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to start by thanking each of you for joining us here today and helping us in our review of the 2012 election year. This has been an extraordinarily busy year for those of us interested in elections. New York has had four Election Days this year: a Presidential primary in April, a Congressional primary in June, a primary for state offices in September, and November’s general election. Unlike those primary elections, a general election in a presidential year regularly brings more than two million New Yorkers to the polls--and this one was conducted under the most difficult circumstances. To prepare for this election, we invited New Yorkers to reach out to us before and during Election Day via our social media feeds: @NYCVOTES on Twitter, and facebook.com/NYCVotes. We responded to hundreds of comments and questions, and CFB staffers were on the ground talking with voters and working in dozens of poll sites. As November began, Hurricane Sandy brought unbelievable devastation to too many New Yorkers. The storm also caused considerable disruption to Election Day operations. Sandy knocked out power to the BOE’s central offices, and two of its five borough offices. Many poll workers were unable to work on Election Day. Poll sites in the areas that took the brunt of the storm were rendered inaccessible. In all, 60 sites were relocated, affecting more than 130,000 voters--roughly 3 percent of all registered City voters. We saw that even through these disruptions, many poll sites operated efficiently and smoothly. Our shared goal, however, must be to conduct an election that runs efficiently and smoothly at every poll site, in every part of the city. The weight of the evidence suggests that this standard was not nearly met. Many problems had nothing to do with the storm. Long lines at the polls frustrated many New Yorkers. Broken scanners and bottlenecks at the voter check-in tables made long waits longer. Too many voters were mistreated or misinformed at their poll site. Many who applied to vote absentee by mail did not receive a ballot in time to cast their vote. Where poll sites were changed, even before the storm, voters were confused about where to go and how to get there. Some voters seeking answers were misinformed. Governor Cuomo’s lastminute executive order that allowed New Yorkers to cast affidavit ballots at any poll site added
another variable. Some poll sites ran out of affidavit ballots long before the polls closed, denying voters the intended benefit of the governor’s order. Sandy exposed and worsened existing flaws in our election system. But we cannot allow the storm and its painful aftermath to obscure the need for meaningful change. In the end, there is one metric that matters most: how many New Yorkers voted? Preliminary numbers show that in-person turnout in New York City was down significantly compared with 2008. Nearly 200,000 fewer New Yorkers stood in line to vote on Election Day--from 2.5 million in 2008 to 2.3 million earlier this month. We are moving in the wrong direction. Simply, we must do whatever it takes to build an efficient, modern voting system that places the needs of the voters first and foremost. How do we do it? We can start with a few modest proposals. Some challenges are purely operational. • M ake the pollwor ker s’ job easier . We must do a better job at recruiting, training, and retaining good personnel at the poll sites. A day at the polls can be 18 hours long. We should consider instituting half-day shifts for poll workers, and we must hold them to a higher standard. C ollect good data. Workers should be recording data on wait times at every poll site, to enable analysis that could help the Board of Elections deploy its resources more strategically. R einvent voter check-in. Technology has a part to play. As we’ve seen, technology can do much to keep voters informed. In the hands of well-trained poll workers, an electronic check-in process would be a huge step forward. But let’s be clear—even simple improvements to the current system, like adding alphabetical tabs to the check-in books, could help overwhelmed poll clerks serve voters better.
Better logistics can only bring us part of the way there. We need the State Legislature in Albany to be our partner in fixing Election Day. They should begin with allowing New Yorkers more flexibility in the way they cast their votes. • • A llow ear ly voting. Currently, 32 states allow voters to cast ballots at designated locations before Election Day. Early voting is a policy that makes sense. A llow no-excuse absentee voting. Many voters are deterred from applying for absentee ballots by the requirement to provide a reason. There are 27 states that allow no-excuse absentee voting; some of those states allow any voter to opt for permanent absentee
status. Expanding New Yorkers’ ability to vote by mail would make elections easier for voters and administrators alike. On Election Night, with barely enough votes counted to provide him a victory, President Obama talked about the long lines at the polls. “We need to fix that,” he said. With the President’s urging, federal resources could be brought to bear on these issues. • Suppor t election r efor m effor ts at the feder al level. The President’s call to action began a brainstorm in Congress. Bills have been introduced to mandate nationwide Election-Day registration and provide competitive grants to states that institute reforms. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has a bill that would provide federal funds to train pollworkers. These proposals would be a good start.
VAAC has been active during this year, trying to find ways that basic, accessible technology can play a greater role in our election system. When the Board of Elections considered using flash drives to compile unofficial vote totals instead of paper and pencil, we supported the change. In a report earlier this year, we argued for online voter registration in New York State. In August, Governor Cuomo took a big step towards this goal, announcing that New Yorkers with a driver’s license or state ID could register online through the Division of Motor Vehicles website. In so many ways, technology is changing our relationship to voting. Through a partnership with the NYU Wagner School’s Code for Change program, we worked with a team to introduce Votescope, a mobile app that directed New Yorkers to their poll site and provided information about candidates. The Board of Elections released a pollsite finder app as well. The team behind Whosontheballot.org has also created a remarkable resource. We worked with Mobile Commons to connect voters to their poll site location by text message. Common Cause helped build a mobile app that helped voter report problems at the polls. Through the work of VAAC, I hope to continue to foster efforts like these, and we will work with anyone and everyone who wants to play a part. I hope it’s clear that the discussion about solutions has begun in earnest, and we must seize this moment to advance the process of change here in New York City. I hope that tonight we will hear from many of you about your own experiences on Election Day. You may have your own ideas for reforms. I turn the floor over to you. Thanks again for joining us tonight.