Monday, March 31, 2008

Public Financing for New York and Congress

Today's Buffalo News ponders the qualifications for congressional candidates, concluding that a willingness to throw at least a few hundred thousand dollars at the race doesn't hurt. They report that at least 8 wealthy western New Yorkers have their personal checkbooks out on both the Republican and Democratic sides to replace outgoing Republican Congressman Tom Reynolds.

Millionaire candidates, like those quoted in the BN story, often argue that self-financing means that, if elected, they are beholden to no one. But others contend that self-financing severs the important ties between candidates and local interests that are represented by campaign donations.

As I've argued elsewhere, public financing is a healthier way to insulate candidates from the corrupting influence of campaign contributions while still retaining their connection to the voters. In full public financing systems, candidates become eligible for a public grant by collecting a number of small qualifying contributions, thereby demonstrating their strength as candidates and freeing them from endless fundraising. In partial public financing schemes, candidates must still do some fundraising, but public matching funds encourage them to collect small contributions as they connect with voters, rather than relying on big donors.

Public financing is an important idea to consider on both the state and federal levels as the impression of individuals and special interests buying elections continues to grow.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Tough Budget Decisions

Even in the best of times, brokering a deal on the state budget is tough. These, it goes without saying, are not the best of times.

Reeling from weeks of scandal and facing revenue shortfalls, New York officials are scrambling to make a deal on the budget before the April 1st deadline. This morning's New York Times notes that even items with considerable support from lawmakers, like legislative pay raises, are falling by the wayside.

It might seem, then, that Chief Judge Judith Kaye's advocacy of judicial pay raises in today's Times Union is a bit ill-timed. But according to contributors to this NPR piece, there is an argument to be made that the judiciary shouldn't suffer the same pinch as other agencies and programs during an economic downturn. Raising fees, which seems like a reasonable way to compensate for budget shortfalls, is a much more serious prospect in the judicial context because it limits the access to justice New Yorkers expect as a right. Court administrators also argue that court workloads increase during tough economic times (think: subprime foreclosure proceedings).

Certainly food for thought as we consider this year's belt-tightening.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Blair's Back

We know we're a day or three late on this, but we wanted to make sure to add our voices to those welcoming Blair Horner back to the ranks of the goo goos. After doing a bang-up job getting the Attorney General's Project Sunlight off the ground, Blair is returning to his post at NYPIRG.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Return of the Living Full-Face DREs

They're BAAAAAAAACK! Like every horror movie you've ever seen, the full-face touchscreen electronic voting machines (knowns as "DREs" or "Direct Recording Electronic" machines) just will not die in New York State.

As you may recall, as of February 19, it looked like every county save one (Hamilton, New York's smallest) had decided to go with ballot marking devices for this fall, and would purchase paper ballots and optical scan machines (which read the paper ballots) for 2009.

This seemed to be a stunning defeat for Liberty, the company looking to sell touch-screen machines in New York. But, even though orders were put into the Board, and even though (as far as we know) contracts have been signed for non-DRE systems, Liberty seems to be making something of a comeback -- or trying anyway.

From Bo Lipari of New Yorkers for Verified Voting, we learn that Cattaraugus County has asked the State Board to cancel its orders for ballot marking devices. Instead, it wants to buy DREs to replace lever machines ENTIRELY for this fall.

Bo Lipari tells me he is concerned that this is just the tip of the iceberg. That Liberty may be making preparations to sue the State to allow DREs to replace lever machines in many counties this fall (right now, all counties are planning to purchase only one accessible machine per polling place, and to keep the lever machines through 2009).

I'm a little skeptical that, even if this is Liberty's plan, it will be successful. I can't believe that these machines could possibly be certified to New York's rigorous standards in time for the September primary, or even November general election.

But part of me feels like I've seen this horror movie before -- and the voting machine vendors should never be counted out.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Sunshine Week Do Over?

Did you know that this week was "Sunshine Week" in New York? Um, either did we, until we noticed this item in Politics on the Hudson.

I guess we've been distracted by other New York news over the past week or so. Given that sunshine, transparency, and openness in government are kind of what we're all about here, I'm also guessing that if we missed it, so did almost everyone else.

Perhaps we should have a Sunshine Week Do Over?

Monday, March 17, 2008

Open Letter to Governor Paterson

Dear Governor Paterson,

Today, thanks to an orderly, if hurried, transition, the business of people of New York, more than 19 million, will continue with you as our new governor.

With great hope and expectation, you were part of a ticket that swept into office 14 months ago on the crest of an overwhelming majority and the promise of breaking Albany’s disappointing tradition of dysfunction.

Governor Spitzer’s first State of the State address—day one in Albany—set lofty goals on many fronts. Day one, year two was notable more for what was omitted: campaign finance and lobbying reform and non-partisan redistricting were among the reform initiatives seemingly cast aside with the ebb of civility and cooperation.

While we don’t expect the skies above the Capitol to open and celestial choirs to emerge singing “I Love New York,” we have renewed hope that your ascendancy will mean a return to the mandate for change.

Perhaps it's more fitting to reference another state symbol, our motto: Excelsior! Or, Ever Upward.


Reform New York

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Voting Rights Notification and Registration Act

The U.S. Senate’s passage by unanimous consent on Wednesday of the Second Chance Act of 2007, which funds states and non-profits to provide job training and other support services to the population leaving prison, demonstrated that progressive reentry policies can unite both sides of the aisle. It also reminded us of recent progress here in New York to ease the reintegration of former offenders back into the community.

Like the Second Chance Act, which had active support from prominent senators from both parties, a New York bill dealing with notifying former offenders about their right to vote seems to have similarly risen above the political fray. The Voting Rights Notification and Registration Act enjoys a Democratic sponsor in the Assembly, Rep. Keith Wright, and a Republican sponsor in the Senate, Sen. Dale Volker.

The bill aims to correct the de facto disenfranchisement of thousands of New Yorkers who have had criminal convictions in their past and are unaware of their eligibility to vote. In New York, voting rights are restored upon completion of maximum prison or parole sentence, while the right to vote is never lost by those on probation, in jail awaiting a conviction, or convicted of a misdemeanor. But people who are serving parole sentences are prohibited from voting in this state, meaning that some people who are under supervision in the community are ineligible, while others are eligible to vote. This confusion about who can and cannot vote means that thousands of eligible New York voters sit out Election Day because they falsely believe they are banned from the rolls. The situation isn’t helped by the fact that county offices of the Board of Elections—the very place where the record should be set straight—have been known to routinely provide misinformation about voting rights eligibility. (A survey by the Brennan Center for Justice and Demos in 2006 revealed that nearly one third of the state’s county election boards improperly asked for documentation from former offenders before allowing them to register to vote, and routinely misinformed probationers that they were ineligible to vote).

The Voting Rights Notification and Registration Act would establish protocols to notify convicted felons of the status of their voting rights before, during, and after their sentences. Correctional and parole agencies would be required to provide voter registration forms to individuals upon completion of their maximum prison or parole sentence. The Division of Probation and Correctional Alternatives would become a voter registration agency, and correctional facilities would be required to aid in the voting procedures of qualified inmates. Furthermore, the bill attempts to clear the haze of confusion surround voting rights eligibility by tasking the Board of Elections with educating attorneys, judges, election officials, probation and parole officers, and the public about voting requirements and the new notice procedures.

As Glenn Martin of the Fortune Society pointed out in a recent El Diario op-ed, although efforts at changing the eligibility rules themselves have often failed in the Legislature, the new governor does have the power to change the law disenfranchising parolees through executive order. But in the meantime, we’ll take bipartisan support of the Voting Rights Notification and Registration Act as a step in the right direction.

--Jude Joffe-Block, Research Associate

Thursday, March 13, 2008

After Spitzer; NY Reform, Take Two

Cross-posted from the Brennan Center blog

The painful personal tragedy involved in the Eliot Spitzer scandal is obvious, and for other forums. In the storm of frenzied tabloid attention, I hope we don't lose sight of the opportunity that has been lost for New York—and one that might be gained.

Albany is notoriously broken. When the Brennan Center looked at the legislative process in 2004, we deemed the legislature the nation's "most dysfunctional." In 2006 we checked again and found little progress. Our report on New York's campaign finance laws was entitled "Paper Thin." Trial court judges are chosen by a corrupt system struck down as unconstitutional after a two week trial, but eventually resuscitated by the Supreme Court. Still, one Justice called the system a "stupid law."

Eliot Spitzer vowed to change all that, and he did try to do just that. I saw it with my own eyes. He earnestly pushed for campaign reform, for example, and would not sign the pay raise lawmakers craved until they passed some modest contribution limits. The Brennan Center hosted him to speak to a private meeting of business and civic leaders last spring. He was compelling and convincing. He proposed strong redistricting reform and opposed the status quo on judicial selection. As we know, little came of this reform push even before this week. Relations between the governor and the legislature soured. The joke was, "It used to be that decisions were made by three men in a room. Now you can't get them in a room." Spitzer's progress was hindered, in fact, by the reliance on that very closed system. Negotiations were inevitably conducted in private, without much chance to build public support. As a result, little public outcry occurred. By year's end, reform energy had been well and thoroughly drained. Reformers were reduced to waiting for the long expected but never quite materialized Democratic takeover of the State Senate. The Spitzer era ends with Albany and New York politics essentially unchanged. The power brokers must be laughing.

There is a chance, though, for a new start. David Paterson comes from a special place: he was the leader of the minority in the state senate. The Senate Democrats were always the most enthusiastic for rules reform of any faction in state government. Paterson is now in a position to make progress, using his far smoother legislative relationships. But only if he steps up to the task. He should resist the temptation not to make waves. Sure, he has to consolidate his power. But he must also consciously don the mantle of reform agent, and show that his smooth style will work better than the steamroller. Everything didn't change on Day One—it never could. But Day One of the Paterson governorship is approaching. We hope it will be the beginning of a new, true, reform era. Day One, Take Two?

--Michael Waldman, Executive Director

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

After Spitzer, Two Votes for Bruno?

Cross-posted from the Brennan Center blog

It may be an overstatement to refer to any state constitutional question as "interesting" in the wake of a nationally publicized sex scandal, but we believe there are genuinely interesting issues of succession following Eliot Spitzer's resignation. The New York state constitution (Article IV, Section 5) provides for Lieutenant Governor David A. Paterson to become Governor for the remainder of Spitzer's term, which ends in 2010. However, there is no provision made in the New York state constitution to replace the Lieutenant Governor if only that office is vacant. Instead, under Article IV, Section 6, in the case of a vacancy in the office of Lieutenant Governor alone, the temporary president of the Senate—that is, Republican Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno—"shall perform all the duties of lieutenant-governor," while still retaining his Senate seat.

Here's where things get interesting: the main duty of the lieutenant governor is casting a tie-breaking vote in the State Senate, known as a "casting vote," similar to the one the Vice President of the United States casts in the U.S. Senate. (Art. IV, Sec. 6 again). However, unlike the Vice President, Bruno would also remain a member of the Senate, enabling him to essentially vote twice when votes are tied: first, his full vote as a senator, and then, a casting vote wearing the hat of the lieutenant governor.

Given the competitiveness of recent Senate elections, it's increasingly possible that Bruno will be compelled to pull double duty. Though Republicans emerged from the 2006 general elections with a 34-28 advantage in the Senate, Democrats have narrowed the gap to 32-30 after capturing two GOP seats (Districts 9 and 48) through special elections. If the Democrats pull even with Republicans in seat share between now and 2010, they would still be, in effect, the minority party. Before the resignation, an even split would have given them control with Lt. Gov. Paterson as the tiebreaker, a fact not likely lost on a party that has not had control in the Senate since 1965. Even though the Dems won the Lieutenant Governorship in 2006, the Republicans will likely control the casting vote for the time being.

However, there's recently been some talk that the "casting vote" called for in the constitution can only be cast on procedural matters. Calling the vote a "casting vote" only means that it is a deciding, or tie-breaking vote, but different legislative bodies have given different power to the casting vote. In the U.S. Senate, any vote can be decided by the Vice President. But in the British House of Commons, the Speaker is only supposed to vote to hold further discussion. Interestingly enough, the Vice Presidency of the United States was modeled after New York's lieutenant governor post. But there's no indication in the constitutional text on whether the "casting vote" is for all votes, or just procedural ones, leading to some back and forth as to what the "casting vote" entails. In the words of one interested party, "The Constitution is clear, very clear. . . The Constitution gives certain rights to duly elected members. The lieutenant governor is not a duly elected member and is limited to certain procedural votes." Or so said John McArdle, spokesman for Majority Leader Bruno, just a week ago. The Dems, for their part, believe "it can be used for organizational matters, for procedural matters, motions made on the floor as well as passage of legislation." For now, the conflict is just hypothetical, but if it does come to pass, look for a fair amount of constitutional do-si-do.

The New York Sun noted another odd quirk in the New York constitution that might come into play with split control of the Lieutenant Governor's and Governor's seats: the Senate leader takes over anytime the governor is temporarily unable to perform his duties. In a provision that can best be understood as a relic of an era before air travel or the Acela, that includes any time the governor is out of the state. Paterson probably won't be taking any long vacations anytime soon.

So what options do the Democrats have if Spitzer resigns to hold onto control of the Lieutenant Governor's casting vote? The short answer is: very few. The state Constitution provides that "No election of a lieutenant-governor shall be had in any event except at the time of electing a governor," meaning an election for lieutenant governor would only take place if Patterson resigned as governor, creating a vacancy in both seats.

That new election can only take place at a general election, and the vacancy must be created not less than three months before that general election. New York has general elections every year, but the three-month window means that Paterson would have to resign by early August of the calendar year in order to trigger a new election. In addition to the incredible risk involved in running a new gubernatorial election in the wake of a scandal, there's also this wrinkle: during the three months before the election during which the governor's chair is empty, guess who acts as governor? That's right: Bruno.

--Renée Paradis & Kahlil Williams

Monday, March 10, 2008

Legislators Should Receive Equal Base Allocations of Staff and Resources

Senate Deputy Minority Leader Jeff Klein thinks Democrats should throw a bone to ousted Republicans if his party takes over the Senate this fall, but a bone is about all he's willing to give up. Liz Benjamin at the Daily Politics reports that while he would advocate generally fairer treatment of a new Republican minority, "Klein rejected the idea of 50/50 power sharing with minority members heading committees and receiving exactly the same in lu-lus and resources as the majority, saying he is loathe to completely do away with the 'to the victor goes the spoils' mentality at the Capitol."

We would agree that the majority in a legislative chamber should have the power to set the agenda, and fair allocation of committee resources demands that the majority receive a larger share. But we've seen both parties in the Legislature step way over the line when it comes to hoarding staff and resources for their side. Members of the minority are forced to try to represent the same number of New Yorkers with far fewer resources than their majority counterparts.

As we've implored the Republicans to do during their tenure in the Senate majority, we urge the Democrats, if they take over the chamber in November, to completely equalize the staff and resources available to individual members and allocate committee resources to the parties proportionally.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

No Fault Absentee Voting in New York?

We see that Assemblywoman Sandy Galef (D-Ossining) has introduced a bill that would make it far easier for New Yorkers to vote by absentee ballot, regardless of whether they were actually out of town on Election Day.

This seems like a good idea if it doesn't make it more difficult for New Yorkers to vote at their local polling places on Election Day. It does not appear that Assemblywoman Galef's proposal would do that.

At the same time, it should be pointed out that vote by mail is more complex than many proponents believe. Before implementing no fault absentee voting, it would be imperative for the State Board to do some significant study and implement proceudres to ensure that the post-office delivered and handled ballots equitably and appropriately, that voter privacy was protected, and that we don't have problems like this.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Andres Idarraga Votes In Rhode Island . . .

but thousands like him in New York cannot.

The Need for Comprehensive Campaign Finance Reform in New York

This is yet another example of the need for real, comprehensive reform of New York's campaign finance laws. Merely placing some limits on certain kinds of contributions, as is done in New York (though even in these cases, the limits are far higher than in most other states) merely means money gets moved to another category of "recipient" without eliminating the problems that campaign finance laws are meant to address: combatting real and perceived corruption in government, providing more equal opportunities for qualified candidates to run for office and for ordinary people to influence outcomes, and permit candidates to focus on policy and public service instead of on fundraising.

As our colleague Ciara Torres recenctly pointed out , only a complete overhaul of New York's campaign finance system will address the current system's shortcomings. In particular Ms. Torres and the Brennan Center have called for the following:

-- Reducing contribution limits in all categories;

-- Closing the corporate subsidiary loophole and the housekeeping account loophole;

-- Ending personal use of campaign funds by candidates;

-- Introducing thoughtful restrictions on contributions by state contractors and lobbyists;

-- Enhancing enforcement by increasing fines and penalties and properly funding the Board of Elections; and
-- Providing meaningful public financing to executive and legislative candidates.

Monday, March 03, 2008

What If There's a Tie?

The New York Times ponders what happens if there is a tie between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.

Daily News: Malcolm Smith Must Stand By Reform Promises if Senate Goes Dem

By now every political junkie in New York State has read countless news articles and opinion pieces about how the Senate appears to be leaning more and more toward a Democratic takeover. Today's Daily News takes this opportunity to remind us of Senate Minority Leader Malcolm Smith's past commitment to changing the way the Senate operates if voters put his party in charge. They write, "Smith must stand by the good-government principles he and his colleagues touted during their long years as an oppressed minority. It will be incumbent on him - as he has promised - to stop running the Senate as a dictatorship and bring small-d democracy to at least half the state Legislature."

We couldn't agree more. Last year, Smith and his minority conference proposed changes to the operating rules of the Senate, many of which the Brennan Center has touted for years, that would strengthen the legislative process and give minority members equal resources and a meaningful say in governing. Smith has since promised to make these proposals a reality in a Democratic-controlled Senate. The Brennan Center takes no sides in the battle over the Senate, but we fully intend to hold Smith and his conference to their reform promises if they take power, especially since changing the Senate's operating rules can be done at any time with only a simple majority of the chamber's vote.