Testimony of Amy Loprest, Executive Director of the New York City Campaign Finance Board to the New York State Senate Elections Committee and Assembly Election Law Committee

08/11/2020

Thank you, Senator Myrie, Assemblymember Lavine, and members of the New York State Senate Elections Committee and Assembly Election Law for the opportunity to provide written testimony on the June 2020 primary election in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic. My name is Amy Loprest, and I am the Executive Director of the New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB), and NYC Votes, the CFB’s voter engagement campaign. Through NYC Votes, the CFB registers citizens to vote, showcases opportunities to get involved in civic life, and provides New Yorkers with the information they need to meaningfully engage in the electoral process. 

The June primary election was one of the most difficult elections in recent memory. The New York City Board of Elections (BOE) was given the seemingly impossible task of conducting this election and should be applauded for their hard work under difficult circumstances. At our Voter Assistance Advisory Committee meeting on July 1st, many voters talked about their experience with absentee voting for the first time. We included their feedback in a letter to the BOE and hope these issues are addressed before the November election.

With no end to the pandemic in sight, it's clear that the November general election will look similar to the June primary election, with a high volume of absentee ballots. Taking the opportunity to reflect on the June primary election and finding areas for improvement is essential to ensure that some of the issues do not repeat in the November election. Our analysis shows that communities hit hardest by Coronavirus are the same neighborhoods where turnout is historically low. Engaging these communities in November and into the 2021 municipal election year is a major priority. 

So far, the legislature has passed legislation  to address many of the issues regarding absentee ballots, including allowing voters to request an absentee ballot throughout the pandemic, easing the statutory requirements for postmark, giving voters more time to submit an absentee ballot request, and permitting voters to challenge an invalid absentee ballot. These are all important pieces of legislation that will make the absentee ballot process clearer for the BOE, while also helping voters ensure their votes are counted. We urge Governor Cuomo to sign these important bills as soon as possible to give the BOE sufficient time to implement them. 

In addition to the many absentee ballot bills the legislature has taken on, we were also inspired to see the passage of automatic voter registration (AVR). AVR will help streamline our registration process and register more eligible New Yorkers than ever before. We urge Governor Cuomo to also sign this historic bill. However there is more to be done ahead of an extremely important presidential election in November.

Recommendations

While the June election presented many administrative challenges for the BOE, our analysis shows that turnout did not decrease due to the pandemic, at around 28% compared to recent primary elections. Given that analysis, we are projecting turnout to reach 70% in the November general election, which means that as many as 3.3 million New York City residents may cast a ballot. Resources and staffing should be made available to the BOE now to scale up operations to process an increased volume of absentee ballot requests timely for the November general election. For voters who wish to vote in person, we should encourage as many as possible to vote early to better allow for social distancing protocols and reduce wait times. 

Beyond what the legislature has already accomplished, we recommend they consider enacting a requirement to establish an absentee ballot tracking system. We heard from many voters who requested but never received their absentee ballots or didn’t know when their requested ballot would arrive. Given what voters experienced in the June primary election, an absentee ballot tracking system would reduce the number of calls and emails to BOE staff, and better provide voters with official  information about the status of their ballot. Local Law 65 of 2016 required the BOE to build an absentee ballot tracking system. The BOE has yet to implement this system, but a bill passed by the legislature would also allow other counties to take advantage of this useful technology. 

Additionally, we urge the legislature to allow New York City voters to use the online voter registration system built by the CFB. While the State Senate has passed S6463 (Myrie), a vote is still needed on A8473 (Blake). Based on the Attorney General’s opinion that state law governing voter registration allows for use of an electronic signature, the New York City Council passed  Local Law 238 of 2017 requiring the CFB to create an online voter registration system. After receiving a split decision from the State BOE, the BOE ultimately decided to treat registration forms from our platform as missing a signature, making the registration incomplete and rendering the system impractical. Therefore, the CFB is awaiting action by the Legislature to authorize use of the online voter registration system.

As you may know, the State BOE is required to build an online voter registration system by 2021, but it will not be ready in time to register voters to vote this November. The system created by the CFB follows state election law, and could also be used by the state or other municipalities, allowing the state to save money in the development process.

In the midst of the pandemic, there is even greater need for online voter registration because paper-based registration options are significantly less viable. There has been a massive drop off in voter registration compared to 2016. While 155,215 new voters had registered in NYC as of June 2016, only 79,777 have registered over the same period in 2020. This is a nearly 50% decrease year over year.

While many New Yorkers can utilize the DMV’s online voter registration system, New York City residents, who rely heavily on public transit, are far less likely to have a driver’s license or State I.D. In fact, DMV data from 2017 shows that more than 750,000 New Yorkers age 16 and older do not have a New York State ID, meaning they are unable to register to vote online via the state DMV portal.

Presidential elections are a vital opportunity to register newly eligible voters, like young people who recently turned 18 and new American citizens. The effects of not registering newly eligible voters in 2020 are broad and long-lasting. If we fail to engage young voters and New Americans this year, many will not register until the next Presidential election, meaning that they will miss out on voting in numerous state and local elections within those four years. Currently, 37.4% of New Yorkers under age 30 are not registered to vote, compared to only 13% for other age groups.

We thank the Senate for passing S6463 and urge the Assembly to pass A8473.  New voters must register by October 9, two short months away, to be eligible to vote in the November general election. It is therefore essential that the Assembly act quickly so that the CFB can make this system available as soon as possible before the voter registration deadline.

Finally, on Wednesday, August 12 at 5:30 pm, we are hosting our 2nd annual We the Young People VAAC hearing. Our youth-led virtual VAAC hearing is a chance for young New Yorkers, ages 14-25, to testify about their experiences with elections and local government, including suggestions on how we can better engage them throughout the democratic process. We invite members, or a representative to tune in. 

Thank you for the opportunity to provide testimony. We look forward to working with the legislature on important voting reforms in the near future.