Legislation to Improve Voter Registration and Civic Engagement Re-introduced in New York City Council
Parts of this Legislative Package are Included in Mayor de Blasio’s New Democratic Agenda
New York, NY – As New York City continues to struggle with embarrassing voter turnout, three pieces of legislation reintroduced in the City Council today take direct aim at the problem through reform. In an effort to increase registered voters in New York City, the first bill requires landlords to provide new tenants with a voter registration form along with the existing package of paperwork received when a new lease is signed. The second requires the City to take proactive steps to register its students to vote and comply with an existing law that requires each student to receive a voter registration form with their high school graduation diplomas. The third bill would change New York City’s archaic ballot access laws, which date back to the 1800s, allowing candidates to obtain entry onto the ballot by meeting the minimum threshold to receive public funds through the City’s campaign finance system instead of arbitrary signatures.
Registration Forms with Leases:
At an October 2015 hearing of the Committee on Housing and Buildings, the Mayor’s Office testified that requiring landlords to attach a single sheet of paper to a multi-page lease was "inappropriate" and imposed too many burdens on landlords who “do not have expertise in or familiarity with election laws or registering people to vote” and are thus incapable of attaching the form to a residential lease.
Registering High School Seniors:
Young Adult Voter Registration Act (YAVRA), a 2004 law, only requires that the registration forms be made available and sent along with high school diplomas upon graduation, offering no further information on the forms and how they work for the students. Furthermore, with no tracking or reporting, good government advocates suspect that it has long gone unenforced.
In 2012, then-candidate Ben Kallos began surveying high schools throughout New York City and independently delivering voter registration forms to schools that did not have them. The legislation creates a new mandate to distribute voter registration forms to students in class instead of simply making them available and mailing them with diplomas. It would require the Board of Elections to provide coded voter registration forms to public and private schools to improve tracking of the form distribution. Additionally, the Department of Education would be required to report annually to the Council on their efforts to comply with the law from borough to school level, including the numbers of eligible students, forms distributed by language, and forms completed and returned.
According to the School Demographics and Accountability Snapshot for school year 2013-14, there are 73,790 high school seniors. If they were all registered along with their soon to be graduating peers 327,537 public school graduates would be eligible to vote in 2017 election in our most recent municipal election. By 2021, public school graduates eligible to vote would have grown to 630,166 which would mean nearly as many 18 to 26-year-old public school graduates would have been eligible to vote as voted for mayor in the 2013 election.
First introduced and heard in the Committee on Governmental operations in 2015, the legislation was initially deemed by the Mayor’s Office to be “overly burdensome and essentially impractical.” However, earlier this year the Mayor announced as part of DemocracyNYC that the City will now engage in a comprehensive series of voter registration drives specifically aimed at registering students.
In 2015, Council Member Rosenthal partnered with the City’s Campaign Finance Board to pilot Student Voter Registration Day. The pilot has so far registered thousands of students citywide.
New York is one of only 13 states where the only means to get on the ballot is by meeting a threshold of signatures. Over a period of 37 days, prospective candidates must collect between 450 and 3,750 signatures to appear on the ballot. This process has given rise to so called “Ballot Bumping” by political clubs and a cottage industry of lawyers hired by campaigns to knock their opponents off the ballot on technicalities like not including zip codes, addresses, or the date at the top of signature page. The alternative way of getting on the ballot proposed in the bill is a more meaningful measure of a candidate’s support in his or her district, eliminates frivolous lawsuits and ballot challenges as well as opens up the process.
“New York State ranks last among states for voting, but registering high school seniors and those who have recently moved can reverse that trend," said Council Member Ben Kallos. “A new generation is rising up and demanding action on issues long ignored, and we need those young voices registered and ready to vote. With the Mayor’s change of heart on the City’s responsibility to register its citizens to vote, I look forward to swiftly enacting this legislation so we can empower the voices of every New Yorker.”
"The rate of young adult voters in New York is shamefully low. The first step towards turning that around is to get young adults registered. Our legislation will enhance the Young Adult Voter Registration Act and help us determine which schools are successfully registering graduating students and which need additional support. This is a critical step towards expanding civic engagement among our youth, and, ultimately, will help us to maintain a functional democracy," said Council Member Helen Rosenthal.
"Increasing voter registration among young adults is an important step toward fostering active civic engagement and reversing the trend of New York City’s dismal voter turnout. We all recently witnessed the National School Walkout and the awesome power that students have to affect change. Students aren’t just the leaders of tomorrow; they’re courageously taking the reins and already leading us to a better future. Ensuring that our schools are connecting students with language-appropriate voter registration materials will help us empower our young adults to stand up, take action for what they believe in, and become part of the social fabric of our city, our state, and our country." Council Member Mark Treyger Chair of the Committee on Education.