Statement of the New York Civil Liberties Union before the New York City Council Committee on Governmental Operations regarding City Council Legislation to Improve Electronic Administration, Expand Voter Registration and Provide Better Information to Voters (Ints. 613-2011, 721-2011, 728-2011, 760-2012, 769-2012, and 778-2012)

October 15, 2012

My name is Socheatta Meng, and I am legislative counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). I am here today to present testimony on behalf of the NYCLU. Thank you to the Committee on Governmental Operations for holding this hearing, and allowing testimony on these bills, which are intended to improve the administration and accessibility of the voting process for New Yorkers.

The NYCLU, the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, is a not-for-profit, non-partisan organization with eight offices across the state, and nearly 50,000 members. The NYCLU’s mission is to defend and promote the fundamental principles, rights, and constitutional values embodied in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of the State of New York.

Securing and protecting the right of New Yorkers to vote is a core part of our mission. These bills – Ints. 613-2011, 721-2011, 728-2011, 760-2012, 769-2012, and 778-2012 – propose to enhance the election and voter participation process. These goals are fundamental to a thriving and functioning democracy, and are critical to allowing the voice of its people to be heard. Because these bills would help to ensure that the right to vote is fully realized, the NYCLU supports this package of voting-related legislation, and we urge the City Council to pass these bills.

In order to ensure that voters are fully able to exercise their right to vote and make their voices heard, the election and voting process must be as effective, error-free, and accessible as possible. Particularly in light of reported administrative difficulties, staff shortages, and lack of access to critical information, mechanisms must be in place to ensure that the integrity of the voting process and its results are protected. Such problems have been reported recently, with the confusion surrounding the Democratic primary in the 13th Congressional district and the resulting disenfranchisement of several voters as one notable example. Among other things, this package of voting-related bills proposes to make sure that the voting sites are properly and sufficiently staffed, effectively run, and accessible to voters.

While these pieces of legislation address different problems, they are complementary and are intended to achieve the same goal. Int. 721-2011 (Councilmember Lappin) would address critical Election Day staffing issues that impede the proper administration of elections. Typically, the Board of Elections is only able to recruit approximately half of the 30,000 poll workers it needs for Election Day. Due to this shortage, poll workers face longer hours and greater responsibilities than in the past. This legislation proposes to address this critical shortage by establishing a system for the recruitment of city employees to serve as poll workers, who would be compensated with a modest stipend. Int. 778-2012 (Councilmember Lander) would also facilitate the effective administration of the election and voting process by implementing an oversight process that requires the Board of Elections (“BOE”) to report to the City Council on its performance at least twice a year.

Two other bills – Int. 728-2011 and Int. 760-2012 – propose to decrease the burden of voting and voter registration on citizens. Currently, unregistered citizens who wish to vote may lack critical information about registration deadlines or how to obtain necessary paperwork. Int. 728-2011 (Councilmember Greenfield), the family registration bill, would require the Department of Education to distribute voter registration forms alongside school enrollment forms. Those with children in the city’s public schools have a direct stake in the democratic process, and this bill would ensure that all parents have an opportunity to register to have their voices heard. Councilmember Williams’ registration reporting bill, Int. 760-2012, would complement the family registration bill by requiring the board of elections to keep track of and report how many registration forms are distributed by and received from each city agency.

The two remaining pieces of legislation – Int. 613-2011 and Int. 769-2012 – aim to help inform citizens of important election-related dates and forms. Int. 613-2011 (Councilmember Dickens) would establish a system to collect citizens’ email addresses so that they may receive periodic reminders about upcoming elections and registration deadlines, along with links to application forms and sample ballots. Int. 769-2012 (Councilmember Eugene) would establish an interactive online platform to host the city’s impartial voters’ guide and allow citizens to locate their precinct. This bill would also update the city’s voter guide to include information on state and federal races in addition to municipal elections, which are currently included.

Together, this package of bills seeks to improve the electoral process and strengthen the rights of voters. These bills are necessary to ensure the integrity of the voting process, and to reassure voters and the public that their votes will be counted and their voices heard. The integrity of this process and the resulting public confidence in its results are cornerstones to a healthy and functioning democracy. The NYCLU thus supports these bills, and urges the City Council to pass this legislative package.

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