Wednesday, May 10, 2017

NY Capital Rally for Better New York Voting Laws

A Group of about 150 New York Activists, Students, and assorted concerned Citizens from Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Syracuse had risen at an hour when most fellow City-Dwellers were still sound asleep, steeled themselves with coffee and muffins, and traveled to the State Capital in Albany as part of the “Vote Better NY” Campaign. The effort, now an annual Lobbying Day, was organized by the New York City Campaign Finance Board’s “NYC Votes” Initiative, which partnered with Schools and Civic Organizations like Dominicanos USA, CUNY, and the recently founded High School Progressive group Coalition Z.

It’s the fourth year of the Annual pilgrimage. To the chagrin of Organizers, the objectives this year are the same as they were the first: to Change the Laws around Voting so that Citizens can more easily register and stay Registered, and find it more feasible to actually Vote once Registered.

Those goals are put forward in proposals included in four Bills introduced to the Democratically-controlled State Assembly. They would need passage there, then in the State Senate, and to be Signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The New York Votes and Voter Empowerment Acts, sponsored by Democrats Michael Cusick of Staten Island and Brian Kavanagh of Manhattan, have some similar language; both would permit Pre-Registration of 16 and 17 youths and allow Government Agencies like Housing Authorities to automatically forward voter Information for Registration.

New York Votes would additionally establish: Same-Day Registration with a Constitutional Amendment, it isn’t permitted under the current State Constitution; Open Polls two weeks before Elections for what is known as “Early Voting”; expand Absentee Voting; Boost Polling place Resources and Training. Voter Empowerment would establish Online Voter Registration through the Board of Elections and Automatically Update Registration Information.

A separate Early Voting Bill, also sponsored by Kavanagh, would, in its current version, establish an Early-Voting window beginning eight days before an Election.

Finally, the so-called preclearance Bill, sponsored by Brooklyn Democrat Latrice Walker, would seek to replicate some of the controls previously contained in the Voting Rights Act before it was gutted by the Supreme Court. Counties where 10% of the population are Racial or Language Minorities or which have been found to have Denied Voting Rights to Protected Populations would need to submit any changes in Voting-Related Practical or Policy changes to the Attorney General’s office for Review and Approval.

The Early Voting and Voter Empowerment Bills both have versions in the Republican-controlled Senate. The former, sponsored by Democratic Conference Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, was passed through the Election Committee and has been sent over to the Local Government Committee. The latter, sponsored by Queens Democrat Michael Gianaris, was voted down, 6-3, in the Elections Committee less than 24 hours before the Activists boarded their buses, including a “nay” vote by one of its own Sponsors, Queens Democrat and Independent Democratic Conference member Tony Avella.

Yet what would seem like a deflating defeat was received with cautious optimism by Activists, who are happy that the Leadership in the Senate, “where these bills go to die,” was how one NYC Votes Staffer put it, were even publicly acknowledging the ideas.

“Having [Senate Majority Leader John] Flanagan even talking about wanting to know the cost of it is a change in the right direction. Last year it would have been a flat ‘no,’” said Onida Coward Mayers, the NYCCFB Director of Voter Assistance, referring to the Suffolk County Republican’s recent comments citing the potential Cost of Early Voting, while leaving the door open to continued conversations on Reform.

The day’s activities began with a Rally held by Legislators and Advocates on the steps of the Capitol building’s famed “Million Dollar Staircase,” where it was moved after rain scuttled plans to hold it in Lafayette Park. After that, the Group splintered into 11 Teams, each with its own schedule of meetings; the idea was to try to have each Legislator who had been open to a meeting hear from at least one of his or her own Constituents. “They’re much more interested if it’s someone from their community, because they know that person represents many more at home,” explained Coward Mayers.

Amanda Melillo, Public Affairs Officer at NYCCFB, explained that multi-hour lines dissuaded Voters from participating in Elections, the Staffer nodded and spoke of her own experience during last year’s Presidential Election, saying, “I was out there, I saw the last-minute rush. I understand.” While she couldn’t quite commit to the Senator sponsoring the bill, she promised to discuss it with her boss, and ended with the hope that “when we meet next year, it’ll be better.”

Melillo ticked off reasons why New York’s Voter Turnout is so low, 41st out of the 50 States in the 2016 General Election, with 57% turnout.

The issue of Voting Reform is a particularly sensitive one for Legislators, Coward Mayers said, because it “taps into their livelihoods. They want to be safeguarded.” If successful, the Reforms would shift their voter Base, empowering a whole slate of people previously not involved in Politics. That prospect can be frightening to elected Officials that can pretty much predict the comfortable margin they’ll be Reelected with under the current system. Incumbents in New York, where there are no Term Limits for state Legislators, do very well Election after Election, often running Unopposed or with nominal Opposition.

For the activists who gave up their weekday to show up at their doorstep, the Legislators’ reticence is understandable but misplaced. With “a few million dollars in a multibillion dollar budget,” as Melillo put it, they could bring hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers into the Political process. The State Budget that was recently passed totals $153.1 billion in Operating Funds.

NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker
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