Making Voting Accessible to the People

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By Akosua K. Albritton

On May 11, 2017, US President Donald Trump signed an executive order to establish the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. POTUS calls it the “Voter Fraud Panel.” With increasing numbers of American citizens choosing not to vote in either local or national elections, would it not be more appropriate to establish a Presidential Advisory Commission to Drum Up Voters instead?

The Center for Law and Social Justice Founder and Executive Director Esmeralda Simmons said very recently, “The United States has the lowest turnout of all the developed nations.” Using New York–the Empire State–as an example, there may exist significant voter apathy or voter hostility. The New York State Board of Elections maintains databases on registered New York voters by county, election district, Senate District, Assembly District and Congressional District. The latest information is as of April 1, 2017.

Besides segmenting the voters by party affiliation, there are the statuses of “active” and “inactive”. The statewide total of registered voters is 12,376,815, of which 859,226 are “inactive”, which leaves 11,517,589 “active” voters. Given New York State’s total population is roughly 19.865 million people, there are over 7.5 million who chose not to register to vote. Adding the “inactive” voters to that figure brings the number to roughly 8.359 million New Yorkers choosing not to participate in the election process.

So, New York State counts 11,517,589 “active” voters to participate in local, state and national elections. The reality is a drastic drop in voting from the national level to the lower levels of government. We will use the 2016 56th Assembly District race between Ms. Tremaine Wright and Ms. Karen Cherry as an example. There are 88,821 total registered voters of which 79,718 are designated “active”. The voting results for the 2016 NYS Assembly election here were 3,679 for Tremaine Wright and 2,577 for Karen Cherry, which means 6,256 voters came out to the polls in this Assembly District. That is approximately 8% of local registered voters.

This reporter invited Center for Law and Social Justice Executive Director Esmeralda Simmons, League of Women Voters of New York City President Catherine T. Gray and The Black Institute Executive Director Bertha Lewis to respond to five questions relating to voter participation. Ms. Lewis was unavailable to comment.

Why is New York State and New York City falling short in voter turnout?

Simmons: Actually, New York City is a little lower than normal but on par with the 25-year trend in US low turnout. There are several options that aren’t being used to reverse the situation. The options include same-day registration and voting, online voting and absentee ballots. It’s strange that we’re not doing online voting. Then there is the one-and-a-half-year wait between changing party affiliations and voting.

A cause of the low turnout is that people believe that their vote does not matter because the politicians are bought. The American public is aware of the millions of dollars being distributed to have various policies carried forth.

Gray: People have feelings that their vote does not count. For example, in Brooklyn, Council member (CM) Lewis Fiedler conceded to Storobin after several recounts and lost by a few votes, something between 17 and 21 votes. Registration takes work, New York has restrictive voter laws. Some examples include New York issues voter identification cards and only hard-copy registration forms are acceptable. There is the reality of a dislike of the candidates from which to choose and lack of information on what the candidates stand for or the impact of an issue in the voter’s daily life. Lastly, gerrymandering is problematic because it results in an advantage to one party.

What rules do you believe suppress the vote whether at the point of registration, processing or at the polls?

Gray: Voter identification laws, the closing of voter registration sites and the reduction of the hours that voters have to register [are just a few to mention].

Simmons: Every single step of the way there is suppression of the vote. Registration is difficult. Enrolling into a party is difficult. Voting is difficult. (Dr. Simmons is referring to what actually occurs at local polling sites wherein voters form or go into existing long lines to sign a register, collect the paper ballot and another to submit the paper ballot or go into a voting booth.)

There are unnecessary barricades. There are nine bills up in Albany now to improve the voting process that passed the Assembly but haven’t passed the state Senate due to the Republicans and the Independent Democratic Caucus. I would say these nine bills are designed to make New York State a voter-friendly state.

Will you suggest some measures for immediate implementation to correct this situation?

Simmons: Online registration and that registration occurs automatically. Assembly member Latrice Walker is sponsoring the New York State Voter Protection bill and federal Voting Rights bill. This federal bill would cover Asians and Latinos in this part of the nation. The Native American Voter Protection is included in other parts of this nation.

Gray: Early voting: 37 states have early voting; automatic voter registration: six states have automatic voter registration; electronic poll books: 34 states instituted electronic poll books and no excuse absentee voting.

What role can pre-collegiate schools assume to form strong positive impressions about voting and increase the probability of doing so as an adult in New York City’s youth?

Gray: I suggest education on why their votes/voices are much needed in the political dialogue and semester-long civics class. The League of Women Voters of the City of New York has voter registration drives in Green Markets around the city. [Schools may contact] the Voter Services Unit to get trained…to run their own drives.

Simmons: 1) High schools could ramp up voter registration of 17-year-olds who would turn 18 by the end of the year or before the November election. 2) Do mock elections within the classrooms, starting in grammar school. Get the students aware and informed of the voting process, the candidates and their issues. This would have a tremendous impact on teens.

Right now, it is our seniors who are the most reliable voters. Young voters have a poor record of turning out to vote in New York State. It somewhat improved during the 2016 Presidential Election.

Will you share your views on the formation of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity which President Trump calls “Voter Fraud Panel”?

Simmons: I think it should be called The Voter Suppression Panel. There is scant evidence of voter fraud. This Presidential Commission is an attempt to manufacture fraud, thereby having an excuse to create and suppress voter registration. There is no validity at all in its creation.

The fraud we should be concerned about is people tampering with voter registration. Look at the New York State and New York City Board of Elections: the company that supplies the software to manage the voter databases was compromised by people in Russia—not the Russian Government. However, neither the NYC Board of Elections nor NYS Board of Elections have made a statement about the compromise. This silence concerns me.

A comment from this writer is that when called on June 10, 2017 to obtain voter statistics for this story, the NYC Board of Elections employee fielding the call stated the computer system had been down since July 7, 2017 and had not received a estimate of when the computer system would be operational.

Gray: From the National League of Women Voters:

President Trump’s ‘Election Integrity Commission’ is an unnecessary distraction from the real work to protect against foreign hacking and interference in our electoral process. The real purpose of this effort is to justify President Trump’s false claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 election.

“This effort begins with a deep credibility gap. Commission members’ views on elections are well-known and have been discredited as political ideologues with dangerous agendas. This is part of a wider effort to suppress the vote, keep certain politicians in power and undermine our elections by spreading falsehoods.

“Today’s announcement is just another distraction from the real issues and we expect that any findings or recommendations from this commission will only be used to make it harder for people to vote in the future.

“The White House is attempting to bury this commission at a time when the nation and Congress are consumed with this administration’s own Russia scandal.

“The real problems with our electoral system are the suppressive laws that prevent eligible voters from access to the ballot. False claims of voter fraud have been used to push through more restrictive voting laws including voter ID, proof of citizenship requirements and limiting or reducing early voting opportunities.

“This administration is laying the groundwork to usher in widespread discrimination in our systems of voting and manipulate our democracy.”