Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/2171 Mon, 16 Sep 2019 23:04:45 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) The Conspiracy in Queens is Beyond the DA Ballots https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8669-the-conspiracy-in-queens-is-beyond-the-ballots https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8669-the-conspiracy-in-queens-is-beyond-the-ballots votes president us cast 2016

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)


Election officials in Queens are counting ballots in the District Attorney Democratic primary recount exactly as the law prescribes -- and it is an injustice for Queens and an affront to democracy. 

After a stunning reversal of fortune that saw Melinda Katz erase a 1,090-vote gap after absentee and other ballots were counted, Tiffany Cabán is challenging the rejection of a small number of provisional ballots that she thinks will turn the tide back in her favor.  While there are many reasons a ballot could be rejected, the main cause at play here is that voters were not properly registered with the Democratic Party in time to vote in the June 25 primary.

Some are enrolled in a different party or no party at all, while others just didn’t enroll at their current address within the six-month window required by our state before this vote. Whatever the reason, many Queens residents came to the polls to vote in an important election and were told that their voice was not welcome. 

New York, unlike most other big cities in the country, uses a closed primary system to determine who will be on the general election ballot. This means that only voters who are properly enrolled in a political party may vote in a taxpayer-funded partisan primary. The winner of each partisan primary, or the party nominee if there is only one candidate, then advances to a general election open to all registered voters. 

In a city where Democrats represent nearly 70% of the electorate, this means that the relatively few people who show up and are allowed to vote in a Democratic primary essentially choose the winner of the general election.

The Republican nominee for Queens District Attorney has all but acknowledged the fruitlessness of trying to win, openly admitting he had not decided whether he would even bother to campaign for the office. The most likely outcome no matter if Katz or Cabán prevails in the primary recount, is that a county of nearly 2.4 million people will be represented by a District Attorney who received the support of barely 4% of registered Queens Democrats. 

In a democracy, residents are supposed to choose their elected officials. In New York, politicians from both the Republican and Democratic parties have worked hard to turn that idea on its head and pick their constituents. New York’s ballot access rules are among the most restrictive in the nation and the results speak for themselves -- apathetic voters who can’t be bothered to engage in a system that makes it hard to participate and where they do not feel that their vote really matters. 

Open primaries allow all registered voters to vote in a primary where all candidates for office are grouped together regardless of party affiliation. If no candidate receives 50% of the vote, the top two then face off in a general election, even if they are from the same party. It’s a system based on encouraging democracy.

Open primaries also allow new candidates from nontraditional backgrounds to break into the system. In the current structure, voters often avoid casting a ballot for candidates outside of the traditional parties for fear of spoiling the election in favor of someone they truly dislike. Traditional parties have intentionally perpetuated this dilemma to keep new players out and keep a broken system and the privileges that come with it in place. 

Opening up primaries to all voters, regardless of party affiliation, gives candidates a reason to appeal to a broad range of the electorate, while head-to-head general elections take the spoiler-effect out of the equation and free voters to vote for the candidate they like best.

The editorial boards have opined that there is no conspiracy at play by machine Democrats to steal the primary, and that the rules are being scrupulously followed. However, the proceedings in Queens show once again that the rules are the conspiracy. It is time to replace New York’s outdated, unjust system with something as open and inclusive as our residents deserve. 

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Michael Volpe is the Chair of the SAM Party of New York and former candidate for Lieutenant Governor on the SAM line. He is the former Mayor of the Village of Pelham. On Twitter @SAMforNY.

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

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The Conspiracy in Queens is Beyond the DA Ballots Sun, 14 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Voting, Redistricting and Campaign Finance Reform https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8322-charter-revision-commission-hears-expert-testimony-on-voting-redistricting-and-campaign-finance-reform https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8322-charter-revision-commission-hears-expert-testimony-on-voting-redistricting-and-campaign-finance-reform de blasio voting election day

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


On Monday, the 2019 Charter Revision Commission heard from election experts from across the country as commissioners consider three potential election-related alterations to the city charter: ranked-choice voting, redistricting, and democracy vouchers.

The commission is in the middle of a year-long process of public hearings and private discussions, which will yield proposals to change the city’s foundational laws that will go before voters this November. The scope of those proposals is to be determined. After a series of hearings and meetings, the commission recently announced its four focus areas, and Monday’s hearing was the first dedicated to experts on one of the broad areas, which in addition to elections include governance, finance and land use.

The 2019 commission follows a 2018 commission called by Mayor Bill de Blasio, which was populated only by his appointees and put forth three proposals that voters approved this past November, including to lower individual campaign contribution limits and increase public matching funds, creation of a civic engagement commission, and term limits for community board members.

The 2019 commission was created through City Council legislation spearheaded by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and then-Public Advocate Letitia James. Its commissioners are appointed by a variety of elected officials, though the mayor was allotted a plurality. The chair was chosen by the City Council Speaker, Corey Johnson.

At Monday’s hearing, experts who testified offered a variety of ideas on the topics at hand.

Ranked-Choice Voting
A panel of six voting experts argued overwhelmingly for the merits of a ranked-choice voting system.

Ranked choice voting asks voters to order their preferred candidates rather than select just one. Under one design, if one candidate does not meet the given threshold (say, 40 or 50 percent of the vote) when the first round of selections are tallied, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes would be eliminated, and the voters who selected that candidate would have their second choices receive their votes. This process then proceeds until one candidate hits the magic number.

Ranked-choice voting could eliminate costly, low-turnout runoffs, mollify voters’ concerns over splitting party votes in a race with many ideologically-similar candidates, and allow for a winner to emerge with a clear majority rather than a plurality.

New York City is particularly well-suited to a ranked-choice voting system, argued Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, since voters tend to favor Democrats over Republicans by a wide margin, and where many Democrats and few Republicans run.

Panelists further argued that ranked-choice voting promotes more civil politicking, pointing to the sometimes contentious nature of the public advocate special election that was decided on Tuesday. That election also had 17 candidates on the ballot and was held up by some as a good example of where ranked-choice voting would be beneficial.

However, one panelist, Craig Burnett, an assistant professor of political science at Hofstra University, cautioned the commission against diving into ranked-choice voting. “A lot of voters can figure things out when they’re talking about the presidency, where there’s a lot of information,” said Burnett. But as races and candidates become more obscure and information less ubiquitous, “ranking becomes an even more difficult task.”

The commission expressed similar concerns over educating a city of more than eight million citizens about a new voting system. “I’m lucky if I know one or two Council candidates in an open seat,” said commissioner James Caras, who asked if ranked voting can produce “bizarre results,” as a product of voters arbitrarily assigning numbers to unfamiliar candidates.

Bella Wang, chair of voting reform at New York’s chapter of the League of Women Voters, pointed to the 2018 Maine gubernatorial race, which was the state’s first experience with ranked voting. Eight percent of voters ranked each of the candidates, and 80 percent ranked more than one candidate, indicating a widespread comprehension of how the system operates, she said.

Commissioner Merryl Tisch inquired about the possibility of disenfranchising voters while commissioner Sal Albanese expressed similar concern over minority participation, but the panelists disputed the idea that ranked-choice would have any effect at all on turnout. John Arntz, director of the San Francisco Department of Elections, insisted that the city will have to invest in educating voters about the new system, particularly immigrant communities and non-English speakers.

Other concerns raised involved a timetable for implementation (Karen Brinson Bell of the Ranked Choice Voting Research Center explained that she implemented ranked voting in North Carolina in just 86 days, though that is not the ideal timeline), the manner in which a winner is announced to the public, clarification over how many times voters would have to head to the polls to select a winner (typically just once), and skepticism about ranked voting producing a winner with a clear majority. The experts showed some disagreement over whether ranked voting will lead to a clear majority, with some arguing that a win with 48 percent still leads to voter confidence in the process.

Redistricting
A different panel of experts testified before the commission to discuss how New York City should draw its City Council districts, including TJ Costello, the former vice-chair of the Independent Citizens Redistricting Committee (ICRC) in Austin, Texas, which other panelists deemed the gold standard of redistricting. Redistricting occurs after each U.S. Census, the latest of which is about to occur in 2020.

Austin’s redistricting system is complex, involving more than 50 public meetings and a long timeline to decide members of the ICRC. But it also results in a robustly independent and representative redistricting commission, according to Costello. The charter revision commissioners questioned if such an involved process can be instituted in New York, which is more than eight times more populous than Austin. Michael Li of the Brennan Center for Justice said that it’s achievable with enough time.

Li also commended New York City’s current redistricting system. The process, he said, “has a lot of the right pieces in place: there is a commission that draws the district maps” that Li said is well-staffed, holds open meetings and engages the public. But he offered an important caveat, saying the process is susceptible to politicization, with “relatively few checks on who gets appointed to the commission.”

Jeffrey Wice of the SUNY Rockefeller Institute of Government said an independent board is a “judgement call,” and that legislators can objectively redistrict according to the guidelines set up by Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act, though the Supreme Court rendered Section 5 null in 2013. Contrarily, Esmeralda Simmons, founder of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, argued for the need for an independent board. The rules as they stand, she said, are “skewed against black and Latinx voters” and overrepresent Republicans.

Commissioner James Caras asked the panel to point to specific incidents of poor local redistricting that an independent commission could’ve solved. The panelists could not offer any examples, but Li pointed to a new district that formed in California after citizens banded together in an area particularly vulnerable to wildfires to gain stronger governmental representation for their concerns.

Albanese asked about the negatives of implementing the so-called gold standard that Austin has modeled. Li offered the difficulty of finding enough citizens interesting in serving, but Costello argued New Yorkers simply need sufficient outreach and education. Panelists further eased commissioners’ fears about a costly process and the potential for corruption from bad actors.

Campaign Finance
The last item on the agenda was the question of implementing a new campaign finance system: democracy vouchers. The program formed in 2017 in Seattle, the only city in the country that uses it, wherein the government mails four $25 vouchers to registered voters and asks voters to assign their vouchers to their preferred candidates and mail those in, leading to money disbursed to candidates. Seattle is currently working to offer a digitized process to supplement the mail-in version. Candidates must opt in to the program.

Democracy vouchers were a staple of charter revision Commissioner Sal Albanese’s unsuccessful 2017 mayoral campaign. Albanese was appointed to the commission by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams in order to focus on campaign finance reform.

The panel included two of the leading forces behind Seattle’s democracy voucher program, Wayne Barnett and Alan Durning, alongside representatives from New York City’s Campaign Finance Board and other election experts who expressed varying levels of enthusiasm for the program.

Similar to the redistricting portion, many of the commission’s inquiries surrounded logistical challenges that New York City poses, which smaller cities face to lesser degrees. The panel generally conceded that the program is too new to definitively answer many of the commission’s questions. Barnett and Durning, however, were able to demonstrate the relatively low cost of the program of just over $2 million total, though that number will inevitably rise in New York City.

While all the panelists attested to the effectiveness of New York City’s current public matching funds program, especially with a newly-increased matching ratio and lowered contribution limits, Albanese made his support for democracy vouchers––and disdain for New York City’s current method––clear. Under New York City’s campaign finance system, Albanese said, pay-to-play corruption is rampant. He also said it renders donors of color invisible and asked, “Why should we continue a program that does nothing to mitigate corruption?”

The panelists had mixed reactions to Albanese’s criticism, but some argued that since the city’s system was changed only last year, they should give it time to play out before radically altering it. While Durning characterized the current system in New York City as one of the country’s best, “democracy vouchers are the most democratizing and egalitarian method of public funding for a campaign that has been invented yet. It makes every eligible participant in the city worth the same amount to a candidate, whether they’re a bartender or a bank president,” he said. “100 bucks.”

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Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Voting, Redistricting and Campaign Finance Reform Thu, 28 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
How New York Can Become a Real Democracy: Re-Center Race as Legislative Progress Continues https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8280-how-new-york-can-become-a-real-democracy-re-center-race-as-legislative-progress-continues https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8280-how-new-york-can-become-a-real-democracy-re-center-race-as-legislative-progress-continues gov cuomo dna

(photo: Governor's Office)


For decades, the phrase “three men in a room” has been used to capture how the leadership of New York state government (the governor, the state Assembly speaker and the state Senate majority leader) in Albany decides in back-room negotiations what legislation lives or dies. Finally, this year, state government can remake itself much closer to the image of true democracy. Leaders in the Assembly and Senate, Carl Heastie and Andrea Stewart-Cousins, are for the first time both African-American, and one is a woman.

This is an undeniably exciting moment, but it is also a moment fraught with uncertainty and real questions about what it means to have a truly inclusive democracy, one that reflects a multiracial society and advances solutions to benefit all, not just a select few.

While it is Democrats who are leading the charge on voting and campaign finance reforms – issues at the very heart of democracy – both parties have participated in, and benefited from, a system run on corporate money and machine politics. That system consists of a very small, very wealthy, and very white donor class that occupies the place that democracy should.

Recently passed reforms such as early voting and changes to the “LLC loophole,” which limits the amount of money powerful individuals and companies can contribute to candidates, are game-changers for New York. Still, much of the hard work of disentangling the deep, white roots of money from politics remains, work that must be done in order to have a true democracy in New York. In particular, automatic voter registration and public financing of elections are essential to achieving this goal. But there’s more.

In the public discourse on many issues, the flag of economic equality flies high. What has been less talked about is the systematic exclusion and oppression of communities of color as a direct result of our current system. Democracy reforms are not just about good governance, they are about giving people of color access to the political power from which they are all too often excluded. Race has become a footnote in a discussion when it should be the headline, for the simple reason that we cannot achieve a truly inclusive democracy if we do not start by acknowledging who has been excluded and why.

A recent column on the housing crisis by State Senator Zellnor Myrie and Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change, centers the impact of money on the most basic and essential of goods – shelter.  

“For the real estate industry, these donations [to candidates] are a calculated investment to protect and expand their soaring profits,” they wrote in The Daily News. “Albany returns the favor by granting favorable tax breaks for developers and blocking meaningful action on the rent laws, which protect millions of tenants and families.”

At Community Voices Heard, a member-led, multiracial organization working to secure racial, social, and economic justice for all New Yorkers, we know the consequences of this relationship are far too real. In 2018, we organized tenants in Ossining, New York, to enact the Emergency Tenant Protection Act (ETPA). ETPA provided tenant protections for more than 2,000 residents. Just a year later, the mayor and village council have proposed repealing ETPA without offering an alternative proposal, a troubling development for the residents fighting against a profit-driven industry to stay in their homes. Without strong leadership in Albany to protect tenants, battles like these will become an endless war.

Legislation to mitigate climate change tells a similar story. As is well known, the fossil fuel industry ranks among the top political campaign contributors and spends enormously on lobbying as well. The impact of a toxic environment is not being borne equally. According to The Nation, studies show that the majority of people living near hazardous waste sites are people of color. According to the same article, in cases where communities filed complaints with the Environmental Protection Agency alleging a violation of their civil rights, 95 percent of the claims were denied. In New York, one can see similar trends in the decades of negligence and mismanagement of public housing under the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) or the city’s response to Hurricane Sandy.

In recognition of this, the Climate and Community Protection Act, re-introduced this session by Assemblymember Steven Englebright and Senator Todd Kaminsky, contains provisions aimed specifically at ensuring an equitable transition to renewable energy, including allocating 40 percent of funding to frontline and historically disadvantaged communities. This approach, which both acknowledges racial inequity and ensures that it informs policy-making, is an important step in the fight for an inclusive democracy and should serve as an example for advocates and lawmakers alike.

Business as usual in Albany has often meant that lawmakers, lobbyists, experts, and advocates are quick to embrace a “race-neutral” dialogue when talking about the momentous issues at stake: voting, climate, housing, healthcare, jobs, and more. But it is worth remembering that these issues were core tenets of the Civil Rights Movement. The weeks ahead present both a challenge and an opportunity: to disrupt the normal discourse, to be explicit about racial inequities, and to fight for policies that can build a truly inclusive democracy.

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Afua Atta-Mensah is Executive Director of Community Voices Heard. On Twitter @AfuaAttaMensah & @CVHaction.

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

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How New York Can Become a Real Democracy: Re-Center Race as Legislative Progress Continues Wed, 13 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Historic New York Voting Reforms Must Be Funded, and Followed by More Changes to Improve Our Democracy https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8257-historic-new-york-voting-reforms-must-be-funded-and-followed-by-more-changes-to-improve-our-democracy https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8257-historic-new-york-voting-reforms-must-be-funded-and-followed-by-more-changes-to-improve-our-democracy gov cuomo votes

(photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)


On January 14, the New York State Assembly and Senate made their mark on New York voting history. After over 100 years without meaningful reform, legislators passed six bills that will significantly increase voter access to the polls and the reach of their voices. On January 25, Governor Cuomo codified this historic expansion and signed those bills into law. Important legislative priorities such as early voting, pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, registration portability, and the consolidation of our state and federal primaries are now state law. Our legislators also took a significant step toward changing our constitution to allow for same-day registration and no-excuse absentee voting by mail.

It is important to note amidst the celebration of grassroots and advocacy groups who have been fighting for these reforms that our work, and the work of our representatives, is not complete. Transformative reforms such as automatic voter registration, the restoration of the voting rights for people on parole, establishing a universal right to vote, and shortening the deadline to change party affiliation were starkly absent from the legislation passed. Many of these common sense reforms are long overdue.

Our elected representatives have received well-deserved praise for taking decisive action in the process of bringing New York’s voting laws into the 21st century by prioritizing and passing legislation that was stymied for far too long. However, not only is there more to do, but New York is once again faced with the unfortunate and unnecessary lack of transparency that has become synonymous with state government in Albany.

Voting reform has the exciting potential to bring more people into the democratic process. But New York will not be a leader in democracy until the process of governing embodies openness, accountability, and greater participation. Reform must not stop with the passage of the aforementioned voting legislation, but requires inclusion of the once-honored legislative processes of hearings, debate, and public comment. Our elected representatives, as they consider and take further action, should seek out the voices of their constituents.

New Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins says their work is not done, and so we too must continue to work and hold our representatives accountable until no one is left behind and New York is the embodiment of a democracy we can all be proud of.

As the chief executive of New York State, and the keeper of the state budget, Governor Cuomo is now tasked with implementation and ensuring new reforms are appropriately funded. It is concerning that his proposed executive budget lacks specific funding allocated for early voting. Just last year, Cuomo, in the face of intransigence and hostility in the state Senate, allocated $7 million for early voting in the executive budget. When this year provided with passed legislation to sign and implement, why would the governor not designate funding specifically for early voting in his budget?  

Cuomo states that the cost of early voting will be covered by the consolidation of the federal and state primaries combined with the new sales tax revenue to be collected from the elimination of the internet tax advantage. Neither of these revenue streams will be available to county Boards of Elections in time to fund early voting in 2019. It is puzzling why now, at this historic moment, the governor would withhold designated funding for a reform he supports and for which he allocated money only a year ago.

During his “First 100 Days” speech given in December, Cuomo criticized the federal government's attempts to disenfranchise voters, and stated that "we have to do the exact opposite and improve our democracy.” The reality is that to improve our democracy after over a century of inaction, it is going to take money. And to prove a commitment to the reforms being passed by the Legislature, the same reforms he himself has called for throughout his tenure, the governor must commit real dollars for implementation this year.

The governor and the leadership of the Assembly and Senate must stand true to their promises and ensure these reforms are appropriately implemented and adequately funded. Now is the time for clear, decisive action. It is not the time for unfunded promises, backroom deals, or excuses. Do not give us reform in name only. There must be a line item in the budget to specifically and sufficiently fund early voting.

All interested parties should work together to make sure the counties are provided with funding and support so that they are prepared for these changes and voters can take advantage of them seamlessly. Voting reform advocates statewide will continue to fight so that we the people can access our most fundamental right to vote. We believe in our elected representatives and we know they can get this done.

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Nicole Hunt is on the executive committee of Brooklyn Voters Alliance, a grassroots group dedicated to strengthening democracy in New York State. On Twitter @msnicolemh @bkvoters.

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

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Historic New York Voting Reforms Must Be Funded, and Followed by More Changes to Improve Our Democracy Thu, 07 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Electronic Poll Books Next Step in New York Election Overhaul https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8255-electronic-poll-books-next-step-in-new-york-election-overhaul https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8255-electronic-poll-books-next-step-in-new-york-election-overhaul express poll e poll book

(photo: Elections Systems & Software)


As Democrats in the state Legislature continue a rapid pace of passing legislation to start the new session, the state Senate seems poised to advance another round of election and voting reforms, including approving the use of electronic poll books to administer elections.

Electronic poll books, used in at least 34 states and the District of Columbia, are a fairly simple but significant instrument in making elections more efficient, experts and advocates argue. They make voting faster, preventing long lines at polling sites, save costs in the long run, and are easier to update and maintain compared to the paper lists currently used in New York.

Some advocates also say e-poll books, as they’re often called, are essential in implementing improvements to voter registration processes, which the state Legislature put into motion last month, and helpful in the implementation of the significant shift of early voting, also part of the recently-passed package.

On Monday, the state Senate’s elections committee held a vote and approved a bill allowing electronic poll books, among other items on the agenda. The bill will now head to the Senate floor for a vote. Senator Zellnor Myrie, committee chair and the sponsor of the bill, is confident e-poll books will subsequently be passed by the full Legislature, in advance of this year’s primary election in June. The legislation does not mandate the use of e-poll books.

“The larger reforms that we’ve instituted and that we’re looking at for the rest of the session are going to be made much easier by us modernizing how we see whether or not someone has voted,” Myrie said in a phone interview. “So electronic poll books is something that has wide consensus.”

When Democrats took control of the Legislature this year after flipping the Senate, they quickly passed a series of voting and elections measures including early voting, consolidating the federal and state primary to June, and preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds. They also passed measures to amend the state constitution to implement no-excuse absentee ballots and same-day voter registration -- amendments that will require passage by the next Legislature seated in 2021 and then approval by voters through a referendum.

Advocates say that early voting and same-day voter registration in particular would be far more efficient with electronic poll books.

“Implementing early voting in New York City without electronic poll books would be an administrative disaster,” said Rachel Bloom, director of public policy and programs at Citizens Union, a government reform group. “To have effective and organized early voting in New York, we need to allow for the use of electronic pollbooks.”

Other advocates aren’t as worried but agree that electronic poll books should be the next step for the Legislature. “You don’t need to have electronic poll books to do early voting but it would make it easier,” said Jennifer Wilson, director of program and policy for League of Women Voters of New York State. She noted, for instance, that Texas implemented early voting more than a decade ago but started using electronic poll books about five years ago. But for same-day registration, she said it would be “crucial.”

Jarret Berg, executive director of the New York Democratic Lawyers Council, concurred. “I don’t think it’s an indispensable component but it certainly makes a lot of sense and I don’t see how you could do [early voting] effectively without some kind of real-time reconciliation,” he said. “We need to move away from this really sloppy paper-based system.”

The advocates do acknowledge challenges and concerns about electronic poll books. Among them is the upfront cost that local counties may have to bear for purchasing equipment, like digital tablets, on which the poll books would be stored (localities may look to the state for help in paying for such equipment). Poll workers also tend to be older and could struggle with the technology. “There’s a digital divide,” Berg conceded. Training would be necessary regardless.

There are also concerns about the security of voter lists, made that much more severe after Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. Digital devices could be vulnerable to hacking, necessitating standalone devices that would not be connected to the internet and would have to be individually updated. This is similar to the electronic ballot scanners that are not internet-connected and therefore far less susceptible to hacking.

Myrie is aware of those concerns but, as the advocates also argue, says the benefits outweigh the costs. “This is really about making and administering elections much simpler,” he said. “It allows for cost savings. In the future we’re not gonna have to pay for storage of all these [paper] poll books. It is a much more efficient way to do things so that...some of the lines that we have become unfortunately very accustomed to when we go to vote are reduced by a significant measure if we make the process of checking a registration easier.”

Electronic poll books also have bipartisan support. Before Myrie took over the elections committee, Republican Senator Fred Akshar had sponsored a bill, with companion legislation put forward by Democratic Assemblymember Michael Cusick that was repeatedly passed by the Assembly. Governor Andrew Cuomo also backs the measure but some say his support would have to be backed up with funding to help counties transition to the new system, money he did not include in his executive budget proposal.

“Governor Cuomo proposed a comprehensive set of reforms in the Executive Budget to make voting easier, including authorizing electronic poll books,” Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokesperson, said in a statement. “We will work with the legislature to identify additional resources to the extent necessary.”

Myrie is prepared to push for those resources; as some are already doing when it comes to funding early voting. It’s not clear what the initial and ongoing costs of the e-poll books may be. “Even if its a significant cost, I’ve been saying and will continue to say, to go from worst to first is gonna require some pain,” he said of New York’s voting laws.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article was updated after the Senate elections committee held a vote and passed the e-poll book bill.  

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Electronic Poll Books Next Step in New York Election Overhaul Sun, 03 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Cuomo's 2019 Agenda of Election, Campaign Finance and Government Ethics Reforms https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8210-cuomo-s-voting-campaign-finance-and-ethics-reform-proposals https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8210-cuomo-s-voting-campaign-finance-and-ethics-reform-proposals gov cuomo albany

(Photo via the Governor's office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a broad agenda of progressive legislation in his State of the State speech on Tuesday, accompanied by more detailed policy and budget books, including several measures aimed at improving New York’s democracy and increasing public trust in state government.

Emboldened by full Democratic control of the State Senate and Assembly, after years of a split Legislature where Republicans controlled the upper chamber, Cuomo reiterated many of the proposals that he has repeatedly advanced in vain in previous years and also introduced new ideas to combat public corruption, reduce the effects of money in politics, and provide more transparency about the workings of the Legislature and Executive branches.

Cuomo took stock of the state government’s failure to police its own -- as he spoke about passing ethics reforms, the powerpoint slide behind him filled with newspaper headlines about corruption in state government, starting with his own administration. “If you read the headlines over the past few years, they have been continuous and they have been disappointing, and they have been disgraceful, and they have been widespread,” he admitted. “It looks terrible and it is terrible.”

Government reform advocates have broadly praised the governor’s platform as they continue to examine the details included in the budget. On voting reforms, there seems to be general agreement, while the campaign finance and ethics proposals may prompt further debate.   

Election Reforms
Cuomo backed several voting reforms, many of which were passed by the State Legislature on Monday and sent to the governor’s desk for his signature. They included early voting -- he has proposed 12 days of early voting while the Legislature passed a 10 day bill -- consolidation of state and federal primaries into one date in June, pre-registering 16- and 17-year-olds to vote, and portability of voter registrations. There was also the campaign finance reform measure of significantly limiting contributions through the so-called LLC loophole and requiring more transparency from LLC owners.

The Legislature also began the process of amending the state constitution to establish same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee ballots by mail, both of which will have to be approved by the next Legislature seated in 2021 and then through a ballot referendum.   

Cuomo supports all of the above, and his proposals go further, some of which are matched by bills Democratic legislators have introduced. The governor wants to make Election Day a state holiday, implement automatic and online voter registration, and also expand voting hours for primary elections upstate where polling sites currently only open at noon.

Campaign Finance Reform
Cuomo is supporting a sweeping campaign finance reform agenda that includes a public matching system for the state.

The Legislature’s LLC bill brought contribution limits in line with those for corporations, at $5,000. Cuomo, on the other hand, has proposed closing that loophole entirely (something some legislators have said they want to do in a next phase) and banning all corporate contributions to candidate campaigns, while also lowering contribution limits across the board. He also proposed prohibiting any contributions from individuals or entities that have recently applied or are seeking government contracts.

Separately, the governor pushed a measure to require reporting of intermediaries or “bundlers” who collect donations from several contributors and funnel them to candidates.

He wants to establish public financing of elections, providing 6-to-1 matches for small contributions up to $175, similar to the system currently in place in New York City. The public funds limits would be $8 million for candidates for governor; $4 million for lieutenant governor, attorney general and comptroller candidates; $375,000 for Senate candidates; and $175,000 for Assembly candidates.

On Wednesday, the governor’s office put out details of his proposal to lower contribution limits -- statewide candidates would be able to receive a total of $25,000 ($10,000 for the primary and $15,000 for the general election) down from the current effective total limit of roughly $65,100. Limits would be lower for state legislators -- Senate candidates would be allowed to raise a total of $10,000 from individual contributors, down from $18,000; Assembly candidates would be limited to $6,000 total, down from $8,800. While significant reductions, the numbers are still quite high relative to individual donation limits to presidential candidates or candidates for mayor of New York City, for example.

Cuomo is also seeking to take on the scourge of “dark money” flowing into elections through independent expenditures by anonymous sources. His budget briefing book calls for expanded disclosure by 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) nonprofit groups of the “extent and nature of their expenditures used to influence the debate on public issues, and the identity of large donors who facilitate that speech.”

“These loopholes make the entire campaign system fraught for a lack of integrity,” Cuomo said. “You want to talk about franchising individuals who now feel disenfranchised - a corporation, a large contributor with a $10 million check can buy an election and nobody knows who he or she is.”

Government and Lobbying Ethics
Though some of his proposals are likely to face resistance from the State Legislature, Cuomo wasn’t shy about challenging his legislative counterparts in his Tuesday speech as he railed against the recurring instances of corruption that have come to light in recent years, including from within his own administration.

“Now, we will never stop venial, greedy, ignorant, behavior by people. And we shouldn't be expected to do that,” Cuomo said, “but we should be expected to do everything we can to have a system in place that safeguards against fraud or theft, and there it is a continuing battle, but there I believe we can do more to ensure the public trust.”

He proposed requiring candidates in state elections to disclose their tax returns, a measure that is usually voluntarily taken by candidates for major offices like mayor, governor, and president. Cuomo’s budget proposal would require statewide candidates to release ten years of tax returns and five years of returns for candidates for Senate and Assembly.

He also emphasized the need to expand the state’s Freedom of Information Law to cover the state Legislature, a move that certain lawmakers have backed in the past but one that previous legislative leaders have ardently opposed.

The governor is also seeking to ban government employees from volunteering for their employer’s political campaigns, and wants to require local elected officials to annually disclose their finances to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), just as state elected officials and employees are required to do.   

Cuomo also floated a “Lobbying Code of Conduct” to severely limit real and perceived pay-to-play politics and to curb the revolving door practices that have become commonplace in Albany. He proposed greater penalties for violations of lobbying laws, lowering the threshold for disclosure of lobbying activities to $500, down from $5,000, a ban on loans from lobbyists to candidates, and preventing political consultants from lobbying the elected officials who they helped get into office. He is also advocating for expanding the blackout period in which government employees and elected officials, as well as their staff members, would be prohibited from becoming lobbyists from two years to five.

The governor promised on Tuesday that if the state Legislature did not approve the code of conduct for lobbyists, he would prohibit those lobbyists who do not voluntarily abide by it from lobbying the executive chamber. The provisions of his proposal, however, contain many gray areas as well as steep penalties -- a lobbyist who deliberately violates the rules could receive a civil fine of $25,000 or be banned from lobbying for six months to five years -- that will be part of negotiations if there is any movement on the proposals.  

In a surprising move, the governor also announced on Tuesday that he had reached an agreement with State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli to implement certain reforms to the state’s contracting and procurement processes, including returning to the comptroller certain powers that had been stripped during Cuomo’s first year as governor. Cuomo said he would allow the comptroller to pre-audit any SUNY, CUNY and Office of General Services contracts worth more than $250,000, granted the audits are done within 30 days, and, in turn, the comptroller agreed to turn over contracts above that threshold to the state inspector general for audits.

“Contract procurement review must be performed and government must function on a timely basis,” Cuomo said. “I don't believe one is the enemy of the other. Yes, review contracts, but yes let's get it done quickly because government has to function and we have to get things done.” The agreement neutralized criticism that Cuomo faced for undermining the comptroller’s authority and also preempted the potential threat of the state Legislature passing these measures against the governor’s wishes.   

Cuomo also proposed strengthening the powers of the State Inspector General, giving the office the authority to oversee nonprofits affiliated with SUNY and CUNY, as well as “state-related procurement and the implementation and enforcement of financial control policies at SUNY and CUNY.”

“This proposal is a positive step forward,” said Jennifer Freeman, a DiNapoli spokesperson, in a statement. “Improvements to the procurement process will assure that independent checks and balances are in place to prevent abuse.”

Finally, the governor’s briefing book indicates that he will direct Empire State Development, a state agency responsible for economic development programs, to create a publicly accessible online database of projects getting state benefits. Good government advocates, DiNapoli, and some legislators have long been pushing for such a “database of deals” and praised its inclusion in the governor’s budget proposal.  

“We’re very pleased by the sheer scope of the many good government reform measures the governor issued and we’re carefully evaluating them,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a nonprofit advocacy group. “We’re most pleased with progress on clean contracting.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Cuomo's 2019 Agenda of Election, Campaign Finance and Government Ethics Reforms Wed, 16 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Public Advocate Election Makes Case for Instant Runoff Voting https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8196-public-advocate-election-makes-case-for-instant-runoff-voting https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8196-public-advocate-election-makes-case-for-instant-runoff-voting elec apoll

(photo: Gotham Gazette)


If the 2018 election cycle is any indication, voter turnout is on the rise. Now is the time to take advantage of this moment to keep voters engaged in the electoral system and really give them a voice.

One of the best ideas for promoting more diverse, open, and democratic elections is instant runoff voting (IRV). In New York City primaries, runoffs are forced for citywide elected positions when votes are split and no one candidate receives more than 40 percent of the vote. With IRV, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate wins with a first choice majority of 50 percent, the lowest vote-getters are eliminated, and the ballots where they were selected first are added to the next choice among the candidates advancing to the next round of the instant runoff. And so on, until one candidate hits 50 percent.

In 2013 – the last time a runoff was held, in the Democratic primary for Public Advocate – it resulted in an additional multi-million dollar election and a drastic decline in voter turnout to just 6.9 percent. And runoff elections are often made up of an older, whiter, and wealthier electorate. This is no way to run an election. Nor is accepting city leaders being elected with a low percentage of votes that negate the votes of the majority.

Given the recent election of Letitia James to the office of Attorney General, the public advocate is now vacant. More than 20 people have declared their candidacies, a list that seems to have grown daily for weeks. If the actual number of candidates on the February 26 ballot is anywhere close to 15 or 20, this special election we will likely see votes widely split among the candidates, ensuring that no one will win a majority of the vote. And while there would be no runoff based on city law (there are no runoffs in special elections), this election could nonetheless be a poster child in the case for instant runoff voting, which is also known as ranked-choice voting, giving more voters an actual say in choosing the next public advocate.

It should be noted that there will be another public advocate election this fall, where another crowded field could lead to a runoff, to fill out the rest of James’ term through the end of 2021. The winner of the special election is assured the office for the rest of this year only.

We will also have a environment in 2021 where ranked-choice voting will be essential. The races for mayor and comptroller are all but certain to be open, with no incumbent, and there will be another public advocate race, not to mention races for all five borough presidencies and all of the City Council. Those 2021 City Council elections, in which 36 current members are term-limited and all 51 seats up for election, will see a flood of candidates. Many races, especially the Democratic primaries, could see four, five, six, or even more candidates. Winners of a number of races may only have a plurality of the votes, unless we enact ranked-choice voting. And the citywide races could feature runoffs unless we act smartly in advance.

In 2018, the mayoral Charter Revision Commission reviewed policies that would make our city a better functioning democracy, among them, IRV. Despite widespread support, the commission bucked on the opportunity to put IRV on the ballot. It is disappointing that the commission missed this chance. Despite this, we have other avenues in which to institute IRV.

This session in Albany, I will be looking at how we can implement IRV through state legislation, engaging with my colleagues in both the Assembly and the Senate on why this policy is beneficial not only in saving taxpayer money, but also in helping us to elect candidates more representative of the city we live in, including more women and more people of color.

The 2018 Charter Commission’s failure to fully address IRV creates opportunity for action in Albany, and I expect to see people from all political sides coalesce around IRV as we move beyond whether or not it is a good idea to how, where, and when to implement it.

Instant runoff voting is used in major cities, such as San Francisco, Oakland, and Minneapolis, and this year Maine became the first state in the country to use it for congressional elections. We have allowed other states and cities to take the lead on smart and innovative voter reform while New York has stood by.

We are a city and state that often considers ourselves to be on the front lines of progressivism, but on voting reform, we often fall short. We should capitalize on the opportunities we have now going into future elections to ensure that all voices are heard and New York City and State stand up for democracy.

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Walter Mosley is a member of the New York State Assembly representing Brooklyn neighborhoods including Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, and parts of Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant. On Twitter @WalterTMosley.

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

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Public Advocate Election Makes Case for Instant Runoff Voting Sun, 13 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
WATCH: Agenda 2019: Movement Expected on Reform, But What Will It Look Like? https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8119-watch-agenda-2019-movement-expected-on-reform-but-what-will-it-look-like https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8119-watch-agenda-2019-movement-expected-on-reform-but-what-will-it-look-like mnn agenda ep2

(photo: @MNN59)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

mnn59 agenda ep2As part of Agenda 2019, the project from Gotham Gazette and City Limits, hosts Ben Max and Jarrett Murphy were joined on Manhattan Neighborhood Network by State Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, and Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause NY, to discuss reform issues and the year ahead. Topics included voting and election reform, government ethics reform, and campaign finance reform. Krueger's new Democratic majority in the state Senate are pledging to work with the Democratic Assembly majority and Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo to usher through a long list of stalled reforms, but what will actually get done? And what should it look like? Watch:

 Gotham Gazette:

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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WATCH: Agenda 2019: Movement Expected on Reform, But What Will It Look Like? Thu, 06 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: De Blasio Finishes Year 5 & The Push for 'Fair Elections for New York' https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8120-max-murphy-podcast-de-blasio-the-push-for-fair-elections-for-new-york https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8120-max-murphy-podcast-de-blasio-the-push-for-fair-elections-for-new-york mxm logo

Ben Max, left, of Gotham Gazette, and Jarrett Murphy, right, of City Limits


December 5, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: De Blasio Finishes Year 5 & The Push for 'Fair Elections for New York'

wbai hirsh jw 400bMayor de Blasio is nearing the end of his fifth year in office, and in the first half of the show the hosts take stock of recent news surrounding the mayor and questions of his leadership.

In the second half of the show, Max & Murphy were joined by two leaders of the new "Fair Elections for New York" coalition that is made up of activist groups, labor unions, and other organizations seeking to pass a slate of reforms related to voting and campaign finance in New York: Jess Wisneski of Citizen Action New York and Alison Hirsh of 32BJ SEIU. Wisneski and Hirsh outline the planks of the policy push and the political dynamics at play as they seek to pass policies like early voting and a public-matching campaign finance system with Democrats fully in control of state government in 2019.

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: De Blasio Finishes Year 5 & The Push for 'Fair Elections for New York' Wed, 05 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Agenda 2019: High Hopes for Long-Awaited Reforms https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8117-agenda-2019-high-hopes-for-long-awaited-reforms https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8117-agenda-2019-high-hopes-for-long-awaited-reforms Cuomo democracy protection

Gov. Cuomo signs legislation (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

The 2018 election cycle in New York laid bare the myriad failings of the state’s political system that advocates and reform-minded elected officials have long recognized. Several candidates, many in it for the first time, ran competitive races on the backs of small dollar donors while highlighting the lax campaign finance laws that allow wealthy interests to fund campaigns across the state. Corruption in government and ethics reforms were salient issues, particularly so in the gubernatorial and attorney general races. In New York City, chaotic Election Day administration brought renewed scrutiny to the long mismanaged Board of Elections as well as the state’s arcane voting and elections laws. And voters, for the first time in a long time, seemed to be paying attention to it all.

“There is a tremendous amount of demand for democracy reforms,” said Sarah Goff, associate director at Common Cause New York, a government reform advocacy group. “The state Legislature has the unique opportunity, with the dramatic shift in landscape, to prove to voters that they got the message.”

As Democrats won full control of the state Legislature and, yet again, the governorship on November 6, government reform advocates like Goff rejoiced. After years of legislative paralysis on their priorities -- aided in no small part by Republican obstructionism and abetted somewhat by lackluster Democratic commitment -- a slew of election, campaign finance, and other reforms now seem all but assured to pass in 2019 (though few are counting any chickens before they hatch).

Democrats who overwhelmingly controlled the Assembly have been approving measures for years that would open up elections, limit the power of big money, and create more accountability in government. The party now also controls the state Senate for the first time in nearly a decade and with a strong margin that is likely immune to the internal divisions that cost Democrats the chamber in the past. Democratic leaders -- Governor Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and newly-minted Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins -- made concrete promises on the campaign trail and will no longer have any excuses for failing to follow through on professed priorities like early voting, lower individual campaign donation limits, and a public-matching campaign finance program -- among several others.

“The Governor will continue to lead the fight to strengthen our democracy and restore confidence in government by advancing additional ethics and voting reforms, including but not limited to closing the LLC loophole, restricting outside income, creating a full-time legislature, expanding financial disclosure requirements, and instituting early voting and automatic and same-day voter registration,” said Hazel Crampton-Hays, a Cuomo spokesperson in an email. “We look forward to working with the Assembly and new Senate Democratic Majority to pass these critical priorities this session.”

Most of the broad election and voting reforms that Democrats are promising are also backed by the new Fair Elections for New York coalition, comprised of 91 organizations including government reform groups, political clubs, labor unions, faith-based organizations, and grassroots advocates fighting for everything from immigration and tenant reform to environmental protections. It’s an eclectic alliance that brings together both partisan and nonpartisan groups because, they say, they recognize that strengthening New York’s democracy is the first domino in improving, on multiple fronts, the everyday lives of New Yorkers.

“The need for an overhaul of New York’s voting and campaign financing system is apparent and well documented,” the coalition members wrote in a letter sent Monday, November 26, to the governor and state Legislature. “It is inherently inequitable, unfair and allows an exorbitant amount of power to be concentrated in the hands of the very few wealthy and well-connected.”

“I think this is going to be one of the most productive sessions in the history of New York State,” State Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens, who will be deputy majority leader to Stewart-Cousins starting in January, told Gotham Gazette after an unrelated news conference in City Hall Park.

Still, pushing through a long list of reforms, some more controversial than others, will not be easy. There are many details to work out, and some politically contentious issues to decide, starting with whether legislators will get a pay raise for the first time in two decades, and whether there will be clear agreement on ethics reforms to accompany such a raise. While there seems to be widespread agreement on passing early voting, will partisan lawmakers take on restructuring the New York City Board of Elections, a move that would likely happen in spite of protests from local party affiliates? These are just a few of the many questions that face Democrats in state government, starting with the governor, as the 2019 session looms.

“This isn’t just a moment that’s happening in New York State,” said Joanna Zdanys, counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, which is part of the Fair Elections coalition. “I think that the election this November showed that democracy reform is a major priority in jurisdictions small and larger across the country, on the local level as well as the national stage.”

Voting Reform
Voter turnout surged in New York in both the September primary and the November general. More than 45.6 percent of registered New Yorkers cast a vote on November 6, up from 33.2 percent in 2014, largely driven by a “blue wave” of Democratic voters incensed and energized since the election of President Donald Trump. But turnout has, more often than not, been anaemic in past elections. In the 2016 presidential, for instance, New York ranked 41 out of 50 states for turnout.

Advocates say these dismal numbers owe to “passive voter suppression” stemming from the state’s outdated voting laws. New York is one of only 13 states that do not allow early voting, and registration and party enrollment deadlines are needlessly long, all serving to limit, intentionally or not, participation in elections.

There have been a few incremental efforts at the state and city levels to expand and protect the franchise, but larger reforms have been blocked by the Republican Senate while Democrats like Cuomo and Heastie have kept them on the backburner in terms of policies they’ve pushed to bring Senate Republicans along during annual compromises.

Governor Cuomo also signed an executive order in April restoring voting rights to parolees (Those on probation were already allowed to vote). The New York City Council pushed that measure further by passing a law mandating that individuals released from city jails be given a written notice about their voting rights and a voter registration form. The Council has taken other steps as well, expanding access to interpreters at polling sites in immigrant-rich communities.

Mayor Bill de Blasio attempted to leave his own imprint on the voting system by launching the DemocracyNYC initiative, which includes a ten-point plan to encourage more voters to register, to ease access to the polls, and to provide more transparency around lobbyist activities and civic education in city schools, among other measures.

A larger package of reforms that advocates want and that can bring substantive change has repeatedly failed in the Senate and when Democrats take the chamber in the upcoming legislative session in January, they have pledged quick movement on seeing at least some of them through. These include automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, no-excuse absentee ballots, electronic pollbooks, shortening party (change of) enrollment deadlines (which are the longest in the country) and pre-registering 16- and 17-year-olds.

However, the first item that’s likely to pass is early voting. Ahead of state budget negotiations this year, Cuomo proposed funding an 12-day early voting program and the measure did not budge. What many see as the pressing need to implement early voting was bolstered after the Election Day debacle in New York City, where higher turnout, a complicated ballot design, bad weather, aging ballot scanning equipment and a lack of preparedness by the city BOE together created long lines at the polls and frustrated voters and elected officials. Early voting, government reformers agreed, would have preempted those issues, though turnout was not so high that the system should have buckled under conditions that did not include the weather-ballot combination. Still, early voting, which exists in more than three dozen states, is also seen as an issue of equity and fairness, giving people the opportunity to vote on multiple days, which is especially relevant for those with little control of their work schedules, among others.

“I think there will definitely be a very clear consequential order to how things move and a clear cadence from where we sit and where the coalition sits,” Goff of Common Cause said. “Early voting is a easy no-brainer, this can easily be done in the first 30 days. We are...very optimistic that this will happen very quickly.”

Elections and Campaign Finance Reform
Earlier this year, in response to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, the state Legislature passed and the governor signed the New York State Democracy Protection Act, which instituted new regulations for online political advertisements including disclosure of who purchased them and requiring the BOE to archive all online ads.

While those were lauded as important measures to provide more transparency in campaign expenditures, it’s on the fundraising side that things remain opaque, and reformers say the state’s laws need substantive improvement. A significant proportion of campaign contributions flow to candidates through limited liability companies, which are not required to disclose their owners and can help individuals and corporate entities evade limits on donations (which are already far too high, many argue). The LLC loophole is, perhaps, the most derided aspect of state elections and one that both Democrats and Republicans exploit, though it has most benefited Cuomo and Senate Republicans, two entities most friendly to real estate interests, which are often behind the creation of LLCs.  

“Corporations shouldn’t be allowed to buy elections,” said Julissa Bisono, lead organizer at Make the Road New York, an immigrant-advocacy group and another Fair Elections coalition member. “Every year we are up in Albany fighting on housing, fighting on more funding for our schools and it’s just been really difficult to pass legislation because big corporations are contributing money to these elected officials...so that they will block legislation that would affect low income communities, and communities of color.”

Cuomo, the biggest beneficiary of LLC donations in recent election cycles, has repeatedly vowed to close it but did not put significant political capital into doing so, blaming Senate Republicans for blocking the legislation. Next year, that is expected to change as the governor has made it among his top priorities and Democrats will take control of the Senate having run on the issue.

Democratic control over both the Assembly and Senate also bolsters the odds of the state adopting a public campaign financing program, possibly similar to New York City’s voluntary program that matches small dollar donations with public funds to help level the playing field for candidates. A pilot program for the state comptroller race in 2014 failed to gain any traction but there has been renewed attention in this last cycle to campaign financing and how it determines not only who is elected to office but what legislation eventually makes it through the Legislature.

“There is absolutely no excuse not to get rid of the LLC loophole and no excuse not to bring publicly financed campaigns to a vote,” said Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout, in an email. Teachout unsuccessfully ran in the gubernatorial primary in 2014 and in the attorney general primary this year, both times emphasizing the need to tackle rampant corruption in state politics, starting with campaign finance reform. “If there are people out there who oppose publicly financed campaigns, we need to know now and be ready to primary them,” she added.

There are other ways that New York can also tweak election management to encourage both turnout and efficient administration. This year, the state held two primaries, one in June for congressional races and the September primary for state races. Advocates have repeatedly pointed out that multiple primary elections both confuse voters and lead to fatigue, questioning why the state Legislature would spend more money on separate ones instead of consolidating them to be held on a single day.

The New York City BOE’s election fiasco has also prompted calls for reforming the agency, which is funded by the city but is technically a state entity. The City Council and Mayor de Blasio have sought to improve the board’s functioning by professionalizing its staff and reducing the influence of partisan appointees, though there is little enthusiasm even among Democrats for removing the county political parties from nominating BOE commissioners. The Board is under no obligation to heed the city’s authority.

“We see it every election day, that the board of elections is in desperate need of reform,” Gianaris said. “Once we have an elections committee chair which should be in the next couple of weeks, that should be something we focus on pretty aggressively.”

Ethics Reform
Good government advocates are looking to the New York City Council as an exemplar of the types of reforms that the state Legislature should pass. In 2016, Council members voted to give themselves, and other city elected officials, significant pay raises. But at the same time, the Council banned almost all types of outside income for members, eliminated committee chair stipends, also known as lulus (which were open to abuse as reward and punishment and salary padding), and improved financial disclosure requirements.

“Albany should look to all the things we’ve gotten done in the City Council over the past five years,” said City Council Member Ben Kallos, who previously chaired the governmental operations committee and helped lead the reform effort, “and it starts with no outside income, no more lulus, campaign finance reform...I believe that those three things would help clean up a lot of the corruption in Albany.”

To the dismay of good government groups and activists, however, the governor and Legislature have repeatedly wrestled over ethics reform with little to show for it. Cuomo infamously came to power promising that he would clean up Albany but later shut down the Moreland Commission that he had set up to fulfil that very pledge in the face of a resistant Legislature that kept seeing its members hauled off to jail. The compromise Cuomo struck with the Legislature created the state-run Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), which many have criticized for being an inefficient agency with too-close ties to the governor and legislative leaders, who appoint its members.

Gotham Gazette: Democrats who ran for attorney general either called for scrapping JCOPE or restructuring it. Even Cuomo conceded, in his general election debate with Republican gubernatorial nominee Marc Molinaro, that he would like to see a more independent JCOPE, which oversees ethical behavior in state government. Cuomo suggested that there could be different ways its members are appointed, but did not put forth a concrete proposal.

And though he was initially silent when the state Board of Elections proposed new rules that could curb the powers of its own enforcement counsel, Risa Sugarman, who investigates campaign finance wrongdoing, the governor did criticize the BOE when the rules were later approved.

Cuomo has insisted, and reform advocates agree, that state legislators should work fulltime and that outside income should be limited or prohibited while financial disclosure requirements should be expanded. It was outside income that was central to the recent corruption convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican.

But the governor sought to convince the Legislature to pass those ethics reform by leveraging the work of a state commission created in 2015 to look at pay raises for state elected officials. Legislators have not received a pay bump since 1999 and Cuomo said they shouldn’t unless they approved new reforms. That commission came to a contentious end with Cuomo’s appointees effectively killing any chance of increasing compensation for legislators.

This year, Cuomo and the Legislature again empanelled a pay raise commission through the state budget and it has already been beset with troubles over the constitutionality of its composition. But, it is set to issue binding recommendations that would go into effect unless the Legislature meets to vote them down -- in effect, lawmakers set up a system that would give them raises with their fingerprints removed. But, there is also controversy around pay raises without agreements to accompanying reforms, something legislative leaders have resisted.

Another significant step towards accountability in Albany could happen under the attorney general’s office. During the Democratic primary, the four candidates agreed that the attorney general must be able to independently investigate state officials, which the office can currently only do in most cases after receiving a referral from the governor or another entity with that power, such as a local U.S. Attorney or even the state comptroller, in some instances. All the candidates agreed that the office should have a permanent, standing referral to do so and Attorney General-elect Letitia James has promised to immediately seek that authority after taking office. Still, it is something that then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo called for when he was in the role but has not provided since becoming governor himself.

One Charter, Two Commissions
New York City voters overwhelmingly approved three ballot measures on November 6, which lowered campaign contribution limits, imposed term limits on community boards, and created a new civic engagement commission that will also work to improve and report on poll site interpretation services.

But more sweeping changes may lie on the horizon. The three 2018 referenda were placed on the ballot by a Charter Revision Commission empaneled by mayoral fiat. A separate commission was created soon after through City Council legislation with appointees chosen by the mayor, the Council speaker, the public advocate, the comptroller, and the five borough presidents. That commission is taking a far more expansive look at the city’s governing document and the powers and responsibilities it delineates to the different parts of city government.

As envisioned by Letitia James and Gale Brewer, who proposed the initial legislation, the commission could alter the structure of city government in a way that hasn’t been done since 1989 by a previous commission. “I think the Charter Revision Commission will really be the biggest place where we talk about what the functions of government are” said City Council Member Keith Powers, “how do the mayor and the City Council interact with each other, what agencies should be empowered here, how to do budgeting, things like that.”

[Read: Elected Officials Present Broad Proposals to 2019 Charter Revision Commission]

The 2019 commission appears to be looking at budget and land use processes, and may also take up two prominent issues that the mayor’s commission punted on -- instant runoff voting, also known as ranked choice voting, and setting up a system of independent redistricting of City Council districts.

Rules of the Room
Under City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and his predecessor, Melissa Mark-Viverito, the 51-member legislative body has passed a series of reforms and rules changes to give more power to members, create more transparency in how bills become law, and improved the internal culture of the Council. While Mark-Viverito did so through formal rules reforms, Johnson has made more administrative changes in keeping with some promises he made while running for speaker, though he has yet to move on others.

Reformers say that must happen in Albany as well. Under Cuomo, the Legislature has passed eight on-time or nearly-on-time budgets, but to do so, the governor has repeatedly employed a mechanism called a “message of necessity” that allows rushed votes on massive packages of legislation with little to no public review or debate. The entire process draws the ire of some legislators and virtually all reform advocates each year.

“We would love to see this year’s state Legislature no longer do these end of session big uglies,” Goff said, referring to the omnibus legislative package regularly passed at the end of the legislative session, “where ethics reform is crammed in at the last minute at 4 a.m. behind closed doors, and sort of gets carted out with minimal conversation and public engagement.” She hoped that the newly elected progressive Democrats, first-time legislators many of them, will help “crack some of the calcified power structure and culture in Albany.”

Teachout argued for democratizing the Legislature, as did Assembly minority leader Brian Kolb, a reform-minded Republican.

“We should allow for a simple majority of members to bring any bill to the floor for consideration and a vote, regardless of leadership objections,” Teachout said. “For too long, Albany is where responsibility goes to die -- electeds say they support one thing, but without a public vote, we don't know what they are saying behind closed doors.”

Kolb drew a parallel between Democrats in the House of Representatives and in the state Senate. Both chambers returned to Democratic control in the midterms, with young, first-time electeds who are now leading calls for empowering rank-and-file members. He said term limits were necessary, for leadership and committee chairs, for that to happen. “[B]ecause that’s where power becomes basically consolidated as people get to stay in these positions for a long, long time,” he said. “We think that there should be a change to that process that would break up the monopoly of power. And of course...any statewide legislative negotiations should include the minority party in both houses of the legislature, whether it’s the budget or anything else that matters.”

There are indication that, at least in the State Senate, there may be a culture shift. “There has been a lot of justified criticism of Albany that it’s too driven by the leadership and people don’t have a say,” Gianaris said. “We have 15 new members, I think [Majority Leader] Andrea Stewart-Cousins has made it clear that she intends to talk to all those members and make sure we have consensus on whatever we’re going to do.”

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article incorrectly stated that the governor and the state legislature appoint the executive director of JCOPE. They only appoint its commissioners. The article has been updated.   

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Agenda 2019: High Hopes for Long-Awaited Reforms Mon, 03 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000