Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1897 Tue, 21 Jan 2020 17:06:54 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) More Than 49,000 Parolees Have Had Voting Rights Restored Under Cuomo’s Executive Order https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9018-49-000-parolees-voting-rights-restored-under-cuomo-executive-order https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9018-49-000-parolees-voting-rights-restored-under-cuomo-executive-order Cuomo executive order parole

(photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor’s Office)


More than 49,000 people on parole in New York had their voting rights restored under a conditional pardon order, signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, in the year-and-a-half since it’s been in effect.

The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision told Gotham Gazette Thursday that 49,485 people have been re-enfranchised since the program launched in May 2018. Of those, 7,943 were later revoked, either because of a parole violation or a new conviction. Officials won't say how many parolees were not given voting rights after their case was reviewed pursuant to the order.

The initiative, created through executive order, is a leap away from the Jim Crow-style disenfranchisement of people involved in the criminal legal system in New York State, where roughly half of the 46,000 people incarcerated in state prisons and 35,855 on parole are African-American. Civil rights advocates want to see the state deepen its commitment by codifying the order into law to protect it under future administrations. And some advocates believe it’s time to go further still, extending the franchise to people in state prison.

“It’s a giant step for the state of New York. But we have still not reached the finish line,” said Esmeralda Simmons, the founding executive director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. “The people that we are urging to be restored to their voting rights are citizens of this state and of this country. And as citizens, the right to vote is a sacred trust and responsibility.”

For years, criminal justice and voting rights advocates have been pushing for rights restoration upon release from prison. State lawmakers have been sponsoring legislation to that effect since 2010, but bills have only twice moved out of committee in either house and they have never come to a floor vote, according to the State Senate website.

With Cuomo’s executive order, which was criticized by Republicans as an election year gimmick and praised by Democrats, New York joined 18 other states and the District of Columbia in authorizing people on parole to vote. But there’s no guarantee it won’t be pulled back by a successor to the governor’s mansion. The next state legislative session begins in January, offering lawmakers a new opportunity to codify the action in the second year of full Democratic control of both houses of the Legislature and the executive chamber.

Cuomo announced the executive order on April 18, 2018, at a conference in New York City hosted by Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, while campaigning for the Democratic nomination for a third term against challenger Cynthia Nixon, who was running to Cuomo’s left. Standing next to former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the governor said, “I proposed a piece of legislation, General Holder, this past year that said parolees should have the right to vote. The Republican Senate voted down that piece of legislation, which is another reason why we need a new Legislature this November.”

“But I’m unwilling to take ‘no’ for an answer,” he continued. “I’m going to make it law by executive order and I announce that here today.”

Under the current order, on a monthly basis the governor’s office will review a list provided by DOCCS of every person released from incarceration onto parole during the prior month and make a determination as to whether they will be given voting rights. A month after signing the order, Cuomo announced the re-enfranchisement of 24,086 people under what the department calls “community supervision,” or parole.

The order says that individuals on parole are active participants in society and should be “permitted to express their opinions about the choices facing their communities through their votes.” It further states, “the disenfranchisement of individuals on parole has a significant disproportionate racial impact thereby reducing the representation of minority populations.”

Criminal convictions have been used to suppress black voters, in New York and throughout the country, since the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments granted equal citizenship to freed African-Americans and outlawed racial discrimination in voting. It works in tandem with laws that have disproportionately ensnared non-white people in the criminal legal system.

According to a press release issued by the governor’s office at the time the executive order was signed in 2018, “African Americans and Hispanic New Yorkers” comprise 71 percent of people disenfranchised because of their status on parole. There are currently 46,000 people in state prisons, according to the DOCCS website, of which the latest statistics show 48 percent are African-American, and another 24 percent Hispanic.

Until 2013, the history of racial disenfranchisement in many parts of New York State, including New York City, required preclearance from the U.S. Attorney General under the 1965 Voting Rights Act before any changes impacting voting could be made. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled part of the Voting Rights Act outdated and unconstitutional, rendering the preclearance provision unenforceable, a cut to civil rights activists who lamented the loss of the historic and hardwon provision.

While applauding Cuomo’s executive order, many advocates had hoped to see it included in the slew of long-sought voting reforms passed the following session by the Democratic-controlled State Legislature.

“Restoring the right to vote to people who have paid their debt to society only strengthens our democracy, while promoting successful re-entry into our community and ultimately, making New York a safer and more just place to live,” wrote Caitlin Girouard, the governor’s press secretary, in an email. “Under Governor Cuomo’s leadership, New York is making it easier to vote – from early voting to modernizing our election system - because voting is a basic right of citizenship and fundamental to our society.”

Advocates want to see legislation passed and enacted as soon as possible, concerned with what they have seen as a tepid approach to re-enfranchisement in Albany -- especially in the wake of the so-called “blue wave” 2018 elections that swept a cohort of progressive lawmakers into office this year. “It was on the table last year when all of the historic voting rights legislation passed, things that voting rights advocates have been asking for for 20, 30, 40 years...The fact that this was dropped was a bad signal,” Simmons said.

She added, “But that doesn’t mean it will not happen. I believe its time has come.”

A bill sponsored by Senator Leroy Comrie and Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell, both New York City Democrats, would have codified re-enfranchisement upon parole. It would also require state agencies to develop support and outreach programs for people leaving prison, and training for the public servants involved in the process. But the legislation failed to gain traction and died in committee.

Let NY Vote, a coalition of good government, grassroots, and labor organizations, which was instrumental in pushing state voting reform in 2019, will be pushing to codify voting rights for people on parole in the next state legislative session, which is about to begin.

According to Sarah Goff, Deputy Director of Common Cause NY, a founding member of the coalition, the group will also be pushing for the full voting rights of people who are currently incarcerated.

That would set New York apart from most other states, placing it with one of the least restrictive voting laws for people who have been incarcerated. Only two states -- Maine and Vermont -- allow people in prison to vote. Goff said accompanying that push will be an effort to amend the state constitution to prohibit prison-based gerrymandering.

“The advocates from the formerly-incarcerated community who have been so heroic in pushing reforms forward in New York City and New York State...were very disturbed at the turn of events and are pushing forward with our full support to make sure that this happens this time around,” Simmons said, speaking for The Center for Law and Social Justice, which is also a member of Let NY Vote.

How Parolee Re-enfranchisement Works in New York
Since Cuomo signed the April 2018 order, the governor’s office has worked with the Executive Clemency Bureau within DOCCS to review each case based on a number of factors, “including if the person is living successfully in the community by maintaining required contact with his or her parole officer and remaining at liberty at the time of the review,” a DOCCS spokesperson wrote in an email. Voting rights are revoked again if a person goes back to jail, either for a parole violation or a separate felony conviction.

The DOCCS spokesperson wrote: “Every individual who was under parole supervision, as of April 18, 2018, and every individual who has since been released from state correctional facilities to parole supervision has been reviewed by the Department’s Executive Clemency Bureau to determine their eligibility for a conditional voting pardon.”

Asked how many of them had not received the conditional pardon the spokesperson replied, “No comment.” The governor’s office did not respond to the question in an email.

According to DOCCS, the pardons are hand-delivered by a person’s parole officer, along with a voter registration form and location of the office where it can be submitted. Individuals can also find the status of their rights restoration using the Parolee Lookup feature on the DOCCS website. The spokesperson confirmed the list and other information are reviewed each month by the governor’s office before a conditional pardon is granted or revoked.

Of the 38,855 people under community supervision in New York State, a DOCCS factsheet published December 1 indicates 15,670 individuals are in New York City. The boroughs with the most parolees are the Bronx and Brooklyn, with 4,500 and 4,400, respectively. Manhattan is home to about 3,400, Queens 2,800, and Staten Island just 585.

“We need to have those voices heard at the ballot box. A democracy is not a democracy unless all citizens are able to participate.” Simmons said.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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More Than 49,000 Parolees Have Had Voting Rights Restored Under Cuomo’s Executive Order Sun, 22 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Commission Failure Shows Need for One True Fix for New York Elections https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8961-commission-failure-shows-need-for-one-true-reform-to-fix-new-york-elections https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8961-commission-failure-shows-need-for-one-true-reform-to-fix-new-york-elections voting new york

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Looking at the plan from the state campaign finance commission, anyone who’s had even a passing interest in New York politics is left either scratching their head or gritting their teeth (maybe both). It’s no surprise that the aspects of the commission’s just-completed work that have provoked the most vociferous opposition and passionate debate have nothing whatsoever to do with public campaign financing. On the left and on the right, activists, lawmakers, and good government groups are decrying the elements of the plan that would eventually kill off every minor party in the state and keep other potential new ones from sprouting up.

These recommendations include raising the number of votes necessary to retain ballot access, going from 50,000 to a minimum of 130,000 and making it a biennial rather than quadrennial test. Given recent voting trends, the move would kill off every minor party in the state except one - the Conservative Party. Trust me, as a leader in a political party (the Reform Party) that just lost ballot access under the existing thresholds, I can tell you that getting 50,000 votes is no walk in the park.

Potentially even more alarming, though, is the dramatic increase in the number of signatures necessary to qualify for the ballot statewide, going from 15,000 to 45,000. This increase would reserve ballot access for only the super wealthy or the hand-picked candidates of the political establishment or certain deep-pocketed special interests, very likely keeping new parties from sprouting up (as two did last year to make the ballot: SAM and Libertarian).

If the Legislature allows these new rules to be implemented, it would likely bring an end to New York’s longtime history of having robust and influential minor parties. It’s a tradition that goes back well over a century in our state. So, why do this? Is the public really clamoring for a less crowded ballot with fewer choices? Of course not!

Aside from a scorned governor seeking vengeance on a political rival (Andrew Cuomo and The Working Families Party), there is actually ample reason to think that our current system, where minor party bosses are treated like major power-brokers, doesn’t work well.

We’ve seen time and again over the last half-century example after example of parties with paltry memberships and even smaller vote totals be showered in patronage jobs, direct donations, policy-making roles, and more in exchange for their ballot lines. In some cases fusion voting in this state has produced minor party leaders (baby bosses) who seem like their sole reason for maintaining a party is acquiring of money and patronage, with little regard for anything resembling a coherent legislative agenda.

But to minimize these baby bosses, is it really wise to eliminate the voter options of the Green Party and the Libertarian Party, who rarely cross-endorse major party candidates and provide an important voice for voters that would otherwise be ideologically disenfranchised? No!

Thankfully there is a way to kill off the illegitimate minor parties and their baby bosses without killing of all minor parties and the valuable options they provide to voter: non-partisan elections.

The state Legislature should immediately pursue a shift towards non-partisan elections in order to provide New Yorkers with real choice and competitive, more thoughtful elections. It would work similar to how special elections are run in New York City, and elections in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston, and even cities here in New York like Watertown and Sherrill.

Here’s the novel concept. Anyone who wants to run for office can run. They’d all run on the same ballot under the same rules -- whether running for Governor, State Assembly, County Executive, etc. There would be no Republican or Democratic line on the ballot, and much to the pleasure of Governor Cuomo, no Working Families Party line (and so on). This would mean that the baby bosses wouldn’t be able to demand a job for their incompetent relatives or demand that candidates buy pricey tables at party fundraisers.

So how does all of this help minor parties and allow voters more choice?

Under a system of nonpartisan elections, without the stigma of running as “third party” or “spoiler” candidates, the candidates of minor parties could actually get broad considered and be elected. If you look at places around the country that have nonpartisan elections, we’ve seen many examples of candidates without the endorsement of either major political party getting elected and in some cases launching high-profile and successful political careers.

These include Jesse Ventura in Brooklyn Park, MN; Dennis Kucinich in Cleveland; Oscar and Carolyn Goodman in Las Vegas and even the current Mayor of San Antonio, Ron Nirenberg. Lest anyone think, though, that nonpartisan elections would suddenly allow the fringes of the political spectrum to have unwarranted access to the levers of statewide policy-making, one should keep in mind that cities like Chicago and Boston have consistently elected establishment politicians, whose major party bonafides are without question.

In discussing a switch to a nonpartisan system of elections, there will be some who protest by saying that seeing a partisan label on the ballot offers voters a clue as to a candidate’s ideological belief system. For those folks, I’d ask: what does seeing both Charles Barron and Dov Hikind running as Democrats from Brooklyn really tell you about their ideology? How about seeing judicial candidates nominated by every party on the ballot?

The bottom line is this: if you want voters to have more choices and minor parties to continue to function, but not corrupt the system, the only real choice is nonpartisan elections for every office across the state.

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Frank Morano is an activist and radio host. On Twitter @frankmorano.

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

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Commission Failure Shows Need for One True Fix for New York Elections Tue, 26 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
As Election Proceeds, Affidavit Ballot Bill at Center of Queens Controversy Continues to Languish https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8895-election-approaches-no-apparent-movement-on-affidavit-voting-bill-queens-controversy-cuomo https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8895-election-approaches-no-apparent-movement-on-affidavit-voting-bill-queens-controversy-cuomo gov cuomo casts

(photo: the governor's office)


Few New York elections go by without controversy, and this year’s relatively quiet slate has been no exception. As voters head to the polls during the inaugural early voting period and heading into Election Day, one major question that came up during the June primary continues to hang over the general election.

A bill that could change the way provisional affidavit ballots are counted as soon as this year is languishing in Albany, having passed both houses of the state Legislature in June. The bill would make it harder to disqualify those ballots on technicalities if the intention of the voter is clear, thus keeping some number of voters from disenfranchisement.

The legislation was the subject of controversy during the Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney earlier this year, a race that was decided in a recount, with many affidavit ballots left uncounted. While it’s unclear if any general election race, in New York City or elsewhere in the state, will be anywhere near as close, the bill would impact whether some votes are counted.

“The bill protects otherwise-eligible voters from having their ballots thrown out on highly-technical, unfair grounds. Had it been signed in a timely way after passage on June 12 and 13, this protection would have been in place for the June primaries and the 2019 general election,” said Jarret Berg, a voting rights lawyer and elections watchdog.

“Instead, the safeguard is either being ignored or intentionally delayed as elections they would help to improve come and go," he said, adding that the law would go into effect immediately and wouldn’t cost the state or localities anything to implement.

Caitlin Girouard, a spokesperson for Governor Andrew Cuomo, told Gotham Gazette Tuesday that the legislation was “under review.” As of Thursday, it had not been sent to the governor by the Legislature or called to his desk by Cuomo, the two mechanisms that would force the governor’s decision to sign or veto it much more quickly ahead of the final December 31 deadline.

Registered voters in New York City have the opportunity this fall to cast ballots for public advocate, Queens District Attorney, a Brooklyn City Council seat, some judicial positions, and five referenda containing proposed amendments to the city charter. For the first time in New York State, polls are open during a nine-day early voting period, which began October 26 and ends November 3. Election Day is Tuesday, November 5.

After the primary polls closed in June and the close race headed toward counting absentee and affidavit ballots, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and public defender Tiffany Cabán, along with their respective teams of lawyers, fought over reinstating ballots disqualified by the city’s Board of Elections. As a recount unfolded, one major question became which affidavit ballots would be counted and which wouldn’t, a debate that often starts with the envelope containing the ballot.

Appearing before a judge, lawyers for the two candidates argued over validating discounted ballots, often discarded on the basis of minor technical errors, like failing to put a return address on the ballot envelope or not listing a previous address, despite a qualified voter making a clear vote in the race.

Many of the disqualified affidavit ballots were believed to favor Cabán, while absentee ballots, often cast by older voters, favored Katz, in part due to targeted campaigning by the borough president. Cabán supporters pushed for Cuomo, a Democrat, to sign the affidavit ballot bill during the recount in hopes of preserving more of those votes. Legislators passed the bill weeks before the primary election, but the governor would not sign it after the ballot counting had begun. Cabán ultimately lost by about 60 votes, with more than 350 potential votes uncounted, according to a court filing related to the race.

“With that portion of the election cycle over, it is my hope that the governor gets this legislation on his desk and signs it before November 5 so that those ballots can be appropriately considered under what is a much more reasonable standard,” said Assemblymember Kevin Cahill, a Hudson Valley Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors.

"We are very supportive of this bill and believe that where a voter's intent is clear, their ballot should count,” wrote State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the Senate Elections Committee, in an email to Gotham Gazette. “The will of the legislature is clear from the passage in both houses so it is our hope, given the importance of every election, that the bill is signed as expeditiously as possible."

Leroy Comrie, the bill’s Senate sponsor, did not respond to requests for comment.

Affidavit and absentee ballots are placed in individual envelopes and have “a variety of other circumstances associated with them that could put them at risk of being considered technically flawed,” said Cahill. One of those circumstances is the fact poll workers hired by the city Board of Elections often advise voters on how to fill out affidavits, according to Cahill, which he says makes it unfair to penalize ballots for technical errors.

Voters use affidavit ballots when they believe they are registered to vote but are not found in the voter rolls at a poll site. Roughly 2,800 affidavit and 3,400 absentee ballots were reportedly cast in the high-profile Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney.

As it became clear the vote was close and headed to a recount, some called on Cuomo to sign the legislation and allow more votes to be counted. Part of the concern, expressed by some, in enacting the legislation before the recount had finished was that it would change the rules of the game by which voters and the poll workers often advising them had been operating.

“The rule is the rule,” Cahill said.

“We wouldn’t want to be impacting a result, after the fact. That wouldn’t be fair,” he added, in apparent reference to changing the rules of how certain votes are counted after they’ve been cast.

Given that Cuomo did not sign the bill before early voting began, the same issue is now at play for the general election. Generally speaking, the legislation is not seen as beneficial to particular candidates, but many believed more affidavits were likely to be for Cabán than Katz in the Queens primary because she appeared to be the favorite of newer, younger, more transient voters who may have been more likely to have to fill out an affidavit ballot.

“This legislation is not a partisan issue, nor does it help or hurt any particular candidate or party in any given election, and it has already passed both houses,” said Berg.

“It’s not that radical a bill,” Cahill said, “it really is just a common sense piece of legislation that says…[a voter] should be permitted to have that vote counted notwithstanding some minor technical differences between what that ballot says and what the law requires.”

The decision to send a bill to the governor for enactment is, practically speaking, a collective one among the Assembly, the Senate, and the governor’s office, according to Cahill. The chamber that first passes a two-house bill is responsible for sending it to the governor’s office; if it is sent to the governor and not signed or vetoed within ten days, in most cases it becomes law. If Cuomo’s administration is not prepared to address the legislation, sending the bill to his office for consideration could lead to its demise, he said. The governor can also at any time call to his desk a bill that has passed both houses.

“It is a shared decision when a bill gets sent to the governor. If it gets sent prematurely before the governor’s office wants it, we’re putting the bill at risk of being vetoed just for procedural reasons and we don’t want to have that happen,” Cahill warned.

“But in this case we are very anxious for this bill to get before the governor, to be on his desk and get his signature so we can start to have people’s votes counted when they should be,” added the member of the Assembly, which was the house to first pass the affidavit bill.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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As Election Proceeds, Affidavit Ballot Bill at Center of Queens Controversy Continues to Languish Sun, 03 Nov 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Launches Pilot Voter Guide for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing New Yorkers https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8828-city-launches-pilot-voter-guide-for-deaf-and-hard-of-hearing-new-yorkers https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8828-city-launches-pilot-voter-guide-for-deaf-and-hard-of-hearing-new-yorkers votes hard of hearing guide

the CFB models its new voter guide (photo: Gotham Gazette)


New York City is home to more than 200,000 residents who are deaf and hard of hearing, and they almost never vote. It’s not for a lack of will, but rather because of inadequate access to information on voter registration and candidates, according to city officials. To address that gap, the city is launching its first-ever voter guide in American Sign Language, a long overdue measure to ensure that deaf and hard-of-hearing voters are able to participate in the city’s democratic process.

The New York City Campaign Finance Board, which releases voter guides for each election with information on the candidates and questions on the ballot, created the guide in collaboration with The Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD), the city’s DemocracyNYC office, and advocates from the deaf community. It will be released on Thursday.

“We were trying to figure out a way to provide this information to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community in their native language,” said MOPD’s Tony Wooden Jr., at a Wednesday presentation provided to Gotham Gazette at the agency’s office in downtown Manhattan. Wooden Jr. is project supervisor of ASL Direct, a video-calling assistance line that MOPD runs for deaf and hard-of-hearing New Yorkers.

The ASL voter guide complements the Campaign Finance Board’s current work by including an ASL interpreter in videos where candidates running for local office introduce themselves to voters. Keeping in mind the diversity in the deaf and hard-of-hearing population, the video guide does not include captions and employs a deaf interpreter who can reach a broader audience. “A lot of times, when you’re watching something on TV, you can usually turn on closed captions and read the words. But in the deaf community, you have to keep in mind that English is not the first language, American Sign Language is,” said Wooden Jr.

Dennis Martinez, a deaf services advocate at Harlem Independent Living Center, worked with the city on the voter guide project. “This is the first time we've ever had access to candidate information for the deaf community,” Martinez, who is deaf, said through an interpreter. “And up until this point, there's been no efforts made by other spaces as well, that I know of. So this has been wonderful in terms of advocating for deaf rights in our city as well as getting information out to people who are voters.”

“The way she's signing as a deaf interpreter is appropriate for deaf people of all different backgrounds and levels of skill and language skill level,” Martinez said watching the voter guide interpreter. “Because she's expanding the concepts more than just interpreting the words.”

The guide is the latest effort by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration to expand access to voting and voter turnout through the recently-launched DemocracyNYC initiative. One of its goals has been to provide more poll-site services to people with disabilities. Nisha Agarwal, senior advisor to the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives, which runs the initiative, said they are working on helping people with disabilities reach the polls and on providing ballot marker devices. They’ll push the new guide out through advocacy groups and all community events being hosted by the CFB, MOPD, and DemocracyNYC. “We will put it in anything that makes sense,” Agarwal said.

Officials stressed this year’s guide is a pilot. “We want to work on improving this,” said Agarwal, who was at Wednesday’s presentation along with Matt Sollars, CFB’s director of public relations.

On that front, Agarwal said this year’s passage of early voting by the state Legislature was welcome news. Sollars said it would help reduce lines at polling site on Election Day, particularly during next year’s presidential election, and will particularly help facilitate voting by the deaf community. “Now you have a lot more time to get to the polls when it's convenient for you, which I would imagine is really important to this community,” Sollars said. “It's going to be a game changer on access for everybody, but particularly for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.”

With the launch of the ASL voter guide on Thursday, the city is also hoping to drive deaf voters to register before the October 11 deadline for the general election, for which early voting will begin on October 26. Election Day this year is Tuesday, November 5. Martinez said HILC is looking to set up a voting workshop, to encourage registration as well as instruct deaf voters on absentee voting (the deadline for postmarking absentee ballots for the general election is October 29). 

In the next citywide election, in 2021, the CFB will have its work cut out for it and Sollars said the pilot ASL guide will teach them valuable lessons. “We have 500 candidates that we’re expecting to register with us for the 2021 elections,” he said. “So it will be a big task to produce the interpretations...This was great, we learned a lot, and we're going to be able to take those lessons into production in 2021.”

[Read: Dates, Deadlines, Elections & Ballot Questions: Everything You Need to Know for Fall 2019 in New York City]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Launches Pilot Voter Guide for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing New Yorkers Wed, 02 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Say No to Faulty Voting Machines and the Conflicts of Interest That Come with Them https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8470-say-no-to-faulty-voting-machines-and-the-conflicts-of-interest-that-come-with-them https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8470-say-no-to-faulty-voting-machines-and-the-conflicts-of-interest-that-come-with-them boe mahcines gg

(photo: Gotham Gazette)


In the coming days, the Board of Elections will select a vendor to provide voting machines to serve nearly 5 million New York City voters as part of the early voting launch this year. Unfortunately, the entire process has become tainted by corruption and ought to raise deep concerns to anyone who cares about the integrity of our elections.

Over the past decade, New York City has paid $43 million to Elections Systems & Software (ES&S) for its poor quality ballot scanners and other voting machines. This is the same company that showered Board of Elections Executive Director Michael Ryan with perks including luxury travel and dining expenses in Las Vegas and other destinations.

Although Ryan was forced to step down from his advisory role at ES&S after his conflict of interest was exposed by NY1, he still brazenly lobbied the state for fast-track approval of the company’s touch screen voting machine – ExpressVote XL – that is less secure and twice as expensive as systems that print paper ballots. It is vulnerable to hacking, interference, and other glitches. Put simply, this may be one of the worst voting machines in the country.

Fortunately, the State Board of Elections rejected the City BOE’s request to bypass the certification process, but it did not close the door on approving this garbage machine for future elections. In the meantime, however, the City must select a new voting system for 2019 and beyond.

Ryan’s conduct illustrates that the Board of Elections cannot be trusted to make a decision that’s in the best interest of the public. There is no question that the mutual back scratching between election machine vendors and the agency is out of control.

But with a decision coming soon, what can we do to protect democracy?

For starters, Michael Ryan must be replaced. His mishandling of last year’s midterm elections, which were marred by endless lines, long waits, and machine malfunctions, is grounds for removal alone. Short of that, he must be recused from any decisions related to voting machine contracts. Any other members with ties to voting machine companies must be held accountable, and all commissioners should be disqualified from the Board if they do not approve voting technology that is secure and provides a paper record.

In the longer term, comprehensive Board of Elections reforms are needed, including a wholesale revamp of the oversight structure by lawmakers in Albany. At the absolute minimum, companies with business before the Board of Elections should be barred from lavishing perks on decision-makers, and local party bosses should not be handpicking the Board members.

This is an odd moment. Albany is finally taking action to improve access to the ballot box, while the New York City Board of Elections is moving deeper into the era of smoke filled rooms. While pay-to-play politics is nothing new in this state, we can’t become numb to corruption that undermines New Yorkers’ fundamental right to vote. There is still time to get this right. Through public pressure and support from reform-minded officials, we can force the city and state to protect voting rights, not shady voting machine companies.

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Jonathan Westin is the executive director of New York Communities for Change. On Twitter @jwestin2 & @nycchange.

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

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Say No to Faulty Voting Machines and the Conflicts of Interest That Come with Them Tue, 23 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Public Advocate Election Makes Case for Instant Runoff Voting https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8196-public-advocate-election-makes-case-for-instant-runoff-voting https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8196-public-advocate-election-makes-case-for-instant-runoff-voting elec apoll

(photo: Gotham Gazette)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Public Advocate Election Makes Case for Instant Runoff Voting Sun, 13 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Fix New York’s Broken Balloting and Election Laws https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8059-fix-new-york-s-broken-balloting-and-election-laws https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8059-fix-new-york-s-broken-balloting-and-election-laws voting booths polling place

(photo: Gotham Gazette)


On Tuesday millions of New Yorkers attempted to exercise their constitutional right to vote. However, far too many in New York City were met with broken ballot scanners and hours-long lines that stretched for blocks in the pouring rain. It is encouraging to see so many citizens making the time and effort to vote, but incredibly disheartening to see our broken election system failing them.

With the impending arrival of the long-awaited trifecta of Democratic leadership in New York State (Democratic Governor, Senate and Assembly) alongside reform-minded allies in New York City government, fixing our archaic and ineffective electoral process should be the first order of business once the new Legislature is seated in January.

At polling sites across New York City there were reports of at least one – and sometimes all – ballot scanners malfunctioning. Thousands of voters braved hours of waiting and confusion just to fill out unscanned emergency ballots. Even in places where some of the scanners did work (such as the paltry two at my polling place in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn), poll sites and workers seemed overwhelmed by the dramatic turnout -- which still wasn’t even at 40% in the city or anywhere near presidential election levels.

We will never know how many voters gave up on the long lines and didn’t vote, or what the chilling effect may be on future turnout. The initial response from the Board of Elections on the scanner malfunctions is that soggy or imperfectly torn ballots jammed the machines. Aren’t these issues we could -- and should -- have prepared for? Regardless of the merit of these questionable excuses, the bigger issue is clear: our current election systems are incapable of meeting the needs of our electorate.

It’s not just machines and preparation.

New York trails other states across the board in voting laws and procedures. One of the main reasons for the problems this past Tuesday is that poll sites were simply overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of voters attempting to vote on a single day – there weren’t enough poll workers or scanners. This is why 37 other states have enacted some form of early voting, which expands the eligible voting period. This both lessens the logjam on a single day and has the added benefit of giving voters more flexibility. It also can help flag issues like machine jams due to two-page ballots.

Early voting in other states over the past few weeks saw a surge in young and first-time voters, the same voters who may have given up on voting Tuesday or have already become jaded by the experience.

Relatedly, New York is the only state in the entire nation which holds its state and federal primaries on separate days, which is incredibly confusing for the average voter and fiscally wasteful. With the additional $25 million or so spent on having a second primary day, New York could make great strides towards enacting early voting. New York also holds “closed” (party-based) primaries with the earliest party registration deadlines in the nation, which caused an uproar in the last presidential election. Where other states have enacted additional pro-voter participation features such as same-day registration and pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, New York continues to fall further and further behind. These policy shortcomings are compounded by additional confusion such as the Brooklyn “voter purge” in 2016 and the more recent 400,000 person “inactive voter” misfire just last month. Our elected leaders at the city and state levels must take a close look at both our laws and the Board of Elections.

With all of these issues, it is truly amazing how many voters turned up on Tuesday in a state with such a dismal record. New York State has the fourth most registered voters of any state in the nation, but had the eighth worst turnout in the 2016 presidential election. Imagine how many people might vote if they had an extra day (or several) to do so, if the lines were shorter, and if they could count on ballot scanners working.

It is time for New York City and State to finally make strides on voting access and ease and catch up with the rest of the nation. Our democracy depends on it.

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Jamie Ansorge is an Attorney at Cozen O’Conner, Executive Board Member of the New Leaders Council NYC Chapter, and Co-Chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Young Professional Leadership Council. On Twitter @AnsorgeNYC.

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

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Fix New York’s Broken Balloting and Election Laws Wed, 07 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
The 3 Big Reasons Why Elections in New York City are So Poorly Run https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8053-the-3-big-reasons-why-elections-in-new-york-city-are-so-poorly-run https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8053-the-3-big-reasons-why-elections-in-new-york-city-are-so-poorly-run and cuomo nov2

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


Election Day in New York City was, as City Council Speaker Corey Johnson wrote on Twitter, “like Groundhog Day,” where yet again, voters were forced to wait in long lines as ballot scanners across the city broke down, a sign of the abysmal election administration that New Yorkers have come to expect every time they visit the polls.

The past few elections -- city, state, and federal -- conducted in New York City have repeatedly shown instances of failure on the part of the New York City Board of Elections, an entity whose name belies the fact that it is a state-created agency charged with administering several elections each year. City BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan -- who is hired by the board’s ten commissioners and reports to them -- suggested on Tuesday, in a brief video posted to Twitter by NY1 reporter Lindsey Christ, that the cause of the latest debacle was a combination of higher turnout, an unwieldy two-page ballot (owing to three ballot questions on the back) and wet ballots because of voters coming in from rainy weather.

The BOE’s problems, long recognized by government reformers, some elected officials, and of course voters, came urgently to the forefront after the 2016 presidential primary, in which more than 117,000 voters were improperly purged from the rolls in Brooklyn, the city’s most populated borough. The purge, originally reported by WNYC, led to a federal lawsuit against the BOE, which later opted for a settlement in which it admitted that it broke the law. But while the settlement prompted improvements to voter roll management, the BOE’s inability to smoothly run elections has stretched far beyond that one area or even the last few years.

“I think there’s many different problems at many different levels that lead to a day like this,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a government reform group.

In a statement, Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz, who serves on the Rules, Judiciary, Health and Election Law committees, said, “Today’s problems should have been prevented. Rainy weather and high voter turnout should not be impediments to a functional election system.”

So why is the New York City Board of Elections so dysfunctional? What is standing in the way of New Yorkers and easy voting experiences?

A Structural Problem
Part of the reason for the BOE’s continued failures is the agency’s structure itself. Though the agency is funded by the city, and the City Council conducts regular oversight of its function after each election, it is a creation of the state. Its commissioners are chosen by county party committees according to state law -- by the top two vote-getting political parties in the five boroughs, which, for all intents and purposes, means Democrats and Republicans. Each party selects one commissioner from each borough who is then confirmed by the City Council to make up the ten-member board, which decides on everything from election management procedures to candidates’ inclusion on the ballot.

The entire process is rife with patronage, with not only the commissioners, but most of the BOE’s staff employees appointed by county chairs along party lines. The board has been resistant to efforts by the city to professionalize its ranks, pushing back against City Council legislation that would require appointments akin to civil service jobs. Broadly speaking, criticism of the board boils down to the belief that it is more concerned about keeping the county party leaders happy than it is about delivering good service to voters, and that it is not necessarily well-prepared to deliver top-notch service even if that was the main focus.

Immediately following the 2016 election snafu, Mayor Bill de Blasio even offered the BOE an additional $20 million to implement reforms including hiring an outside consultant and creating a blue ribbon panel to conduct a top-to-bottom review of systemic issues, providing more transparency in hiring, and new methods of communication with voters. The BOE, however, refused the offer.  

Speaker Johnson, who called for Ryan’s resignation on Tuesday, said in a phone interview that there is a dire need for reforms at the state level. But, he insisted, “Until that happens, we need competent leadership at the staff level from the Board of Elections.”

Johnson said the reasons Ryan gave in the video on Twitter, including the rainy weather and higher turnout, were “predictable” factors. “Those aren’t valid reasons to have hundreds of machines breaking down...That did not give me confidence in him understanding the depth of anger that New Yorkers felt at the polls,” he said.  

Voting and electoral laws
New York employs what good government groups call “passive voter suppression” with election and voting laws that tend to discourage turnout. The state is one of 13 that does not have early voting, which means that the nearly 13 million registered voters across the state must cast their ballots in a 15-hour period on the day of the general election (During the September primary, poll sites were only open for nine hours in 49 out of 62 counties). Besides depressing turnout, the lack of early voting also forces the BOE to resolve issues as they arise at the ballot box on election day rather than be able to preempt them.

“On the one hand, the problem today seems to be with the scanners, the hardware and software,” Camarda said. “But obviously if reforms had been passed like early voting, that would’ve provided a dry run to prevent these kinds of issues from occurring.”

The state has also failed to pass common-sense voting reforms such as no-excuse absentee ballots, mail-in ballots, electronic poll books or consolidating primary election dates. Case in point, New York held two primaries this year, one in June for congressional seats and the second in September for state candidates. In terms of voting, the state also does not allow same-day voter registration and has one of the longest deadlines for switching party registration.

The Democrat-led State Assembly has repeatedly passed many of those reforms and Democratic leaders, including Governor Andrew Cuomo, have blamed Republicans who control the State Senate for blocking them in turn. Though Cuomo has often said he supports that broad reform platform, he has put little capital behind it and has been promising this year to advance them if the Democrats flip control of the Senate, which they did on Election Day. Senate Democratic leaders have listed voting and election reform as a top priority for early 2019.

Overworked, Underpaid and Untrained Poll Workers
Though there have been efforts in the Assembly to provide raises to poll workers, who are volunteers, and reduce the long shifts that they are required to serve, most workers continue to be underpaid and overworked. Poll worker training is also seen is inadequate and often causes some of the issues seen on election day, contributing to long lines, confusion, and frustration.

The mayor’s funding offer would have required the BOE to provide a plan to improve both poll worker pay and training, including bonuses for those who volunteered at multiple elections in a year. Electronic poll books may also aid efforts to run elections more quickly and smoothly, they are on the list of potential reforms.

Many of the less-controversial reforms are long overdue. An audit released by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer in November last year found that in three elections since 2016, out of 156 polling sites, 90 percent showed significant breakdowns ranging from mishandling of affidavit ballots and inadequate staffing to a lack of assistance for voters with disabilities. “After a thorough review of the agency, it’s clear the voter purge is a reflection of larger, systemic, day-to-day breakdowns,” Stringer said in a statement at the time. “Elections matter, and every vote must be counted in every election. That’s why the BOE needs to fundamentally change its operations.”

Camarda’s group has for years advocated for a municipal poll worker program. “The executive director of the Board of Elections has a very difficult job because you’re managing a temporary workforce of roughly 35,000 people across some 1,300 poll sites,” he said. “If you want to have qualified people to do these jobs, you’ve got to pay them.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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The 3 Big Reasons Why Elections in New York City are So Poorly Run Wed, 07 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Nearly 160,000 New Democratic Voters in 7 Months; 22,000 New Republicans https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8039-nearly-160-000-new-democratic-voters-in-6-months-22-000-new-republicans https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8039-nearly-160-000-new-democratic-voters-in-6-months-22-000-new-republicans 30833380106 11c5de4882 h

New Yorkers line up to vote (photo: Edwin Torres/Mayor's office)


Close to 160,000 New Yorkers registered with the Democratic Party in the last seven months, according to the latest enrollment numbers released by the State Board of Elections on Thursday, compared with just over 22,000 voters who joined the Republican Party and close to 113,000 who registered but did not pick a party affiliation. In total, there were 12.7 million registered voters across the state, an increase of about 300,000 since April.

The numbers were released, as they typically are on November 1, just a few days before New Yorkers head to the polls on Tuesday to cast ballots for governor and other statewide positions, as well as members of the state Legislature and U.S. House of Representatives, among other seats. Democrats are hoping to keep control of all the statewide positions on the ballot as well as the state Assembly, while flipping control of the state Senate and enough House seats to contribute to a takeover of that chamber nationally.

Democrats have long maintained an overwhelming registration advantage in the state and that has only been growing in recent years, likely in part in response to the Trump presidency and the Republican-led Congress. Prior to going to the polls in November 2016, there were 6.18 million registered Democratic voters statewide. They have grown to 6.36 million, of which 5.78 million are active registered voters and 579,000 inactive voters.

Republicans have not fared as well. There were 2.84 million voters registered with the party in November 2016, increasing by only about 6,000 more voters in the latest numbers. Of those, 2.63 million were active voters while 212,000 were inactive. Unaffiliated voters, commonly referred to as “independents,” numbered 2.72 million two years ago and have increased to 2.75 million, with 2.48 million active voters and 270,000 inactive ones.

Most of the minor parties did not see drastic change over the last four years. The Independence Party did add about 10,000 new voters to its base, reaching total of just above 491,000, and notably the Green Party added nearly 6,000 new members to its small base, reaching slightly over the 31,000 mark.

Voter turnout also surged in primary elections this year -- there was a congressional primary in June and the state primary in September -- with several competitive Democratic races but few Republican ones. New York has more often than not seen low turnout at the polls, a trend that most expect will change this year particularly as Democrats are turning out in increasing numbers amid a nationwide “blue wave,” the electoral impact of which is yet to be seen in full, with November 6 set to show its actual impact.

In the four years since the last statewide election, voter enrollment increased by almost 900,000, including nearly 520,000 new Democrats, about 73,000 new Republicans and more than 280,000 new unaffiliated voters.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Nearly 160,000 New Democratic Voters in 7 Months; 22,000 New Republicans Thu, 01 Nov 2018 04:00:00 +0000
An Opportunity to Offer Real Election Reform in New York City https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7864-an-opportunity-to-offer-real-election-reform-in-new-york-city https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7864-an-opportunity-to-offer-real-election-reform-in-new-york-city de Blasio voting instant

(photo: Gotham Gazette)


Last Tuesday during the Ohio-12 special election, Americans found themselves angry at third party voters – again – for “wasting” their votes.

This problem is not unique to Ohio: in multi-candidate competitive races, we see upset voters of one party or candidate hold others accountable for their loss.

The blame should not be placed on voters -- it should be on the broken election system. Just look at New York City.

New York City primaries are crowded fields, with sometimes with as many as seven people vying for one ballot line.

Since 2009 there have been 121 primary elections in the city; 33.8% of these primaries were two-candidate races and 66.1% were more-than-two-candidate races.

Just during last year’s primary election cycle alone there were 38 elections. While 17 of these primaries had two candidates, the remaining 21 races had more than two candidates.

Of those 21 races, roughly 61.9% were won with less than 50% of the vote.

By supporting Ranked Choice Voting in New York City, Mayor de Blasio can help end the blame game.

Ranked Choice Voting allows voters to rank candidates from first to last choice on their ballots.

A candidate who collects a majority of the vote wins. If there’s no majority, then the last-place candidate is eliminated and their votes re-allocated according to the second preference of their voters. The process is repeated until there’s a majority winner.

It provides many benefits to voters, building majority support for candidates in multi-candidate races, inspiring voters to vote their preference - not the lesser of two evils - and avoiding costly run-offs.

Constituents are best served when their elected representative is able to garner majority support, while the elected official benefits from a broader base of support as well.

Ranked Choice Voting would avoid the troubling pattern of anti-democratic electoral outcomes in New York City. Candidates would move to the general election with majority support from their district.

Right now, the mayor’s Charter Revision Commission is reviewing recommendations before making proposals for the November New York City ballot. The 15-member commission has the opportunity to help transform the way New Yorkers vote.

History has its eyes on the them.

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Susan Lerner is the executive director of Common Cause-NY. On Twitter @commoncauseny.

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

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An Opportunity to Offer Real Election Reform in New York City Mon, 13 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000