriented election system -- including the sudden prominence of the U.S. Postal Service, which is beyond the authority of state regulators -- meant tens of thousands of ballots were thrown out on technical grounds and thousands more were sent out late by the New York City Board of Elections or never got delivered.

Yet despite recognizing a host of repeat and new challenges for the general election, the executive orders that altered the primaries have all expired, and election administrators are proceeding as though its business as usual as the clock ticks.

"Presently we're running this November election based on the laws we have on the book," Brehm told the committees. "I believe some [recently passed bills] have gone to the governor last night, but they are not in place yet."

"So we're basing our planning on the laws we have on the books and certainly we will have to adapt as much as we can for what comes our way," he said. Early voting for the general election is just over two months away, and preparations for mailing millions of absentee ballot applications and ballots must begin relatively soon to be executed well.

Cuomo has yet to sign legislation or orders that would expand absentee eligibility again, or proposals that could help voters but also place additional burdens on the state and county boards of elections, like one that would require local boards to notify a voter when their ballot is rejected and offer a way to remedy it.

"The Legislature already passed a bill that is awaiting signature by the governor giving voters the right to cure defects," said SBOE Co-Chair Douglas Kellner. "That will create more work for the boards of elections but will reduce the number of ballots that are invalidated for inadvertent reasons."

There’s a long list of voting and election reform bills that have either passed both houses of the Legislature and await gubernatorial action; have passed one house and await action in the other; or have been introduced but not yet moved in either the Assembly or the State Senate.

Invalidating Ballots
The main reason more than 80,000 absentee ballots were invalidated in New York City alone, according to Kellner, was because of a missing signature. While lawmakers and advocates are pushing for the ballot curing bill to be signed into law, Kellner said the SBOE is also looking into ways to redesign the ballot envelope to ensure that voters provide the required signature, which they say is the only method they have of seeing that the right person cast a particular ballot.

Envelopes missing postmarks was another key reason absentee ballots were thrown out. But the USPS did not testify in person at Tuesday's hearing, held jointly by the elections committees and local governments committees of the Senate and Assembly, leaving a number of unanswered questions about whether postmarking would be a problem in the general election.

"There was consultation [with the USPS] on that," Kellner told lawmakers.

"The postal service guidelines and procedures require postmarking for election materials and the odds of not getting a postmark are just as great if you put a stamp on an envelope as they are by using the pre-paid postage system," he said, referring to reports that the missing postmarks were an error caused by the state's use of pre-paid envelopes.

Ballot Logistics
One of the biggest logistical issues boards of elections face is that law sets the deadline to apply for an absentee ballot at seven days before the election, which leaves very little time to process them and send a ballot, much less have the voter then return the ballot in time to be counted. USPS guidelines released in July advise states to leave a 15-day window for election mail, Kellner said. With the anticipation of a high volume of absentee ballot applications, the SBOE is seeking a 15-day deadline to apply before Election Day, which is November 3 this year.

"I think there is agreement that the current timeframe is unrealistic and has led to some of the disenfranchisement that we've seen this year," said SBOE Co-Chair Peter Kosinski.

Michael Ryan, executive director of the New York City Board of Elections, the state's largest election jurisdiction, told lawmakers Tuesday that he agreed with the need to adjust the timeline. "To be clear, the present calendar didn't work under regular circumstances, when we just had the normal number of absentee ballot applications," Ryan said. "Now you have a twelve-fold increase, it becomes an impossibility."

In New York City, about 53 percent of the applications for absentee ballots came through the city's newly-established online portal, Ryan said.

Jennifer Wilson, deputy director of the League of Women Voters of New York State, urged the Legislature to provide funding to county boards "so that all voters can be sent an absentee ballot application form, and that both the request form and absentee ballot return envelopes include pre-paid postage."

Additional costs include staffing at poll sites and messaging to promote early voting, which was expanded in June but under-utilized. PPE and additional poll-site precautions to mitigate the transmission of COVID-19 are likely to be other significant expenses. County boards are also exploring new technologies to sort and canvass votes. For instance, last week, the New York City Board of Elections approved the purchase of five mail-ballot sorting and scanning machines, at the cost of roughly $1.5 million.

With the primary results taking six weeks to fully count and certify, many are also worried about how long it could be before the general election results are tabulated.

County boards are exploring staffing increases and new technologies to sort and canvass votes. For instance, the new machines the city BOE ordered are capable of sorting up to 15,000 ballots per hour.

Funding
Funding is another big source of uncertainty ahead of the general election.

The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act allocated $400 million to states for elections, with states required to provide a 20 percent match. New York State received roughly $20.5 million in CARES Act funding and state lawmakers allocated an additional $4.1 million to local election boards, according to the SBOE. Of the total available, county boards have already spent $12 million -- roughly half -- with three country boards having spent all of their additional funding. A majority of that spending went towards the postage on pre-paid absentee ballot envelopes, according to the SBOE.

A typical election in New York State costs roughly $25 million. But with precautions and extenuating provisions being made around the coronavirus pandemic the costs this year are much higher.

SBOE Co-Executive Director Todd Valentine said with 6 to 7 million pieces of mail sent out for the primaries, when Cuomo’s executive order required election material be sent with pre-paid return envelopes. With the possibility of mailing postage-paid absentee ballot applications in the general election to roughly 12.6 million registered voters statewide, the state is looking at a $26 million price tag just for absentee ballot applications, according to Valentine's estimate.

"We've certainly asked the governor's office whether they had any intentions repeatedly…of making those changes," he said, referring to a possible requirement to mail absentee ballot applications to every registered voter. "They have not given us an answer."

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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New York Elections Administrators Lay Out Immense Challenges, Uncertainty Ahead of Fast-Approaching General Election Tue, 11 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000