New York, NY – A legislative package of 11 bills and resolutions aiming to improve elections and civic engagement through increasing voter information, additional language access, expanding the franchise and improving election administration were heard yesterday in the Committee on Governmental Operations, chaired by Council Member Ben Kallos. Many of the bills in the package were highlighted in Speaker Melissa Mark-Vivierto’s State of the City.
U.S. voter turnout in recent elections has been staggeringly low. 53.6% of eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2012 presidential election and 36.4% in the 2014 midterm elections, the lowest rate since 1942. In New York State, the number is even lower, with turnout of only 29% in the 2014 midterms, making it 49th in the nation for voter participation. In New York City, the turnout rate for that election was an historic low of 20%.
Voter information legislation would offer email and text reminders, mail voter histories, notify voters when poll sites moved during preceding four years, and provide a voter guide for all elections. Language access legislation would offer that voter guide in additional languages and mandate Russian language interpreters. Resolutions to expand the franchise seek to restore voting rights to parolees and designate a day for student voter registration. Legislation to improve the election administration would consolidate primaries, allow in person early voting, and requests that the Board of Elections allow poll workers to work 8 hour shifts instead of 16 hours or longer. Taken together, these changes hope to improve the democratic process ahead of this year’s Presidential election.
This package of legislation builds upon those previously heard in March of 2014 and October 2015, Introduction 659, that would provide a voter information portal to track absentee ballots, view voting history, find poll sites and verify registration status as well as Introduction 628, that amends the Young Adult Voter Registration Act to require registration of high school seniors during class time.
“We need a voting process that encourages greater participation,” said Council Member Ben Kallos, Chair of the Committee on Governmental Operations. “This package of legislation ensures that New York City’s voting process is transparent, inclusive, and adaptable to new technologies. By opening up the process to more voters, we are one step closer to a City that has a more inclusive voting process which aims at strengthening civic engagement.”
The legislation being heard:
Introduction 848-2015 by Torres - Requires the Board of Elections in the City of New York (BOE) to annually mail each voter his or her voting history;
Introduction 463-2014 by Vaccca - Requires the BOE to provide electronic reminders to voters about poll site locations, hours, and upcoming elections;
Introduction 504-2014 by Eugene - Requires the New York City Campaign Finance Board (“CFB”) voter guide to include information about candidates for federal, state, and county offices;
Introduction 62-2014 by Garodnick - Requires the BOE to place notices on all discontinued poll sites to direct voters to their proper poll site;
Introduction 255-2014 by Eugene - Requires the CFB’s voter guide to be translated and published in additional languages;
Resolution 390-2014 by Treyger - Requires the BOE to have Russian-language interpreters at certain poll sites.
Expanding the Franchise:
Resolution 870-2015 by Rodriguez and Wills - Calls upon the State to restore the voting rights of convicted felons after they have served their prison sentence;
Resolution 281-2014 by Rosenthal - Calls upon the Mayor to designate an annual Student Voter Registration Day;
Improving Election Administration:
Resolution 232-2014 by Kallos - Calls upon the State to consolidate the various primary elections for federal, state, and local elections into one day;
Resolution 553-2015 by Cabrera - Calls upon the State government to allow a period of in-person voting prior to Election Day;
Resolution 384-2014 by Levine - Calls upon the State to allow poll site workers 8 hour shifts, half of the 16 they currently work; and
“The rate of voter turnout in New York is among the lowest of any U.S. state. Legislation to allow New Yorkers to vote early would go a long way in increasing voter engagement, decreasing wait times at polling places, and expanding access for voters who have difficulty coming out to vote for a variety of reasons. I am grateful to Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito for her support for this issue, and I look forward to seeing Resolution 553 enacted. I am confident that our democracy will be strengthened by an allowance for early voting,” said Council Member Fernando Cabrera.
"Voting is an important right—but New York’s voter turnout rate is abysmal. We must examine our policies and do whatever it takes to make voting easier for the men and women in our diverse city. My bills Int. 255 and Int. 504 would help empower voters," said Council Member Mathieu Eugene. "Int. 255 would require the voter guide published by the New York City Board of Elections to be published in at least seven of the top languages spoken in the city, in addition to English and Spanish. Int. 504 would require the voter guide published by the New York City Board of Elections to include information about contested federal, state, and county elections, in addition to requiring that voter guide information be available online. By providing information to New Yorkers and by doing so in their preferred language, we are giving all New Yorkers an equal opportunity to vote."
"It is unacceptable that every Election Day, some people go to their ordinary polling place to find that it has disappeared," said Council Member Dan Garodnick. "It's time to eliminate these unnecessary obstacles to the right to vote."
“My legislation would allow for last minute and emergency announcements, which will ensure that New Yorkers are able to vote when an unforeseen circumstance, such as a natural disaster or local emergency, prevents voting at a regular polling place,” said Council Member James Vacca, Chair of the Committee on Technology. “I have long been an advocate for using technology to increase access to voting or voting information in any way possible, and I look forward to these proposals becoming a reality.”
“Half-day work shifts for election inspectors will provide them relief and offer even more New Yorkers the opportunity to participate on election days,” said Council Member Mark Levine. “Our elections can only be enhanced when we foster broad based participation, and shorter work shifts would advance that approach. This step, along with other measures to expand opportunities to join the democratic process will serve to strengthen our elections and improve public trust.”
“The right to partake in the process of selecting one’s leaders rather than having them chosen for you has been a motivating factor for so many immigrants deciding to make a life in the United States. Speaking a native language other than English should not be an impediment to any citizen who wishes to exercise their American right and duty to participate in the electoral process. For many native Russian speakers, this has not always been the case. While we offer interpreters and translated materials at voting sites in many languages, Russian is not among them. This enduring problem potentially alienates and disenfranchises a large segment of the city’s population," said Council Member Mark Treyger of Brooklyn. "Every voting site should include materials and translation services for Russian-speaking voters. As the first Russian-speaking Council Member in New York City’s history, and the child of Russian-speaking immigrants, I am cognizant of the incredible contributions made to this City by the Russian-speaking community. They have already contributed so much. They should be able to contribute to the electoral process, as well.”
Community advocates who are engaged and fighting for many causes understand the voting process better than most; they also understand how important it is for all people who want to participate in the process to get a chance to do so. Prudence Katze, Research & Policy Manager for Common Cause/NY reacted to the proposed legislation by saying:
"Common Cause/NY thinks it's appropriate for the New York City Council to direct the Board of Elections on policy since it has jurisdiction over public tax dollars. These are obvious, common sense reforms that would make it easier for people to exercise their democratic right to vote."