Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Finding Your Way Around New York's News

New York is one of the media capitals of the world, and everything here -- from sporting events to zoning disputes -- takes place under a microscope the strength of which is difficult to grasp. The New York media market supports multiple major daily newspapers, dozens of widely-read weeklies and a massive network of blogs and other online sources covering practically every aspect of city life.

On top of that are the dozens of community papers that take a block-by-block look at individual neighborhoods and local issues, as well as an ethnic press that's among the most diverse on earth (Check out our monthly feature, the Citizen, which compiles an array of translations from the ethnic press, via our partner: Voices That Must Be Heard.

Where to even begin? In spite of their well-known financial troubles, a few members of the old guard of New York print media are still going relatively strong, like the New York Times The Village Voice still offers muckraking pieces that can send some of the city's most powerful people into damage control-mode. The front pages of the New York Post and Daily News are still the first source of information that millions of New Yorkers see each day.

Meanwhile, community papers like the Downtown Express or the Queens Tribune fill a crucial niche that the blogs and major outlets can't, applying more traditional journalistic methods to stories with less geographic relevance.

While the Times, Daily News, Post and Sun are the top publications for local and national news, the city's often-meticulous online resources catch more ground-level stories that the major outlets sometimes miss. Blogs like Curbed and Brownstoner offer obscure real estate and development news and rumor. Other New York-specific coverage comes from more specialized blogs that are paying attention to issues that other sources aren't, like Streetsblog which covers sustainable transportation-related news in New York, and Gowanus Lounge which has obsessive coverage of neighborhood news in Brooklyn.

Minute-by-minute New York political coverage occurs exhaustingly online. Daily News's Daily Politics provides updates on city and state politics and campaigns. The New York Observers' Politicker is another great resource for local politics junkies; indeed, both blogs cover the New York political scene in much greater depth than the print editions of their parent publications. City Room, the New York Times metro blog, also provides political coverage as well as offbeat stories that may not have made the print edition and updates on breaking news.

In addition to online sources and the major network television stations, you can also find local coverage on NY1.

For cultural news and entertainment, you can also check out the AV Club, along with the L Magazine, the Brooklyn Rail and the Village Voice.


In Queens, a Race to Control the Senate

ny state senate district 15, joseph addabbo versus serphin maltese

Update (Aug.25, 2008): Albert Baldeo ended his campaign for the State Senate seat on Aug. 22 and announced that he was throwing his support to his opponents in the Democratic Party, City Councilmember Joseph Addabbo.

"It was a gut-wrenching, difficult decision,” Baldeo said in an interview with the Times. “But I decided to endorse him for the greater goal of Democratic Party unity. We want to put all of our resources behind one candidate, and that’s Councilman Addabbo. I’ll be actively campaigning for him."

Baldeo will still appear on the Sept. 9 primary ballot, but the end of his campaign, many experts believe, increases the Democrats' chances of capturing the seat held by Republican Serphin Maltese. Baldeo's decision "is not good news for Maltese, who is one of the Democrats' top targets as they try to take control of the Senate from the GOP this fall. Baldeo had threatened to remain in the general election on a third party line, which could have made a difference in a contest that's expected to be very close," Elizabeth Benjamin observed in the Daily Politics.

Two years after coming within 900 votes of snatching Republican Serphin Maltese's long-held state Senate seat in Queens' 15th district, maverick Democrat Albert Baldeo faces what many call an even more formidable opponent-this time from within his own party.

Meet Joseph Addabbo Jr.: a City Councilmember who elicits fierce loyalty from many constituents, a down-home Democrat running in a conservative but overwhelmingly Democratic district, the son of a former member of Congress from the neighborhood and the party establishment's candidate to take a pivotal seat as it fights to win a majority in the Senate.

The Queens Democratic organization, which did not back Baldeo in 2006, has long let Maltese go unchallenged as part of a furtive truce between Republican and Democratic officials. That ceasefire has apparently ended. The Democrats trail the GOP by only two seats in the Senate and believe the time has come for them to take control.

Michael Reich, the executive secretary of the Queens Democratic organization, said a victory in the 15th district - which encompasses Howard Beach, Ozone Park, Woodhaven and Middle Village - is crucial. This race is "about trying to win the seat and trying to win back the Senate for the Democrats," Reich said. "We're in a unique situation, in which we have an economy that's failing, a war that's unpopular and a strong Democratic presidential candidate."

Baldeo's and Addabbo's policy views mirror each other-and most of them stand in stark relief to Maltese's.

But the two Democrats have wildly different personalities and bases of support, and both sides are fighting hard.

Baldeo complains that, in backing Addabbo, the Democratic establishment has hung him out to dry after he exposed Maltese's vulnerability. "I got 49 percent of the vote last time, and in a fair world or a logical world that would have propelled me to be the consensus Democratic candidate," said the immigration lawyer and activist, himself an Indo-Guyanese immigrant.

The Democratic establishment argues that Addabbo is more electable and that Baldeo did so well last time only because Maltese hardly competed. "I think a lot of [Baldeo's success] had to do with Serf Maltese being asleep at the switch," Reich said, noting that Maltese even returned money that he thought he would not need to the Republican Senate Campaign Committee in 2006.

"I didn't expect him to come that close," Maltese said.

From 1992 through 2004, no Democrat even ran against Maltese, who has held his seat since 1989. Experts cite the agreement between local party bosses, which has helped keep the Assembly Democratic and the Senate Republican. "The various party organizations get together and essentially make deals - whether explicitly or implicitly - on endorsements, who to run against, etc.," said Doug Muzzio, a professor of political science at Baruch College and an expert on New York government. "It's really the party organizations in tandem with each other versus the reformers. I mean, the Democratic Party boss would rather deal with the opposing party than with the reformers within his own party."

State Sen. Eric Schneiderman, who was seen as a reformer when he chaired the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, said that since majority Republicans have had the power to shun any Democrats who take GOP seats, minority leadership discouraged any meaningful challenges. "There was a view among a lot of folks in the state that the Republicans are in the majority so you should make deals with them," Schneiderman said.

The Democrats vs. Baldeo

Democratic leaders attribute the fact that they did not support Baldeo in 2006 to other factors. One prominent Democratic elected official said many of his colleagues had doubts about Baldeo's temperament and his fitness for office. "He would constantly accost elected officials at events and try and get us into posed pictures with him that he was going to use to suggest that we were supporting him," said the politician, who requested anonymity.

Maltese had similar misgivings about Baldeo after running against him in 2006. "I don't think he's the kind of person who should be elected senator here in Queens County," Maltese said.

Baldeo said there is nothing strange about him. "I'm a respectable father and parent," he said. "I'm a law-abiding citizen and a family man."

Frustrated with the Democratic Party organization, Baldeo is hoping to run with the Green Party and his own Hope and Change Party. He insists he is still seeking the Democratic nomination, and that the extra line is intended to "supplement" his Democratic effort. But should Baldeo lose the primary to Addabbo, he said he would campaign hard on the other tickets, "because there are a lot of disillusioned and independent voters in the district who would not vote Republican or Democrat."

Reich condemned Baldeo's plans to stay on the ballot if he loses the primary. "If that's what Baldeo is going to do it just proves that he's not a real Democrat," Reich said. "It's more about Albert Baldeo than anything else, you know? It's not about trying to win the seat and trying to win back the Senate for the Democrats."

While he plans to run on other tickets, Baldeo has tried to knock Addabbo off the ballot's Working Families Party line. Baldeo helped spearhead a lawsuit that challenged the signatures in Addabbo's WFP petition. A judge quickly threw out the case, but Baldeo's lawyer wants to have it reopened.

Changes in the District

Having Baldeo on the November ballot would give Addabbo reason to worry. He enjoys fervent support in Howard Beach, a conservative and largely Italian-American neighborhood. "He's loved by everybody," said Barbara Nardone, 63, of Howard Beach. "He's there whenever you need him. He's there for the community."

But the area is changing; the percentage of residents identifying themselves as white dropped from 83 to 63 between 1990 and 2000, according to a Queens College study, and many minority residents feel they have little say in local politics.

Take the "A" train north from Howard Beach to Ozone Park, and Addabbo gets some lukewarm reviews. "We don't see him enough in Ozone Park. He could be doing more for us-he seems too concentrated on Howard Beach," said Lindsay Ramcharran, a 44-year-old immigrant and deli owner. Because the burgeoning immigrant population feels left out, Ramcharran said, race will be a factor in this election.

Tensions came to a head last year when a Guyanese resident of Howard Beach irritated his white neighbors with construction he did on his property. He then said his neighbors threatened him, in what he described as a hate crime. Addabbo met with the resident, whose lawyer was Baldeo, and told him a fence he had built violated zoning regulations. This fueled allegations that Addabbo was siding with bigots, a charge he rejects.

Baldeo thinks Addabbo and Maltese could split the vote among conservative Democrats, allowing Baldeo to win on the strength of the immigrant vote. Addabbo is "not going to get the Ozone Park vote," Baldeo said. "They cannot relate to him and he cannot relate to them."

Plans for Policy

Despite their differences, the two Democrats share views on many issues. For example, both rank housing and tenants' rights as top priorities.

"A portion of our constituency -- and really the constituency in the northern part of the district -- thousands of tenants are worried about their rent," Addabbo said. "That's probably going to be one major difference between Sen.Maltese and myself. I plan on protecting the rights of my tenants." The two Democrats favor upholding the regulations on all the district's rent-controlled units and adding more regulated housing. Maltese has supported weakening rent control.

Addabbo, who chairs the council's Civil Service and Labor Committee, said that if he moves on to Albany he will work to change the state's Taylor Law, which guarantees certain rights to public employees but bars them from striking. Calling the bill "a big whip aimed at the workers," Addabbo said, "We need the Taylor Law to better force negotiation of a contract."

On his labor committee, Addabbo said, "We have basically improved the workplace safety for many of our city workers . . . and the benefits for our city workers." He boasts widespread backing from labor unions, including the New York State Nurses Association, a large union that has historically backed Maltese, according to the Addabbo campaign.

Baldeo said his work as an activist and a lawyer - he is well known in the district for litigation on behalf of immigrants - qualifies him to be a state lawmaker. "I'm a grassroots worker who sees the pain on people's faces," he said

He points to improving education and making health insurance more affordable as his main concerns. "We do not have enough classrooms, science labs and teachers, nor do we have enough after-school programs," he said.

For his part, Addabbo said he has allocated over $10 million to the area's schools for capital improvements, such as laptop computers, schoolyard renovations and other amenities.

Maltese also takes credit for aiding education in his district. "We've actually secured millions and millions for education," he said, calling himself "one of the foremost advocates in Albany for smaller class sizes." Maltese believes in state-funded school vouchers; Addabbo is opposed. Baldeo favors them as a temporary "Band-Aid solution."

The senator is quick to point out his work on behalf of Latino residents, who make up over a quarter of the 15th district's population. "I have printed materials half English half Spanish, I have reached out with phone calls, I have run a Hispanic awards ceremony, I have had a Hispanic health fair," he said. He said these voters share his traditional values.

Maltese is pro-life; Addabbo and Baldeo are pro-choice. The incumbent opposes legislation to prevent discrimination against transgender people, whereas Addabbo and Baldeo have said they support the Gender Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which recently passed the state Assembly.

Thinking Locally

Beyond these issues, Addabbo and Maltese disagree on a key political point: who could best serve the district in Albany. Addabbo describes himself as an advocate for "reform and transparency. . . . What sets me apart from the current state senator is, I have a different energy than he does and . . . I'm the better candidate to continue that change and reform" in state government, he said.

Maltese says the only way he has been able to keep his mostly Democratic constituents happy has been to concentrate on them first, and greater New York State second. "I wouldn't be here if I wasn't a district-oriented senator," he said. "The people constantly tell you, 'We like you, we don't care if you're a Democrat or a Republican but we look for your name on the line and we want you.'"

Don, a 63-year-old, moderate Republican living in Howard Beach, considers both Maltese and Addabbo responsive to their constituents. Don called Addabbo's office with a complaint about noisy teenagers. Addabbo's office wrote back, then sent the police to quiet the teens. "He follows up on what he says," said Don, who declined to give a last name. Maltese "is also a concerned politician," he added. The race between the two is "a toss-up, really," he said. "I probably won't make up my mind till I get in the voting booth."

Maltese is heartened by what he sees as a recent indication that middle-of-the-road voters like Don might land on his side. Republican Anthony Como, Maltese's former chief counsel, narrowly defeated Democrat Elizabeth Crowley in a special City Council election in June to represent the northern half of the 15th Senate district. "The way it heartened us, it discouraged the Democrats," Maltese said of Como's victory.

Both the Democratic and Republican establishments have made it clear: The 15th-district race is crucial. "We are committed to this race," said Doug Forand, the chief strategist for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. "We're going to win this race, [although] I don't want to put a specific number on it."

Maltese, meanwhile, says his victory is of utmost importance to Republican leaders. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos "said that I was a top priority for the Senate, and in private meetings with me indicated that I would do very well" in terms of funding, Maltese said. "My financial reports indicate that I've already received something like $250,000, [and Skelos] indicated that that would be matched."

Baldeo does not lack for funds, either. "We have over $400,000 in the bank, and we plan to spend it wisely," he said.

For More Information

Joseph Addabbo, Jr.

Albert Baldeo

Serphin Maltese

Queens Crap Blog

Other Related Articles

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A Tougher Year for Incumbents


In East New York, Corruption Creates an Open Seat

State Assembly district 40, inez barron, Winchester Key, Kenneth Evans, Earl Williams, and Nathan Bradley

An Extra Race

The 40th district has had no one representing it in the State Assembly since Diane Gordon's conviction on corruption charges in April. And most observers expected that is how it would remain until the new legislature assumed office in January.

But Inez Barron has sought to have a special election to put someone in the post between November and January. Voters would fill the partial term on September 9 -- primary day. The New York State Supreme Court has approved this idea although its decision is still pending appeal.

What was Barron's motivation for trying to squeeze in this election? "Well, it's the law," she said. "And the court upheld that."

Attorney Henry Berger, who specializes in election law, disagrees." Only the governor can decide to hold a special election," he said.

Before the court ruled, most of the candidates for the full term assumed that the governor's decision to leave the office vacant for the rest of the current term would stand. They petitioned accordingly -- except for Barron. "We have been petitioning for both," Barron said. "That's why we had to get it clarified in court that both elections were, in fact, taking place--so that we could petition for both terms."

Earl Williams found out about the special election only three weeks before petitions were due for all elections, but was determined not to let Barron run uncontested. He managed to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot as Barron's only opponent in this election. He thinks he has a chance of winning, but still calls the special election "a waste of taxpayers' money."

"[The special election] will have no effect on the outcome of the general election," Williams assured.

"What could someone do in six weeks?" asked candidate Kenneth Evans.

It is likely that the State Assembly will never be in session during the brief stint the special election winner holds office.

Update: Inez Barron won the Democratic primary with 2,922 votes out of a field of five candidates. Williams had 1,360 votes, and Key had 1,172 votes.

Barron now faces Republican Kenneth Waluyn. Waluyn has not filed an itemized financial disclosure form with the state's Board of Elections. Barron has a balance of $13,195 in her campaign finance account.

District 40 is heavily Democratic and the Democratic candidate is pretty much guaranteed to win the race. Barron has received endorsements from the Working Families Party, numerous elected officials (including her councilmember husband, Charles Barron) and labor organizations.

In the East New York section of Brooklyn it seems there are nearly as many people vying for the vacant State Assembly seat as there are vying for the primarily low-income neighborhood's limited affordable housing. The crowd that has submitted petitions to get on the primary ballot seems to echo the sentiment voiced by John Whitehead, a city sanitation worker and Community Board 5 member who considered running but decided against it, that, "Anyone who wants to change the community is qualified."

Will residents be as open-minded? They did, after all, re-elect Assemblymember Diane Gordon in 2006 after she had already been indicted for corruption. The seat became available when Gordon was convicted in April.

Six Brooklynites with varying degrees of prominence and qualifications are trying to take up residence in Gordon's former office. They are: retired educator Inez Barron (wife of City Councilmember French doors adorning her district office -- the only physical reminder of Gordon's venality -- the candidates say they want to help improve the neighborhood. To those invested in the community, its problems are glaringly obvious and seemingly ignored.

"I see a gap in our community," said Williams, who in his 70s is still active in community service projects in the Starrett City development. "There's no resources coming in; there's nothing happening. I just want to add the little bit of sense I have and see if we can turn it around."

The Community's Needs

In How East New York Became A Ghetto, Walter Thabit explains how real estate agents took advantage of the Puerto Rican immigrants and African Americans who migrated to the neighborhood at the eastern edge of Brooklyn in the 1950s. Today, the neighborhood still has housing problems, along with many other concerns, although there have been improvements.

East New York/Starrett City had the sixth highest rate of foreclosures among New York City neighborhoods in 2006, according to the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. More residents of the community have jobs than in past years, but the average commuting time, the second highest in the city, indicates the need to create more local employment. Felonies have fallen sharply (from 88.2 per 1,000 residents in 1990 to 28.6 per 1,000 residents in 2006), but remain high compared to other parts of the city, and residents and candidates still see violent crime as a big problem.

The candidates generally agree on many of the basic needs of the community. The big questions are what the priorities are and how to get things done.

Developing the Neighborhood

Housing is on everyone's list of needs. There are several public housing projects in the community, but still not enough affordable housing to go around.

Candidates Key and Williams say they have already had success in addressing that issue.

"Much of the new housing in East New York was during my tenure in Community Board 5," said Williams. "We were part of the plan that created the Nehemiah Houses, the Gateway shopping mall -- I advocated for that for at least 10 years."

The Gateway Center is one of the few commercial centers that has invested in and brought new jobs to the area, but the low-wage, high-turnover jobs haven't brought as much prosperity as some might have hoped.

Key is chief executive officer of East New York Urban Youth Corps, a non-profit that acts as a developer, among other things. Key says it has built a homeless shelter, affordable housing, a grocery store and the first AIDS center in East New York.

Education, Health and Jobs

Voters and candidates are concerned with severe social and health problems, a lack of quality education (Thomas Jefferson High School was shut down a few years ago due to poor performance) and a shortage of jobs in the area.

Key said he wants to expand enrollment in Head Start, the early childhood education program available to very low-income Americans, for which many East New York residents are eligible.

In addition to dealing with residents' demands for new and better schools, the new Assembly member will have the opportunity to vote next year on whether to extend mayoral control over the city's public schools.

Barron, who worked in the school system for 36 years including several as the principal of a Bedford-Stuyvesant school, objects to the system being run by people, including Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who are not professional educators. "When I'm in Albany, I do not intend to extend mayoral control," she said. Barron said her main goals in education include increasing resources for teachers and reforming standardized testing in order to improve tracking of students.

Evans, who was the Brooklyn director of the Urban League for 10 years, said he is most concerned with the community having input in the system and hiring teachers whose backgrounds would enable them to communicate well with the youth of East New York.

But the candidates also addressed the need to reach out to high school age youth in the district, many of whom turn to gang violence and prostitution. Key, who has worked with youth through the youth corps, noted that many students drop out by ninth grade. He favors incentives to encourge employers to hire these young people. "There needs to be a youth job training program that has education and counseling built in," said Evans. "It would help eliminate some of the crime in the 40th district."

Health care is also a priority. Williams would focus on the elderly, whom he said often have to choose between buying food and medication.

Barron thinks there needs to be an increased effort to educate the public about preventing health problems that plague the community such as obesity, asthma and HIV/AIDS, which she said increasingly affects "women of color."

Evans, who has done health care consulting, said his main concern is revamping hospital facilities in the neighborhood so that people don't need to travel to distant locations for treatment. He would also advocate for a burn unit in Brooklyn, he said.

Jockeying For Support

Every candidate may find a base of support. Just as Barron may attract women voters (there was recently a women's rally in support of her), Williams, a Panamanian immigrant, may appeal to Latinos and the elderly. Bradley may pick up any Gordon loyalists, having worked as her main aide for 18 years. (He could not be reached for comment for this article.)

In an election with so many names on the ballot, though, name recognition could play a big role in determining the winner.

Evans ran against Gordon for this position, dropping out of the race before petitions were submitted in 2002 and winning 25 percent of the vote in the 2006 primary. He is appalled that many government officials supported Gordon in 2006 -- when she had already been indicted. Key also ran in the 2006 primary, getting 11 percent of the vote.

According to Key, this means he and Evans have the most name recognition. Evans refers to himself as a "long shot," but says he has received more support from officials and is more serious in this election than in the past.

But Barron, who is already prefacing sentences with, "when I am in Albany," is not the only one (see blogger Rock Hackshaw's prediction) who thinks she has the election in the bag.

"Inez Barron has the biggest name power," said Whitehead. "Her first name is as small as my pinkie, but her last name is as big as my leg." He suggested that some voters might not even know which Barron is running: Inez or Charles (her husband).

Councilmember Charles Barron (whose district overlaps with the 40th Aseembly district), a former Black Panther, is known for high profile, controversial comments. He is widely respected in the area. Inez Barron, who has been an activist in organizations like the Black United Front, said her husband has had a very positive effect on her campaign so far. "In introducing myself to people they are receptive of my information and then they ask if I'm related to Charles Barron and I say, 'yes,' and then they ask are my politics similar to his," she said. "And when I say, 'yes,' they say they will absolutely vote for me."

According to Evans, sophisticated voters could find candidates' closeness to other local elected officials a detriment due to what he sees as a lack of effectiveness on the part of many politicians. "But there are a lot of unsophisticated voters," he admitted.

In New York, Those in Power, Stay in Power

ny senate chambers
Photo by Josh
New York State Senate Chambers

With the presidential election the focus of so much attention, one could easily forget that all the members of the New York State Assembly and Senate also are up for election this fall. Most of the incumbents want their jobs back, and little seems to stand in their way. As in most years, few sitting members of the legislature face primary challenges, proving once again that, when it comes to elections in New York, nothing is left to chance.

Lack of Competition

As of now, only 23 out of 65 Assembly seats and 11 of 35 State Senate seats in New York City are set to have a primary on Sept 9. This is the number of districts where more than one candidate has filed petitions seeking his or her party's nomination. The number will almost certainly shrink as candidates challenge one another's petitions. The Board of Elections is holding hearings on challenges this week, and inevitably some candidates won't make it through the process.

Previous reports and articles have highlighted how uncompetitive New York's elections are, with nearly all of the incumbents running being reelected to their seats. In many cases this year, incumbents will not face a primary challenger. Most of those who do are expected to beat their opponents rather handily.

Not that there aren't a few notable races. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver faces two Democratic opponents, and State Senator Kevin Parker in Brooklyn is being opposed by two-term limited City Council members. State Assemblymember Adriano Espaillat in upper Manhattan is facing a tough challenge by a former ally, City Councilmember Miguel Martinez.

Only four incumbents are not seeking re-election. And only one of those seats features a wide-open contest. That is taking place in the East New York section of Brooklyn where Diane Gordon had to give up her Assembly seat after she was convicted of corruption charges. Currently the only other officials not running again this year are Sen. John Sabini from Queens, who Gov. David Paterson has named to head the Off-Track Betting Association, and State Assemblymembers Ivan Lafayette and Luis Diaz, who were also given positions by Paterson.

A Special Election with Special Timing

The race to replace Gordon in the 40th Assembly District seems to be one of the more competitive contests in the city, since six candidates have filed petitions to appear on the ballot. Voters there can expect more than their share of confusion.

Generally when a legislative seat becomes vacant in mid-term, the governor calls a special election to fill it. Gordon's vacancy occurred so late in the term that the deadline for special elections had passed, and one was never called. Last month, one candidate, Inez Barron, challenged this, filing suit against the New York City Board of Elections for not holding a special election to fill the remainder of Gordon's term.

Barron won the case, and so, unless the ruling is overturned on appeal, the Board of Elections must hold an election to fill Gordon's term, which ends in just five months. That vote is set for Sept. 9, meaning that voters in the 40th will have to cast two votes that day -- one for someone to fill a full two-year term and one for a person to serve until the end of December. Only two of the candidates running for the full term have filed to run in the special election: Barron and Earl Williams.

Getting Around the Rules

With years of practice, New York's party organizations have mastered the art of using rules and laws to help incumbents and party favorites to win.

Sabini faced a strong opponent in term-limited City Councilmember Hiram Monserrate. Many party leaders were lining up behind Monserrate, but Sabini seemed intent on trying to win another term. Then Paterson gave Sabini a job, avoiding a bruising battle for his Democratic Party but also depriving voters of a choice. Monserrate is unopposed.

Lafayette, who represents Queen's 34th District, and Diaz, from Bronx's 86th Assembly District, circulated petitions this summer and filed nominating petitions. The day after the July 10 deadline for submitting signatures, both men announced they would not appear on the ballot.

Each of them already had an opponent -- Marlene Tapper in Queens and Gloria McFarland in the Bronx. But by the time the Assembly members announced their plans to leave the legislature, it was too late for other candidates who might have wanted to compete for an open seat, to run.

As a result, the Democratic Party gets to select a new candidate to run in each district. That nominee, handpicked by a five-member committee of district county leaders, will not have to circulate petitions. Through this system, Michael Den Dekker in Queens and Nelson Castro in the Bronx will have the benefit of party resources in the September primary without ever having to collect one signature.

Because of the likelihood that they will win their primaries and eventually the general election, these candidates will have been elected without ever having to be fully vetted by the voters, some good government advocates argue.

The Importance of Primaries

In overwhelmingly Democratic New York City, most elections are won by the Democratic candidate. Whatever competition there is often takes place during primary campaign, when Democratic candidates challenge one another for the right to be the party's nominee. The winner of that battle not only has an excellent chance of triumphing in the general election but also garners party resources and support. When candidates have no Democratic primary opponent, they can win without ever facing a campaign or putting their records before the voters.

Experts have offered a multitude of policy recommendations to make New York's primaries and elections more open. These include drawing districts to make them more competitive in the general election, campaign finance reform and allowing voters to register on Election Day or to vote in either party primary. But for this year, with few primaries and many seemingly already decided, voters will have to stand by as New York politicians enjoy the power of incumbency.

Andrea Senteno is program associate for Citizens Union Foundation, which publishes Gotham Gazette. 

Voter Identification Laws: Safeguard or Barrier?

photo by Amy Pritchett
New York currently only requires proof of identity for new voters.

The Supreme Court recently upheld an Indiana law requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls. Indiana is one of 27 states across the country doing this, seeming to signal a trend for states to set identification requirements to vote.

New York currently has no such law and only requires proof of identity for new voters, as mandated in the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA). But New York State is not immune to a growing sentiment that measures need to be taken to safeguard the vote against fraud. Last week the New York State Senate passed a bill (S. 6543), which would require all registrants to provide proof of citizenship. Although there is little chance this would pass in the Assembly, the proposal is indicative of the growing debate about voter fraud and identification.

Proponents of strict requirement believe that showing identification will prevent election fraud and voting by illegal immigrants. Many advocates, though, say there is no evidence that voter fraud poses a significant problem or threatens the integrity of the voting system.

What's Required

HAVA made sweeping changes to elections across the country, requiring that states update their voting systems, implement statewide voter databases and ensure equal voting rights to the disabled. The federal law also requires that new voters need to provide some form of identification at the polls before they cast their ballots for the first time. A number of different forms of identification can be used, including a valid photo identification, current utility bill, bank statement, government check, pay check or another government document that shows the name and address of the voter.

Some states have taken the measure one step further, believing that the basic requirements of HAVA are not enough. They are demanding a photo ID. In some cases, they have also extended the identification requirement beyond new voters to all voters. Currently, 27 states require identification from all voters in order to cast a ballot. Nine of these states require a piece of photo identification.

The Voter Fraud Problem

In April, the Supreme Court in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board addressed the constitutionality of the Indiana law that required voters to present photo identification. Plaintiffs argued that a photo identification law places an undue burden on voters who do not have acceptable voter identification cards. The Supreme Court disagreed, and ruled to uphold Indiana's law.

"The burden on voters [is] offset by the benefit of reducing the risk of fraud," wrote Justice John Paul Stevens. He noted that Indiana has a legitimate and important interest "in deterring and detecting voter fraud ... protecting public confidence in elections," because of incidents in the state where people who were deceased or did not live in Indiana voted in recent elections. Furthermore, since Indiana's voter cards are free and those who are unable to obtain a photo ID can vote through a provisional ballot, the court found that the law "does not qualify as a substantial burden on most voters' right to vote."

New York Senator Chuck Schumer described the Supreme Court ruling upholding the nation's strictest voter-identification law as "a blow to what America stands for."

You're a Citizen? Prove It

Another approach requires residents to show proof of citizenship when they register to vote. Currently, Arizona is the only state that does this.

The New York State Senate bill would institute this requirement here as well. New Yorkers would be forced to provide proof of citizenship when they registered to vote. It would leave the responsibility of deciding which forms of citizenship would be acceptable to the state Board of Elections. In Arizona, registrants are required to provide an original birth certificate, naturalization papers or a passport.

Sen. John Flanagan, the bill's main sponsor, explained during debate on the senate floor, "We impose stringent requirements for driver's licenses, for U.S. passports, and frankly I don't think we should be doing anything less when it comes to voting." New York Senators Serphin Maltese and Frank Padavan, both from Queens, cosponsored the bill.

The proposal in the Senate has sparked a heated debate about the consequences of enacting this type of law in a state like New York with a largely diverse and mobile population.

Voting rights advocates argue the tougher identification laws could have a large effect on citizens living in urban areas, such as New York City. Since many city dwellers do not have a driver's license, they could have a difficult time trying to obtain an acceptable photo ID. New Yorkers, many of whom come from other nations and other parts of the country, also could have a hard time getting their birth certificates.

Critics worry that requiring voters to provide citizenship materials to register or photo identification to vote may result in the disenfranchisement of low-income, disabled, elderly and minority voters. Unlike the Indiana law, which provides for free voter ID cards, Bill S.6543 puts the burden on the potential voter to provide proof of citizenship.

During debate over the bill, Sen. Martin Malavé Dilan questioned the necessity for such a bill in New York. "What empirical data do you have in New York State regarding voter fraud?" he asked. Flanagan responded, "Right in front of me, I don't have anything at my disposal."

The Threat of Fraud

As in New York, over laws on voter identification revolves around how many people who are not eligible to vote try to cast ballots.

Between October 2002 and September 2005, the Justice Department indicted 40 people for registration fraud or illegal voting. A 14-month investigation by the federal government proved that at least 624 non-citizens have registered to vote.

Others argue that these numbers may not be indicative of actual instances of voter fraud. Dilan noted, "The League of Women Voters of the State of New York have indicated that in a four-year period between 2002 and 2006 only 24 people have been convicted nationally of voter fraud." In an amicus brief the the Brennan Center for Justice wrote, "Voting by non-citizens is a rare and isolated occurrence."

In 2007 a report published by the Election Assistance Commission received national attention after the writers claimed their version of the report was altered to weaken their assertion that voter fraud was largely unsubstantiated.

Voting rights advocates points to cases like that of Lillie Lewis, a voter who lives in St. Louis but was born in Mississippi. She said she found it difficult to get the photo identification needed to vote because officials in Mississippi had no record of her birth. "I have voted in almost all of the presidential races going back I can't remember how long, but if they tell me I need a passport or birth certificate that'll be the end of that," she told a press conference.

With increase concern among Americans about security and immigration, though, there is support in many states for the tougher requirements. The Arizona secretary of state has said his state's law is "broadly popular" and that "voters feel strongly about proof of citizenship when registering to vote as a basic eligibility requirement."

The debate surrounding voter identification and proof of citizenship reflects a larger ideological discussion between Republicans and Democrats about access to voting. Those on one side cite reports of grandmothers being denied the right to vote. Their adversaries point to cases of deceased voters casting ballots. The voters, meanwhile, get caught in the middle as states try to find a way to ensure the integrity of the vote while protecting the right to vote.


Reinforcing Voting's Front Line

Photo by Joe Holmes
Photo (cc) Joe Holmes

If the presidential primaries of the past few months are any indication, many more New Yorkers than usual may go to the polls this fall. At the same time, the city and state plan to start making changes in the way we vote. New ballot marking devices, designed to make it possible for disabled people to cast their votes independently, will make their way into every polling location across the city and state by September. Further changes will almost certainly follow in 2009 and 2010.

The front-line responsibility for making sure all of this goes as smoothly as possible will fall on the city's approximately 30,000 Election Day poll workers. With this in mind, the city Board of Elections wants to increase the number of poll workers, train them better and pay them more.

Help Wanted

The city estimates it will need an additional 8,616 poll workers to operate the new ballot marking devices. The Board of Elections plans to place approximately three poll workers dedicated specifically to working the ballot marking devices at each of the city's 1,350 poll sites. The board is also proposing putting at least one poll coordinator at the 390 polling locations that currently do not have one because of their small size. These coordinators would ensure every site has backup assistance for the ballot marking devices. "It is crucial for each poll site to have a coordinator to manage the two systems' operations and address any problems that arise," said the executive director of the city board, Marcus Cederqvist, in testimony at a recent City Council budget hearing.

All these additional workers will cost money. Cederqvist testified that 8,600 new poll workers would cost the city $1.7 million per election. This assumes that each poll worker receives the current stipend of $200 per Election Day worked, as well as a proposed increase for completing training and a bonus for working all elections in a given cycle. The board expects the additional poll site coordinators to cost $234,000 for this year's September primary and November general election elections.

Improving Training

Beyond adding poll workers, the city wants to attract better trained people to staff voting places on Election Day and encourage them to keep their poll worker positions. To accomplish this, the board would like to increase pay and provide incentives so poll workers will take -- and complete -- training courses.

Poll workers currently are expected to go through a three-hour training session and pass an open book test before they work at the polls. While advocates have always seen training as essential to ensuring a well prepared and competent poll worker force, the new equipment makes training more important than ever, since poll workers will need to have a strong grasp of how the machines operate and how they can be used.

To accommodate the expanded training sessions, the city board estimates it will need 40 new adjunct trainers. These adjunct trainers will provide training to instructors who, in turn, are responsible for teaching the city's 30,000 poll workers and additional 8,600 ballot-marking-device poll workers. Trainers receive compensation for attending sessions where they learn all the necessary information. The 40 new trainers who will teach poll workers to staff the ballot marking devices will receive the current $200 for attending.

All together, the city Board of Elections says it will need to add an additional 760 training classes this year and will hold a total of 1,800 classes for the 2008 election cycle. The additional classes will cost $166,000.

For the past few weeks, the board has been deliberating whether to renew a $800,000 contract it had in 2006 and 2007 with the Borough of Manhattan Community College to train adjunct trainers. Concerned that the college might have been over billing the Board of Elections for the training, the election commissioners decided not to continue the arrangement. "The commissioners did not feel the results justified the cost of training done through BMCC," said Valerie Vasquez Rivera, director of communications for the board. Instead the Board of Elections will use their best adjunct trainers to instruct other trainers. Bringing this training in house adds to the growing list of tasks the board needs to complete to prepare poll workers, poll sites, and staff for the arrival of the ballot marking devices and the upcoming presidential election.

Updating the Poll Worker Program

For years, advocacy organizations such as the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, the Brennan Center, Citizens Union, Common Cause, New York Public Interest Research Group, League of Women Voters of New York City, and the Women's City Club, have been recommending ways that the Board of Elections could improve poll worker recruitment, training and Election Day operations. With the new machines, the groups argue that poll workers need to be even better prepared and more accountable for what happens at the polls. Some have suggested that poll workers who fail the training test or who don't attend a training session be barred from working at the polls that year. Others have urged the board to hire younger, more technologically savvy poll workers who may be more comfortable with the new voting machines.

While the board has not welcomed all of these suggestions, in budget testimony this year, board officials did recommend a few ways to improve the quality of poll workers. To encourage workers to attend the training session, the board wants to raise the stipend for attending the class from its current $25 to $100. In Cederqvist's written testimony he notes, "The current low compensation for attending the training sessions is reflected by poor attendance." This increase would cost the city $900,600 for the new 8,600 poll workers and $2.3 million for the 30,000 regular poll workers the board employs on Election Day who also are expected to attend a training class each year they work.

At the same time, the board wants to increase the bonus poll workers receive when they attend the training and work at least two elections in one year -- a primary and the general election, say. Currently the bonus is $35 dollars; the board wants to up it to $100, for a total estimated cost of $2.9 million.

The most poll workers now can earn if they work the primary and general elections and attend the training is $460. The proposed changes would allow this same worker to make $600 for the election cycle, a significant increase. The board hopes that will encourage more competent people to apply to become poll workers and then attend training and serve for a number of years.

In total, the city Board of Elections is asking for an additional $10.4 million dollars to fund the additional poll workers, training classes and increases in training compensation and bonuses across the board.

Though many voters barely notice them, poll workers are key to orderly elections. They manage problems, educate voters and cope with confusion. All this will become increasingly important as the city faces a huge transition in voting, making it vital that the Board of Elections have enough poll workers and that they are properly trained.


State of the City

To many sitting on the concrete slab soon to be ice rink in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park's new recreation complex in Queens on Thursday afternoon, the scenery had changed, but the story seemed familiar.

Amid the sounds of planes going in or out of LaGuardia Airport every few minutes, Mayor Michael Bloomberg stood in front of the city's leaders, advocates and handpicked residents laying out his agenda for 2008. There was streamlining 911, creating a wireless system for first responders, lobbying for a DNA database, a call to keep last year's tax breaks, a charter revision and much more.

Many of the mayor's "new" ideas, though, were proposals he had made previously in some form or another, said some observers, and none had quite the impact or the buzz that the initiatives in some of his previous State of the City addresses had. There was no PlaNYC 2030. There was no overarching poverty initiative.

Could it be that Bloomberg has already tackled all of our most challenging urban issues? Has the lame duck swum his final laps? Or does the New York City mayor have his mind set on other offices?

"Keeping New York City and America at the front of the pack begins with an openness to new energy, meaning immigration, and to new ideas, meaning innovation," the mayor said. "That's how I built my business and that's the approach I've brought to a city government that was insular, and provincial and married to the conventional."

One theme did stand out during the mayor's seventh State of the City: A new urban technological revolution. It seems the technologically savvy mayor who changed the face of finance is going to continue to bring that perspective to the public sector.


The mayor covered typical urban territory, from public safety to education, from government reform to the economy. While some of the proposals may be controversial, such as setting strict standards for eighth grade students to move on to high school, and others may be praised, like the transition of 311 to the Web, many already have a history in the administration.

Other more novel proposals, such as taking DNA samples from every individual who is arrested, requires the approval of state government.

Judged on policy proposals, this State of the City lacked the impact of some of Bloomberg's other major addresses. In 2007, for instance, the mayor proposed a $1 billion tax cut and several sweeping education reforms and then announced PlanNYC about ten weeks later.

"It was in a sense a consolidating speech," said Douglas Muzzio, a professor at Baruch's School of Public Affairs, of this year's State of the City. "It was a legacy ensuring speech to move things toward their conclusion."

From the New York Post, which called the speech "modest," to political observers, many saw Bloomberg's address as aimed at politics, not policy. Much of the mayor's address reminded New Yorkers of what initiatives have already been approved and are merely awaiting implementation.

"Clearly beginning the last two years of one's term, the second term of a term limit, executive lame duckness sets in, no matter how many trips you take to Austin, Texas," Muzzio added.

Others, including the reorganization of the Board of Elections, repeated proposals made last year that failed to muster support. In 2007, Bloomberg called for creating a nonpartisan board that was not directed by the influence of political party bosses. He made the same plea this year, except said the administration would work with good government group Citizens Union, whose sister organization, Citizens Union Foundation, publishes Gotham Gazette, to form a coalition that would lobby upstate for the board's overhaul.


A year after Bloomberg entered office, he introduced the city's non-emergency hotline. But since then, said one official, he has not taken on technology as forcefully -- until last week.

"Up until now, he was always, through Bloomberg LP, known as the technology mayor," said Councilmember Gale Brewer, who chairs the council's Technology in Government Committee. "But he didn't have any technology, expect for 311. And today I think he changed that."
Much of the administration's plan for 2008 shifts successful initiatives of the past into a new era -- one that intends to grant citizens more access to their government through the Web, hopes to enhance public safety and improve the city's education department.

Technology and Public Safety

Many of Bloomberg's technology proposals focusing on public safety have been in the works for years, said city officials, and are just now coming to fruition. One creates a wireless system for first responders that, to the chagrin of some advocates, would be inaccessible to the public. Under the system, a fire engine heading to a blaze could call up the structure's plans from the Buildings Department while en route, thus cutting down on response time. Officials said the network, which has been being tested below Houston Street, coordinates communication among departments.

In 2008, Bloomberg said, "Digital 911" will also be kicked off, allowing New Yorkers to send photos via cellular phones to police. That proposal was in Bloomberg's speech last year. Bloomberg also plans to implement the streamlining of the entire 911 system, which will eliminate the need for operators to transfer emergency phone calls from police or fire dispatchers.

To cut down on crime, Bloomberg announced the creation of a database for firearm evidence -- the first in the nation.

Measuring Government Service

The administration's technological initiatives also focus on customer service. They would allow residents to track their 311 complaints online and create a performance reporting database to let New Yorkers track anything from response times for the Fire Department to noise complaints.

The administration will also link the internal data systems at more than a dozen city agencies, so residents will not have to give multiple agencies the same information over and over again.

That proposal, several council members said, was years in the making.

"Having those linked in some way will get people the benefits to all of which they are entitled," said Councilmember Lewis Fidler, following the mayor's address. "It is long overdue.

Tech and Education

To try to ensure that teachers are awarded tenure based on merit and not time served -- an objective of the Department of Education for the past year -- Bloomberg announced the creation of an online "tenure tool kit" for principals to measure teacher performance.

In response, Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, said, "The Web-based program ... speaks to the DOE's apparent reliance on technology to compensate for the fact that, under the current structure, there are few, if any, managers who can help principals make this decision." But, she continued, the move does not mark any shift in the city's policy on tenure.

The State of the City rolled out several other technological innovations for the Department of Education. A database on student and school progress, currently available to department employees only, will be made accessible to parents this fall. Education advocates hailed the move.

The administration's technological agenda also includes the use of global position satellite devices, currently used by first responders, to be tested on some school buses.


Harking back to his State of the City address last year, the mayor said his preliminary budget, to be unveiled Thursday, would include several tax relief measures, including continuing the $400 rebate for homeowners and a 7 percent across-the-board tax break. But the mayor made sure to say the breaks are tentative.

"Adopting it will depend on a variety of factors unknown today -- from the health of our economy to the continued help we get from our partners in state government to the outlook for future years after our administration has come to an end," said Bloomberg.

With Wall Street volatility and an uncertain economic future, Bloomberg said his administration is committed to spending cuts announced last fall, including a 2.5 percent decrease for this fiscal year and a 5 percent decrease for fiscal year 2009 for all city agencies. (Gotham Gazette will provide coverage of the city and state budgets next week.) Those cuts respond to a looming deficit in the short term, but, according to some estimates, they may not suffice in the long-term.

This month, the city's Independent Budget Office released a report forecasting a budget gap of $3.1 billion in 2009, of $4.6 billion in 2010 and $6.3 billion in 2011.

"He already started to prepare in October for a weakening economy -- things are more or less on track with his projection back then," said Doug Turetsky, spokesman for the city's Independent Budget Office. "So rather than saying OK at this moment let's go ahead, he's saying we probably have a little more time."

Taxing and spending may also hinge on Bloomberg's future plans.

"Should he choose to run for president one would think it unlikely he would want to do so days or weeks after calling for a property tax rise, especially when he has the means to buy time before having to make either decision," Turetsky added.

Though the cuts are uncertain, many council members expressed support for the idea. "If we can do it without harming critical city agencies and slashing budgets to where we are going to lose critical services, then that's fine," said Councilmember Leroy Comrie.


Though many proposals in the State of the City quickly garner widespread support already, there are always some that spark debate. This year that could well include his proposals to eliminate so-called social promotion for eighth grade students and the establishment of a charter review commission.

Though the administration has already set promotion requirements for third, fifth and seventh grade students, the inclusion of eighth graders has caused apprehension among some advocates and officials. It comes, said Kim Sweet, the executive director of Advocates for Children, amid growing concern over middle schools in general.

"We've noticed a significant number of eighth grade students who seem to be able to get out of middle school and have nowhere to go," said Sweet. "I'm hoping that this new policy will not make this worse."

The City Council Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson also hesitated to endorse the measure, saying holding back students may not be the answer.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the city's largest charter review commission -- when the Board of Estimate was disbanded and the City Council was reorganized -- the mayor is commissioning another for a full "top to bottom review."

"We'll consider any proposal that will improve the life of New York and New Yorkers," Bloomberg said.

That came as a complete surprise to some City Council members, who wonder what will and won't be off limits. Will the review, for example, include the city's term limits law?

"Council members looked at one another and were like 'oh,'" said Fidler.

While the 1989 review reorganized the City Council and created the position of speaker, some members said it was unlikely the new review would increase their role -- leaving them far less powerful than the mayor.


The mayor's proposal on DNA would take samples from any one who is arrested rather than only people convicted of felonies and certain types of misdemeanors. This has already elicited a backlash from civil liberties advocates. But first things first.

The proposal must be approved in Albany, and if history is any indication, it would be a hard fought battle. Last year, Gov. Eliot Spitzer could not get a similar but less sweeping initiative through the legislature.

In addition to the DNA proposal and the challenge to the Board of Elections, the mayor outlined several other initiatives whose approval rests ultimately upstate or in Washington. Among them are a gun control initiative called micro-stamping, which requires gun manufactures to produce weapons that would leave identifiable marks on shell casings. To go in effect, the concept would need an OK from the state.


Whatever their likely impact, the initiatives in the State of the City may not preview what might be in store at City Hall for the next 12 months and the time left in Bloomberg's tenure -- be that two years or just one.

Some of these proposals may never be heard of again. And with the Dow Jones plummeting or rising on a daily basis, it is difficult to predict what the city could afford come June, when the City Council approves the budget.

Either way, this week's budget address is sure to shed some light on that.

"To some extent these kinds of keynote addresses always leave you saying, 'Well, lets see what happens when the budget comes out because that's one way of telling where the resources are,'" said Marilyn Hoyt, president and chief executive officer of the New York Hall of Science, who attended the mayor's State of the City. "It's a very good prelude to next week when the rubber hits the road."


New Voting Machines May Not Meet State Standards

After years of discussion about new voting machines will the February presidential primary mark the last time New York voters use the Shoup lever machines? It will if the Justice Department has its way.

While every other state has transitioned to the use of new voting machines mandated by the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA), New York still has not complied with the federal law. Some experts argue that this has been ultimately a good thing because it enables New York to learn from the mistakes and mishaps of other states that have already started to use electronic voting machines. However, recent action by the federal Department of Justice may mean any lessons learned will be lost in attempts to force New York to get new machines -- and get them fast.

Obstacles to New Machines

Through HAVA the federal government required that by 2006 all states adopt new accessible voting machines that would, among other things, allow voters with disabilities to cast their ballots independently and privately. New York missed that deadline. Now on the brink of a presidential election as well as contests for Congress and New York State Legislature, the state still is struggling to find a machine that complies with its own stringent regulations, as well as federal requirements. The federal Election Assistance Commission’s suspension of Ciber, Inc., the firm hired by New York State to test the machines, further hampered the process.

After numerous delays and missed deadlines, the U.S. Justice Department filed a motion in November that calls for full implementation of new voting machines in New York State by September 2008. The latest move comes in the federal government’s ongoing lawsuit against the state, which began when New York failed to meet the January 1, 2006 deadline for new accessible voting machines.

As part of the suit, New York worked out an agreement allowing it to place one ballot marking device in each county so disabled voters would have access to voting machines that allowed them to vote privately and independently. That system also was used in 2007.

The State Board of Elections was to produce a new plan for HAVA implementation last month. Splitting along party lines, it submitted two proposals to the court. The one put forth by the board’s Democratic commissioners called for one ballot-marking device in every poll site by September 2008 along with continued use of the state’s lever machines. It also called for a new voting system by 2009. The Republican plan proposed continued use of ballot marking devices in 2008 and until new voting machines are selected and set no timelines for a new voting system.

Will Haste Make Waste?

Citing the state’s failure to produce one cohesive plan for implementation, the department’s motion calls on the court to either assume control of the machine selection process for the state or assign a party to do so. This would take control out of hands of the state Board of Elections.

State and county election officials as well as voting reform advocates fear the Department of Justice’s push for implementation of new voting technology by next September will force New York to buy voting machines that fail to meet state law. Local Board of Elections officials argue that implementation of an entirely new voting system in less than a year would be nearly impossible, as the boards would have to bring all poll sites up to standards to accommodate the new machines and train poll workers on how to use the new voting technology.

Some local officials are reluctant even to place ballot-marking devices at every polling location by the presidential election. The New York City Board of Elections has estimated it would cost approximately $40 million to put a marking device in each poll site across the five boroughs. Some advocates argue that the cost could pose a particular problem if a county eventually decides to purchase a voting system that is not compatible with the devices.

In addition, some legislators and advocates contend that forcing the state to purchase new machines with less than a year to prepare for their use could threaten the security of the voting process. Last month, City Councilmember Simcha Felder spoke against the Justice Department proposal saying the plan "to force New York to use voting machines that have proven to cause problems in other states is outrageous."

Groups like NYPIRG, Brennan Center, Citizens Union (whose sister organization publishes Gotham Gazette) and the League of Women Voters have also chimed in to caution against the hasty implementation plan proposed by Washington. The organizations argue that New York State has among the toughest requirements for voting machines in the nation. Compromising now by purchasing voting technology that has had problems in other states would not necessarily be the right move for the state and voters.

" I understand where they DOJ is coming from, and I am particularly concerned with the fact that the state has been so slow to ensure that disabled voters have the same opportunity that other voters do to cast a vote privately and independently as in other states," said Larry Norden of the Brennan Center. "On the other hand the wholesale replacement of lever machines with a voting system that hasn’t been properly tested seems foolhardy."

Many groups have echoed the sentiment that, while they would applaud an interim voting plan more accessible to disabled voters and would ideally like to see an accessible voting system that meets state standards implemented as soon as possible, using machines that do not meet the strict requirements in state law would be unwise, particularly during a presidential election.

With so many issues still up in the air and plans for new voting machines having made little progress in the past year, it is hard to know what the general election in 2008 will look like. As the months pass and November 2008 draws nearer, it appears increasingly less likely that New York will purchase new machines and have them operational for the entire state by then. "I don’t see the rationale for forcing New York to implement a plan that might create chaos on Election Day next year," Norden said.

For those New Yorkers who have been waiting to kiss the Shoup lever machines good-bye, you may have to wait a little longer.

Andrea Senteno is program associate for Citizens Union Foundation, which publishes Gotham Gazette.  
















Keeping Felons from Voting

In a scene from the documentary Election Day, Leon Batts, who has a felony conviction holds up his ballot as he votes for the first time in his life. Batts' vote in 2004 was ruled invalid because of a problem with his registration, but he has vowed to try again.


Last month, the New York State Assembly unanimously passed a bill expressing regret for New York’s role in the slave trade. The move was a recognition of the state’s history as much as it was an apology. “A lot of people don’t even think slavery happened here,” said its prime sponsor, Assemblymember Keith Wright of Manhattan.

But it did. Slavery was not simply a Southern affair. Neither were the laws used to keep former slaves and their descendants from the polls. Today, New York’s laws depriving some people with felony convictions of their right to vote serve as an ongoing, painful reminder of that legacy.

Currently, under New York law, people with felony convictions lose the right to vote while they are incarcerated and on parole. They can vote while on probation. (People on parole and probation both live in the community under supervision. In some cases, after a person is convicted, the judge can sentence him or her to probation. While this can include jail time, it does not have to. Parole is granted by the parole board to a person who has served some of his or her sentences in prison and is awarded for “good behavior.’) These felon disenfranchisement laws currently bar 122,000 New Yorkers from the polls. Nearly 87 percent of those disenfranchised are black and Latino.

Origins of Injustice

New York began disenfranchising its black citizens even before the end of slavery. At the 1821 Constitutional Convention, the racial motivations behind felon disenfranchisement were clear. One delegate urged his colleagues, “Survey you[r] prisons…and what a darkening host meets the eye! More than one-third of the convicts and felons which those walls enclose are of your sable population.”

In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed blacks the right to vote. That is, on paper. But for nearly a century, states across the nation — New York among them — continued to pass laws to prevent blacks from voting. Poll taxes and literacy tests are some of the more infamous examples of such efforts, but they are by no means the full story.

American history gives us many moments to be proud of. One was the civil rights movement, whose brave efforts led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. But while that legislation swept away most legal obstacles suppressing the black vote—for example, the poll tax—felon disenfranchisement laws remained on the books.

The Effects of Disenfranchisement

Nationwide, 13 percent of all black men cannot vote due to such laws: a rate seven times that of any other group in America. The story is nearly universal—except for Maine and Vermont, all states deprive individuals with felony convictions of the right to vote for varying periods of time. In New York City, where the criminal justice system remains particularly rife with racial disparities, the situation is especially stark. According to the Federal Household Survey, 72 percent of current illicit drug users and dealers are white, yet over 92 percent of those serving drug-related sentences in New York are black and Latino. And among defendants convicted of felonies, blacks are significantly more likely than whites to be sent to prison and denied probation.

In some areas in the South Bronx, where the Voter Enfranchisement Project is based, nearly one in five men—family members, friends, neighbors, and co-workers—will end up in prison over the course of their lives. As a result, felon disenfranchisement laws strip these communities of their most basic democratic right: a political voice.

Today, few, if any, Americans cite the need to keep blacks from the polls as an argument for felon disenfranchisement. The modern case for barring people with felony convictions from voting takes a different tact: that these people do not deserve—or cannot be trusted—to help make public policy. But if an individual has returned to our communities and is paying taxes, why should they be denied the right to participate in the democratic process?

Apart from their pockmarked origins, such laws fly in the face of the belief that our criminal justice system is grounded in rehabilitation. The right to vote is a cornerstone of democracy, one affirmed in other nations for all citizens, regardless of their criminal backgrounds. Among all Western democracies, the United States has the harshest felon disenfranchisement laws.

Ending Felon Disenfranchisement

A broad movement has emerged to restore the right to vote to formerly incarcerated people. In recent years, several states—Nebraska, Iowa, Rhode Island, and Florida among them—have elected to reduce barriers to voting for people with felony convictions. While attempts in the recent case Hayden v. Pataki brought before U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit to reverse New York’s laws on the grounds of discrimination were unsuccessful, similar suits are pending in Arizona and Washington state.

During his campaign last year, Governor Eliot Spitzer told the Better Ballots Voter Guide that he supported giving people with felony convictions who had been released on parole the right to vote. They have “been deemed fit to return to society, and deserve the right to participate in the electoral process,” candidate Spitzer said. That’s a step forward, but felon disenfranchisement didn’t change with “Day One.” In fact, the governor has not commented on the issue since.

Meanwhile, partisan deadlock in Albany continues to frustrate attempts to address even the most basic issues with New York’s voting laws. In 2006, a joint study (in pdf) released by Demos and the Brennan Center found that over one third of all election boards in New York disenfranchised even people with felony convictions who are eligible to vote by providing inaccurate information. Many of the boards, for example, erroneously tell people on probation that they cannot vote. During this past legislative session, the Democratic-controlled Assembly passed a bill to bring elections boards into compliance with the current law. Yet the majority-Republican Senate refused to introduce a companion bill.

As partisan politics continue to roadblock reform, the governor’s support for ending felon disenfranchisement is more vital than ever. Recognizing the injustices of the past is important but, given the persistence of discriminatory laws, it is not enough. As New York begins accounting for its role in the slave trade, we must continue to dismantle the legacy of racial discrimination at the polls. As an important step, the governor should issue an executive order restoring the vote to people on parole.

Te-Ping Chen is an intern and Maggie Williams is the Project Director of the Voter Enfranchisement Project at The Bronx Defenders


Encouraging Young New Yorkers to Vote

As high school graduates begin their summer vacations, are they thinking about who they will vote for in the February 2008 presidential primaries --“ and indeed whether they will vote at all? If recent voting trends can serve as a guide, probably not.

Voter turnout among 18 to 24 year olds has been on the decline nationally since the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1971. And voter turnout among young people in New York is not much different. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the 2004 presidential election, 49 percent of youth in the state voted, compared with approximately 60 percent of New York’s whole population. By way of comparison, in 1972, 61 percent of 18 to 24 years olds turned out at the polls.

And these trends are even more dismal in non-presidential election years. According to research by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, in the 2002 midterm elections, only 21 percent of New Yorkers aged 18 to 29 voted, compared to a national voter turnout of 49 percent and total voter turnout in New York State of approximately 44 percent.

To reverse the trend of declining voter turnout, legislation has passed both nationally and at the local level to encourage more young voters to register to vote. “Voting is the keystone to our democracy and it is imperative that we send the right message to our children,” said Councilmember Eric Gioia, a lead sponsor of a 2004 bill to increase youth voter registration.

But declining voter turnout rates leave one to wonder if in fact this message is being broadcast loud enough.

Graduate and Register

In 2004, Gioia introduced the Young Adult Voter Registration Act requiring, in part, that the New York City Department of Education provide voter registration forms to all public school graduates when they receive their diplomas. The bill unanimously passed the City Council and Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed it into law in July 2004.

According to the Department of Education and Future Voters of America, a non-profit organization that works to empower youth, registration forms are sent to graduates in their graduation packets, yet it is not apparent how many students fill them out and send them in. The forms are not specifically coded for tracking when submitted to the Board of Education, making it difficult to gauge how many high school graduates register to vote as a result of the effort. But a survey by Future Voters found that most students do not complete the forms.

“In many ways the kids seem to sense that the forms they get in their diplomas don’t have a lot of meaning because they aren’t educated about voting,” says Future Voters of America associate executive director Diane Gravicz. She suggests that in the excitement of graduation most recipients toss out the material. “Civics has been pulled from school curriculum and they don’t realize that this piece of paper is the key to their empowerment,” she said.

At that time the “Young Adult Voter Registration Act” was being debated in the Committee on Education, a coalition of groups, including the Black Youth Vote, Brennan Center for Justice, Citizens Union, Common Cause/NY, New York Public Interest Research Group and People For the American Way supported the bill but argued that distributing voter registration forms at graduation would not be enough to reverse the trend of declining voter turnout. They pushed for additional measures, including distribution of voter registration forms earlier in the year, perhaps on primary election day; and more discussions of civics in classrooms to inspire young people to be more civically active. Currently, these programs have not been implemented in the schools.

Registering Colleges Students

Among the state’s colleges and universities, attempts to increase voter registration on campus have not fared any better. New York State legislation implementing the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (Motor-Voter Act) requires that all public colleges make voter registration forms available to all of their students. Earlier this month New York State Senator Jeffrey Klein released a report, “Youth At the Polls: A Survey the Effectiveness of Voter Registration at New York Colleges,” on these efforts and found that many colleges and universities in New York fail to make registration materials accessible. The report’s findings show that only 8 percent of the City University, State University and private schools surveyed provided every student with a voter registration form either in the mail or in orientation packets.

“Voter registration is an issue of increasing importance as the country head into the 2008 election cycle,” Klein said. “Our young people are our greatest asset and if we don’t make a serious effort to teach them the value of their vote by making it as simple as possible to participate in our democracy, then we have disenfranchised them from their birthright as citizens of the United States of America.”

Klein’s report made a number of recommendations to improve current law and ensure that all young adults in New York receive a voter registration form when they become eligible to vote. His recommendations included passing legislation that would require the Board of Elections to mail voter registration forms to all eligible voters in New York State when they turn 18, and allowing people to register (but not vote) in advance – when they are 17. In addition, the report recommends ways to ease the process of registration by allowing eligible voters to register online and arranging free postage for voter registration forms.

Lowering the Voting Age

On a national scale, efforts like Rock the Vote, Choose or Loose and Declare Yourself all participate in a growing campaign to engage and educate young voters. A number of non-profit organizations around the city have been pushing for civics education in schools as well as a greater awareness among young people about exercising their political rights and being an educated and active citizen. Some advocates say that targeting young voters early is one of the most effective ways to create a vibrant democracy.

“All of the research shows that we build citizens during the developmental years of high school because most kids are still home and they are attached to the teachers,” said Gravicz.

To accomplish this, some advocate lowering the voting age in New York City municipal elections to 16 years old. Councilmember Gale Brewer was introduced a bill to this effect in 2006. Coupled with comprehensive civics education, proponents believe this may be a more effective way to increase young voter participation as it engages voters at an even earlier age.

Turning Out in 2008

Graduating seniors who turn 18 before February 5 will have their first opportunity to vote for presidents in the 2008 primary. (Hint, hint, click here to register to vote). And with New York’s primary date moved up to February 5 each vote in New York will be much more important than it has been in past primaries — or so the theory behind the recent change of date goes.

While voter registration laws are important to ensuring that voters are able to access the polls and vote in upcoming elections, they provide no guarantee that voters will turn out on Election Day. Perhaps the opportunity to help decide who the next president will be provides incentive enough. We’ll have to wait and see.

Andrea Senteno is program associate and Melissa Mohammed is an intern at Citizens Union Foundation, which publishes Gotham Gazette.

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