Friday, August 27, 2010

The Full Face Ballot "Requirement" Rears Its Ugly Head Again?

On Monday night, the New York City Charter Revision Commission heard public testimony before it voted to place two proposals on November’s ballot. The final 2010 ballot questions are available here.

One element of the Commission’s decision that sparked considerable discontent was the way in which the Commission lumped the proposed changes into just two ballot questions. Several private citizens who testified earlier in the evening urged the Commission to separate the issues; critics said the format would confuse voters, discourage participation, restrict voters’ options, and possibly result in an inaccurate reflection of public intent. The Commission indicated, however, that the bundling of questions was an unavoidable result of the city’s new electronic voting machines. A Wall Street Journal article quotes Commissioner Hope Cohen expressing her belief that “It's unfortunate” so many issues are being bundled together because, “When you get 10 different subjects bundled together, there is a good possibility that you will like various items and not like various items.”

Why are the new voting machines forcing the city to bundle so many issues into just two questions? No one in the press accounts we’ve read has said, but we think we know – it probably has less to do with the new machines, than requirements the State Board put in place for the machines: New York’s “full face ballot requirement,” requires that all contests and questions be placed on a single page. The result is that – unlike with lever machines, which had room for many questions – the Charter Revision Commission must come up with questions that won’t run over to a second page. Breaking up the issues into many questions may make it impossible to meet this requirement.

We have previously blogged about the requirements of New York’s so-called full-face ballot law, as well as the pitfalls of full-face ballots. In 2005 the Brennan Center analyzed the applicable provisions of New York State election law and provided a legal memorandum urging the State Board of Elections to revise its interpretation of the provision and thereby allow New York State to purchase machines with more flexibility, which would allow for better ballot design and more usable ballots.

Monday, August 23, 2010

New Yorkers (and others) Speak out on New Yorks' Horrible Ballot Design

In yesterday's New York Times, City Critic Ariel Kaminer did a great job detailing some of the challenges New Yorkers will face when using our new voting machines this fall, and in particular highlighting the lousy interface that "informs" voters if it can't read their paper ballot because it believes they've selected too many candidates. We've blogged on this before, of course.

The Times has also taken on another important design issue that will impact the experience of voters this fall, and it's another topic that is near and dear to our hearts: New York's ridiculous requirements for the design of paper ballots, which makes them far more confusing and difficult to use than paper ballots almost anywhere else in the United States. The Times asked for suggestions for improvements to these design requirements and has received some very interesting and useful suggestions.

We encourage our readers to stop at the Times site and submit suggestions of their own. It may be too late to make changes for this election, but we'll be pushing the State Legislature to make changes to ensure better design in future elections next fall.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

New York Passes Two Landmark Democracy Reforms

This summer the New York legislature took decisive action to create two important policy reforms: requiring that people in prison be allocated to their home communities for redistricting purposes; and requiring criminal justice agencies to provide voting rights information to people who are again eligible to vote after a felony conviction. While Albany has long been labeled “dysfunctional,” these particular reforms actually stand to make aspects of our state government models for democratic fairness and participation.

Both proposals are long overdue and have been introduced again and again and again, and both have garnered strong support in the legislature. Nevertheless, political wrangling repeatedly stymied their progress. This year, democracy trumped politics. Well, not quite. The legislation was pushed through in the budget revenue bill with no public hearing or debate. We will continue to criticize Albany for passing legislation behind closed doors with no opportunity for public input. But that’s for another post. Here, we hail the result.

The first reform assures that long under-represented communities have a full and fair voice in our state government. At present, incarcerated individuals are counted for federal Census purposes as residents where they are incarcerated rather than as residents of their home communities. In New York, where people are often imprisoned far from home and incarceration rates have skyrocketed in the last decade, this policy has produced increasingly harmful results. Public officials in prison districts have an incentive to build their districts on the backs of “ghost voters,” packing in prisoners who count toward the district size but who are not permitted to vote. So while officials who profit from the prison economy have an outsized voice in incarceration policy, the voting strength of the home communities – to which the vast majority of incarcerated people return – is diluted, resulting in under-representation in our state government.

The new legislation requires the Department of Correctional Services to provide the legislature with the necessary information to determine the home addresses for people in prison, and it instructs that incarcerated people should be allocated back to their home communities for redistricting purposes. This corrects a skew that has decimated the voting strength of poor and minority communities for decades, and assures that all communities in New York have equal representation and an equal voice in our government. Both Maryland and Delaware recently passed similar legislation.

The second policy reform is no less urgent. It will correct years of misinformation, promote successful reintegration and help protect public safety, while building civic participation among traditionally disenfranchised communities. Reliable information about voting rights is needed to address widespread, persistent, and well-documented misinformation in New York. Under New York law, people convicted of a felony lose the right to vote while in prison and parole. People on probation do not lose the right to vote. Once someone serves his maximum prison sentence or is discharged from parole, his right to vote is automatically restored. He need do nothing more than fill out a voter registration form like everyone else. Nevertheless, New York election officials have consistently misapplied the law and some have required people to provide unnecessary (and sometimes nonexistent) paperwork before being allowed to register. Not surprisingly, this confusion among election officials has affected the public. In 2005, researchers found that nearly 30% of people with criminal convictions surveyed in New York thought they would never be eligible to vote again.

New York’s new law is the latest in a national trend. Twenty-four other states and New York City already require certain state and local agencies to inform people when their voting rights are restored following a criminal conviction. It is a simple, workable policy that promises to have a major impact in assuring successful reintegration and reduced recidivism. Last year a retired New York parole chief testified before the New York Senate Elections Committee, “having the right to vote and learning how to exercise that right gives one a voice and a stake in the community; it promotes positive behavior and serves as a powerful conduit for making the transition from criminal to becoming a law abiding member of the community.”

The political jousting and escalating rhetoric of this seemingly endless New York budget season have been baffling, and at times excruciating. But this legislation shows that sometimes behind the shenanigans important policy reforms can be achieved. These two proposals in particular have the potential to make at least some aspects of our representative government a model for the rest of the country, and that’s not something we say lightly.

--Erika Wood

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Non-Partisan Elections

Just a few short weeks ago, it looked like the issue of non-partisan elections was dead for the City Charter Revision Commission. In the past few days, however, there appeared to be a serious pushback -- claims of its demise were said to be premature. Just yesterday, the City Charter Revision Commission devoted most of its Staten Island hearing to whether non-partisan elections should be placed on the ballot this fall, to the apparent chagrin of many in attendance.

The Brennan Center outlined its position on non-partisan elections in a letter to the Charter Revision Commission in early July: given that this issue was put to the people of New York City just a few years ago -- and that it was soundly defeated after many groups, including the Brennan Center, argued that the existing evidence suggested that non-partisan elections could have adverse impacts on poor voters, communities of color and voter turnout -- that it should not be put on the ballot again unless the Commission could produce a persuasive body of research that convincingly shows it would not have these negative impacts. Further, we noted, that evidence must be provided to the public with an opportunity for adequate review and comment. So far, we have not seen that kind of evidence.

As NYPIRG noted in its statement yesterday, we are now just three months away from election day -- there is even less time for a thorough public review of whatever empirical, scientifically valid arguments there might be in favor of such a dramatic change to the way New Yorkers select their representatives. Suddenly changing its recommendation and attempting to rush non-partisan elections "through in the dog days of August guarantees a needlessly rancorous and divisive fall for the work of [the] Commission."