Testimony of Naomi Zauderer, Chair of the CFB's Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, to the New York City Charter Revision Commission
Thank you for the opportunity to provide testimony about how the Campaign Finance Board fosters civic engagement by encouraging New Yorkers to participate in their democracy. We believe that participating in elections is essential to being an active citizen, whether that is through registration and voting, contributing to a candidate, volunteering for a campaign, engaging in nonpartisan voter outreach activities, or running for office to represent your community.
Voter engagement is a key element of our agency mission, and it is written into the Charter that the CFB “encourage, promote, and facilitate voter registration and voting by all residents of New York City who are eligible to vote.” We conduct this work through our NYC Votes initiative, and we are pleased to highlight the work we have built since voter participation was added to our mandate through the 2010 Charter revision.
The Voter Assistance Advisory Committee and the City Charter
Prior to the 2010 Charter revision, the Voter Assistance Commission was a 16-member body with a small staff located within the Mayor’s Office. The 2010 Charter Revision Commission noted in its preliminary report that VAC and its work was limited by a lack of resources. They recommended that VAC be dissolved and reformed as the Voter Assistance Advisory Committee within the Campaign Finance Board, because the CFB shared the mission of voter education and had staff and resources to add vibrancy to the work. This proposal appeared on the ballot along with several other government reforms, and 87 percent of those who voted on the question voted in favor of it.
VAAC, which is a nine-member advisory board appointed by the city’s elected officials, advises the CFB on several mandates outlined in the City Charter. VAAC’s responsibility is to encourage and facilitate voter registration and voting by all residents of New York City who are eligible to vote, and recommend methods to increase rates of registration and voting. More specifically, we identify underrepresented groups throughout the city and suggest methods to increase their participation. Additionally, we coordinate with city agencies, in compliance with Section 1057-a of the New York City Charter, and with nonpartisan voter registration groups, community boards, and government agencies, and educate youth about the importance of voting. Through its annual report, VAAC makes recommendations on how to increase voter registration throughout the city. We also undertake activities to encourage voter registration and voting by all residents, including eligible voters who are limited English proficient.
VAAC meets every other month, and holds two public hearings a year where we hear from voters about their experiences registering and going to the polls.
The importance of nonpartisanship in voter outreach
Our government has a public interest in engaging its citizens, so New Yorkers can elect those who truly represent their interests. It is therefore critical that government play a role in conducting outreach to voters, regardless of political party, particularly in an age where campaigns can more narrowly target prime voters and when local media coverage of neighborhood politics is shrinking.
The CFB is ideally situated to fill this role because we are an independent, nonpartisan agency. Our independence from City Hall allows us to focus on mobilizing voters without the imperative to consider the political interests of any given administration. Our nonpartisanship means that we reach out to all New Yorkers, regardless of party affiliation, to ensure everyone’s voices are heard. We take seriously our Charter mandate to reach out to voters who may be overlooked by campaigns that are rightly interested in turning out voters who support them, and to assist those who face additional barriers when registering to vote or turning out to the polls.
We have dedicated resources to this mission, and established a deep expertise on voter outreach, policy, and election administration. We are a trusted, unbiased source of information voters rely on to help them navigate an archaic election system and make informed choices at the polls. We have conducted research into participation patterns and the barriers that prevent people from voting, which we use to inform our work on the ground.
Our voter engagement activities
NYC Votes undertakes a number of activities to encourage people to register to vote and cast their ballots, including registration drives, voter education, Get Out the Vote activities, and advocacy for voting reforms.
Through NYC Votes, we bring new voters into the political process. While New York City has more registered voters than ever with 4.6 million people on the rolls, there are still 715,000 people who are eligible but not registered to vote. This is 13 percent of the city’s citizen voting age population.
Each year, we register thousands of voters at voter registration drives. We partner with community organizations who can connect us to the neighborhoods and groups that we most need to reach, and we register new citizens at naturalization ceremonies. We provide Train the Trainer presentations to community groups, who are responsible for registering thousands of new voters each year. We recently worked with City Hall and the Department of Education to coordinate Student Voter Registration Day in city high schools, where we collected over 10,000 voter registration forms. We have served as the organizational lead for New York City on National Voter Registration Day, and have been first in the country for the past three years for the number of new registrations collected on that day.
We also work with city agencies to conduct voter registration. We have partnered with the Department of Homeless Services to register voters living in city shelters during our volunteer-driven Days of Action. We also conducted voter registration in domestic violence shelters this year, where residents face additional hurdles to register safely. We train frontline staff at city agencies covered by Section 1057-a of the New York City Charter, which requires staff at 25 city agencies and all 59 community boards to assist voters with completing their voter registration forms. To further expand registration opportunities for voters with limited English proficiency, we worked with the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA) in 2016 to translate the voter registration forms into 11 new languages beyond those required by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act.
Voter education & Get Out the Vote efforts
As we work to make sure every eligible voter can register to vote, the real challenge in New York City is getting people to turn out to the polls. In the 2017 citywide elections, 3.45 million registered voters stayed home in the general election, compared to the 715,000 who weren’t registered in the first place.
Earlier last year, we conducted public opinion research into why voters participate in presidential elections but sit out for local elections. Our major finding was that voters who do not participate in local elections care deeply about the issues that affect their communities, but lack the information they need about upcoming elections and the candidates who are running for office. Our priority each election is connecting voters with the information that they need to be informed when they go to the polls.
For city elections, we send a print Voter Guide with candidate profiles to every registered voter and have done so since 1989, and also record candidate video statements to air on local cable channels and stream online. We also publish a Guide online for state and federal elections. Realizing that there was still a gap between the educational materials we provide and citizens accessing that material, we widely advertised the Guide and our voting information platform, voting.nyc, through a Get Out the Vote advertising campaign in public transit and outdoor locations, in print and on TV, and on social media in 2017. This campaign tripled the number of visits to our online Guide between 2013 and 2017, with 225,000 visitors in the primary and 303,000 visitors for the general election. We plan to invest more to promote the 2018 general election that will include ballot proposals from this Commission.
The CFB also administers the Debate Program for candidates running for mayor, public advocate, and comptroller. Any candidate who participates in the public matching funds program and meets the certain objective criteria is required to participate in a debate. In the 2017 election, we also ran a pilot program in open City Council districts where we partnered with community organizations to sponsor candidate forums. This provided an opportunity for voters in these districts to get to know the candidates in an unscripted setting. We anticipate scaling this program up in 2021, when there may be as many as 40 open Council seats.
In addition to sharing information with voters through NYC Votes on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, last year we implemented a new text and e-mail outreach program. Over 2,300 voters signed up to receive election alerts about upcoming dates and deadlines in advance of the 2017 election, and we are working to expand this list to reach more voters. We also began to create new multimedia resources for these platforms to further educate voters. Before last year’s election, we made explainer videos to help voters better understand the responsibilities of each of the city’s elected officials, connecting them to the issues that voters care about in their communities, such as jobs and wages, housing, and education. We are expanding this series for the state and federal elections this year. We also collected and sorted news coverage by race including content from community newspapers.
NYC Votes conducts outreach through Get Out the Vote phone banking to newly registered voters before each election, letting them know about what is on their ballot and where their poll site is located. We were able to make 13,000 phone calls in advance of the 2017 general election, and we continue to build our capacity as we recruit more volunteers and partner organizations that are interested in phone banking both at our office and off-site. We also work with NYCHA and lead volunteer groups to knock on doors in public housing developments, where we have face-to-face conversations with voters about their elections.
Through the work of our Youth Voter Coordinator, we focus on engaging the youngest voters and future voters in their elections. We conduct workshops in city high schools and at Summer Youth Employment Program orientations with the Department of Youth and Community Services. We also engage youth through the arts, so they can explore the importance of voting. We are in the tenth year of our Youth Poet Laureate program, where young poets compete with compositions about voting and civic engagement. We also recently did a voter-themed mural community service project with NYCHA and a youth leadership council on the Lower East Side.
In our VAAC hearings and in the course of our work, we hear from voters about the difficulties they face going to the polls and how important it is to improve the voting experience in New York. To address these issues we make recommendations for voting reform each year in our annual Voter Assistance Report.
New York has been slow to catch up to other states when we should be leading the way and removing barriers to voter participation. Year after year, we trail the country in voter turnout, yet we have failed to enact many reforms that have made for an improved voting experience in other states. For the past five years, we have taken citizen volunteers up to Albany to meet with their state legislators and advocate for reforms such as automatic voter registration and early voting. During that time, we have seen voting reform pick up momentum and get more attention from the state legislature, but we still have a long way to go before we create a 21st-century voting system that allows all New Yorkers to participate.
Opportunities and recommendations
We urge the Commission to consider how the voting experience might be improved through the City Charter with the understanding that we are somewhat limited by state election law. We also have some specific recommendations for how to improve voter engagement in New York City.
Recommendations for VAAC
The CFB has added resources and built expertise to expand the work of VAAC since it was moved into our agency. The move has allowed us to take a comprehensive approach to educating voters and encouraging democratic participation. To strengthen this work, we recommend the Commission look at the structure of VAAC and consider areas where we might add expertise.
In particular, many city agencies and offices work with populations that have specific barriers to voting and are often underrepresented. These agencies include but are not limited to the Department of Education, the Department of Youth and Community Development, the Department of Homeless Services, NYCHA, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, and the Department of Corrections. If the role of agencies serving underrepresented voters were formalized in the Charter, they could regularly report out on efforts to reach their respective populations and provide advice to the Board and to our staff about best practices to conduct outreach.
Formally bringing these agencies into the work of VAAC would leverage city government for the crucial task of engaging voters and add unique strengths to this important work.
As others have testified in prior hearings, we believe we could do more to reach voters with limited English proficiency (LEP). Currently, the languages required for translation are determined under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act and local law. The Board of Elections must provide services in Spanish citywide; in Chinese in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens; and Korean and Bengali in parts of Queens. The CFB also translates voter education materials such as the Voter Guide into the VRA-covered languages. As previously mentioned, we worked with MOIA to translate the voter registration forms into 11 additional languages.
We believe more can be done to reach LEP voters, and that the VRA should set a floor rather than a ceiling on the services that the city provides. Many cities go above and beyond what is federally required of them, and a city as diverse as New York should do more than the bare minimum. At VAAC hearings, we frequently hear from those who serve in LEP communities about the barriers voters face at the polls, particularly if translation services are not available. Even though their names are in the poll books, we have heard about voters who have been turned away from their poll site or who voted using an affidavit ballot simply because of a language barrier. We recommend the Commission consider how it might direct us to expand services and outreach to these voters, including translating more material into additional languages or providing translators at the polls in communities where it is needed.
We also recommend that the Commission look into ways to use technology to reach more voters and improve the voting experience. For example, the CFB is currently building an online voter registration platform that can accept electronic signatures, which the City Council added to the Charter last year. This will allow us to dramatically scale up the number of voters that we can register in a given year, so that we can focus our person-to-person outreach resources on the hardest-to-reach populations. We believe electronic transmission of voter registration is a necessary step to making the process seamless and error-proof. The Charter also requires the Board of Elections to inform voters of upcoming elections via text and email, which is increasingly how voters get their information in a digital age. As mentioned above, we have had success with informing voters using these methods, and support leveraging technology to better engage and inform voters.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify today, and we are happy to provide you with any additional information that you need.