Testimony provided at the Voter Assistance Commission's Annual Meeting

CITIZENS UNION & CITIZENS UNION FOUNDATION REMARKS

TO THE NEW YORK CITY VOTERS ASSISTANCE COMMISSION

Annual Public Hearing of the NYC Voter Assistance Commission

 

Delivered by

DeNora Getachew, Director of Public Policy & Legislative Counsel

and Andrea Senteno, Program Associate

 

December 11, 2008

 

Good evening Chair Kraus and Commissioners.  My name is DeNora Getachew and I am the Director of Public Policy and Legislative Counsel for Citizens Union of the City of New York (CU), an independent, non-partisan, civic organization of New Yorkers who promote good government and advance political reform in our city and state, and Citizens Union Foundation of the City of New York (CUF), the nonprofit research, education and advocacy organization affiliated with Citizens Union. I am joined by my colleague Andrea Senteno, who is the Program Associate at CU and CUF.  CU and CUF thank the Voters Assistance Commission for the opportunity to speak today about the recent election. 

 

Now that the elections are over it is evident that much more remains to be done to improve the way we vote.  CUF made great gains in our annual recruitment of poll workers to serve in the city, and continues to push for effective election reform.  We would like to take this time to briefly highlight our activities this year and what we can do to prepare for the upcoming elections in 2009.

 

2008 Poll Worker Recruitment

CUF continued its effort in 2008 to recruit poll worker applicants willing to serve on Election Day.  Our 2008 Annual Poll Worker Recruitment Program lasted from May to October.  In total we recruited over 5,000 applications from more than 4,000 individuals.  CUF increased its applications from the Presidential Primary Election by 300% this fall, bringing the number total number of applications the organization submitted to the Board of Elections in the City of New York (Board) to over 15,000 since 2001.

 

As the city moves forward in its transition to new voting systems, CUF continues to focus its efforts on recruiting young adults to work on Election Day as a way to encourage an underutilized and frequently disengaged population who are more technologically capable to participate in the voting process in a meaningful way. Over forty percent of the applicants CUF recruited were college age students – age 24 or younger.

 

Continuing its efforts to ensure that poll sites are also capable of providing voters with much needed language assistance, CUF also submitted over 700 language interpreter applications to the Board. The number of submitted language interpreter applications increased by twenty-two percent from 2006 – with Spanish interpreters accounting for over seventy percent of the language interpreter applications and Chinese and Korean applicants the remaining thirty percent. Despite this increase, the number of language interpreter applications remains low in comparison to other election day worker positions, especially Chinese and Korean interpreters. CUF remains committed to ensuring that there is adequate language assistance at the polls by increasing its targeted outreach to bilingual applicants.

 

We recently sent a survey to all of our poll worker applicants, soliciting their feedback, which we will use to analyze the effectiveness of this year’s recruitment efforts, the quality of the Board poll worker training, and applicants’ experiences on Election Day.  We currently have received over 500 responses, and we look forward to sharing the results of our findings with you in early 2009.

 

Election Reform Work and Recommendations for 2009

As the State continues to work towards full implementation of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), CU continued its election reform work in 2008. 

 

During this exceptionally energized primary and presidential election New Yorkers entered a new phase of voting in the city.  For the first time, accessible voting was made available in every poll site in the State.  This is the first step towards the transition to new voting machines and the introduction of ballot marking devices (BMD) provided the City Board with the unique opportunity to test its systems and roll out a plan for the much larger voting transition it must execute next year.  Unfortunately, due to funding constraints, a detailed and extensive plan surrounding the ballot marking devices never was executed.  The initial plan provided for the placement of poll workers dedicated to assisting voters with the BMDs, which ultimately resulted in a substitute plan that required poll workers to serve dual roles of staffing simultaneously both the BMDs and lever machines. 

 

With the low voter turnout and striking lack of primaries across the city, many New Yorkers did not use the new BMDs.  Anecdotal evidence and feedback from our members and other citizens who voted, however, showed that that poll worker familiarity with BMDs was almost nonexistent, as close to a dozen citizens reported to us that they were unable to cast their ballots on the BMDs because they could not be operated by onsite poll workers.  In some cases, the BMDs were simply not even set up and prepared to take voters, and moreover, very few people indicated that they were even aware of the BMD’s presence and availability.  In one particular case, a voter entered his poll site at 6:00 PM and was the first voter of the day to ask to use the BMD at his poll site.  He waited patiently for twenty minutes as poll workers tried to set the voter up to use the new machine.  None of the seven poll workers present could operate the machine, leaving the frustrated voter to eventually use the lever machine to cast his ballot.  He reported that the poll workers themselves were frustrated because none of them had received hands-on training with the machines; they only received written materials and a physical demonstration with no opportunity to test operate the machines themselves.  The poll workers involved in this particular incident were apologetic to the voter and expressed frustration with the Board staff for not adequately preparing them to use the BMDs.  The example described here was also repeated to us by others in the days after the Primary Election.

 

While we expected New York to be using new voting systems by next year’s primary, it appears that this process is in jeopardy.  CU maintains, however, that regardless of our ability to comply with HAVA, New York City can still do more to improve the way elections are administered to the benefit of all voters.  In anticipation of the 2009 elections, where a large number of city council and citywide seats will be up for reelection, the city can begin to think now about small incremental steps to improve voting, the usage of the BMDs, and the way we conduct elections for next year. 

 

Among these reforms we must identify and make changes to poll worker training and performance.  Poll workers perform the critically important job of assisting voters and running elections at the most micro level and they deserve to be properly and thoroughly trained and to have all the skills, information, support and tools available to them.  It is important that they are comfortable with the new ballot marking devices, as well as the new voting system that will ultimately be selected, and that they have the resources and knowledge to assist voters with utilizing the machines.  We, along with our good government colleagues, have also recommended that there be: additional transparency and oversight of the Board by including them in the Mayor’s Preliminary and Management Report; increase voter information, such as placing sample ballots online; additional mailings to voters prior to the general election, and better use of the Board website and phone hotline, among other things.

 

CU and CUF remain committed to effecting positive change in the conduct of elections statewide, and has been conducting extensive research on ways to improve not only the way in which elections are administered in the City and State, but also how to increase voters’ participation in the electoral process.  We look forward to sharing our recommendations with you when they are released.

 

In conclusion, CU and CUF applaud VAC for their efforts during the past year to increase voter registration throughout the past year in the City and among underrepresented populations.  In particular, we hope that VAC will continue its partnership with the City Council to conduct voter registration drives in council districts, as well as its efforts to conduct voter registration drives in public and private schools throughout the City.  In the future, CUF looks forward to forming a working relationship with VAC to recruit much needed poll workers and voter education.  We would also recommend that VAC continue to work with the City’s Campaign Finance Board to assist them with publicizing their voter guide and with the City Board to conduct meaningful voter education and outreach, especially as the City transitions to new voting system.

 

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify before the Commission and welcome the opportunity to work together to advocate for meaningful reform in the future.