Gotham Gazette Fri, 14 Aug 2020 08:10:51 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) New York Elections Administrators Lay Out Immense Challenges, Uncertainty Ahead of Fast-Approaching 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 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."

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
As New York Looks for Smoother General Election, Long List of Voting Reform Bills Awaits Governor’s Signature or Legislative Action passed prop what

Inspecting voting equipment (photo: Senator Michael Gianaris)

The June 2020 primaries in New York were an unusually thick morass of bureaucratic challenges as the city and state election systems shifted to a mostly-mail-in format amidst the coronavirus outbreak.

In New York City more than 80,000 mail-in ballots were disqualified on technical grounds -- a full fifth of the 400,000-plus ballots cast that way and a tenth of the total. Tens of thousands of ballots were either sent out late by the New York City Board of Elections or never delivered to voters who requested them.

Thousands of ballots were thrown out by the city board because they weren't postmarked by the U.S. Postal Service, a move that was overturned last week by a federal judge who blamed "systemic failures" for the mass disqualification. The State Board of Elections said it would appeal the decision -- asserting that counting the rejected ballots now, as one commissioner put it, "will place a tremendous burden on the local boards of elections as they are preparing for the November general election and is highly unlikely to change the results in any contest" -- but the New York Attorney General, Letitia James, decided otherwise.

With fewer than 90 days until Election Day, administrators, lawmakers, voting reform advocates, and voters are looking ahead to the general election, where the presidential contest is expected to draw a groundbreaking number of voters. It is unclear how many will be heading to the polls versus voting by mail, especially given uncertainty around what the virus transmission risk will be and what provisions for broad absentee voting will be in play.

On Tuesday, the New York State Legislature is holding a joint oversight hearing to review the 2020 primaries as the fate of legislation impacting the way elections are run remains up in the air. There is a long list of voting-related bills that fall into three categories: those passed by both houses of the Legislature and waiting action by Governor Andrew Cuomo; bills passed by one house of the Legislature; and bills passed by neither house. There are also the matters of steps Cuomo might take by executive action, depending on what the Legislature does and developments between now and the fall election; administrative changes the New York State and City Boards of Elections might make, including around beefing up personnel; and the status of the Postal Service, which President Donald Trump appears to be targeting.

To reach the unprecedented expansion of mail-in voting in June, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a series of executive orders expanding eligibility, requiring pre-paid postage, and even mandating that every registered voter eligible for the primaries received an absentee ballot application in the mail.

In response to the mess that unfolded, state lawmakers in July passed a series of bills aimed at codifying or adjusting elements of the absentee ballot mailing and counting procedures to set clearer and more practical standards for local boards of elections. The governor has yet to sign any of them, nor has he said whether he would sign new executive orders, while elections experts and some legislators say the legislation alone will not be enough.

"I believe that they will be signed by the governor," said Assemblymember Charles Lavine, a Nassau County Democrat who chairs the Assembly’s election law committee and sponsored one of the bills, by phone.

"But beyond that," he continued, "I believe that if for whatever reason the governor decides not to sign any of the bills, the governor will himself cover the provisions of those bills through executive orders."

"We are reviewing the bills," wrote Caitlin Giouard, a spokesperson for Cuomo, in an email. The bills were delivered to the governor on Monday, according to the State Senate's website, giving him 10 days to act (not including Sundays) before they automatically become law.

Codifying and Improving the Expanded Absentee Voting Process for Fall 2020
The centerpiece of the package, passed by the Democratic-controlled State Legislature in the special session last month, is a bill sponsored by Senator Alessandra Biaggi and Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz, both Bronx Democrats, that would broaden the definition of "Temporary Illness" -- one of the acceptable excuses for absentee voting under state law -- to include the risk of spreading or contracting an illness like COVID-19.

The bill is similar to Cuomo's executive order for the primaries, which has expired, except that it applies to diseases beyond COVID-19.

"All of these executive orders are subject to renewal and expansion and contraction and ending. They're executive orders and nothing else is really happening," said Sarah Steiner, a veteran election lawyer in New York State. "Nothing is in effect for the general election."

Three of the other bills in the package aim to correct issues that arose in June, when the absentee voting option, which previously served voters numbering in the thousands each election, was taken by hundreds of thousands.

One partially solves the postmark issue by saying that ballots that were received by a board of elections on the day after election day will be counted, even if they are missing a postmark.

The judge's ruling last week expanded that buffer to two days after election day for missing postmarks, but advocates say that still leaves a large window within the acceptable statutory timeframe that mailed ballots must be accepted when they do have a postmark.

"They're willing to protect votes one day later with no postmark and two days later with no postmark, and that leaves a five-day hole," said Jarret Berg, an election lawyer in New York and co-founder of the advocacy group Vote Early NY.

"How you treat certain ambiguities in the election law, that's for the State Board to clarify," he added. "There is the statute, and we can clean some of that up, but between the statute and what the counties are doing is the State Board. It's either a vacuum or they put down some clear rules."

Berg says the State Board of Elections, a regulatory and oversight body governing county-level election boards, should be playing a bigger role in setting uniformity among the various pieces of the elections bureaucracy, including the increasingly prominent USPS. "Why isn't there a three-page MOU between the head of the Post Office in New York and the State Board of Elections that just explains how you handle election paper?," Berg asked rhetorically.

"The USPS has already acknowledged in writing they are supposed to postmark every piece of election mail by their own rules and regulations," wrote John Conklin, a spokesperson for the State Board of Elections (SBOE), in an email to Gotham Gazette.

"The SBOE and the local boards worked with the Postal Service’s Media Design teams to ensure that every county’s absentee ballot mail pieces were to USPS’s exact specifications so they would be tracked according to how the USPS needed them and word still didn’t get out to all post offices," Conklin wrote. "I don’t know what an MOU would do. We’ve been talking with USPS for months on these matters."

"The Postal Service’s policy is to postmark ballots, regardless of the postage-payment method," wrote Xavier Hernandez, a spokesperson for the USPS, in an email to Gotham Gazette. "Leading up to the June 23rd election, the Postal Service instructed employees in New York State about the Postal Service’s ballot postmarking processes and procedures. All delivery units in New York, reviewed the standard operating procedures for ballot postmarking."

"We are aware that some ballots may not have been postmarked and have taken action to resolve the issue going forward," he added. "We continue to work with the Secretary of State and all New York Boards of Election and look forward to a successful general election."

Another bill would allow voters to apply for an absentee ballot prior to 30 days before an election, which would give local elections administrators more lead time to begin processing them.

That was a problem in June, when thousands of registered and eligible voters did not receive their requested ballots until it was too late to cast them, or not at all.

"To those voters who did not have an opportunity to cast their ballots in the primary election, we should apologize for not doing more," wrote Douglas Kellner, the Democratic Co-Chair of the State Board of Elections, in a memo to the New York City Board of Elections.

"Elected officials and others warned that we were not deploying sufficient resources to mail out absentee ballots in a timely manner, and in hindsight we could have done more to address that problem," wrote Kellner (who was the same commissioner who said canvassing non-postmarked ballots cast in June after election certification would be a "tremendous burden").

Another bill, sponsored by Lavine and Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat and the State Senate's elections committee chair, would create a kind of remote curing process for absentee ballots that are not accepted due to a technical error. If an absentee ballot contains certain "deficiencies" like a missing signature, the voter will be notified and given a limited window to correct the mistake. But some voting advocates say the bill could have gone further to give voters more time to fix a wider range of technicalities.

"Arguably, no bill goes far enough," Lavine told Gotham Gazette. "I'm very pleased that we were able to take the first steps...We're going in the right direction.”

"I do understand the critique of the voting rights advocates but our government is all about compromise," he added.

The New York City Board of Elections, which is responsible for roughly 40 percent of the state's registered voters, would not comment on the package. "We don't comment on pending legislation," wrote board spokesperson Valerie Vazquez in a text message.

In June, Cuomo signed legislation permitting voters to apply for absentee ballots online after the June primary, a codification of part of his executive order. But there appears to be no legislation to require election administrators to proactively mail absentee applications to registered voters, as they were required to do by executive order for the primaries.

Other Voting Reforms on the Table; Registration Deadlines; & More
Some bills that advocates want to see before the governor have thus far failed to gain traction in both chambers of the Legislature, including some related to counting ballots despite certain deficiencies.

One would require boards of elections to count ballots where the envelopes have been sealed by tape or glue, as opposed to by the built-in adhesive. Another would require counting when the "intent of the voter is unambiguous," ensuring that a ballot will be accepted if a voter fails to provide a particular signature or date. Both bills are still in committee.

On Friday, State Senator Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat, introduced a bill that would allow local boards of elections to set up secure drop boxes for voters to submit their absentee ballots, rather relying on the postal service.

Hoylman and Assembly Member Dan Quart, another Manhattan Democrat, also sponsor a bill that would allow voters to track their absentee ballots like they would a package in the mail, and requires boards of elections to provide an explanation if the ballot is rejected. The bill has not advanced in either house.

For the June elections, Cuomo's executive order provided that the absentee ballots include postage paid envelopes, which they are currently not required by law to do. Senator James Sanders Jr., a Queens Democrat, and Dinowitz introduced legislation to codify that for future elections, but it has not come to a vote.

A different bill, which would allow online voter registration for New York City residents, passed the Senate but remains in committee in the Assembly. The bill would sunset in 2021, when the state's online voter registration portal is expected to launch, but would allow online registration in the city amid a massive drop in new voter registration brought on by the pandemic.

New voters must register by October 9 in order to vote in the 2020 general election in New York.

In July, the Senate and Assembly passed a bill establishing automatic voter registration, which does not go into effect until 2023. The bill requires certain government agencies to establish a procedure with the State Board of Elections to automatically register clients to vote when they provide the necessary personal information when seeking services.

Earlier this year, Myrie, the Senate's elections committee chair, introduced the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act (posthumously renamed) that would codify elements of the federal VRA into state election law. The bill has no Assembly companion at this time.

Many of the measures suggested by voting advocates and state elections administrators would require more personnel and resources, either to process absentee ballots, better utilize the state’s new early voting option, or address Election Day delays.

In his memo to the New York City Board of Elections, Kellner said the city board would have to take far greater steps to ensure shorter lines at poll sites during the likely explosive turnout of the general election. He implored the city board to strive to ensure voters aren't waiting at poll sites more than 30 minutes, as mandated by state law ("New York City has never come close to meeting that mandate in presidential general elections," he wrote) and suggested having the city close down streets and set up tents for outdoor voting near poll sites. In terms of processing absentee ballots, he said administrators need to "dramatically scale up" the number of tables and personnel dedicated to counting ballots.

"New York City has more poll workers than needed for primary and special elections and is understaffed in many locations for the presidential election," Kellner wrote. "The solution is obvious, albeit not so simple to accomplish. We need more registration check-in tables. That is where the bottlenecks typically occur. Yes, more tables mean that we need more poll-workers to staff these tables, and that means that we need more space."

Steiner, the election lawyer, believes the state's new early voting option has been under-promoted and under-utilized.

"You had nine days of early voting and only something like 52,000 people voted," Steiner said. "But those nine days that there are massive halls in which people can go and vote at their leisure" could have accommodated more socially distant in-person voting, she said. "You could have half the people voting early and it wouldn't be any stress on [elections administrators] at all."

A bill passed in July that goes into effect in 2021 would require counties to establish an early voting site in the largest population center, an additional requirement to the mandate that they be established for every increment of 50,000 voters. New York City would not be affected since it is a municipality that spans five counties (the five boroughs).

There are nine days of early voting for the 2020 general election, beginning Saturday, October 24, and extending through Sunday, November 1, with sites open for extended hours some evenings. Election Day is Tuesday, November 3.

In anticipation of another crush of mailed ballots, the New York City Board of Elections on August 4 approved the purchase of five state-of-the-art absentee-ballot counting machines -- one for each borough -- for roughly $1.5 million. The machines will help streamline absentee canvassing.

"That is something that should be watched,” Steiner said, “whether the absentee ballot handling is going to be improved, whether that is the only improvement to the handling of absentee ballots that they make.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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As New York Looks for Smoother General Election, Long List of Voting Reform Bills Awaits Governor’s Signature or Legislative Action Mon, 10 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Ruling Paves Way for Massive Voting Rights Change to School Board Elections Across New York hall town 35th

School Board elections may soon change across NY (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

On May 25 in White Plains, U.S. District Court Judge Cathy Seibel ruled that the at-large system used for electing the nine members of the East Ramapo School Board denied the district’s Black and Latino voters effective choice in its elections, violating §2 of the Federal Voting Rights Act (VRA). Under an at-large system every voter votes to fill each board position, allowing a disciplined majority to control all seats. A majority of the East Ramapo district’s voting population is Hasidic Jews. The School Board has long been dominated by members recruited and endorsed by the leaders of this religious community and elected at-large through the use of block voting. 

Children of Hasidic families in the district all attend private religious schools (Yeshivas) to which the board regularly diverts resources. Meanwhile the board’s tax cutting and repeated austerity budgets have starved the district’s public schools, where most of the students are members of minority groups. To redress this bias, Judge Seibel barred further at-large elections for the nine-member school board and ordered the immediate development of a ward-based plan for conducting future school elections. Under a ward system, board members are elected from geographically defined districts, permitting the election of members supported locally but not favored by the jurisdiction-wide majority.

The decision in this case, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Spring Valley  Branch et. al. v. East Ramapo School District (17-CV-8943 (CS)), is historic for two reasons:

1. For the first time since the passage of the Voting Rights Act over a half-century ago, it has been used to require structuring choice in New York’s school board elections in a way known to be more responsive to minority communities. East Ramapo will become only the second of New York State’s 688 school districts to have ward-based elections. (The other is the City of Buffalo.) 

2. Voting Rights Act litigation has previously been used to halt the use of at-large elections in New York municipalities, but until now the necessary evidence could not be marshalled to successfully challenge the practice in school districts. Judge Seibel relied heavily on expert political science testimony employing the statistical techniques of Ecological Inference and Bayesian Improved Surname Geocoding (BISG).

She wrote: “This may be the first time that voter-preference estimates based on BISG have been admitted into evidence at a VRA trial.” If sustained on appeal, this decision will provide the basis for change elsewhere, facilitating elections of members preferred by minority-community voters. 

At-Large and Ward-Based Elections
New York law provides that all village, town, and school board elections be conducted at-large. As an alternative, towns and villages may adopt the use of wards by referendum. However, school districts may not. 

The early 20th century progressive reformers who designed New York’s school governance system sought to “separate education from politics.” For them ward-based urban political machines were anathema. They wanted governance in the hands of “better men.” At-large elections were their primary tool for achieving this end. 

These reformers were not shy about their unabashedly social and racial bias, as illustrated in the map and accompanying text below, taken from a 1916 book written by Dean and Professor Elwood Cubberly, cited by the New York State School Board Association as a framer of the New York system. Their preferred at-large system was discriminatory not only in its effect, but in its intent.

ruling city wards

Evidence and Statistics
The discriminatory effect of at-large election was well-known by the time the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. The challenge was to prove it denied protected minorities effective choice in elections in specific cases to the satisfaction of federal judges. The courts required that members of these minorities seeking redress under the VRA show that the manner in which their jurisdiction’s election was structured systematically precluded them from having any impact on outcomes. 

Voting is confidential. So is Census information. We do not keep individual level records about a person’s voting behavior or residence by race. Until now, therefore, proof of the invidious effect on minorities of the manner in which electoral choice is structured was built from a combination of place-specific voting records from their neighborhoods – aggregate election outcomes from Census blocks made up largely of minority group residents. 

But in New York State, school board elections, unlike those for municipalities, are not conducted in geographically specified election districts. Aggregate place-specific records of voting by members of minority groups are therefore not available to combine with Census information to provide the needed proof of structural bias. Though VRA litigation has been successful in challenging the discriminatory effect of at-large elections for municipal elections in the state, conducted in geographically defined election districts, the impossibility of gathering needed evidence has heretofore blocked mounting similar litigation challenging the at-large structure of school board elections.

To overcome this barrier, lawyers for the NAACP brought in political scientists expert in Ecological Inference and BISG. Ecological Inference, pioneered by Gary King, a graduate of SUNY New Paltz and now a professor at Harvard, permits inferring individual behavior from group-level data. BISG combines individual level information about persons’ names with the place where they live to predict their race and/or ethnicity with high probability. 

Much of Judge Seibel’s compelling 77-page opinion is devoted to a careful assessment of political scientists’ expert testimony and an explanation of why she finds it compelling in proving that the at-large system used in East Ramapo is in violation of the Voting Rights Act. As the case goes forward on appeal, however, it is cautionary to recall that the judge is functioning in a system headed by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who in a redistricting case called political science expert testimony “sociological gobbledygook.”

Though they have long had the choice, only 14 of 932 New York State towns and 4 of 534 villages have opted for ward-based elections. But lately there has been a quickening of interest in this option in the Hudson Valley. The town of Blooming Grove switched over in 2016. Other municipalities have the matter under consideration. Special legislation has been introduced in Albany allowing the adoption of ward systems for the Chester Union Free School District, and the Washingtonville and Warwick Valley Central School Districts. General legislation has been entered by Hudson Valley state legislators to allow local choice of ward systems in Orange County and statewide. Ironically, in these jurisdictions, and increasingly in the wider region, the motivation seems not to assure effective choice by minority-group voters, but the protection of the control of schools by current majorities from a minority community growing rapidly in numbers and power – the Hasidic community – not protected under the Voting Rights Act. 

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

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Ruling Paves Way for Massive Voting Rights Change to School Board Elections Across New York Wed, 05 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
New York City Mandated an Absentee Ballot Tracking System; The Board of Elections Never Implemented It rosenthal absentee ballot mailbox

Voting absentee (photo: @HelenRosenthal)

A law passed by the New York City Council in 2016 could have helped prevent some of the many problems plaguing the absentee ballot process from the June 2020 primary elections. But that law was never implemented by the New York City Board of Elections, a quasi-state agency that routinely refuses to abide by local mandates.

The June primaries saw a record number of absentee ballots cast by voters, facilitated by an executive order from Governor Andrew Cuomo that mandated that local boards of elections across the state send out postage-paid absentee ballot applications to all eligible, registered voters. But the multi-step process was riddled with problems and the New York City Board of Elections was ill-equipped to handle the crush of hundreds of thousands of new absentee voters. The city BOE sent out more than 778,000 ballots and more than 403,000 of those were mailed back by voters and marked as received by the board.

Ahead of the primary, voters complained for weeks that they hadn’t either received an absentee ballot application or the ballot itself after mailing the application to the BOE. Some even received the ballot after the primary election was over, while untold others may have their attempts at voting invalidated for various reasons.

City Council Member Ben Kallos, a Manhattan Democrat, said these issues could have been avoided. He sponsored the 2016 law that required the city Board of Elections to create an online portal that would allow voters to track their absentee ballot application and their ballot, along with giving them access to their registration status, voting history, and other election-related resources. The city BOE never created the portal.

“The biggest impediment to free and fair elections and democracy in the City of New York is the Board of Elections, and it really shouldn’t be that way,” Kallos said in an interview. “They only had one job and all they had to do was send people their absentee ballots and they couldn't even get that right. And because of the Board of Elections, tens if not hundreds of thousands of voters were disenfranchised.”

The city BOE has already begun throwing out thousands of ballots for errors small, large, and at times out of the control of voters. For instance, ballots had to be postmarked by June 23 and received by June 30 to be counted. But, as Gothamist first reported, the United States Postal Service does not typically postmark envelopes that already have postage paid, and despite instructions to postmark voter mail, some yet-to-be-determined number of ballots were not postmarked, which meant that otherwise valid ballots were not going to be counted.

Those rejections have prompted a federal lawsuit against the state BOE and the governor by two Democratic candidates and more than a dozen voters, alleging voter disenfranchisement. “Depending on where the voter lived and what their local USPS office was doing or told, two voters could cast identical ballots, at exactly the same time, on the same day, and yet one ballot would be counted and one would not,” the lawsuit states.

There are also other ongoing issues around which absentee and affidavit ballots will be counted because of issues like stray marks on ballots or missing signatures. Meanwhile, those who vote absentee have no way of knowing the status of their ballot.

Already, the mismanagement of and other problems with absentee balloting has prompted the state Legislature to consider ten pieces of legislation ahead of the fall general election to improve the voting process, including a bill sponsored by State Senator Zellnor Myrie of Brooklyn that would provide for the type of tracking mechanism that Kallos’ law envisions.

Activists from the Let NY Vote coalition are rallying behind those bills. “The June primary highlighted many of the obvious inadequacies in New York State's absentee ballot counting procedures,” said Jennifer Wilson, deputy director of the League of Women Voters of New York State, in a public statement. “Voters throughout the state were unsure whether their ballot would arrive in time to be counted, or whether their ballot would be rejected without their knowledge. This package of bills will address issues surrounding absentee voting in New York State as well as assuring voters that they will be able to continue to vote via absentee ballot during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.”

[Push Is On for 10 Bills to Strengthen Absentee Voting and More Ahead of Fall Election]

As it has done with Kallos’, the New York City Board of Elections regularly ignores laws passed by the City Council, on the grounds that it is only subject to mandates of the state Legislature. Though it is technically a state entity, it is funded by the city and its ten commissioners are appointed by the City Council. The Board has previously refused to implement other local laws, including one that required it to post signage when a polling site is moved. It also decided not to allow online voter registration after the state BOE’s Republican and Democratic commissioners provided a split opinion on the validity of electronic signatures.

But in the case of the absentee ballot tracking proposal, the BOE’s executive leadership seemed to agree with the intent of the bill. When Kallos held a hearing on the bill in March 2015, BOE Executive Director Mike Ryan testified to the relative ease of implementing an electronic tracking system, which is already used internally. “Well I think it would be a subset ultimately of the system that we already have in place...The question simply then becomes, we're gathering the information; the real question from a programming perspective is; how do we take the information that we're gathering and make it publicly available on a web and accessible?”, he said, according to a transcript of the hearing.

He even said that if the process was automated and did not require manual effort, that the BOE would likely not have any objections to it. “I would envision, if we were going to implement something like this, that the only way that it could work is if there was an automation to the process. You know, a barcoding, a QR coding that allows us to scan the envelopes when they come back in,” he said. “Given the amount of information and all of the tasks that we have to complete leading up to election day, having manual intervention without significant additions to capable staff that could do this, is not something that would be possible...But if it's all electronic we don't have an issue; if it's manual intervention we'd have significant issues trying to comply.”

BOE spokesperson Valerie Vazquez declined to comment for this story.

If the state Legislature fails to follow through on absentee ballot tracking and online voter registration, Kallos, who is running for Manhattan Borough President in next year’s city elections, said voters should reject them at the polls.

“As we head into the most important election in our lifetimes for the President of the United States, people will not be able to register online and they may not be able to request their absentee ballots online or even track and see whether or not their ballots are counted and all that just makes them lose faith in their elected officials,” he said. “And I hope that they will join me in voting out all the bums and going after all the corrupt party officials that are involved in a broken Board of Elections.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

New York City Mandated an Absentee Ballot Tracking System; The Board of Elections Never Implemented It Mon, 20 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
We Should Never Have to Choose Between Life and Democracy in person voting pandemic

In-person voting during a pandemic (photo: Gotham Gazette)

We should never have to decide between public health and democracy. We must have both.

We hoped that voter suppression was a thing of the past, and yet it is still present not just in the South but in the South Bronx and across the country.

We are witnessing a public health and democratic crisis that must be addressed immediately—otherwise, lives will be taken as electoral gains are also stolen.  

In short, the coronavirus crisis has cast a light on the deteriorating health of American democracy, and it’s time we act urgently.

In the midst of a global pandemic, state and local governments have had to adjust the way voters participate in elections to minimize transmission of COVID-19 and keep people safe, including using early voting and mail-in ballots so that people have options to cast their vote.

However, the past few months have shown that our electoral system is still in dire need of repair. The fact that it is taking weeks to count ballots in the South Bronx, for example, does not bode well for upcoming elections—the most important of which is defeating Donald Trump in November. 

In Pennsylvania, tens of thousands of voters received their ballots in the mail after the election had passed. Baltimore residents had to wait more than a week longer to receive their ballots than residents of the other parts of Maryland. More than 1,000 voters in New Mexico were disenfranchised because their mail-in ballots arrived too late to be counted on Election Day.  

In Georgia, tens of thousands of voters had yet to receive their ballots by mail on the day before the primary election, and more than 10% of in-person polling places in the state had been closed, forcing many voters to wait for hours in line at those sites that remained open. 

Unfortunately, in New York’s June primary elections, we saw more of the same—delayed or missing ballots causing the disenfranchisement of people unable to leave their homes due to health concerns; polling places closed or moved without explanation; lifelong Democrats told to submit an affidavit ballot because their party status was somehow in question; voters forced to wait hours in line in the midst of a pandemic.

There were just under 800,000 absentee ballots sent out by the New York City Board of Elections and more than 400,000 absentee ballots returned by voters. However, we still have no clarity on the actual number of people who never received their ballots or received them late, nor the actual timetable of when the ballots were mailed out in the first place.

We also still don't know why the top voting Black polling place in my Assembly District (the 79th) was moved nor why several of our polling places were opened late nor why so many persons were only given presidential primary ballots nor why so many largely Black polling places have two-hour-plus lines due to insufficient equipment and scanners going down. Some may call these all innocent errors, but there's simply too much consistency to ignore, too much likely intentionality to overlook.

When the government needs to contact us to collect money, the mail system works seamlessly. However, from delayed stimulus checks earlier this year to now delayed ballots, we are not helping our fellow Americans to recover and exercise their right to participate in our democracy.

Simply put, it is unacceptable that untold numbers of Americans are being asked to literally risk their lives to participate in the electoral process because of the inadequacies of the vote-by-mail system and boards of elections. 

I am proposing the following set of remedies.

First, all poll workers must receive non-partisan training, be treated as skilled employees with approved certification, and have no connection to any candidate or campaign. Moreover, the leadership and staff at boards of elections should always be independently appointed.

Second, there must be a public schedule that explicitly sets forth when ballots should be received by voters in the mail, ensuring some degree of government accountability. In addition, there must be a tracking system to notify voters of ballot distribution and arrival, just as there would be for any package purchased online. 

Third, if someone is found to have participated in voter suppression, he or she must be immediately referred to the New York State Attorney General for investigation.

Fourth, we must ensure that devices at polling places are able to identify a voter who lives within that site's jurisdiction so that people are not unjustly turned away from their polling site or forced to submit an affidavit ballot.

Fifth, the public must be given transparency as to why a person is asked to vote by affidavit ballot or has had their ballot invalidated. My team has identified several hundred affidavit ballots that were initially deemed invalid, many for simply undemocratic reasons such as a person who is confirmed by the Board of Elections to be a Democrat had their ballot invalidated because they didn’t check a box  for why they were voting by affidavit. What if the person didn’t know why they were being forced to vote affidavit or the poll worker didn’t actually have a reason?

Sixth, there must be emergency allocations for local boards of elections and postal services to have sufficient capacity prior to the election. In the event that legal action is required in the 15th Congressional District -- or elsewhere -- to review the election results, that election should not be certified until the legal action is resolved. This should be the standard across the board.

Seventh, wherever possible, a public hearing and approval process must be established prior to moving a polling site.

It pains me to think that this undemocratic process has occurred over the course of many decades. Anyone who has contributed to the intentional disenfranchisement and suppression of voters should be ashamed, as your silence has led to the voices of New Yorkers not being heard.

If you voted by affidavit or absentee ballot, you should demand an immediate answer as to whether your ballot has been deemed valid and counted in this electoral contest. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers are thinking right now that their vote was counted, but unbeknownst to them, and for some undisclosed reason, their ballot was in fact voided. We should not have to sift through countless reams of paper to discover that New Yorkers—especially those in low-income, Black and brown neighborhoods—are being unfairly disenfranchised and suppressed.

The reforms outlined above are necessary because these issues are not theoretical. A recent study found that Wisconsin’s decision to hold an in-person election in April led to a substantial spike in coronavirus infections. In other words, these election-related issues are a matter of life and death. If we’re going to offer the early and mail-in voting that we should, it must work, and work well, to ensure that New Yorkers and all American voters have their right to vote protected and ensured.

As I continue to cry and mourn the loss of Civil Rights icon Rep. John Lewis, whom I had the honor to meet several times and bestowed upon me one of his final endorsements, my spirit reflects heavily on one of his many profound sayings: "If you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something about it." As we enter the fourth week after our election with so many unresolved problems, I'm writing this because we have a moral obligation to end the voter disenfranchisement and suppression that occurs across New York State and this country.

Countless numbers of our ancestors marched, bled, and died for the inalienable right to vote.  We shouldn’t have to risk death to vote again.

Michael Blake is a member of the state Assembly and candidate for Congress in the Bronx. On Twitter @MrMikeBlake.

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

We Should Never Have to Choose Between Life and Democracy Sat, 18 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Push Is On for 10 Bills to Strengthen Absentee Voting and More Ahead of Fall Election boe nyc votes table pandemic

Voting during a pandemic (photo: @NYCVotes)

Ahead of a special state legislative session set for next week, a coalition of election reform advocates is backing ten bills that would change or codify elements of the now widely-used absentee voting process before the fall general election.

The agenda, released Thursday by the Let NY Vote coalition, comes amid party primary elections where the voting is over but the counting is ongoing after for the first time nearly every registered voter in the state was made eligible for an absentee ballot. The pandemic-induced move by Governor Andrew Cuomo caught local boards of elections unprepared and revealed some significant weaknesses in the absentee voting system, which appear to be leading to many thousands of voters who tried to cast ballots either not being able to or having their attempted vote invalidated.

The legislative package centers on making law the broader eligibility criteria for absentee voting, the executive order for which has now expired, and putting safeguards in place to prevent mail-in ballots from being thrown out for technical reasons. The bills are being pushed now in anticipation of an even higher demand for absentee ballots in the fall presidential election, where turnout is expected to be immense. Other general election contests, for state Legislature, Congress, and other local seats, will also be on the ballot.

"The June primary election was unprecedented, but democracy does not pause, it adapts," said Susan Lerner, executive director of the good government group Common Cause New York, in a press statement from the coalition, which is comprised of over 175 organizations. "New York lawmakers must prioritize planning for the November election today. The Boards of Elections need ample time to prepare for the Presidential Election to guarantee that all votes count."

"I'm sure there will be lessons to learn, but life is alternatives and I don't know that we had a better alternative, and I don't know that we're going to have a better alternative in November," Cuomo told reporters Thursday in response to questions about the number of rejected absentee ballots and whether he would again open up absentee voting in the general election.

Cuomo signed the executive order in April expanding the definition of "Temporary Illness," one of the accepted reasons to vote absentee, to include the risk of spreading or contracting COVID-19 in the June primaries. Legislation sponsored by State Senator Alessandra Biaggi and Assemblymember Michael Blake, two Bronx Democrats, would permanently allow voters to vote absentee if there is "a risk of contracting or spreading a disease," effectively applying the governor's measure to the general election and beyond, as long as the public health emergency continues.

"The governor's executive orders to expand absentee ballot voting are band-aid solutions," Biaggi said in an interview. "By codifying the expansion of absentee ballot voting, we can provide indisputable clarity now on how New Yorkers can safely access the ballot box in November, and give the Board of Elections the time they need to properly prepare for elections throughout the course of this pandemic."

Across the five boroughs, close to 400,000 voters requested, received, and returned absentee ballots to the New York City Board of Elections in the June primaries. But thousands of ballots were rejected on technicalities, like failing to properly sign or date the ballot envelope or including additional markings on the ballot. Some yet to be determined number of ballots received by election administrators was invalidated because they were not postmarked. Some voters did not even receive their requested ballots by the voting deadline.

A number of the bills supported by the Let NY Vote coalition aim to address or correct these issues. One would ensure absentee ballots are counted when there are markings on the ballot as long as the intent of the voter is clear. Another would require election administrators to make a "good faith effort" to contact a voter if their ballot is received unsealed or partially sealed with tape or glue -- if the voter can certify in writing that they sent the ballot in that condition it will be counted. Both bills are sponsored by Brooklyn State Senator Zellnor Myrie and Westchester Assemblymember Amy Paulin, both Democrats.

Two other bills, also carried by Myrie, who chairs the Senate's elections committee, would give voters an opportunity to correct their absentee ballot if it has been challenged and would require the ballots to be counted even without a postmark. Both bills lack a companion in the Assembly, which is necessary for passage.

Other bills in the package are aimed at increasing access to the ballot box, in-person or by mail.

One, sponsored by Senator James Sanders, a Queens Democrat, and Assemblmember Jeffrey Dinowitz, a Bronx Democrat, would require boards of elections to include a pre-paid return envelope with absentee ballots, which are not currently provided in every county, according to Let NY Vote.

"We do not charge a price to vote at a polling place and voting absentee shouldn't cost the voter either," reads a memo from Sanders accompanying the bill. Lawmakers have not determined the fiscal impact of the provision, according to the memo.

Dinowitz is also the prime sponsor of legislation that would require SUNY and CUNY to provide information to students on voting absentee, including links to absentee ballot applications, in addition to the voter registration information already required. The bill, which is sponsored in the State Senate by Manhattan Democrat Brian Benjamin, also modified language of the existing law to make it easier for the public university systems to comply.

Myrie and Blake are carrying another voter registration bill that would let eligible New York City residents register through an online portal run by the New York City Campaign Finance Board. The provision would sunset when the state Board of Elections opens its own online portal, expected in 2022.

"Our communities deserve legislation that meet our needs as we continue to navigate the Covid crisis by making voter registration more accessible, guaranteeing access to absentee ballots and protecting our votes," wrote Marcela Barrientos, Interim Executive Director at New York Civic Engagement Table, a coalition member, in a statement.

Some of the bills in the legislative package will not place an additional burden on administrators because they simply deal with how ballots will be counted. But others, like the mandates that local boards of elections contact voters whose ballots have been challenged, will require entirely new processes to be established.

The coalition-backed legislation with perhaps the heaviest impact on election boards is a bill to increase the number of early voting locations required in each county from seven to ten sites, and for larger counties each town and city must have an early poll site. The bill was first introduced last December by Assemblymember Charles Lavine and Senator Anna Kaplan, both Democrats from Long Island, after the state's first election with early voting.

When early voting was being debated and even after it became law in New York, local boards of elections raised alarms about the costs associated with operating multiple poll sites over several days.

A spokesperson for the New York City Board of Elections said the agency had "no comment" on any of the bills in the Let NY Vote agenda. The New York State Board of Elections, a regulatory and oversight body, did not return a request for comment.

"We made history last year by making voting more convenient and accessible for Long Islanders and all New Yorkers, but we recognize that there's still more that needs to be done to ensure that everyone can have their voice heard at the voting booth without unnecessary barriers," Kaplan wrote in an email to Gotham Gazette.

The Kaplan-Lavine early voting bill has already passed the State Senate and is in committee in the Assembly. On Wednesday, the Assembly Elections Committee advanced a separate bill requiring at least one early voting site in a county's largest population center, a measure that passed in the Senate in January, Lavine told Gotham Gazette.

Of his own bill, he said the Assembly is considering it and "I am confident that it will be passed at some point."

Separately, Assemblymember Dan Quart and State Senator Brad Hoylman, both Manhattan Democrats, have a bill to require a system wherein voters can track their absentee ballots, among other provisions. "It's time for New York to conform to the absentee ballot standards in other states," Hoylman recently told Gotham Gazette.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Push Is On for 10 Bills to Strengthen Absentee Voting and More Ahead of Fall Election Thu, 16 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Voters Should Be Able to Track Their Absentee Ballots, Lawmakers Say 3 mount kisco gov

Voting has changed dramatically in New York (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)

As hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots are being counted more than two weeks after the June 23 primary elections, state lawmakers are pushing a bill that would allow absentee voters to track their ballots and would require election administrators to provide an individual explanation when a ballot is disqualified.

The latest effort to pass the legislation, which was first introduced in 2013, comes amid an unprecedented increase in absentee voting due to the coronavirus pandemic and changes to the eligibility criteria for receiving them. The bill sponsors, Assembly Member Dan Quart and Senator Brad Hoylman, two Manhattan Democrats, say they want to see it signed into law in time for the general election, but it faces a number of legislative and technical hurdles.

"I think the current situation with so many thousands of voters voting by absentee demonstrates how critical this legislation is," Quart said in an interview. "I've heard from many constituents that they have deep concerns that their vote, something so critical, will be counted this year."

"In the age of pandemic democracy, we've got to take into account the fact that voters need to know whether their absentee ballot was counted or not," Hoylman said.

In April, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order expanding the eligibility for an absentee ballot to include anyone with COVID-19 or at risk of contracting the virus, effectively encompassing all registered voters, in order to prevent the virus from spreading at poll sites. Cuomo also ordered boards of elections to distribute absentee ballot applications to all eligible voters, with state lawyers asserting that he could not constitutionally order ballots themselves sent.

As the process unfolded, hundreds of thousands of registered New York City voters requested an absentee ballot through the New York City Board of Elections, with roughly 765,000 ballots sent out by the BOE and 384,000 returned by voters to the BOE, which is now just beginning the process of tallying up those votes.

But, the rapidly expanded absentee system was marred by confusion with some voters not receiving their requested ballot in time to vote absentee. Many others did mail their ballot but have no way of knowing if their vote was received and counted. The BOE will undoubtedly throw out a number of those votes on technicalities as part of the review process, as it does with affidavit ballots.

The lawmakers’ proposal would require county boards of elections to provide written or online confirmation when an absentee ballot has been received. If the ballot is rejected, which can happen on a number of technical grounds like failure to provide a signature or including an extraneous piece of paper in the ballot envelope, the board would have to explain why, and how it can be corrected.

Many other states have online systems for voters to track ballots cast by mail. At least 19 states require some kind of tracking system by statute, and another 14 (including the District of Columbia) have voluntarily established websites to serve that function, according to the National Conference of State Legislature website.

"It's time for New York to conform to the absentee ballot standards in other states," Hoylman said. The bill has not moved out of committee since it was first introduced, even after 2019 when Democrats took control of both houses of the State Legislature and passed a number of voting reforms. The 2020 primaries have been the first elections with widespread absentee voting, but it has often been used by people who are older and who have health and mobility impairments, as well as people who travel or live elsewhere temporarily.

The legislation leaves it up to elections administrators to implement the system and come up with the rules and regulations governing it.

Federal law already requires New York State to allow overseas residents and military voters to track their ballots, which the State Board of Elections does via an online portal, and Hoylman thinks local boards can take a similar approach.

Through the state's current website, military and overseas voters can see when their ballot is sent to them and when it is received by the board of elections, according to John Conklin, a spokesperson for the State Board of Elections. But the system has limitations: it does not allow those voters to see whether their vote was counted.

"It would be local boards of elections but they would work in conjunction with the state to implement it," Hoylman said. This is not atypical of state legislation dealing with elections, which are administered in New York State at the county level by local boards of elections under the oversight and regulatory framework of the State Board of Elections.

Quart suggested that the bill would not only create a system to track whether an absentee ballot was received by the board of elections, but whether it was sent out to the voter in the first place. "So they are not waiting until the last minute for an absentee ballot that's not going to come," he said. Voters are currently responsible for applying for an absentee ballot, even under the broadened eligibility, and many have reported not receiving a requested ballot in time for the primary or at all. But the bill language and accompanying sponsor's memo do not make explicit mention of the ballot application, only saying that the ballots themselves would be tracked (and the explanation of rejection appears to only apply to the ballot, not to applications for a ballot).

Questions remain whether the legislation will be passed and if in time for this year’s fall general election, when even greater numbers of absentee ballots are expected to be cast, pending an extension of the governor’s executive order or legislation that would keep all voters eligible to vote absentee.

"As more is revealed about absentee ballots and voters who may not have had their ballots received in time or their votes counted, I think there is going to be a public call for this type of action," Hoylman said, without indicating whether the bill had support from Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and the majority of the Democratic conference.

Quart did not say whether he had spoken with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie either but both said they believed it should be in place for the fall presidential election, which will coincide with the general election for all seats in the State Legislature and House of Representatives, among others.

Spokespeople for the Democratic majorities in both chambers of the State Legislature did not return requests for comment on the bill.

"I'm more optimistic of the chance of success, especially in advance of November -- such a critical election not just in New York State but in the history of this country." Quart said. "Thousands upon thousands of people will be casting their vote by absentee ballot."

Even if it is signed into law before November, whether New York's decentralized and notoriously error-prone election boards will be able to successfully implement the brand new system is a big unknown.

"We have to demand that they do or nothing is going to get done," Hoylman said. "The fact that so many voters have reported not receiving their requested ballot in time to vote by absentee remotely is a scandal in and of itself. But those that did receive a ballot and were able to vote by mail never got any confirmation that it was received and counted." (Voters can eventually check with their local board of elections office whether their vote was counted.)

A spokesperson for the New York City Board of Elections said the agency had no comment on the bill.

"The State Board does not comment on legislation unless the Commissioners have formally voted to support it," Conklin wrote in an email.

Both sponsors of the bill had primary challengers in their districts this June, and while Hoylman is leading his race by a wide margin, Quart's contest is much closer as the BOE is starting to count the absentee ballots. According to the latest figures from the New York City Board of Elections, as of July 2 the board received almost 31,000 ballots in Hoylman's race (22,000 fewer ballots than the BOE distributed in the district), and roughly 11,000 in Quart's race (9,000 fewer than the BOE distributed). These figures include in-person and mailed-in ballot.

The issue of widespread absentee voting may remain with or without a pandemic. Five states allow voting by mail in all elections and 12 other states allow vote-by-mail in certain elections. In New York, a state constitutional amendment to allow no-excuse absentee voting (which allows all voters to qualify for an absentee ballot, similar in effect to the current executive order) was passed by both houses of the State Legislature. But it still needs to pass both houses again in the next legislative session before it goes before voters in a referendum.

"Voters are going to need to have the confidence in the integrity of our elections," Hoylman said. "And again, New York is an outlier state for not having this in place already."

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Voters Should Be Able to Track Their Absentee Ballots, Lawmakers Say Wed, 08 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Voters, Poll Workers Attest to Confusion and Missing Ballots in Another Marred Election voting in the new york of coronavirus

Voting was again challenging in New York City (photo: Edwin J Torres/Mayor's Office)

When Imani Clenance didn’t receive her absentee ballot to vote in the recent June primaries she, like many others, went to vote in person. But at her polling site in Harlem, she realized that her struggle to vote had only just started.

After being given her ballot, she only received one page with Democratic presidential primary candidates on it, but no mention of the Congressional race in her district, District 13, that she knew from the Board of Elections’ website was also going on. Confused, she asked poll workers why the Congressional race was missing from the ballot. Rather than being given the second page of the ballot, Clenance said poll workers proceeded to give her what she described as a condescending explanation of the difference between the President and Congress, as they were seemingly under the impression that Congressional races would be held in November.

Although she had started to doubt herself, Clenance “wasn’t going to leave until [she] was sure,” and spoke with the poll site coordinator, who was also unable to help. She was then given the Board of Elections’ number to call herself, and asked by poll workers to let them know what the BOE said.

Once Clenance finally confirmed with a BOE employee that there should be two ballots, a supervisor was sent to the site, and in the meantime poll workers were able to find the second page of ballots they had not been handing out before. When asked what happens to the voters who had come before her and not given the second page, Clenance said poll workers shrugged and told her that at least they figured it out before lunch.

“This is an unacceptable failing of our electoral process,” Clenance said in her testimony at this past week’s hearing of the New York City Voter Assistance Advisory Committee (VAAC), an annual public hearing to hear from voters about their experiences. “It is bewildering, sad, and, quite frankly, scary, that I should have to explain the difference between a primary and general election to poll workers. That the people running the election site don’t know what elections they’re running.”

Clenance was one of many at the hearing who gave testimony about problems they had while trying to vote in the June primaries, which were held via June 13-21 early voting, June 23 primary day, and vastly expanded absentee balloting as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The VAAC is part of the New York City Campaign Finance Board and its NYC Votes voter engagement arm.

For months, BOE officials had known this year would be different given that the pandemic would make in-person voting dangerous, especially for more vulnerable populations such as older voters or those with pre-existing conditions. Governor Andrew Cuomo had extended eligibility of absentee ballots for the June primary so that the “temporary illness” excuse could include the possibility of contracting COVID-19, and ordered local elections boards to mail all eligible voters an absentee ballot application. The governor has yet to extend that option to the fall general election, which is expected to see massive voter turnout given the presidential election.

The expansion of absentee voting created new difficulties for candidates and voting rights advocates as the widespread use of absentee ballots meant more voter education was needed. And although the decision was reversed by a federal judge, the BOE’s initial cancelation of the Democratic presidential primary created further confusion, with several candidates for state offices telling Gotham Gazette that voters seemed to be unaware that down-ballot races would not be affected even if the presidential primary was canceled, and that the presidential primary was later reinstated.

Problems leading up to the primaries aside, both the members of the VAAC, which advises the New York City Campaign Finance Board on what improvements to elections it should recommend, and private citizens who participated in the public hearing pointed out key issues that prevented people from being able to vote. People not receiving absentee ballots on-time or only receiving one out of two ballots, like what happened with Clenance at her polling site, were the top two issues, according to Deputy Director of Public Affairs at the New York City Campaign Finance Board Amanda Melillo.

“The headline news that we are seeing on election day was just that a number of people didn’t receive their absentee ballots on-time. This is what we were seeing over and over again throughout the day,” Melillo said, going on to list other problems such as technical difficulties, polling sites opening late, long lines, and inaccurate poll books.

On primary day, 30,000 of the over 700,000 people who had requested absentee ballots were still waiting for their request to be processed, according to Gothamist. At the hearing, VAAC members provided updated numbers that had been posted by the New York City Board of Elections of how many people were mailed absentee ballots, but not how many people requested them. The BOE reported more than 750,000 voters had absentee ballots distributed to them, which is 33 times the number from 2016.

Because the Board of Elections is not reporting the number of absentee ballots requested it is unclear how many voters requested but did not receive a ballot. The number of voters who did not receive the absentee ballots they requested or who received them too late to return them in time for their votes to count will be a measure of voter disenfranchisement, if the number is ever known.

Melillo said to improve the BOE should use existing software to allow voters to log-in to a portal and track their absentee ballots throughout the mailing process. She also said the process for dropping off absentee ballots at poll sites, a lesser-known option that was available this cycle, needs to be streamlined, as does the process for counting absentee ballots.

Still, many voters, like Brooklyn resident “TM,” who testified at the hearing, did not receive their absentee ballots. When TM went to vote in person at 6:30 a.m., one of the two ballot scanners at her poll site was already broken, and she was told she was in the wrong polling site despite having looked it up beforehand. She, like others who testified, was given an affidavit ballot. Also like others who testified, TM faced further issues while trying to vote.

“And when I went into the booth, I noticed that I had only received one page of the ballot and the presidential and the delegate ballot was missing,” TM said. “And I asked the volunteers if I could get an extra page, and no one seemed to know anything about another page.”

TM said she ended up receiving her absentee ballot later that day, and eventually went through a process to replace her initial ballot with that one. This required her to plead her case as to why she wanted to override her vote in front of a judge through a Zoom call. She received approval from the judge and was able to vote.

Some who testified at the hearing were the very confused poll workers described by others, like Juliana Pesavento who worked at an Atlantic Ave. polling site in Brooklyn. Pesavento said she took a class several months prior and received her assigned location a week in advance.

“My experience was a scary, shocking inside look at our poll working system,” Pesavento said. “We can register as many people to vote as possible, but if the actual poll system fails there is truly no point.”

Pesavento said although she and other workers showed up on-time at 6 a.m., the poll site coordinator did not arrive until an hour later. She said she received no overview of what ballots there were or guidance on what to do for people who wished to drop off their absentee ballots in person. She also did not receive information on what safety precautions should or would be taken due to the pandemic, she said, something another poll worker who testified at the hearing mentioned as deterring people from volunteering for the job.

VAAC members cited the need for improved poll worker training and encouraging more people to utilize early voting as potential solutions to these problems.

Laura Mueller-Soppart, who also testified at the hearing, was unable to obtain an absentee ballot and could not vote in-person because she was in Chicago, she said. Like many who spoke at the hearing, Mueller-Soppart said she was happy to hear that the VAAC would be recommending ways to improve voter experiences for the fall, but was still disappointed with the recent elections.

“We talk a lot about how to do it better,” Mueller-Soppart said. “But the baseline has to be that voters can vote.”

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Voters, Poll Workers Attest to Confusion and Missing Ballots in Another Marred Election Mon, 06 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Voter Turnout in New York City Was Cratering; Then Came 2018 biaggi voters

Alessandra Biaggi on the 2018 campaign trail (photo: @Biaggi4NY)

This story, and the series it is a part of, has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.


On the night of September 13, 2018, a wave crashed through New York state politics.

For years, pressure had been mounting on the members of the Independent Democratic Conference, or the IDC, a small group of high-profile and controversial Democrats who caucused with Republicans in the New York State Senate. At times, the IDC effectively barred the mainline Democratic conference from holding a majority in the chamber, hobbling party-backed legislation and affording its members major leverage in Albany.

The presence of the IDC also appeared to hamper Democratic efforts every two-year cycle to swing certain State Senate districts from Republican to Democratic hands, meaning a split Legislature with Democrats in control of the Assembly. After the election of President Donald Trump in November of 2016, significant additional pressure grew on the members of the IDC and their Democratic allies, which included Governor Andrew Cuomo.

By April of 2018 and facing his own reelection campaign with a primary challenge from his left, Cuomo brokered a deal with the IDC to dissolve and rejoin the mainstream Democrats, with an eye toward capturing the majority together as Cuomo sought to quell a progressive uprising and secure a third term. But the damage was already done, at least for IDC members who provoked such backlash in their districts that activists were set on removing them from office.

A group of largely young, progressive challengers rose up in the districts, recruited and bolstered by the Working Families Party, grassroots groups, community activists, and a smattering of elected officials. By the end of primary night in September 2018, six of the eight former IDC members had been knocked out (while Cuomo secured victory by a wide margin). 

Those Senate challengers would go on to win their general elections and, along with newly elected colleagues that gave Democrats the majority, become massive forces in Albany, championing landmark rent, criminal justice, gun control, environmental, and voting reforms — among others — that were centerpieces of a historic 2019 legislative session.

Though some of the most striking images of that September 2018 primary election night come from the victors — pictures of the Bronx’s Alessandra Biaggi with her fist raised in the air, or Queens’ Jessica Ramos surrounded by cheering supporters — images only tell part of this story. 

The other part isn’t as flashy, but speaks to something more powerful: voter turnout. Voters across New York went to the polls in record numbers for the 2018 state primary elections — the gubernatorial primary more than doubled the votes cast four years prior, and some districts surpassed turnout during the 2016 presidential primary. Still, New York City voter turnout numbers have a long way to go, never in recent years hitting 40 percent in a primary other than when there is a presidential election, a trend that helped lead to the sweeping electoral and voting reforms, like early voting, passed in 2019.

The map below shows where turnout increased the most and the least in the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary compared to the 2014 primary.

1 govturnout withoutlines 061120

Overall, the Senate districts represented by IDC members saw voter turnout spikes in line with the overall trend, but within those districts, much of the increases came in geographic areas where the challengers did especially well, a new Gotham Gazette analysis shows. 

The reasons for the voter spike are far more complex than a single night, or even the months of anger among Democrats who finally learned about their rogue state senators. And while in 2018 many New York Democrats were still reeling from Donald Trump’s election as president, it wasn’t that simple either — individual campaigns, newly-formed grassroots groups, and long-standing labor unions and other organizations all played a role in bringing many more voters to the polls. Some relied on tried and true tactics, while others got more creative.

The groups that rose or grew in 2018, and the tactics they developed that year, were ready for a big 2020 — until the pandemic hit. But many of the same activists are again doing all they can, albeit under very different circumstances, to see their favored candidates win in this month’s primaries for congressional and state legislative races. Even as New York City could see a major drop in voter participation, those 2018 successes are still reverberating throughout the state as lawmakers pass bills dealing with public health and police accountability. 

‘Trump Democrats’
Donald Trump’s divisive presidential victory in 2016 sparked a wave of renewed political activism across the United States. Huge demonstrations marked the early days of Trump’s administration, such as the 2017 Women’s March or the protests over a travel ban on countries in the Middle East and Africa.

In New York, grassroots organizations began to coalesce around electing progressives to local and state political positions. Though over half of eligible voters had turned out for the November general election in 2016, the state primary turnout rate that September was abysmal: only 10 percent of voters had come out. 

 For many, the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) of the State Senate was the first on their list for change. 

“People were angry,” said Mia Pearlman, a co-founder of True Blue NY. The idea for True Blue was born soon after Trump’s election, at a Park Slope meeting where people were gathering to politically organize. 

 “A lot of people who were at the meeting lived in [State Senator] Jesse Hamilton’s district at the time and were really upset to find out the morning after Election Day that not only was Donald Trump president, but that their own Democratic state senator was empowering Republicans,” she said of Hamilton, an IDC member. 

True Blue began on the idea that even though New York was seen as a Democratic bastion by others around the country, on the state government level, it struggled to pass meaningful progressive legislation. This was in part due to the IDC, and how complacent so many Democrats were about its presence and a Republican-controlled State Senate. In the months after Trump’s election, grassroots groups like True Blue and a network of Indivisible groups sprung up and tapped into the outrage people felt to get them more involved in local politics.

In part, they pointed people angry over Trump’s election to the State Senate, with its Republican control bolstered by rogue Democrats.

True Blue began to reach out to other grassroots groups in districts represented by IDC members, building a coalition of over 45 organizations. The main strategy was voter education — whether that meant protests, phone-banking, tabling at events, handing out informational palm cards, and sending handwritten postcards to voters to convince them to turn out against the IDC.

“The biggest issue with the IDC was that most people didn’t know that their own state senator was in the IDC, or they didn’t know what that was,” Pearlman said. The groups utilized one of their biggest assets — time — to educate voters in the months between early 2017 and the September 2018 primary election.

This initial campaign against the IDC began before the districts even had candidates to put up against IDC members, which was key, according to Pearlman.

“By the time we started to recruit candidates, along with No IDC New York and other groups, we sort of created an opening for them to have the opportunity to win,” she said. 

“The way that the 2018 election went was that it really started 18 months prior, with the notion of, ‘We need to go out and do constituent and voter outreach and engagement on the issues,” said Ricky Silver, the co-lead organizer with Empire State Indivisible, a grassroots political activist group formed following the 2016 presidential election and part of the True Blue NY coalition. 

Silver said that the races against IDC members were powered largely by enthusiastic volunteers. Empire State Indivisible was able to draw volunteers in by hosting forums across the city about particular issues, like education funding or the climate crisis, and educating residents about how the IDC slowed progress on those issues, the importance of electing “real Democrats” and of flipping control of the State Senate (the November elections, with a focus on one Republican-held Brooklyn State Senate seat and others in the city’s suburbs, were always on activists’ minds, even as they focused on the primaries first).

“People showed up because they cared about the issues, and then we were able to get them involved because they understood the pathway to a new vision was electoral. And that’s how we were able to grow the movement,” he said. 

Meanwhile, a slate of statewide races was about to rocket progressive politics, the debate over what it means to be a “real Democrat” (AKA “True Blue”), and the need to control the State Senate, to the forefront of New York political consciousness. 

Backed by the Working Families Party and other progressives, actor and activist Cynthia Nixon ran for governor against Cuomo. The WFP bet big on Nixon, despite upsetting some longtime political allies, and endangering its financial support from labor unions afraid of incurring Cuomo’s wrath. Nixon’s race was accompanied by competitive primary campaigns for lieutenant governor, between incumbent Kathy Hochul and challenger Jumaane Williams, then a City Council member, as well as for the “open” state attorney general seat.

The WFP credited the threat Nixon and Williams posed to Cuomo as the reason the governor brokered the deal to dissolve the IDC, following long-standing accusations that Cuomo backed and benefited from the IDC-GOP arrangement, which Nixon made central to her campaign.

The WFP also took on the IDC, launching a campaign against what they called the “Trump Democrats” in May 2017. The campaign organized thousands of voters against the IDC, giving insurgent candidates a head start before even officially entering their races. WFP ran nightly texting and phone banking activities with over 1000 shifts, and by the end of the campaign, had identified 10,000 voters who would vote against their IDC member in the Senate.

Thanks to the shock of Trump’s victory and these organizing efforts, well over a year before the September 2018 primaries, many New York Democrats were engaged in local politics for the first time.

Central Brooklyn
In Brooklyn, trouble was brewing for Jesse Hamilton, a two-term legislator who had joined the IDC shortly before the 2016 general election

Despite the IDC’s dissolution, many prominent borough Democrats continued to denounce Hamilton’s actions as self-serving well into the primary season, though Hamilton continued to have the support of Borough President Eric Adams. 

Members of the Brooklyn Congressional delegation, state legislators, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, chose to back Zellnor Myrie, a young lawyer trying to unseat Hamilton in Central Brooklyn’s 20th State Senate District.

The campaign got a boost from the WFP, which provided Myrie with media training and campaign support, and from grassroots activists and local political clubs who wanted a bluer district. 

“There was a lot of energy in the air for a real Democrat, and not a law and order Trump Democrat,” according to Myrie’s senior campaign advisor André Richardson. 

Myrie’s supporters took to the streets to drum up buzz for their candidate. For the Brooklyn Young Democrats, a club that endorsed Myrie that spring, that meant extensive canvassing, door-knocking, and days of action. 

“We all went out there in a storm for him, not only because [he was] against the IDC, but because he was speaking to issues in the community,” BYD President Christina Das said. Das estimates that the club knocked around 2,000 doors for Myrie, and held three or four days of actions either in conjunction with other organizations, or on its own. 

A native Brooklynite, Myrie had strong roots in the district, which spans through parts of Sunset Park, Park Slope, Crown Heights, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, and Brownsville. The district is diverse, but predominantly black — of the nearly 310,000 people living in District 20 in 2018, 50 percent were black, 19 percent were white, and another 19 were Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. 

One of Myrie’s main focuses in his campaign was affordable housing and tenant protections, goals that spoke to a district that is home to an overwhelming majority of renters, who faced challenges with rising costs.

“It was a great race because everyone was kind of in it together in the neighborhood,” BYD Executive Vice President Julia Elmaleh-Sachs said. 

In 2014, the year Hamilton was first elected, there were roughly 129,000 active registered Democrats in the district, but only around 15,000 voted in the primary, which was quite competitive as Hamilton edged out Rubain Dorancy, who had backing from de Blasio, among others. Hamilton won with almost 10,000 of those votes. Then in 2016, Hamilton went through primary season uncontested. In the heavily-Democratic district the Democratic primary is tantamount to full electoral victory.

2018 was going to be a very different year as those frustrated by the IDC, including many educated and activated after Trump’s election, went from not fielding a primary challenger to Hamilton to immense organizing behind Myrie.

On primary day in 2018, Myrie defeated Hamilton by almost 4,000 votes. Voter enrollment and participation in the district saw significant spikes, with 44,000 of the roughly 141,000 eligible Democrats casting a ballot. The increase from 15,000 votes in Hamilton’s contested 2014 primary to the 44,000 votes in Myrie’s victory over the incumbent made for almost a 300 percent increase in raw turnout, and the district was in line with the overall turnout jump seen in the gubernatorial race from 2014 to 2018. 

Part of Myrie’s success stemmed from his ability to garner support from different facets of Brooklyn’s Democrats, from longtime black voters to newcomers and progressives, Richardson said. 

“I think Zellnor’s case was a very unique case because he was able to bridge that divide,” Richardson said of longtime black voters, newcomers to the district, and white progressives. Myrie’s campaign attracted hundreds of volunteers, Richardson added, attributing part of Myrie’s success to his authenticity and speaking to the needs of the district across demographic and other divides.

Myrie nabbed the greatest share of votes in Gowanus, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Prospect Lefferts Gardens and parts of Crown Heights and Sunset Park. In several of these areas, turnout jumped enormously from. The map below, from the CUNY Mapping Service at the Center for Urban Research, CUNY Graduate Center, shows where Myrie and Hamilton each did well: 

2 nysenate20 primary results 2018

The Bronx and Westchester
When Alessandra Biaggi, a lawyer in the Cuomo administration and former staffer on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, began her campaign to unseat State Senator Jeff Klein — a founder and the leader of the IDC — from Senate District 34 in the Bronx and Westchester, she understood the stakes. 

“I didn’t go into it thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to absolutely win,’ Biaggi said in a recent interview. “I went in thinking to myself, ‘We probably won’t win. But what we will do is have a win in the loss.’ Because we’re going to raise awareness about an issue that is so devastating to the state. And people are finally going to be excited about their state government and want to fight for it.”

As the head of the IDC, Klein held immense power in state government, and was a major target for progressives. With millions of dollars in Klein’s war chest and his strong web of political connections made over decades, however, most pundits considered a challenge to Klein almost unwinnable. 

In 2014, Klein faced a challenge from former New York Attorney General Oliver Koppell and kept his seat fairly easily, winning with over 9,000 votes compared to Koppell’s roughly 5,000. According to voter enrollment data from that November, about 101,000 active Democrats were registered to vote in the district, which encompasses parts of the Bronx and southern Westchester County, including Riverdale, Hunts Point, Throggs Neck, Pelham Parkway, City Island, and Pelham. 

In 2016, Klein was unopposed in the primary. 

Biaggi’s campaign was assisted by anti-IDC groups that started educating voters in the district about the IDC before Biaggi even started running, according to her 2018 campaign manager Luke Hayes. 

The campaign tapped into community members in the district, generating support in key neighborhoods through word-of-mouth. Together with Biaggi and other organized forces, they started to knock on doors.

“It was a scrappy campaign. We knew we weren’t going to outraise Klein,” Hayes said of the assumed fundraising disadvantage. By the end of the race, Klein would spend more than $3 million on his campaign, an unusually high total for a state legislative race, and 10 times more than Biaggi spent. 

Biaggi said that fundraising became less integral to her campaign than canvassing and meeting with voters.

“I was going to win this thing on the doors. I laced up my sneakers every single day and I was knocking on doors,” she said. She and her supporters engaged with many thousands of voters up to and including primary election day. 

She also credits young, politically active students, some high school-aged, with helping to activate the community around her campaign. About 324,000 people lived in the district in 2018. Of that number, 43 percent were Hispanic, 34 percent were white, 14 percent were black and 6 percent were Asian, according to American Community Survey data. 

“When you have a dynamic candidate like Alessandra, when you can engage with a candidate one-on-one, that can counteract a lot of ads,” Hayes said. 

Support from groups and officials were also key. 

“Endorsements are a big deal,” Biaggi said. “If you are going to be endorsed by, for example, the Working Families Party, which was my first endorsement, it gives you legitimacy.” 

The powerful union 32BJ SEIU backed Biaggi in a big way, mobilizing thousands of members to conduct phone-banking and door-knocking from six weeks before the primary. The move surprised some in the state political scene, as 32BJ’s president at the time, the late Hector Figueroa, had initially helped to kick off attempted IDC reunification with Democrats in 2017. In a 2018 interview with Gotham Gazette, Figueroa said that he thought that the IDC was not sincere in its efforts to fix Democratic unity and explained the 32BJ decision to buck the deal orchestrated by Cuomo. 

Silver, of Empire State Indivisible, points to the cooperation of a litany of organizations, such as the WFP, unions like 32BJ, and grassroots organizations, as one of the keys to Biaggi’s success in appealing to a diverse district. 

“It was that sort of coalescing of organizations that made it powerful,” he said. 

City Comptroller Scott Stringer and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson voiced their support for Biaggi in June 2018, giving the campaign more legitimacy, adding media buzz, and bringing their networks of volunteers to campaign for her. The New York Times endorsed her later that summer. 

When the results rolled in that September, it was a shocking upset: Biaggi had nabbed 19,000 votes to Klein’s 16,000. There were a total of 107,000 Democrats eligible to vote in the district that November. The jump in voter turnout from Klein’s last challenge in 2014 was significant, moving from around 14,000 voters to around 35,000 voters, or increasing by 250 percent. The parts of the district where Biaggi did best also saw the biggest jumps in voter turnout from 2014 to 2018.

The precincts Klein did best in had lower jumps in voter turnout compared to Biaggi’s best precincts. In the Bronx, Biaggi had the greatest share of votes in Riverdale, Fieldston, Kingsbridge and City Island.

“For Senate District 34, the green precincts match up well with Klein's best precincts, especially around Castle Hill and the Throgs Neck area, while most of the orange precincts match up perfectly with Biaggi's best precincts, centered around Van Cortlandt Park,” said Benjamin Rosenblatt, president of Tidal Wave Strategies, who performed data analysis and mapping for Gotham Gazette for this piece. The first map below, created by Rosenblatt, shows where turnout jumped the most and least in 2018, from 2014, for Senate District 34. The second map below, from the CUNY Mapping Service, shows where Biaggi and Klein each did well.

3 sd34 withlines


3 nysenate34 primary results 2018

Western Queens
In Queens, Jessica Ramos, a former mayoral aide, was challenging State Senator Jose Peralta for his seat in Senate District 13. 

Peralta joined the IDC in early 2017, claiming that it was a pragmatic choice to best serve the district during the new era of Trumpian policy. At a packed town hall soon after the decision was announced, some residents protested, calling Peralta a “traitor.” 

A legislator with almost two decades of experience, Peralta had no competition in the district’s Democratic primary for the entire time he held the seat, running unopposed in the primary in 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016. 

The district’s neighborhoods, including Jackson Heights, Corona, and East Elmhurst, are home to large immigrant communities. Of its population of 302,000 in 2018, over half were born outside of the United States, according to American Community Survey data. Of the district residents, 62 percent were Hispanic, 17 percent were Asian, 14 percent were white and 6 percent were black. 

Trump’s rhetoric and policies against immigrants, such as the ‘public charge’ rule or travel bans to certain countries, directly impact residents in those communities, and led many to question how Peralta could align himself with the IDC, which bolstered Republican leadership of the State Senate, preventing major immigrant-friendly legislation from passing. That included the Dream Act that Peralta championed and he apparently saw as possible to get passed with added leverage as part of the IDC.

Make the Road Action, a leading immigrant rights group that is very active in the district, endorsed Ramos for the Senate seat in July 2018, and set out to have thousands of its members phone-banking, canvassing, and engaging voters for Ramos.

Progressives in the district were energized by the stunning upset political unknown Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had in June against then-U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley, the Queens County Democratic Party boss and one of the highest ranking Democrats in Congress. New York’s 14th Congressional District overlaps with Senate District 13. There was a renewed sense of what was possible after Ocasio-Cortez’s win as Ramos and her supporters eyed the sprint from the June congressional primaries to the September state primaries (those primaries were merged to June starting this year).

“Most of all, I think her win has created a lot of enthusiasm for the small “d” democratic process in the district and that enthusiasm is what we’re hoping to maintain our momentum,” Ramos told City & State in the summer of 2018. 

Other political powerhouses and grassroots organizations coalesced around Ramos. The WFP helped her hire key staff, consulted on her campaign, and identified thousands of voters for her. Stringer backed Ramos in March. In the summer after Crowley fell, de Blasio, for whom Ramos had previously worked, and Johnson backed her, and Ramos and gubernatorial candidate Nixon cross-endorsed each other. 

On primary day, Ramos defeated Peralta by over 2,000 votes, with almost 23,000 votes cast in total. In November of that year, 90,000 Democrats were eligible to vote in the district.  Ramos did far better in parts of the district like Steinway, Astoria Heights, and Jackson Heights. The map below, from the CUNY Mapping Service, shows where Ramos and Peralta each did well.

5 nysenate13 primary results 2018

Other Races in Manhattan and Brooklyn
Other districts around the city saw increased voter turnout in the same neighborhoods where insurgent candidates nabbed the largest share of votes. 

In Manhattan’s Senate District 31, former City Council Member Robert Jackson emerged victorious on primary night over former IDC member and State Senator Marisol Alcantara. Jackson had run for the seat before in 2014 and 2016, losing narrowly to Alcantara in 2016 in a three-way race. Alcantara only served one term in office before Jackson overtook her in 2018. 

The largest increases in voter turnout in the district from 2014 to 2018 were in the Upper West Side, Manhattanville, Washington Heights, and parts of Inwood, all where Jackson performed the best, indicating how well the insurgent’s supporters did at turning out the vote. The map below, created by Rosenblatt, shows where turnout jumped most and least in 2018, compared to 2014, in Senate District 31.

6 sd31 withlines

In Brooklyn’s Senate District 18, progressive upstart Julia Salazar triumphed against Martin Malavé Dilan, who had represented Brooklyn in the State Senate since 2003. Dilan was not a member of the IDC, but the progressive push in 2018 helped fuel Salazar’s campaign, including backing from the Working Families Party and the New York City branch of the Democratic Socialists of America. 

Salazar picked up votes in neighborhoods with some of the highest changes in turnout from 2014 to 2018, including East Williamsburg, Bushwick and Greenpoint. 

“While the Senate primaries saw dramatic increases in turnout throughout each district from 2014 to 2018, even compared to the gubernatorial primaries, the relative turnout increase was absolutely massive in the areas where progressive primary challengers did best,” said Rosenblatt, of Tidal Wave Strategies, referring to his data and mapping analysis. The map below, created by Rosenblatt, shows where turnout increased the most and least in 2018, compared to 2014, in Senate District 18.

7 sd18 withlines7

The fight continues
According to Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College, campaigns need three things to succeed: money, organization, and message. 

“The opponents of the IDC had more of the three than the members of the IDC,” he said, looking back at 2018’s primary upsets. 

The odds piled up for dramatically increased voter turnout, and for a turnout against the IDC: the national Democratic movement in response to Trump and for a “blue wave” in the 2018 midterms, accelerated progressive conversations and efforts launched by grassroots organizers, strong upstart candidates, and a concerted plot to educate voters ahead of the election cycle. 

“The wind was at the back of Democrats and progressives nationally. And certainly the state was part of that,” Muzzio said. “[The IDC] were out of step with the zeitgeist of the time.”

And while pundits and political analysts were surprised by the unprecedented spike in voter turnout in New York, that didn’t mean that turnout in the 2018 primaries was overwhelming. Although turnout in races with former IDC members garnered more attention, the average turnout in those districts and other Senate districts was almost the same — around 29 percent — according to a report from the New York City Campaign Finance Board. 

“This shows that the perceived competitiveness of an election does not necessarily lead to increased turnout in that district, and that in this high-profile election, voters turned out regardless of whether they were voting in a competitive election,” the report reads.

But the key for the IDC challengers appears to have been where some of the increased turnout occurred, in areas of the districts they were running in that were most enthusiastic about their candidacies, and about defeating the incumbents.

To get there, activists as well as candidates and their campaigns, endorsers, and other supporters utilized a variety of tactics, including an unprecedented organizing and voter education effort done over an especially long period of time before any votes were cast. Dynamic and diverse candidates were recruited and backed, and they were just as willing as their volunteers and staff to knock doors and pass out flyers.

These strategies and others mixed with Democratic reaction to Trump’s election, growing frustration with a lack of movement on progressive priorities in Albany, and a robust left-wing challenge to Cuomo, which both further galvanized progressives and pushed the governor to spend tens of millions of dollars getting out his vote.

The energy that led to defeat for six of the eight IDC members then helped flip several state Senate seats in November 2018, giving Democrats a solid, “True Blue” majority for the 2019 session to combine with the Assembly Democratic majority and third-term Democratic governor reelected by a wide margin on a slate of progressive promises.

With those 2018 electoral wins and the legislative victories that followed in 2019 and into this year, the WFP, True Blue NY, and other progressive organizations began preparing for a new slate of races in 2020, hoping to use a similar organizing playbook to net more wins. However, the coronavirus pandemic changed everything.

With campaigns scrambling to adjust to a world without rallies, door-knocking, or tabling, key questions loom. Can upstart campaigns and supporters reach voters to the same extent? Can they drive voter turnout in the 2020 primaries to anywhere near the same level of 2018?

This story, and the series it is a part of, has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

by Victoria Merlino, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Voter Turnout in New York City Was Cratering; Then Came 2018 Fri, 19 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
The Deadline to Register to Vote in June is Friday - and Other Key 2020 Primary Election Info early voting rally

Register to vote by Friday May 29 (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

New York’s primary election is less than a month away on, June 23, preceded by early voting June 13-21, and with all eligible voters allowed to vote absentee due to the coronavirus pandemic. The deadline for new voters to register is this Friday, May 29 [Find more info here].

There are state legislative, congressional, and presidential contests on the ballot along with a few local seats like Queens Borough President and a Brooklyn City Council race. Only party-affiliated voters can vote in the primaries, and almost all of the races in New York City are Democratic primaries. All Democrats across the state can vote in the party’s presidential primary, and there are many primaries for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, State Senate, and State Assembly. All Queens Democrats can vote in the borough president primary.

Check your voter registration online here. Enter your address and party affiliation here to see your sample ballot. You can read the full list of all primaries on the June ballot in New York City here.

The coronavirus pandemic caused significant upheaval for the state’s political calendar this year and several elections that were meant to take place in the preceding months have been delayed till the June party primary. (Some special elections – for state Assembly, Senate and Queens Borough President – were even cancelled through executive order by Governor Andrew Cuomo, and primaries are being held to fill those seats, to be followed by the fall general election, in more typical fashion.)

As many Democratic presidential candidates were dropping from the race and the coronavirus outbreak was taking hold of New York, state leaders inserted language in the April budget to allow the state Board of Elections to cancel the presidential primary if all candidates other than one had conceded. When that happened and Joe Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee, the BOE voted to cancel the primary, but the decision was overturned by a federal judge after a suit by former candidate Andrew Yang, among others, and much protest from former candidate Bernie Sanders and his supporters. The Republican presidential primary was cancelled months ago since President Donald Trump is the party’s only candidate.

Though in-person voting will still take place, with strict social distancing guidelines for polling sites, voters are being urged to instead vote through absentee ballots. (Short of that, taking advantage of early voting hours is encouraged. Find the list of New York City’s early voting sites here.)

In April, the governor allowed all voters to apply for an absentee ballot, using the pandemic as a valid excuse for one; he later mandated that the Board of Elections send all eligible voters an absentee ballot application with paid postage. Votes must then request the ballot, receive that in the mail, fill it out, and send it back.

The State BOE has applications available in English and Spanish. The New York City Board of Elections provides forms in Chinese, Korean, and Bengali as well.

The New York City BOE, along with a few other counties, has an online portal where voters can apply for an absentee ballot (this may be advisable for anyone concerned the BOE may not mail them the application as mandated by the governor). Applications are also being accepted by email, fax and by phone by calling 1-866-VOTE-NYC (1-866-868-3692).

Boards of Elections began accepting requests for absentee ballots on May 24. A request for an absentee ballot must be postmarked by June 16. Though, again, Boards are supposed to be mailing every eligible voter an application without them having to request one.

Governor Cuomo signed legislation on June 7 to extend the deadline for filing an absentee ballot application in person or postmarking an absentee ballot by mail to June 23, election day. Voters can also designate another individual to file their absentee ballot. The deadline for choosing that individual is June 23. If a ballot is mailed, it must be received by June 30 for it to be counted. These deadlines and the unusually high volume of absentee voting expected could mean some races are not called for days or weeks after June 23.

Friday, May 29 is the deadline for anyone not already registered to vote who wishes to participate in the June primaries to register, either in person or via mailed form, with postmark no later than that day and received by the BOE by June 3. The BOE will also process changes of address if they are received by June 3.

The deadline for changing party affiliation, however, passed February 14.

The fall elections, including the general election for president, are set for November 3, with an early voting period beginning toward the end of October.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated.

The Deadline to Register to Vote in June is Friday - and Other Key 2020 Primary Election Info Wed, 27 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000