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Tuesday, July 16, 2024 | Back issues
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NYC Comptroller Audit Finds Barriers to Voting

MANHATTAN (CN) - With the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries just around the corner, New York suffers from recent "all time low" voter turnouts that demean the state where the women's suffrage movement unfolded, a comptroller's audit found.

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer released his report, "Barriers to the Ballot," at a press conference in front of City Hall on Sunday, a little more than two weeks from the April 19 primary.

As the candidates visit here for get-out-the-vote rallies, they race not only against each other but also against the city's lackluster electoral record.

"Only 58 percent of registered voters in the city cast ballots in the 2012 presidential general election - the lowest rate since 1996 (57 percent) and the second lowest since 1972," the 24-page report states.

New York State also had "one of the lowest rates in the nation" in the November 2014 general election, when only 31 percent of registered voters went to the polls to determine the fate of three statewide races and 27 U.S. House of representative races.

"In New York City, only 25 percent of registered voters turned out - the lowest rate on record and a continuation of a decades-long slide," the report found.

Despite nationwide enthusiasm for then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008, New York City had lower voter turnout that election season than any other major U.S. city, the city's campaign finance board later found.

In his report, Stringer called this record a betrayal of New York's legacy as the state where Elizabeth Cady Stanton issued a "Declaration of Sentiments" that later feminists like Susan B. Anthony braved arrest to put into practice.

Then, and now, New York has maintained constitutional and statutory barriers discouraging citizens from going to the polls, and the audit endorses 16 reforms aimed to make it easier for voters to exercise their rights.

At the top of his list, Stringer wants New York's state legislature to pass a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, D-Manhattan, and Sen. David Carlucci, D-Rockland, allowing pre-registration for 16 and 17-year-olds.

Kavanagh, whose district includes eastern neighborhoods from around United Nations to the Williamsburg Bridge, also introduced bills to facilitate absentee voting, automatically register citizens on state databases, and permit same-day registration and early voting.

Stringer's audit endorses all of these measures, along with a bill by state Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Midtown East, proposing a study whether it would be feasible for New York to join Oregon, Washington and Colorado in allowing mail-in voting.

Though New York does not disenfranchise former felons, the state does prevent people from voting while they are on parole, and another bill sponsored by two Democrats hopes to join 14 states and the District of Columbia that removed that restriction.

Meanwhile, the New York City Board of Elections wants to hire 30,000 by Nov. 8, but it is underpaying, under-training and overworking the people staffing its polling sites.

Poll workers currently make about $12.50 an hour and the Board of Elections only hires those who can work 16-hour days.

With New York City under a court order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, many of the schools serving as poll sites still have not been made fully accessible, and Stringer urged more from the Board of Elections oversight here.

New York City does not include Russian, its third most widely spoken language, among the five in which it prints voter information: English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Bengali.

Voter disenfranchisement has become a major concern this election cycle, particularly in states with Republican governors.

In Arizona, voters waited in line for five hours after Republican leaders slashed the number of poll sites available from 200 in 2012 to 60 in this year.

Voters quickly denounced their election officials at a three-hour hearing before the Arizona House of Representatives Special Elections Committee, which was rife with allegations of voter suppression and election fraud.

With a presidential primary heading to Wisconsin on Tuesday, officials there are downplaying reports that the new voter ID law will leave 300,000 people without ballot access.

Stringer said New York must not follow this troubling trend.

"At a time when states across the country are taking steps to disenfranchise voters, New York should lead the fight to ensure equal access to the ballot box," the comptroller said in a statement. "Everyone deserves to have their voice heard. These reforms will remove barriers to voting and boost turnout in the nation's largest city."

Michael Ryan, the executive director for the city's Board of Elections, said in a phone interview that he agrees with Stringer's prescription for his workers.

"I think what the comptroller is pointing out is that poll workers need a raise," he said.

In fact, Ryan said that his office "consistently advocated for" hike from the current $200 to $300 wages to $300 to $400, which would exceed Stringer's recommendations.

New York's election workers currently have their wages set by state statute, but the Board of Elections previously urged the previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, to implement the raise by executive order.

The mayor never signed one, and low wages have meant that New York typically draws fewer poll workers than hoped.

"We budget for 36,000 poll workers," Ryan said. "We usually get between 30,000 and 32,000."

He added that non-competitive wages also makes the city less selective in its hiring practices, employing practically everyone who passes the board's exam.

"Being able to offer a more competitive wage for the day is something that would enhance our recruitment efforts and put us in a position to evaluate the skills of the people," he said.

A board has started pilot program employing CUNY and New York City high school students to help with technology issues, but Ryan vowed New York will be ready for the general elections regardless of its implementation.

In late 2012, Ryan's predecessor oversaw a chaotic Election Day shortly after Hurricane Sandy rocked New York, and its battered polling stations left some voters waiting up to six hours on line, DNAInfo reported at the time.

Echoing this year in Arizona, local hearings investigated what went wrong. Then-City Speaker Christine Quinn refused to lay blame entirely on the storm, but rather on systemic problems that she said the board "must absolutely fix."

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