Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/2424 Fri, 14 Aug 2020 07:27:14 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) New York Elections Administrators Lay Out Immense Challenges, Uncertainty Ahead of Fast-Approaching General Election https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9671-elections-administrators-lay-out-immense-challenges-uncertainty-new-york-2020-general-election https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9671-elections-administrators-lay-out-immense-challenges-uncertainty-new-york-2020-general-election Myrie Senate

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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New York Elections Administrators Lay Out Immense Challenges, Uncertainty Ahead of Fast-Approaching General Election Tue, 11 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo Re-Launches State Census Efforts https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9634-cuomo-re-launches-state-2020-census-effort-new-york https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9634-cuomo-re-launches-state-2020-census-effort-new-york gov cuomo vote

Governor Cuomo at a Census conference early this year (photo: governor's office)


After months of relative silence about the ongoing 2020 Census count and with New York at risk of a large and costly undercount, Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday re-launched a state effort to urge New Yorkers to fill out the once-a-decade federal questionnaire.

The COVID-19 pandemic turned the 2020 Census on its head, forcing officials at the city, state, and federal levels to reconsider outreach plans and pivot awareness campaigns. The self-response deadline was extended from July 31 to October 31. The federal Census Bureau has since resumed limited field operations in several parts of New York and New York City officials have continued a robust alternative program to reach city residents through phone- and text-banking, a multimedia ad campaign, and more.

As of July 28, about 58.3% of New Yorkers across the state had filled out the Census, according to the CUNY Mapping Service’s census tracking project, compared to a 62.6% response rate nationwide.

The state effort lagged behind significantly even before the coronavirus outbreak in New York, and the governor’s announcement was the first major step since the pandemic hit the state. In a statement, Cuomo announced “Census Push Week” and emphasized the “absolutely critical” need for people to fill out the population questionnaire, which affects the level of federal funding the state receives and its electoral representation in Congress. With a loss of population over the last decade and a possible undercount, the state could lose as many as two seats in the House of Representatives.

“There's no doubt that COVID-19 has presented unprecedented obstacles to completing the Census,” Cuomo said. “However, the pandemic also highlights a key reason why the Census is so vital—New York State continues to seek substantial funding and aid from the federal government. I urge every New Yorker to complete the Census, and remember, New York State can help if you encounter any issues along the way.”

Originally Cuomo had pledged a $70 million Census outreach effort, including $20 million allocated in last year’s budget that was meant to be awarded to community-based organizations for direct contact but never went out the door. The state’s budget woes from the pandemic could mean that money will never be allocated (even as another $10 million was added in the new state budget passed in early April), an issue that has outraged advocacy organizations who say the state dragged its feet for far too long. The other $40 million was to be spent via a reallocation of state resources whereby different agencies and offices would work to get out the count -- plans now said to be launching many months after being promised.

As part of the new effort announced on Tuesday, the state Office for New Americans will partner with El Diario and Telemundo to host a two-day phone banking event, primarily for Spanish speakers. The state is also partnering with the Association for a Better New York, a prominent business group, to promote the Census through two events on July 30 and August 10.

At the same time, state entities have taken steps to urge participation in the Census without holding in-person events, the governor’s office said. The MTA is advertising across its subway, bus, and rail systems; the Department of State is promoting the Census through Community Action Agencies; and the Department of State’s Division of Licensing Services is boosting awareness through its customer service phone line. The Department of Financial Services and Empire State Development are also spreading the word through their respective networks.

State and local officials are organizing a slew of other events this week to barnstorm hard-to-count neighborhoods where self-response rates have been historically low. The administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio is already in the midst of a “Census Week of Action” this week, and as part of that the New York City Census office has signed up 500 volunteers and is holding public events every day till August 2, including in-person events across the five boroughs. In Brooklyn, State Senator Zellnor Myrie is organizing a Census March for Racial Justice on August 2 to raise awareness in communities that are falling behind in the count.

The Census questionnaire is roughly ten questions and can be filled out by one member of a household to include all residents of that household. It can be filled out online or by phone, and the Census Bureau has also mailed paper questionnaires to households that have not responded.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Cuomo Re-Launches State Census Efforts Tue, 28 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
New York’s Next Step Toward More Justice and Better Democracy https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9420-new-york-next-step-toward-more-justice-better-democracy-voting-parole https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9420-new-york-next-step-toward-more-justice-better-democracy-voting-parole parollee restor oped

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New York’s Next Step Toward More Justice and Better Democracy Sun, 24 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Democratic State Senators Call for Raising Taxes on Wealthy, Passing Coronavirus Relief Measures https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9361-democratic-state-senators-call-for-raising-taxes-passing-coronavirus-relief-measures https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9361-democratic-state-senators-call-for-raising-taxes-passing-coronavirus-relief-measures state senators

Senators Ramos and Gounardes (photo: NY Senate)


A group of Democratic state senators, mostly from New York City, gathered in a digital forum Wednesday night to discuss the government’s COVID-19 response. The virtual event, held in partnership with the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI), a nonprofit liberal think tank, covered topics including the state budget, impending cuts and proposals to raise revenue, and legislation to address ramifications of the virus.

Eight senators, or a fifth of the Democratic majority in the 63-seat chamber, participated in the online discussion.

New York’s new state budget, passed in early April by the Legislature in partnership with Governor Andrew Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, was a main topic of conversation, including critical comments from the senators about the governor. Many state legislators, mostly in the Assembly, voted against budget bills this year, despite the fact that they were representative of compromise among two Democratic majorities and the Democratic governor. Some senators voted against certain pieces of the budget, while others criticized the deal but voted for it anyway.

The budget included significant cuts to planned spending as the state faces a massive drop in tax revenue -- estimated at roughly $10 billion to $15 billion - due to the coronavirus fallout, which comes on top of a roughly $6 billion budget gap that the state had to close leading up to adoption of the spending plan.

The budget agreement included no significant new revenue-raising measures, such as tax increases on higher earners, nor did it include as grave cuts as some feared. But it also gave the governor significant leeway to make budget changes throughout the year, depending on the tax revenue picture (the Legislature retained the right to overrule the governor, but it would have to come up with its own plan to slash spending).

And on April 25, the Cuomo administration announced an additional $10 billion in cuts, mostly -- at $8.2 billion -- in aid to localities, a category that covers education and much more, as well as a $1.6 billion cut to state agency operations and $293 million to debt service, according to information provided during the senators’ event.

“It’s very bleak, it’s very difficult,” Queens Senator John Liu said of the budget situation.

“The Cuomo cuts are fake austerity, and we’ve been living with this fake austerity for a while,” said Queens Senator Jessica Ramos. “Before the pandemic, we were already in a deficit. There’s nothing worse than saying we don’t have the money when we’re not proactively wanting money.”

Brooklyn Senator Andrew Gounardes agreed, saying that now is “not a time to practice and preach austerity politics, this is not a time to be cutting budgets, this is a time to be investing in people.”

Ron Deutsch, the executive director of FPI, blamed the “austerity” on Cuomo’s “arbitrary” 2% cap on annual state spending increases.

“We’re still maintaining this austerity mindset, this scarcity mindset that we can’t possibly spend more than 2%,” Deutsch said. “This 2% is an arbitrary figure, it has no basis in reality. It’s just something the governor wants and pushes for. And what has it resulted in. It has decimated human services programs across this state. We’ve seen a significant reduction in human services.”

The participants moved from the state budget to federal stimulus money with senators discussing why they believe New York didn’t get more aid from the $2 trillion package, and if New York could receive more aid going forward.

“The state cannot pull us out of the hole that we are in, we’re not allowed to run a deficit, we have to balance the budget,” said upstate Senator Rachel May. “And when we’re talking about $13 billion that we’re in the hole, even with the great ideas people have mentioned about raising revenue, we need help from the federal government.”

The recent $2 trillion federal aid package provided $150 billion for state aid, which was distributed based on population. This, many of the senators agreed, was the inherent issue with it.

“We got anywhere from $6-7 billion out of the $150 billion, and that’s the problem, we didn’t get treated fairly,” said Liu. “How do you allocate state aid based on population when at the time we had between one-third and one-half of the [coronavirus] cases. If we had gotten one-third of the $150 billion, we would have gotten $50 billion. And that right there would have solved many of our problems. Not only to provide enough aid to our state government and to localities, for schools, for firefighters, for teachers, for police officers, for ambulances. It also would have helped us in our programs to cancel rents, and with mortgage payments. That is the kind of assistance, real assistance, we need in a federal stimulus package. We are a very rich state, that’s for sure, but even the richest state can't get out of this humongous disaster by ourselves.”

Manhattan Senator Robert Jackson agreed, saying, “when you talk about fair share, you can talk about population, but when you talk about that, New York City and New York State as the epicenter of this pandemic, that’s where the resources should have come to.”

“We need assistance from Washington,” said Liu. “I don’t want to take away from that argument, I don’t want to be negotiating against ourselves. We absolutely need the aid from Washington in the form of unrestricted state aid. But we also need our own proposals, because [the federal government] might not give us enough to fill the $13 billion hole we’re in. Rather than suffer ridiculous cuts to schools and healthcare and other vital state services, we need to think of these proposals as quickly as possible and keep them on the front burner.”

The conversation then turned to ways in which the state could raise revenue to help plug its deficit and avoid making huge cuts to education, health care, and more. The most heavily discussed revenue raising policy was an ‘ultra-millionaire tax.’

“The wealthiest 1% pay a smaller percentage of their income in taxes than do the poorest 20% of New Yorkers,” said Deutsch. “How do we justify that in a state with so much wealth. Our tax system is completely upside-down and we need to reverse that. We are behind numerous other states when it comes to the progressivity of our income tax structure.”

Such an action would be far from unprecedented, it was noted. After September 11, 2001 the Republican leader of the Senate and the Democratic leader of the Assembly came together to propose higher taxes on the wealthy, overriding Governor George Pataki’s veto, according to Deutsch.

Similarly, after the financial collapse in 2008, the state was facing a huge budget gap. Governor David Paterson led the institution of higher taxes on millionaires, which became known as the first “millionaires tax” surcharge, which has been in place since, renewed several times despite the original notion that it would be temporary.

Ramos added that she introduced, and is working with partners on a soft rollout of, a worker bailout that would tax billionaires’ asset growth. “It could generate $5 billion for us every year,” Ramos said. “So this year we would want to use it to help those who don’t have any safety net,” and give $3,300 per month during the pandemic to those who aren’t eligible for or don’t qualify for a wage assistance program, she said. Liu called it a good proposal on top of the revenue raising proposals that have already been put forward.

He added that taxing millionaires more in New York is not out of the question, reiterating what Deutsch had said previously, that New Yorkers are not taxed as high as top earners in other states. In California for example, top earners are taxed 5% more than top earners here, he said.

Cuomo and the Senate Democratic conference have been against raising taxes on higher earners, and as the coronavirus recession set in just before the budget was negotiated, there appeared to be little discussion of it as a possibility.

Liu also emphasized what he sees as the importance of a pied-a-terre tax and that it should be “at the very top of the list,” imposing a tax on non-primary luxury homes, which Liu pointed out are owned by wealthy people and are often not lived in. He says it could raise many millions of dollars per year. Brooklyn Senator Julia Salazar and Bronx and Wechester Senator Alessandra Biaggi agreed with Liu.

Biaggi also made a push for two policies that would bring in state revenue and have been discussed in Albany for quite a while -- legalizing adult use of marajuana and legalizing mobile sports betting. She said both would be good opportunities to use well-considered legislation to raise revenue in a time when it is necessary.

Salazar said there are more than a dozen serious proposals to raise revenue and it’s a “shame that in the budget these revenue sources were not considered.” During this crisis, she said, the Legislature has an “ethical obligation” to help New Yorkers make ends meet.

Biaggi mentioned her push for a bill that is a constitutional amendment that would allow the Legislature more power to amend the budget before its adoption. New York’s budget law and process is notoriously governor-dominated, what Biaggi called “an inordinate amount of power over the budget.”

She said her bill seeks to equalize the power between the executive and legislative branches of government, and rebalance the power. Before it can be put into the constitution, the amendment needs to pass through two consecutive legislative sessions and go to a public vote.

Gounardes agreed with the importance of Biaggi’s bill and said that in the current system “we don’t have the ability to submit our own budget document” and it “ties our hands when it comes to the budget.” May added that “the other articles in the constitution say the Legislature shall provide for basic education or all our children, for roads and bridges, all kinds of things -- it’s our responsibility, but we don’t have the power to put together a budget that can allow us to carry out our responsibility.”

Jackson said he is putting forward a bill that would allow for tenants to use their security deposits to pay rent during the pandemic. “If your situation is such that you can’t afford to pay you rent, the first thing you should do is communicate with your owners,” said Jackson. “If the landlord says no, then it’s our job to pass the legislation.”

Salazar has also put forward a rent bill, the Emergency Coronavirus Affordable Housing Preservation Act, colloquially known as Relief for All.

“What this bill proposes is not only relief for residential tenants and also commercial tenants, making sure that for property owners whose tenants have been impacted they will also have relief,” she said during the digital forum. “Additionally, and this is to address the concerns of nonprofit affordable housing, we are also providing relief to them, looking out for them, because they are going to be experiencing long term effects from the economic crisis that we’re facing.”

Another senator, Queens’ Michael Gianaris, who the deputy majority leader and was not part of the event, has been leading a “cancel rent” push, with his own legislation to enact a rent moratorium for those significantly impacted financially by the coronavirus fallout, with the state stepping in to help make landlords whole. Gianaris has also said he wants to see the federal government step up so the state doesn’t have to shoulder the burden on top of its existing budget hole.

Brooklyn Senator Zellnor Myrie, who also participated in the forum, has put forward a bill, the Do No Harm Act, to “prevent disproportionately impacted populations from being further victimized in the wake of budget cuts resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the bill text.

“This has not begun with COVID-19, this was a process decades in the making, particularly for black and brown communities where we refused to invest in preventative care, we refused to invest in affordable housing, education, nutrition,” Myrie said. “All of those comorbidities were brought into sharp relief at the advent of this crisis.”

His bill “requires that any budget cuts due to the COVID-19 pandemic that disproportionately affect certain populations identified by disparities in rates of infection and death due to race, age and zip code based on demographic data provided by state and local departments of health be accompanied by a remediation plan to offset the disproportionate impact of those cuts.”

Myrie also said he has a bill pending that would provide the New York Attorney General more investigatory power to look into nursing homes during this pandemic. Myrie explained that nursing homes “have been their own epicenter” and in need of more oversight.

Senators also mentioned a variety of worker protection bills. Jackson said he put forward in January an amendment to labor law, seeking to redefine employment. The bill seeks to “reclassify more workers as employees rather than independent contractors in order for them to receive benefits such as healthcare and retirement,” Jackson said, also connecting the definition to times of crisis with so many independent contractors also losing work but having a harder time with unemployment benefits.

Ramos mentioned her legislation to expand the whistleblower law. There have been cases in the news of healthcare workers saying they don’t have enough personal protective equipment (PPE) and getting fired. Ramos said she wants to ensure that these individuals don’t suffer consequences for speaking out.

“We have not been physically in Albany, but that does not mean we have not been at work,” Liu said. “Answering constituents’ requests everyday, talking amongst ourselves about the legislation that has been proposed.” Either virtually or physically in Albany, he said, “Either way we are going to get work done and pass bills that are needed.”

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by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

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Democratic State Senators Call for Raising Taxes on Wealthy, Passing Coronavirus Relief Measures Fri, 01 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
‘Not a Budget Anybody Should Be Celebrating’: Democratic Legislators Displeased with Albany Compromise https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9287-state-budget-dissent-democratic-legislators-albany-compromise-cuomo https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9287-state-budget-dissent-democratic-legislators-albany-compromise-cuomo 3 maj leader asc

A nearly-empty State Senate Chamber as business is conducted amid coronavirus outbreak (photo: NY Senate)


If New Yorkers take Governor Andrew Cuomo’s word for it, the new $177 billion budget approved last week will “deliver results” for the people of the state and was a far cry from a “bare minimum” spending plan at a time when the state’s finances are racked by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. But within his own Democratic Party, which controls both houses of the Legislature where the plan was passed, the budget is a highly unpopular document that to many legislators fails to live up to the needs and priorities of New Yorkers.

"This is a moment in history unlike any other, and government needs to function and deliver results for the people of this state now more than ever — and that's exactly what we did with this budget," Cuomo, now in his third term, said in a statement last Thursday, after announcing the highlights of the budget agreement with the Legislature, which included a wide variety of policy and fiscal decisions.

Cuomo cited a number of policies that were passed, including a paid sick leave bill, legalizing gestational surrogacy, creating a new felony for hate crimes considered acts of ‘domestic terrorism,” banning gender-pricing disparities known as the “pink tax,” creating new regulations on vaping and e-cigarettes, establishing a $3 billion bond act for environmental restoration and climate mitigation projects, among others.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins similarly touted some of the same and other accomplishments, such as new controls of prescription drug prices, easing access to public assistance, bolstering unemployment insurance by $1 billion, and preventing huge cuts to education spending, and more -- but she also sounded a bittersweet note.

“This is not the budget we had hoped to pass at the beginning of Session, or even the budget we had envisioned just a month ago,” she said in a statement after the budget passed. “Our state’s financial situation has been thrust into a true economic crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic. Yet even in this crisis we managed to achieve a balanced budget that includes victories for the people of New York.”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie boasted about environmental protection legislation, new gun control measures, the expansion of paid sick leave and particularly investments in higher education. “In these challenging and uncertain times, education and upward mobility have never been more important. That is why we fought relentlessly to ensure the preservation of critical funding for the programs New Yorkers count on to climb the economic ladder,” he said in a statement.

But the vote totals on the various budget bills and some of the floor speeches by Democratic legislators told a different story than the three people in ‘the room.’ An usually large number of Democratic lawmakers showed their displeasure with the fact that several progressive priorities were left out or modified, and chafed at some of the spending and tax decisions.

Recreational marijuana was not legalized. Bail reforms implemented just three months ago were rolled back. Renters suffering from the economic devastation of the coronavirus were not given any relief. Hospital funding was cut. A plan to reduce homelessness was again shelved. No new taxes on the wealthy were approved. Funding for public housing was not bolstered. School aid remained flat.

[Read: 10 Major Proposals Not Included in New State Budget]

This is the only the second year in Cuomo’s long tenure that Democrats have controlled both chambers of the state Legislature, after a decade of a Republican-led Senate and Democrat-dominated Assembly. Last year saw a raft of progressive bills across a range of issues: criminal justice reform, tenant protections, voting reform, women’s reproductive health, gun control, LGBTQ rights, environmental preservation, to name a few. So it wasn’t surprising that many Democrats, particularly in the 150-seat Assembly where they hold an overwhelming majority, were frustrated by the budget. What was unusual, though, was the number of "no" votes.

There isn’t one singular budget vote, but rather several appropriation bills that lawmakers vote on separately related to state operations, aid to localities, the legislature and judiciary, debt service, and capital projects. Then there are the Article VII Bills, grouped under four categories:  Public Protection and General Government (PPGG); Education, Labor and Family Assistance (ELFA); Transportation, Economic Development and Environmental Conservation (TED); and Revenue. They often include major policy decisions.

The votes varied but it was clear that a sizable number of Democrats were displeased. The ELFA bill, which contained the bail reform changes and included Medicaid overhaul provisions, barely squeaked through the Assembly, where it received 76 “yes” votes to 66 “no” votes, meaning it received the bare minimum number of votes to pass the chamber. It passed the 63-seat Senate 35-26. The TED bill was also a somewhat close vote in the Assembly, where it was approved 81-60, while the Senate passed it 39-22. There are 105 Democrats in the Assembly, and 40 members of the Senate Democratic conference.

In past years, Assembly Democrats voted in lock-step and near-unanimity to pass budgets agreed upon by the governor and legislative leaders, who typically conference major aspects of the compromises as they develop to ensure that most if not all members are on board. This year, however, a number of Democrats voted against key portions of the deal reached among Democratic leaders and didn’t hold back how they feel about the budget, even as some admitted that they voted for it despite the flaws they saw in it.

Assemblymember Aravella Simotas, a Queens Democrat who voted against the ELFA, TED and revenue bills, criticized the lack of new revenue raisers in the budget, the watering down of bail reform, cuts to healthcare and the underfunding of school aid, among other issues. “Decades of underfunding our most vital human services so the wealthy could get by without paying their fair share brought us to this point,” she said in a public statement

Assemblymember Yuh-line Niou, a Manhattan Democrat, similarly voted against the ELFA and TED bills. “In the recovery that must come after this crisis, what we need is not the cuts proposed by our governor but strong investments in our infrastructure and the public assets that could have mitigated this crisis had we only been willing to fund them previously,” she said as she explained her vote on the Assembly floor (the video of her remarks has been circulated widely on social media among progressives). “This budget, this values document, makes a terrible statement that we value big businesses and profits more than we value people, our people, the people of this state, and that is simply not who we are.”

Senator Brian Benjamin, also a Democrat from Manhattan, conceded that he was faced with impossible competing priorities. “I had 3 choices: a) vote yes for a negotiated budget where the Legislature has limited power; b) vote no and accept the Governor’s extender; or c) vote no on both and shut down the Govt. As a leader of the Senate, I took the hard vote and voted yes so others didn’t have to,” he tweeted on April 4.

If the government shut down, state employees would have gone unpaid during the outbreak, Benjamin noted. And he refused to cast a symbolic “no” vote to express his anger. “The ultimate lesson here is that the Senate and the Assembly have to work together and address our important nonbudgetary concerns BEFORE the budget process because if we don’t then the Governor has outsized power to address the issue and we will end up in this place again,” he added.

Senator Roxanne Persaud, a Brooklyn Democrat, professed a similar ambivalence in a statement to her constituents, noting that the final budget shows the “numerous tremendously difficult decisions” the Legislature had to make during the current crisis. “While I am not pleased with a number of final agreements contained in the thousands of pages of legislation, I am confident that my colleagues and I fought our hardest to deliver a balanced budget that mitigates some of the toughest possible outcomes,” she said.

In the days leading up to the budget deal, Assemblymember Robert Carroll, also a Brooklyn Democrat, wrote an op-ed asserting that negotiations were focused on the wrong priorities, calling for holding off on most policy decisions and passing a robust coronavirus relief agenda including a rent freeze and funded in part by higher taxes on top earners.

During a Wednesday interview on the Max & Murphy podcast, Queens State Senator Jessica Ramos criticized the bail rollbacks, hospital funding cuts, and other aspects of the budget deal in explaining her votes against pieces of it. She also lamented a lack of new revenue-generating measures, and connected what she sees as long-standing patterns of too-little investment in communities like she represents -- largely low-income and immigrant -- to the depth of the current coronavirus crisis.

"That’s why I’m so disappointed in the budget and why I voted 'no' on a few of the bills," Ramos said, "and I’m really hoping that we’re canceling rent soon, especially as May begins, and to figure out what the bailout looks like because every single New Yorker deserves the opportunity to be able to thrive after this calamity.”

“This is not a budget that anybody should be celebrating,” said Senator Andrew Gounardes, another Brooklyn Democrat, in his own public statement, though he did not vote against any bills. He pointed out that the budget was two days late, leading to delayed paychecks for state workers. If there had been any further delay, he said, New Yorkers waiting for unemployment checks from the state government would have continued to suffer.

Gounardes continued, “This is a budget that cut state spending by $5.7 billion, including more than $1 billion in healthcare at a time when our health network is working overtime to keep people alive. This is a budget that ignores the moral imperative to tax the ultrawealthy, raising the revenue we need to stave off cuts to critical services. This is a budget that failed to invest in our public higher education system, when it was needed most.”

Gounardes cited the same issue that Benjamin raised, as did Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat, that the state budget process places far too much power in the governor’s office.

Myrie, who outlined the good and bad in the budget, said in a public statement to his constituents, “You should know that the budget process is constitutionally flawed. The Executive has enormous control over the agenda and the Legislature is often left with a "take it or leave it" proposition. During a pandemic, this imbalance is magnified. Under these conditions, the Leadership was faced with the prospects of shutting down the government during a public health crisis, or, accepting a flawed budget. They made the excruciatingly difficult decision to accept a flawed budget.” He noted that he nonetheless voted “no” on bills that contained provisions he did not agree with, including the cuts to Medicaid spending for hospitals and the bail reform rollback.

In a fiery speech on the Assembly floor, Bronx Assemblymember Michael Blake invoked the history of slavery, emancipation and the civil rights movement as he critiqued the watering down of bail reform, urging his colleagues to join him in voting “no.”

“It’s in this moment that we must truly ask ourselves what is more important, rushing to vote on a budget when many of us are afraid of being paid for a day or rushing to lock up more black or brown folk who get paid cents in a day?….For students, our seniors, our humans behind bars, this budget bill is not justice, it is the justification of continuing 401 years of injustice,” Blake said.

Other "no" votes by Democratic legislators on at least one budget bill included Senators Alessandra Biaggi, Gustavo Rivera, and Julia Salazar, as well as Assemblymembers Harvey Epstein, Jeff Aubry, Charles Barron, Catalina Cruz, Carmen De La Rosa, Mathylde Frontus, Nathalia Fernandez, Ron Kim, Joe Lentol, Walter Mosley, Danny O'Donnell, Felix Ortiz, Dan Quart, Jo Anne Simon, Latrice Walker, and Tremaine Wright. 

Republicans, meanwhile, still made up the vast majority of "no" votes in both houses. They were incensed that the budget was not a bare bones spending plan and that Democrats advanced a slew of non-revenue legislation. Most also wanted to see the changes to last year's bail reforms go further in the other direction.

“During unprecedented times that demand a concentrated focus, [the] state Majority rushed out a cluttered state budget that offered nothing of the kind,” said Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, in a statement on the budget. “Concocted behind closed doors and advanced under the cover of darkness, the state’s final spending plan drifted too far from our current crisis and was entirely bogged down by misguided political policies.”

He added, “Assembly Majority rejected a Minority proposal to help small businesses and employees, but they extended tax credits to Hollywood studios. As restaurants everywhere are forced to close their doors, Majority politicians added more regulations that stifle growth and cut deeper into the industry’s bottom line. The appropriate time to discuss taxpayer-funded campaigns, gestational surrogacy or criminal justice reforms is in the light of day, with an open debate and transparent process.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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‘Not a Budget Anybody Should Be Celebrating’: Democratic Legislators Displeased with Albany Compromise Thu, 09 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Push for Online Voter Registration Bill as Coronavirus Prevents Registration Drives https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9260-push-online-voter-registration-coronavirus-prevents-registration-drives-voting https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9260-push-online-voter-registration-coronavirus-prevents-registration-drives-voting voting

Coronavirus complicates voter registration efforts & voting itself (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


A bill before the state Legislature expanding online voter registration in New York City has taken on particular urgency amid the coronavirus pandemic, its sponsors say, as in-person voter registration drives become impossible and New Yorkers are told to avoid leaving their homes but for essentials and emergencies.

The New York City Board of Elections currently only allows an individual to register to vote online through the Department of Motor Vehicles website. But any potential voter must first have a DMV-approved identification. In New York City, at the end of 2018, 3.8 million people had driver’s licenses in the city, which has a population of over 8.5 million, though many are under voting age of course. Driver’s licensing rates tend to be higher in rural and suburban counties, compared to the city’s dense and transit-rich boroughs.

The New York City Council attempted to open up the voter registration process through legislation under which the city’s Campaign Finance Board created an online voter registration portal that was ready last year. But the Board of Elections imposed additional burdens on the process, making it even more onerous than registering by mail, amid contradictory opinions about whether the city had the authority to create such a portal.

A bill sponsored in the State Legislature by Senator Zellnor Myrie of Brooklyn and Assemblymember Michael Blake of the Bronx, both Democrats, would give the Campaign Finance Board the express permission to launch that portal. It has passed the Senate’s election committee, which Myrie chairs, but has not yet moved to a full chamber vote or anywhere in the Assembly. Both legislators say it is particularly important that it be approved as the coronavirus crisis brings the state to a virtual standstill.

“We need to find every possible way to make sure democracy stays intact,” said Blake, in a phone interview. “We need to make sure that people are able to exercise their democratic rights. And just because someone is unable to go outside and live their lives should not mean that democracy should stop.”

The pandemic has already led to upheaval in the state’s democratic processes. Two special elections in New York City, for a Brooklyn City Council seat and Queens Borough President, as well as the statewide presidential primary were all postponed to June 23 to coincide with the congressional and state legislative primaries. Governor Andrew Cuomo suspended ballot petitioning and reduced the threshold for getting on the ballot.

Along the lines of the online voter registration push, there are calls for expanding automatic absentee and mail-in voting.

“Moments such as this, the crisis and challenge should lead to us having creativity,” Blake said. He said he has been raising his bill as well as expanded voting measures with leaders in his chamber. “We don't know when this will end. So what we should be doing is doing everything possible to make sure people are part of the process. You're using your phone to get news updates, you're using your phones to check on your loved ones. You should be able to use your phones and laptops to be registered.”

The registration deadline for new voters to participate on June 23 is May 29, and the deadline for the November 3 general election is October 9.

In a statement, Senator Myrie said, “If there ever was a time to bring New York’s democracy into the 21st century, it’s now. While we know there are a lot of issues on the table right now, our commitment to this issue hasn’t changed and we will continue to work with our colleagues to get it done.”

The Legislature is doing modified, social-distance appropriate voting in Albany this week as legislators and Governor Cuomo attempt to finalize a state budget by the April 1 deadline of the new fiscal year. As usual, many policy issues are on the table as well as fiscal ones.

Myrie and Blake aren’t the only ones pushing for their bill to become law. Jessica Rosario, a 21-year-old junior at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, has launched an online petition calling on the governor and Legislature to approve the bill and is working with other youth activists to organize a virtual day of action. “We're supposed to be socially distant but I think that we could still be socially aware at the same time,” she said in a phone interview.

She noted that the only other means of registering if you don’t have a DMV identification is if you print out and mail a form to the Board of Elections. “I don't know about anyone else but I'm in Queens, and I don't really feel like it's safe to go out if you don't have to for food or medical purposes,” she said. “And not everyone has a printer. Not everyone has that access.”

“I feel like it's never been more important than right now for things to move digitally. We have education moving digitally, people working remotely. Why not create a digital space for democracy?”

If the bill should pass, the Campaign Finance Board would be able to launch its portal almost immediately. The bill would then become redundant in 2021, when the state Board of Elections is meant to launch a statewide registration portal.

"We urge our state leadership to protect our democracy during this emergency by establishing an online voter registration system that all New Yorkers can access,” said Amy Loprest, executive director of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, in a statement. “With in-person voter registration events shut down, we are concerned that young voters and naturalized citizens, in particular, will be disenfranchised during this critical election year.”

"The NYC Campaign Finance Board's online registration system is a sensible, secure and timely alternative to paper applications and in-person registration efforts during this unprecedented public health crisis, “ said Luis Feliz Leon, a spokesperson for DemocracyNYC, a de Blasio initiative aimed at improving voter participation in the city. "We hope the City Board of Elections will work with the CFB to accept voter registrations submitted this way."

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated with comment from a spokesperson for DemocracyNYC. 

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Push for Online Voter Registration Bill as Coronavirus Prevents Registration Drives Mon, 30 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Central Brooklyn Officials Organize ‘Day of Action’ to Raise 2020 Census Awareness in Hard-to-Count Neighborhoods https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9178-central-brooklyn-officials-organize-day-of-action-to-raise-2020-census-awareness-in-hard-to-count-neighborhoods https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9178-central-brooklyn-officials-organize-day-of-action-to-raise-2020-census-awareness-in-hard-to-count-neighborhoods central bk census

Senator Myrie, Assemblymember Richardson, and volunteers (photo: Vashon Hill Jr.)


Predominantly black communities often have among the lowest response rates to the U.S. Census, the once-a-decade count of the country’s population mandated by the Constitution. In New York City, those and other hard-to-count groups contributed to an especially low response rate in 2010, which can hurt New York’s ability to bring in federal funding, among other important negative consequences, like loss of congressional representation.

With some differences, the New York City and State governments appear to be taking the 2020 Census quite seriously, attempting to ensure a full count even as there have been many questions about how the U.S. Census Bureau and broader Trump administration are approaching the decennial count.

New York City officials recently held a briefing with representatives of “black media” in the city in an effort to work toward getting out word about the census in black communities, in part to build trust in government efforts to obtain an accurate count, which will include mailings and, if needed, door-to-door visits to encourage participation. This will be the first census that is digital-first, meaning U.S. residents will be encouraged through an initial mailing -- set to start going out mid-March -- to fill their form out online.

The push for a complete census count includes efforts at the federal, state, and local levels, with different elected officials taking varied levels of interest.

On Saturday, two state legislators representing predominantly black Brooklyn neighborhoods organized a rally and canvassing to get the word out about the upcoming 2020 Census count, which officially begins April 1.

State Senator Zellnor Myrie and Assemblymember Diana Richardson, both Democrats representing central Brooklyn, joined together with staff and volunteers in what they called a “day of action” to raise awareness about the 2020 Census. They also coordinated the event with members of Brooklyn Community Board 9, which, like parts of Myrie’s and Richardson’s districts, includes neighborhoods like Brownsville, Crown Heights, Park Slope, Prospect Lefforts Gardens, East Flatbush, and Prospect Heights.

“This is the most important thing that will be happening in the next few weeks and we want to spread awareness, by getting out there and letting folks know about the census and its benefits,” Myrie said to those gathered at his district office on Nostrand Ave. for an initial discussion of the importance of the Census and the plan for the morning, before heading out to greet Brooklynites, discuss the Census, and pass out information on the upcoming count.

“We have to make sure that we get all our members involved because, without the census, we may be missing out on programs that will benefit our community including WIC and Head Start,” Richardson said to the packed room of volunteers.

Myrie’s office noted that 80 percent of Brooklynites live in hard-to-count neighborhoods, which include not only black communities, but also immigrant-rich communities and areas with high percentages of young children, for example. Saturday's canvas focused on particular areas of Myrie's Senate district in the neighborhoods of Prospect Lefferts Gardens and East Flatbush that have had among the lowest census participation rates in the country, as low as 50 percent in initial household self-response in some areas. Myrie said Saturday that Brooklyn Community Board 9 had an initial self-response rate of just 55% in 2010.

Myrie’s office reported that there were over 90 volunteers who came out to walk the streets and canvas, which included passing out information and knocking on more than 2,000 doors, Myrie tweeted. His office later told Gotham Gazette the Saturday effort hit roughly 2,345 doors and reached 708 people that day, with others potentially seeing the door-hangings that were left with census info on them.

“This has been incredibly exciting to see the turnout from the community to come out on a cold Saturday morning and to have the office packed out with dozens of volunteers,” Myrie said at the close of the day of action event. “It shows us just how important the census is. We are hitting a lot of doors and getting the information out to everyone.”

The handouts and door-hangings that the volunteers were equipped with stressed that the Census helps determine federal funding to neighborhoods for Medicaid, "housing, schools, Head Start, WIC, and other social services." They say to keep an eye out for the initial U.S. Census Bureau mailings in mid-March and stress that by law census information "cannot be shared with anyone, including ICE and law enforcement."

According to the results of the 2010 Census, Brooklyn -- with an estimated population of well over 2 million people -- had an initial household self-response rate of 67 percent, among the worst counties in the country. After census trackers assess those self-response rates by household, other efforts are made, including door-knocking and estimation, to try to get an accurate count. The 2010 census showed the county of Brooklyn (Kings County) to be 34.1% black; 30.4% white; 19.1% Hispanic/Latino; 12.7% Asian; and 1% Native American.

Note: This article has been updated to provide more clear language around self-response and the census counting process, and to reflect that the initial household self-response rate in Brooklyn in 2010 was 67%, not 55% as originally stated (55% was the self-response rate for community board 9 that Myrie cited). It has also been updated with additional information provided by Myrie's office.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

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Central Brooklyn Officials Organize ‘Day of Action’ to Raise 2020 Census Awareness in Hard-to-Count Neighborhoods Mon, 02 Mar 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Bill Allowing Online Voter Registration in New York City Moves in State Senate, Stalls in Assembly https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9134-bill-allowing-online-voter-registration-in-new-york-city-moves-in-state-senate-stalled-in-assembly https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9134-bill-allowing-online-voter-registration-in-new-york-city-moves-in-state-senate-stalled-in-assembly bill online voter

State Senator Myrie, middle, is pushing his online voter registration bill (photo: @SenatorMyrie)


Last year, the New York City Board of Elections hobbled a City Council effort to create an online voter registration portal for city residents, claiming it conflicted with state law. But the state Legislature may take steps to correct that situation this year by clarifying the law and allowing an online portal that would act as a test case for a statewide system slated to launch next year.

The New York City Council passed a bill, sponsored by Council Member Ben Kallos, in late 2017 that mandated that the Campaign Finance Board build an online portal to expand access to voter registration. Currently, the state only allows online registration through the Department of Motor Vehicles website and requires an official DMV driver’s license, permit, or non-driver ID. This effectively shuts out many New York City residents who rely on mass transit and do not have a DMV-issued document.

The CFB created the portal and was ready to launch it in June of last year. It would have allowed residents to fill out the form online, with an electronic signature, and the CFB would then transmit the information to the City Board of Elections for processing. But a week before the site was to go live, the BOE added an additional hurdle that essentially negated the purpose of the portal – commissioners voted that, after receiving a form from the CFB, the BOE would mail the form to the potential voter, who would then have to return it with their physical signature. The process would have been slower than mailing in a registration form.

At the time, the State Board of Elections’ Democratic and Republican commissioners had contradictory positions on whether signatures collected electronically would be acceptable under state law, even though a legal opinion from the state attorney general’s office had already put that question to bed in 2016. This year, legislation sponsored by Brooklyn State Senator Zellnor Myrie, chair of the Senate’s elections committee, and Bronx Assemblymember Michael Blake seeks to clarify state law and give the city the necessary authorization to begin collecting registration forms electronically.

The law would go into effect immediately and would be repealed 90 days after a statewide registration system becomes operational. The registration deadline for this year’s April 28 presidential primary is April 3. The deadline to register for the June 23 state and congressional primary is May 29, and the deadline to register for the November 3 general election is October 9.

“An online voter registration system that all New Yorkers can access is long overdue,” said Amy Loprest, executive director of the CFB, in a statement. “This legislation will make it easier for millions of city voters to register and vote in this critical election year.”

Though the bill has not moved in the Assembly, it was passed by Myrie’s Senate committee last month and he is hoping to see it approved by the full Senate and Assembly as soon as possible. “Time is of the essence,” he said in a phone interview, stressing the importance of launching the portal in a presidential election year when turnout is massive, with this year’s expected to be even moreso. “It allows for the state to see how this system rolls out.”

Neither Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s nor Assemblymember Blake’s office provided comment on the status of the bill in their chamber.

A trial of online voter registration by New York City would help inform the state’s effort, Myrie noted. Last year’s state budget included legislation that ordered the state BOE to create an online voter registration system for the entire state by January 2021. Once that system takes effect, it will supersede the city’s.

“As we have seen the national discussion hit a fever pitch, there will be many folks interested in registering and getting engaged in their democracy and we want to make that as easy for them as possible,” Myrie said.

He pointed out that it will require few resources and would barely be a burden for the Board of Elections. “This is not a labor-intensive endeavor,” Myrie said. “This is a system that has already been built, that has already been designed. Let's give the city the authorization to have it up and running. And then we can see whether or not the state should adopt it as a model statewide.”

Myrie seems to have the support of Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. "We are committed to making it easier for eligible New Yorkers to vote, that is why this session we built upon the historic voting reforms of last year by making improvements to early voting and passing automatic voting registration. We look forward to reviewing this bill as a Conference to ensure it works as intended,” said Senate Majority spokesperson Mike Murphy, in a statement.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is also a supporter of the online voter registration effort and was critical last year of how the BOE meddled in it. “The City Board of Elections should allow the CFB’s online voter registration system to roll out immediately, so thousands of New York voters can register this year for the critically important 2020 elections,” said Luis Feliz Leon, a spokesperson for DemocracyNYC, the office the mayor launched to improve voter participation in the city, among other things. “The Administration appreciates that the Legislature is taking a close look at this issue.”

BOE spokesperson Valerie Vazquez said in a text message, “No comment on pending legislation.”

“New York City’s online voter registration system is ready to go for all the people who are inspired to vote in the presidential election and the coming primaries,” said Council Member Kallos, in a brief phone interview. “Thank you to State Senator Zellnor Myrie for getting this done in the Senate and we’re looking to the Assembly to get it done and the governor to sign it in time to enfranchise a whole generation of voters in time for the presidential election.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Bill Allowing Online Voter Registration in New York City Moves in State Senate, Stalls in Assembly Wed, 12 Feb 2020 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.

***
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
As City Rolls Out Census Funding for Outreach Efforts, State Lags Behind https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8831-new-york-city-2020-census-funding-state-lags https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8831-new-york-city-2020-census-funding-state-lags union sq counts

(photo: @NYCImmigrants)


New York City is moving full steam ahead with its effort to ensure that the 2020 Census counts each and every resident of the five boroughs, with millions of dollars in funding and a four-pillar strategy for outreach to hard-to-count communities. But New York State’s effort seems to have stalled and there is little indication that state authorities are moving with urgency despite the many billions of dollars in federal funding and congressional representation at stake.

In the 2010 Census, New York City residents’ self-response rate to the Census was an abysmal 62%, well below the national average of 76%. The city is home to many hard-to-count populations – among which self-response rates are relatively low – including children, seniors, immigrants, predominantly black communities, and residents of public housing. An undercount of these populations can affect everything from federal funding levels for programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Section 8 housing vouchers to business investment in the city and the state’s seats in the House of Representatives.

Increasing the rate of self-response also means requiring fewer census enumerators, the individuals who go door-to-door to count residents who have not responded. Officials have been working for years at the city and state levels to make sure that the Census Bureau has a complete list of addresses for New York residents.

The 2020 Census is plagued with many new and particular problems that have raised concerns that New York could see an even lower self-response rate – as low as 58%, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. The Census Bureau is being underfunded by the federal government, with fewer enumerators being hired to hit the ground; the Trump administration sought unsuccessfully to place a citizenship question on the Census form, worrying and potentially discouraging responses from immigrants; and the count is being conducted digitally for the first time, which could affect response among those who lack access to the internet and particularly among older residents. 

Between Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and the New York City Council, the city has budgeted $40 million towards Census outreach, the most funding ever put towards this effort. The city is pursuing a multi-faceted strategy that includes a massive field effort, grants for community-based organizations, a mass media campaign, and partnerships between city agencies.

Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYC Census Director Julie Menin launched the city’s Neighborhood Organizing Census Committees (NOCCs), which are meant to enlist 2,500 volunteers that will aid in census outreach across 245 neighborhoods. The launch came one day after the city announced the $19-million New York City Complete Count Fund, which will give out grants ranging from $25,000 to $250,000 to qualifying community-based organizations.

The city accepting applications till October 18 and is expected to award the funds by December. The actual Census count will begin April 1.

The $19 million allocation follows an initial $4 million to CBOs by the City Council in August to begin Census work. 

The remaining $17 million of the $40 million has yet to be distributed. Those funds are expected to cover the mass media campaign, which will launch in 2020, and the overall field campaign through the NOCCs.

“The idea behind the NOCCs is that we believe very strongly...that people really want to be involved in the future of their neighborhood,” Menin said in a phone interview. “The best kind of outreach that we can have is neighbor-to-neighbor contact.”

The 245 committees will train volunteers about the importance of the census, how it works and how best to organize locally. “This is really a train-the-trainer model that is very much proven to work,” Menin said.

Additionally, the 2,500 volunteers will act as “census ambassadors” and the city will provide them with printed materials, talking points and a digital tool kit on the census. The NOCCs will also organize phone banks and text banks to conduct outreach, and will also partner with CBOs that receive grants from the city. These CBOs and neighborhood volunteers are particularly essential in immigrant communities for whom English is not a first language or who may have limited English proficiency.

The city has also reached an agreement with the U.S. Census Bureau to receive real-time data on self-response rates, to monitor neighborhoods where residents may not be filling out census forms in the initial phase of the count. “So all the volunteers and really anyone living in those neighborhoods will be able to see exactly how their community is doing each day,” Menin said.

New York state government, on the other hand, has been silent on how it will spend the $20 million allocated in the state budget earlier this year for the 2020 Census. That funding (only half of what advocates had called for) is meant to be distributed based on a report by the New York State Complete Count Commission, which held its last hearing to receive public input on July 31. The report is far past its due date and won’t be out for another few weeks, according to a state official.

“The Complete Count Commission has heard testimony and received comments from local governments, grassroots organizations and the general public across New York State, and we are awaiting the Commission’s recommendations on how best to leverage the up to $20 million made available in the State Budget, existing state resources, and our partnerships with organizations on the ground so that we can maximize outreach efforts and get every New Yorker counted,” said Mercedes Padilla, a spokesperson for New York’s Department of State, in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

Padilla said the recommendations would be made in the next few weeks, but did not provide specifics. The co-chairs of the commission are New York’s Secretary of State Rossana Rosado and Jim Malatras, president of the Rockefeller Institute of Government and formerly a top aide to Governor Cuomo.

On September 24, nearly three dozen local, state, and federal elected officials representing Brooklyn wrote a letter to Governor Cuomo, calling for at least $4 million from the $20-million pot to be sent to census efforts in the borough. With more than 2.6 million residents, Brooklyn is the most populous of New York State’s 62 counties, and the letter notes that 80% of Brooklynites live in hard-to-count communities.

“An undercount in Brooklyn would be an unmitigated disaster not only for the people we represent, but the entire state,” the letter reads. “Billions of dollars in federal aid programs could be lost. While Brooklynites already face a lack of resources for many of their immediate needs, an undercount would only make this worse.”

Brooklyn State Senator Zellnor Myrie expressed frustration that the state is sitting on its hands while the city has allocated and released funds. “We have seen the city step up to the plate...and here [at the state level], we have a situation in which we had money allocated in April, we had a commission that went around the state to solicit feedback on how the census outreach should look, and we have neither the report nor the money.”

Myrie and other elected officials have, in the meantime, begun their own efforts to educate their constituents about the census, hosting information sessions in their districts. Others like Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz have created their own Complete Count Committees with discretionary funds to aid in an accurate count.

“I think we're really putting ourselves at risk of repeating a failed history of counting our community,” Myrie said.

Menin also said that the state had provided no answers yet to city officials on how state funds will be distributed. Though some amount of state money will clearly be spent in the city, Menin said that state officials have indicated that it’s unlikely that funds would be funnelled through the city government. It’s also unclear whether a majority of those funds will go to community organizations and nonprofits, as advocates from the statewide New York Counts 2020 coalition have been pushing.

United Neighborhood Houses, a nonprofit based in New York City and a member of that coalition, is among the CBOs that have received discretionary funds from the New York City Council for census organizing efforts. “We're really strong believers in the fact that community-based organizations are key partners in census outreach,” said Nora Moran, UNH’s director of policy and advocacy, in a phone interview.

Moran noted, as have others, that there is little time until the census begins in earnest. The first mailers from the Census Bureau will be sent out in March. “We know that there's a lot at stake, and there's hard-to-count communities upstate as well as downstate,” she said. “And we really hope that the governor's office releases...that funding that they allocated towards census outreach...sooner rather than later.”

Last month, the New York Counts coalition similarly sent a letter to the governor to press their demands. “We are losing valuable time. While many local governments, libraries and community-based organizations (CBOs) have begun their outreach and organizing activities, the effectiveness and depth of these efforts is dependent on additional funding,” the coalition wrote.

“I think there's just a clear evidence of what needs to be done,” said Myrie, “and what is unclear is why there is a delay.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note - this article has been updated for clarification. 

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As City Rolls Out Census Funding for Outreach Efforts, State Lags Behind Thu, 03 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000