Wake Up Our Sleeping Giant: The Electorate

May 13, 2003 | Newsday |

NEW YORK -- As New York City peers into the abyss of deep budget cuts, many city leaders are infuriated by Gov. George Pataki's unwillingness to do more to help the five boroughs. This is hardly the first time city leaders have howled about not getting their fair share from Albany, but the problem has become so pronounced that the City Council even held a hearing recently to consider seceding from New York State.

Such protests typically come to naught. It's time for city officials to stop complaining and come up with concrete ways to increase New York City's influence in Albany. One promising strategy is to raise voter turnout within the city. In earlier eras, the sheer size of the city's electorate afforded some protection to its interests. In the 1952 election, 48 percent of all votes in the state were cast in New York City. New York's governors needed city voters on their side to win, and they knew it. The power of numbers helped the city getter a fairer shake than might otherwise have been the case.

But New York City has become easier to ignore with each passing decade. Although New York City has 40 percent of the state's registered voters, city voters now cast less than a third of the state's ballots. In the 2002 election, 1.5 million New York City residents went to the polls, but at least another 3 million eligible citizens didn't participate.

The conventional wisdom that little can be done to improve participation among city residents is flat-out wrong. City officials can - and should - take several steps to register more citizens, turn out more voters and make sure their votes count.

First, the city needs to make sure its eligible voters know how they can vote. One important step is reinvigorating civic education classes in high schools to help turn young adults into voters. The city should also step up education efforts to help new citizens and non-English speakers register and get to the polls. Another group is those who lost the right to vote temporarily, due to involvement with the justice system, who often are not told that they have regained the right to vote. To make sure that all New Yorkers are informed and encouraged to vote, the Voter Assistance Commission - moribund since its inaugural successes under Mayor David Dinkins - should be revived and given more resources.

Second, the city needs to bring its voting system into the 21st century. During the 2000 election, the level of uncounted votes in New York City due to machine error and sloppy election administration surpassed the level in Florida. Fortunately, a federal law called the Help America Vote Act, passed last year, will provide funding to repair the machines, fix the voter lists and train poll workers. But how that money is spent - and what rules go along with it - has yet to be resolved. New York City's elected officials should insist that the new rules lower, not raise, the barriers to voting.

Third, our representatives in Albany should aggressively push statewide reforms that would make voting more accessible to all citizens. For example, the State Legislature could remove voting barriers for citizen with felony convictions. Current "felony disenfranchisement" laws have scrubbed more than 130,000 otherwise eligible citizens from the voting lists, many of them from New York City communities already short of political power.

Another important step is to roll back the 25-day, pre-election deadline for voter registration. Polls show that most people only become interested in elections in the final few weeks or even days of campaigns, after the registration deadline passes. The best solution to this problem is Election Day registration, which allows voters to register at the polls on Election Day. This reform has boosted turnout by as much as 10 percent in other states. Given the high legal and political hurdles that block Election Day registration here, New York should at least look to moving up the voter registration deadline to 10 days before the election, as allowed under the state constitution.

New York City will never get back to the days when its voters cast half of all votes in the state. But even modest increases in voter turnout in the five boroughs could make it a lot harder to shortchange the city during future budget crises.

Much of the money for a better election system will soon be available, thanks to the Help America Vote Act. But there is concern that upstate politicians may deny the city its rightful share of these funds. Making sure that the new money is divided fairly is a critical first step toward a day when city voters will enjoy their fair share of clout in Albany.

 

Although New York City has 40 percent of the state's registered voters, city voters now cast less than a third of the state's ballots. In the 2002 election, 1.5 million New York City residents went to the polls, but at least another 3 million eligible citizens didn't participate.