Friday, September 29, 2006

Restoring Voting Rights After Felony Conviction

Assemblyman Keith Wright of Harlem held a meeting in his Harlem district last night to discuss several voting rights issues, including voting rights restoration for convicted felon, voter registration and stagnant voter turnout, and the upstate/downstate reapportionment divide. Organizations represented on the panel included the NAACP, The Legal Action Center, The New York City Board of Elections, and 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement.

Mr. Wright discussed his legislation, passed in the House, which would require parole officers, judges, and other involved in the criminal release/re-entry process to inform individuals released from prison of their restored right to vote. Though the bill places little burden on the justice system, the Senate has yet to act on the bill and seems unlikely to take action any time soon.

Some lively exchanges took place between Board of Elections rep Gregory Soumas and the audience, who pressed him on mysterious challenge lists that had allegedly been distributed to every election districts in the City to election officials to target voters. Another common complaint, shared by Soumas, was the lack of funding for the Board and the accessibility of voting information, particularly in low-income areas and communities of color.

Several audience members touched on the unfair practice of counting prisoners as residents of the New York City in the places that they are incarcerated, rather than the places the prisoners lived prior to being convicted. Because 75% of New York's prison population comes from the 5 boroughs, downstate suffers both on representational grounds, but on economic grounds as well. This was not lost on either the panelists or the audience.

Categories: General

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Assembly Redistricting Hearings

The Assembly Governmental Operations Committee held hearings on redistricting yesterday and Monday in Utica and Buffalo, with a hearing in NYC scheduled for October 17. At issue are three bills (A.624, A.2056, and A6287-a) that seek to alter New York’s redistricting process, which currently allows for a bipartisan gerrymander, giving incumbents the power to draw their own preferred districts and effectively eliminating serious electoral challenges.

Even though the lines won’t be drawn until after the release of the 2010 census data, it’s not too early to start raising the profile of the broken redistricting process in New York. It will be an uphill battle, and legislators, comfortable in their incumbent protection districts, will need all the pressure we can put on them to actually make a change in this entrenched system. Kudos to NYPIRG, Common Cause, and the New York League of Women Voters for pushing reform at the Assembly hearings, and we hope to see the Senate convene similar discussions.

Categories: General, Redistricting

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Last Days of Party Boss Control Over Judicial Selections

The Buffalo News notes that we've probably witnessed the final judicial nominating conventions this month, after the Brennan Center's successful challenge of this system in Lopez-Torres.

Why is this a good thing? James Sample, associate counsel at the Brennan Center has the answer: "The end of the current judicial convention system is a victory for democracy, for the rank-and-file voters who were excluded and for the candidates excluded by New York's party boss system."

Categories: General, Judicial Selection

Sunday, September 24, 2006

$85 Million in Opaque Pork

On Friday, Capitol Confidential noted that the Senate has made its $85 million member item list "public." As Capitol Confidential points out, there is nothing in this document to indicate which Senators sponsored or requested which items.

And why should the public have access to such information? After all, we wouldn't want to embarass anyone.

Categories: General

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

AIG: Case Study for New York's Toothless Campaign Finance Restrictions

If you didn't read the law too closely, you might think that New York limits corporations to $5,000 for any contribution to a single candidate. But as today's New York Times article by Mike McIntire makes clear, these limits are frequently and legally flaunted. The case study in this article is AIG, which has contributed over $300,000 to Governor Pataki and $50,000 to AG Spitzer through "obscure subsidiaries."

The supposed "purpose" of these laws is to limit the influence of corporate money on candidates. One has to wonder what possible limiting effect there is when a coproration through subsidiaries, can manage to direct hundreds of thousands of dollars to a single candidate. Why waste the paper the laws are written on?

It's worth noting that it's not campaign finance per se, but the usual dysfunctional way New York has implemented it that is the problem. Among states with campaign finance laws, New York ranks -- drum roll please -- at the bottom of the barrel.

Categories: General, Campaign Finance

Monday, September 18, 2006

Three Men in A Room

Last Week's ArtVoice gave prominent attention to former Senator Lachman's new book "Three Men in A Room," which gives a personal account of how dysfunctional Albany really is. It's a great book, and the Brennan Center's Lawrence Norden was honored to appear with him in two events in Buffalo last week: the first at the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership, and the second on a panel sponsored by the League of Women Voters and Talking Leaves Books. That panel discussion should soon be broadcast on WNED.

One of the things that struck us in Buffalo was the amount of energy there was behind getting the legislature to really reform. There is general agreement that there are four big problems with the legislature:

Committees don't function the way they do in other legislatures (for example, there are rarely hearings on specific legislation; as a result, the public and experts do not have a public forum to shape legislation the way they do in other states);

Leadership has total control over what gets to the floor for debate and a vote (so no matter how popular a bill is, it has no chance of passage over the objection of the speaker or majority leader);

There is no institutionalized method for conference committees (meaning both houses can pass similar bills, but unless the leaders agree to hammer out the differences themselves, nothing gets passed); and

Leadership has near total control over resources (this means, depending on loyalty shown, a legislator can have an extravagant amount for staff, mailings, etc., or have nothing -- not even phone service!).

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Friday, September 15, 2006

Let's Take Campaign Finance Laws from Flimsy to Formidable

A strongly worded editorial in the Times Union this morning challenges the state Senate to “put up or shut up” on campaign finance reform. As have so many other pieces of legislation, efforts to reform New York’s atrocious campaign finance system have passed the Assembly session after session only to be held up in the Senate. The Assembly’s bill seeks to lower the contribution limit, ban soft money contributions to party organizations, and set up a system of public financing.

We wholeheartedly agree that New York’s campaign finance laws merely constitute a “flimsy facade.” Though we doubt that the Senate will take up the Times Union’s call to action during today’s extraordinary session, we urge the Senate leadership to work with the Assembly to create a sound, effective bill to send to the Governor.

Categories: General, Campaign Finance

More Evidence of Vulnerability

On Wednesday, the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton released a study on the security of the Diebold AccuVote TS series of electronic voting platforms. The machines examined will be used by nearly 10% of registered voters in the November 2006 election, including all voters in Maryland and Georgia. The study found, among other things, that an attack on a single machine, which would change the outcome of a close election, carries a minimal risk of detection and that it can require as little as one minute of physical access for an attacker to install malicious software on a voting machine. Unfortunately, these flaws are not unique to the Diebold systems; all Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) machines are susceptible to similar attacks.

They conclude, though, that it is possible to build an affordable, reliable electronic system that contains adequate safeguards against malicious attacks.
Such a system would require not only a voting machine designed with more care and attention to security, but also an array of safeguards, including a well-designed voter-verifiable paper audit trail system, random audits and forensic analysis, and truly independent security review.
These conclusions come as no surprise to us. Our recent security report recommended, among other things, that states require audits of voter-verifiable paper records. We applaud the work of the Princeton researchers and implore states to consider these and other security threats when purchasing electronic voting machines.

Categories: General, Voting

Thursday, September 14, 2006

An Important First Step but a Long Way to Go

Tuesday’s primary didn’t bring many upsets, but it did mark an important first for New York: this was the first election in which many disabled voters were able to cast a secret ballot. The Help America Vote Act ("HAVA") mandated that states provide handicap accessible voting machines, and a deal cut between the U.S. Department of Justice and New York State required that one be available in every county for this week’s election (in fact, under HAVA, New York should have had one such machine in every polling place, but the state has been horribly slow in purchasing new machines).

The New York Times reported this morning that 580 citizens of New York City voted using 22 handicap accessible machines. The devices, in addition to having touch screens, are equipped with straw-like mechanisms that allow voters with limited manual dexterity to scroll through options and select candidates by “sipping” and “puffing.” Once the user has voted, the machine prints out a paper ballot that is placed in an envelope and inserted into a ballot box. The response to the new machines from handicapped voters was apparently positive; since Tuesday’s election, the New York Sun, Newsday, Capital News 9, and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle have all profiled disabled individuals who voted independently for the first time in their lives. There were some glitches: WHEC, a local NBC affiliate in Rochester, reported that a blind woman gave up on the handicap accessible voting machine available in Monroe County because the audio system wasn’t turned on. Fortunately, poll workers were able to rectify the problem, and the woman eventually returned to successfully cast her ballot. She expressed frustration but vowed to return in November.

The bigger problem was that handicapped voters were forced to travel such long distances to vote on the accessible machines. There's no telling how many people were disenfranchised as a result, but it probably easily numbers in the thousands. It's a shame that New York's disabled voters bear the brunt of the State's failure to comply with a federal mandate in a timely manner.

Categories: General, Voting

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Bring Wetlands Legislation to a Vote in the Senate

On September 5th, we noted that the leadership in the NYS Senate, namely Majority Leader Bruno, had finally loosened its iron grip on a piece of popular legislation called Timothy’s Law. After several sessions of inaction by the Senate, the leaders had reached a compromise, and the bill is set to come to the floor and pass by a substantial margin.

Unfortunately, the Senate is still sitting on legislation that would almost certainly pass if the leadership would actually schedule a vote. In May 2005, our report Lost in the Shadows: The Fight for a Senate Vote on Wetlands Protection Legislation detailed how a bill with major support from both the public and at least 49 of the 62 senators in the legislature failed to receive a vote in the 2004 and 2005 Senate sessions. WSTM, a local NBC affiliate in Syracuse, notes that the need for the legislation has become more acute in the aftermath of severe flooding in upstate New York last June; studies suggest that continued destruction of wetlands could exacerbate flooding problems.

As we advocated in our 2004 report, one of the most critical reforms to the dysfunctional legislative process in New York is the establishment of a mechanism for rank-and-file members to force a floor vote. In short, neither Senate nor Assembly leaders should have the power to thwart overwhelmingly popular legislation like wetlands protection.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Financial Disclosure in Legislative Races

Over the weekend, the Times Union reported that 20 candidates for legislative office, mostly would-be Assembly members, have failed to file necessary financial disclosure forms. As required by law, the names were released by the Legislative Ethics Committee after candidates failed to comply within 10 days of the deadlines. The list included 7 candidates from Brooklyn, 5 from the Bronx, 3 from the Albany area, 2 from Long Island, 2 from Manhattan, and one from the Buffalo area.

While it's great that New York requires legislative candidates to disclose their personal and business interests, these requirements are toothless without clear public enforcement. 20 candidates have yet to disclose their finances, in violation of state deadlines. What are the reprecussions?

Categories: General, Government Ethics

Friday, September 08, 2006

More on Lopez Torres

As we wrote on August 31st, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a ruling last week in the Lopez Torres v. NY Board of Elections et al. case, upholding a decision to abolish New York’s undemocratic process of electing trial court judges. Our own James Sample is featured on the Blog of the American Constitution Society explaining where we stand:

The Brennan Center’s position is simple. Whatever else the legislature may do, it must start first by seriously addressing the specific constitutional infirmities identified by Judge Gleeson and the Second Circuit. The decisions provide a combined 152 pages of analysis that will serve as guideposts for reform...Incremental reform measures are helpful, but New York needs the best of those measures and more. The state constitution requires a system in which voters have a meaningful say, and in which candidates who were previously excluded have genuinely meaningful access to the electorate. It is well past time to replace the last vestige of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall with a system marked by transparency, democracy, and openness of access. New York’s constitution requires it.

Check out the full post for a thorough examination of the possible effects of the decision.

Update: The New York Times powerfully echoed our sentiment on Saturday with a piece entitled Breaking Down the Clubhouse:

Some legislators, who have their own ties to political power brokers, will be tempted to make only small changes. Minor tinkering will not be enough to cure the constitutional flaws. The Legislature needs to immediately develop a process that is truly open to any candidate, and that gives voters the deciding say in who becomes a judge.

Categories: General, Judicial Selection

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Improving New York City Schools: Who’s Got the Power?

As The New York Times reported this morning, lawyers for NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg are arguing that he does not have the power to mandate reduced classroom sizes in city schools. A group of parents and teachers have collected more than 70,000 signatures in attempt to put the issue on the ballot in November.
The referendum would ask voters whether the City Charter should be amended to require the mayor to set aside 25 percent of any unencumbered funds received from the state through the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit and to spend it on reducing class size.

Bloomberg’s lawyers claim that the authority to spend any resulting money belongs to the city’s Department of Education, which should not be viewed as an extension of the city government. Proponents of the referendum, on the other hand, point to Bloomberg’s campaign in 2002 to gain mayoral control over city schools, arguing that the resulting law gave him, along with other prerogatives, the power to require the reduction of class sizes.

It is fitting that there is a fight in NYC over the power to spend money resulting from the CFE case, since the main constitutional question in the CFE appeal is whether the court even has the power to mandate appropriation of the funds in the first place. In our recent amicus brief to the Court of Appeals, we argued that it is appropriate and even necessary for the Court to mandate the allocation of funds because the dysfunction of the legislature has rendered any legislative relief unlikely. After more than 10 years of litigation, it is still unclear if, when, and how a sufficient sum of money will be appropriated to New York City schools to fix the constitutional deficiencies the Court has previously identified. We hope to see the Court issue an enforceable order mandating that New York State's government take the needed steps to do so, but I guess it remains to be seen who will be in charge of the money after that.

Categories: General

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Campaign Finance in NYC

Yesterday, the NYC Campaign Finance Board released its report on the 2005 elections in the city, finding that public financing has not done enough to level the playing field between incumbents and challengers. The report found that in an open-seat race, public campaign financing can foster competition by getting more candidates in the race. It determined, however, that incumbents have a greater ability to raise money beyond public financing, discouraging potential challengers from entering the race at all. A New York Times article this morning points out the discrepancy between the fundraising abilities of different candidates, noting that “[i]ncumbents raised an average of $161,000 last year, while challengers raised an average of only $31,000.” Based on its findings, the Board recommended several changes, including:
  • lowering contribution limits for all offices

  • prohibiting contributions from all organizations

  • lowering the spending limit for City Council candidates participating in the program, and

  • capping funding available to incumbents without serious challengers
    improving data collection on contributions from lobbyists and contractors

We hope the City Council will carefully review the Board's findings and recommendations.

Categories: General, Campaign Finance

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

At Long Last, A Little Compromise in the Midst of Dysfunction

As reported in the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin this morning, the state Senate is finally preparing to pass Timothy’s law, which would require New York State health insurers to cover treatment for mental illness and substance abuse. Insurance companies would not be allowed to charge a higher co-pay for mental health visits. We highlighted Timothy’s law in our 2004 report on the New York legislature as an example of a bill that has languished in committee for years, despite widespread public backing and majority support in both chambers. The Assembly has approved the bill in each session for several years, but the Senate has continually failed to pass a comparable measure.

We applaud the move toward compromise but note that this action is long overdue. When they come into session in January, both the Senate and Assembly should adopt rules making it easier for rank-and-file members to override leadership objections and bring popular legislation to the floor for a vote.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Friday, September 01, 2006

More on Voting Machines

As we mentioned, we REALLY don't like full-face DREs. Our usability study shows that voters find these machines more difficult to use and make more errors when they use them. The evidence is overwhelming and quite stark: many more races get missed when these machines are used. We came to this conclusion using the research of Dr. David Kimball, the pre-eminent political scientist and usability expert on this issue, and after looking at his data on several thousand counties over six years of elections.

That's why we found the comments of Robert Nothstein, county commissioner in Monroe County, PA, so unfathomable:

''There's studies on everything this day and age, and we don't buy all the studies that come across the table.''

Um, we suppose there's truth in the fact that not all studies are equal, but does that mean it's okay to ignore facts and just pick the voting machine that comes in the nicest color?

This doesn't mean that full-face DREs should be automatically rejected by jurisdictions in New York. There's a limited choice to be made, because the State Board foolishly decided it wouldn't certify "scrolling" DREs that operate more like ATM machines, and present one race at a time. And jurisdictions must consider many factors when choosing voting machines -- like how secure they are, how accessible they are to the disabled, and how much they cost.

But we don't yet have the answers to these questions. So why have some election officials already made up their minds about picking full face DREs? These machines haven't even been certified yet -- there are no bids, so we don't even know how much things will cost.

Categories: General, Voting