Thursday, November 29, 2007

100 Professors Give the State Some Advice

Following up on my previous post about the decisions still to be made on new voting machines, 100 of the state's leading university faculty have followed the lead of the Brennan Center and other good government groups and endorsed the purchase of optical scanners and ballot marking devices over the expensive, clunky and error-prone full-face touchscreen machines.

Sad Ending, or Beginning?

The Ithaca Journal has a spot-on editorial today entitled "HAVA lawsuit: Sad ending to an important process". Key graf:

No one wants a repeat of the 2000 presidential election, where we all learned more than we probably wanted to know about hanging chads and other debacles associated with voting across the country. And violating the civil rights of the disabled is no way to conduct an election. At a minimum, New York should attempt to get a voting machine that is accessible for the disabled in every polling place for the extremely important presidential primary Feb. 5. There is no excuse for hindering the ability of the disabled to vote.

In the long run, though, we find it hard to sympathize with the Justice Department's lawsuit for the state becoming HAVA compliant. Selecting political leaders is the most important process in any democracy. Our state's stringent rules were made tough for a reason — to protect the interests of voters. It's too bad a federal judge will have to help New York sort out our voting future.

My only quibble with this editorial is the headline. However Judge Sharpe (who is hearing the DoJ's motion) decides, New York is still likely to be at the beginning, rather than at the end, of the voting system selection process. Someone -- the Judge, a special master appointed by the Judge, the counties, or (most unlikely) the state legislature, is going to have to make the decision as to which machines must be purchased to replace our lever machines.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I.D. Sticker Shock

In New York City, we get used to sticker shock: $15 for a mojito: ok I’ll nurse it all night. Try insuring a car or even just parking it, forget about it—I’ll ride the subway. Rent for two human beings with walls and doors, oh that’s going to cost you— time to move to an outer borough. But recently I had a new source of outrage: the cost of renewing a NYS driver’s license.

At first my renewal process was swimming along nicely. I was at the DMV Xpress which for the DMV was moving along at lightening pace: my picture was snapped by the surly woman behind the counter who didn’t give me enough warning to even crack a smile, the eye exam was done to confirm that yes indeed the glasses that I wear every hour of every day would also need to be worn while I’m behind the wheel and only a full hour later I got down to the real business: whipping out my debit card.

“$50, ma’am.”
“Did you say $15?” I thought I had gotten off easy.
“No. $50. FIVE ZERO.” I choked. That didn’t seem right. But this is a basic form of I.D. I thought. Especially in the “new normal” of 2007 where not having a valid I.D. can cost a citizen her voting rights. I handed over my debit card. At least I’ll get miles on this transaction.

A friend of mine is a vice president at Greenwich Capitol. His birthday is two days after mine and so you guessed it, he also has a soon to be expired NYS driving license. He told me he was heading to the DMV soon. I told him to bring his check book. He was incredulous. “Fifty freaking dollars for a new license? You’re kidding! Maybe I won’t bother to renew.” But we both knew that this was a bluff and since I’m a lawyer and he is an economist we can afford the $50 hit.

But this is not true of everyone. $50 for an I.D. is enough to prevent many from getting one. This cost barrier may explain why only about half of New York City residents even have a driver’s license. And if a disturbing trend continues in which photo I.D.s are a prerequisite to voting, this $50 piece of plastic may act as a barrier to our most basic constitutional rights. This is one reason why making photo I.D.s a voting requirement makes no sense. People should not lose their franchise just because they don’t have $50 to drop on a driver’s license. Maybe they have other bills to pay, like that crazy rent which come January is set to jump even higher.

--Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, Counsel, Democracy Program

Monday, November 26, 2007

In Case You Were Wondering

Assembly leadership still has the power to bury a bill, even if it was drafted by Spitzer.

Some Interesting Facts About New York and Congress...

... from this Real Clear Politics post:

* 32 members of the current Congress were born in New York City, by far more than any other city in the Country.

* Congresswoman Slaughter's congressional district is among the 10 fastest shrinking districts in the country, losing 7.1% of its population between 2000 and 2005.

Monday, November 19, 2007

New York is no Nebraska

Last week, I spoke at a gathering of state legislators from around the country about post-election audits.

Before I spoke, I had lunch with a bunch of legislators and staff from various Statehouses (including, from what I remember, Connecticut, Nebraska, and Louisiana). Nebraska Senator Bill Avery told a story about how one of his legislature's committees had recently voted on a bill he'd introduced. Just before the vote, the Committee chair had said "I hate this stupid bill, " and it was promptly defeated by a 9-1 vote (with Senator Avery being the one "yes" vote).

"Wait," I said, "your Committee chair held a vote on a bill that he hated?"

Yes, of course, it was required, the Senator replied.

"And did you have a hearing on the bill beforehand?"

Again, of course -- it was required.

The others at the table looked at me as if I was a fool. I had to explain I was from New York -- where hearings and votes are bascially held at the discretion of a Committee Chair (and her chamber's leader). Of course, I already knew New York did things differently. But it was nonetheless striking to see so many from statehouses in other parts of the country assume that votes and hearings on bills would happen in any state legislative body, as a matter of course.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Sentencing Reform Commission Gets It Right On Voting Rights

For the first time in 40 years, New York’s hodge-podge sentencing procedures are poised for a thorough review and revision.

In March Governor Spitzer tasked the State Commission on Sentencing Reform, an 11-member body of law enforcement officials, state legislators and criminal justice experts, with creating a proposal for streamlining the state’s sentencing structure.

The Commission’s preliminary report, which was released last month, includes an enlightened recommendation to restore voting rights to people on parole in New York.

It’s about time. A quick peek into the history of the state’s felony disenfranchisement law reveals ugly origins:

Back in 1821, delegates at the state’s Constitutional Convention brainstormed how new requirements could be used to exclude African Americans from the polls. Their efforts resulted in Article II of the state constitution which imposed special property requirements on African Americans and established a felony disenfranchisement provision which the delegates believed would target African Americans.

Fast-forward to the present, and that same misguided felony disenfranchisement provision remains in tact today, and it has achieved its intended result: 87% of those currently disenfranchised in New York are Latino and African American.

The disenfranchisement provision not only makes election administration more confusing (Brennan Center surveys have revealed that even a good portion of Board of Elections officials get confused about who can vote), but also dilutes the voting power of New York’s communities of color.

On Tuesday, advocates and experts had a chance to give the Commission comments at a public hearing at the New York City Bar Association. (A hearing in Albany is being held today, and one is scheduled for next Monday in Buffalo).

The Brennan Center’s Erika Wood testified in favor of restoring voting rights upon release from prison and outlined how the Governor could change the current law through executive order.

The Commission recognizes that fostering civic participation is one way to facilitate the re-entry process, and that restoring the right to vote to people on parole is fundamental to that participation. Hopefully the Governor will heed the Commission’s wise counsel.

--Jude Joffe-Block, Research Associate, Democracy Program

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Truth About Voter Fraud

Remember those allegations of retired folks voting in both New York and Florida? To get behind the headlines on this and other fraud myths, check out the Brennan Center's new publication, The Truth About Voter Fraud, by our very own Justin Levitt.

Flashback to 2004

The Daily News reports this morning that Assemblyman Rory Lancman is working on a bill that would take away the voting power of MTA board members who attend fewer than 50% of fare-hike hearings. There are 16 MTA board members with voting privileges, yet only two or three members were present at last week's hearings.

It seems reasonable that an official should have to attend hearings in order to decide whether to raise fees, right? Well, we remember a time not so long ago when the rules of the Legislature didn't require our Senators and Assemblymembers to be present to hear debate in commitee or on the floor in order to raise our taxes or make any other changes to the law. Scary, huh?

Monday, November 12, 2007

If the DoJ Gets Its Way

The Daily News says the Department of Justice's proposed plan to force New York to abandon its lever machines by 2008 is a "disaster in the making." We agree -- with some important caveats about the need to provide accessible machines for disabled New Yorkers.

But what if the DoJ gets its way, and New York is forced to replace its machines by November '08? As Bo Lipari, Executive Director of New Yorkers for Verified Voting explains, the only rationale course of action would be to move to paper ballots and optical scanners, statewide.

Fair Elections Week of Action

Welcome to the Fair Elections Week of Action! In March, Senators Durbin (D-IL) and Specter (R-PA) introduced a bill that would create a public financing system for congressional campaigns, and this week, activists from all across the country will be participating in events to drum up support for it. Here in New York, local chapters of Citizen Action will be tabling at college campuses, writing letters to the editor, and contacting their state representatives to express support for public financing.

Go to to find events in your area and learn more about how the Fair Elections Now Act would restore public confidence in our elected officials!

Friday, November 09, 2007

A License to Commit Fraud?

In response to John Fund's column last week in the Wall Street Journal, I've got a short piece in the Huffington Post's "Off the Bus" section refuting the claim that illegal immigrants will be flocking to the polls to vote if Governor Spitzer's driver's license plan is adopted.

Here's a snippet: "The Wall Street Journal is known for its economic news and commentary, so let's talk cost versus benefit: by deliberately registering and voting, a non-citizen risks five years in prison, a $10,000 fine, and deportation. Simply put, by trying to influence the outcome of an election in this country, a non-citizen can be kicked out of this country. No wonder the Brennan Center couldn't find a single documented case in which a non-citizen, knowing that he or she was ineligible, registered and cast a ballot."

To learn more about the myth of individual voter fraud, check out the Brennan Center's satellite website, The Truth About Fraud.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

What if the Solution is Worse than the Problem?

I just got back from a press conference held by Councilman Simcha Felder, in which he and a bunch of good government groups (including the Brennan Center, NYPIRG, the League of Women Voters and Citizens Union) denounced the DoJ's motion to force New York to replace lever machines with some kind of electronic voting system by November 2008.

I'm somewhat sympathetic to the DoJ's position that New York cannot ignore federal mandates to replace lever machines forever.

But their motion seems to miss two important points:

First, isn't the federal government itself at least partly responsible for the delay? The Election Assistance Commission had serious doubts about Ciber, the lab New York selected in 2006 to test its machines. But it failed to mention this to the State Board when it chose Ciber. Worse, for weeks after Ciber's problems were broken by the New York Times, the EAC apparently continued to resist the State Board's requests to find out what the EAC knew about Ciber's problems. New York has been forced to hire a new lab -- that's all put the State behind by at least a year.

Second, isn't this a case where the solution is worse than the problem? Failing to provide disabled voters with accessible voting systems (lever machines certainly aren't accessible) is a problem. A narrowly tailored solution would appear to be to ensure that there is one accessible voting machine in every polling place for 2008. Requiring the wholesale replacement of lever machines with inadequately tested voting systems, and using them for the first time in A PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION seems like a recipe for a minor disaster: machine breakdowns, poll workers who are unfamilliar with the technology, long lines, and possible disengranchisment of thousands of voters.

Wouldn't it make more sense to wait until 2009 or 2010 to engage in such drastic action -- when occassional machine failures would be likely to do far less damage?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Why the Long Face?

Bummed about the ultra-low turnout we see during off-year elections?

You're not alone. The Politicker quotes a Brooklyn Heights voter: "Besides the depressing reality that the Kings County Democrats and Republicans had an identical slate of candidates for Supreme Court Judge, I was further buoyed in my faith in Brooklyn Democracy by being the 8th voter in my ED to vote at 8:30 this morning (an average of three voters per hour)."

This voter hits on an important point: turnout is boosted when elections are competitive and voters feel that their vote counts. With the gentleman's agreement between the two major parties in many jurisdictions to cross-endorse judicial candidates, it's no wonder turnout is low in an election in which judicial "contests" get top billing.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The DOJ Has Some Thoughts on New York's Next Election

The Department of Justice has filed a motion in its case against New York State for its failure to comply with the Help America Vote Act that is likely to make both the State Board of Elections and many reform groups extremely nervous. Most importantly, the DOJ argues that the State should have one accessible voting system in every polling place by September 2008 (a position embraced by the Democrats on the State Board and rejected by the Republicans), and should replace all lever machines in time for the November 2008 election (a position no one in New York seems to be advocating).

Perhaps just as disturbingly for the State Board, the DOJ states that "[i]n the absence of evidence of the demonstrated ability and willingness of the SBOE itself to make immediate progress toward these goals ... the Court may have to consider taking compliance out of the hands of the State and placing it in the hands of the Court or others appointed by the Court to achieve compliance with federal law." (emphasis added). In other words, someone other than state or local election officials may be making decisions about which voting systems New York buys.

The DOJ's most basic point seems to be that the fact that none of the machines currently comply with New York law is too bad -- the state must comply with federal requirements to replace lever machines ASAP.

Needless to say, some voting machine activists are outraged. I received this statement from Bo Lipari, Executive Director of New Yorkers for Verified Voting earlier today:

The Department of Justice has made an mind-boggling claim - that while New York State has a right to require far higher voting system standards than those set by the Federal Government, we have no right to demand that voting machine vendors actually meet them. . . . The DOJ would force New York to use voting machines that have failed again and again in other states, regardless of state laws designed to protect our votes."

Get ready for another big fight in the ongoing voting machine wars.

Friday, November 02, 2007

New Audit Regulations for New York? And What Happened to Those 600,000(!) Registered Voters?

The Brennan Center was one of several organizations to co-sponsor a post-election audit summit in Minneapolis last week. What is a post-election audit, you ask?

As every state in the Union but New York has now moved to electronic voting, legislators and election officials across the country are asking, what do we need to do to make sure the vote totals from these machines are correct?

The conference brought together many of the country's leading election officials, state legislators, academics, statisticians and activists to figure out the answer.

Among those in attendance was Doug Kellner, Co-Chair of the New York State Board of Elections, who has said he was inspired enough by the conference that he plans to review and possibly redraft New York's proposed regulations on the subject.

In an e-mail exchange I had with him after the conference, Commissioner Kellner had this bit of interesting information to add:

I am also going to be pushing for an internal NYSBOE audit of NYSVoter, which contains approximately 600,000 fewer voter registration records than the temporary system used last year. I want to make certain that, in fact, those missing 600,000 records are the result of duplicate purges or other legitimate reasons. I propose that we do this by random sample of the missing records, investigation of those selected records, and confirmation of the reason. I have not yet received a reaction from the Republicans.

There is no reason to believe that there was any error, but the whole point of auditing is to go back and confirm that the system worked properly.

We agree -- there's nothing inherently wrong with New York moving its elections into the digital age, but the State must take proper precautions, including conducting good audits, to avoid harming voters. Careless use of computer software and programs can inadvertantly result in massive disenfrachisement.