Testimony of Eric Friedman Assistant Executive Director for Public Affairs to the New York City Council Committee on Governmental Operations

20/09/2021

Thank you members of the New York City Council Committee on Governmental Operations for the opportunity to testify on Int. No. 1867 which would allow certain city residents to vote in municipal elections, and Int. No. 2316 which would require a representative of City agencies to be in attendance for the entirety of a hearing where they are required to testify. I am Eric Friedman, Assistant Executive Director for Public Affairs at the New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB). With me today is Amanda Melillo, Deputy Director for Public Affairs.

As you know, the CFB is mandated by the New York City Charter to encourage and facilitate voter registration and voting by all eligible residents of New York City, but particularly among underrepresented populations. The CFB is often called before the City Council to testify on relevant campaign finance and voting legislation. We are happy to offer input on both bills today.

Beginning with Councilmember Salamanca’s bill, Int. No. 2316, we are supportive of measures to increase transparency and hold government officials accountable to the public they serve. It is already our agency practice to stay for the entirety of the committee meeting in case Council Members who were not present at the reading of oral testimony have any questions for a member of our staff. We believe it is incredibly important to speak to our work and provide information where it is needed so the Council can conduct their oversight role effectively and efficiently. Further, it is important to hear from advocates and others who provide useful information to the Council. We would strongly encourage that everyone who is part of the oversight process be present during an entire hearing.

We are also supportive of the principles underlying Councilmember Rodriguez’s bill, Int. No. 1867, which would allow lawful permanent residents and those holding work authorizations to vote in municipal elections. New York is and always will be a city of immigrants. Our door is always open—it is what makes our city great.

Every New Yorker who lives and works in our city contributes to the vitality of our communities. Every New Yorker who lives and works here should have a say in who represents them in government, and have a voice on the policy issues that impact their daily lives. Likewise, elected officials should be held accountable to represent all New Yorkers, regardless of their citizenship status. This bill would give a voice to more than 825,000 people who are already part of our city’s civic life.

We are prepared to do our part to enact this bill should it be passed. However, we do want to highlight several serious issues concerning potential unintended consequences of this legislation that could prove harmful if they are not addressed. The bill should not move through the legislative process before certain questions can be answered about the bill’s implementation. Additionally, we have several questions related to immigration law that are outside our scope of expertise but that we believe should also be further researched by the Council.

Our first concern is the privacy and safety of individuals with non-citizen immigration statuses. In an era where immigration policy is front and center, we want to ensure this legislation does not make it easier for any administration, at the local, state, or federal level, to endanger the rights of vulnerable New Yorkers. The voter file is public information and contains a person’s name and address, which could be used for individual or targeted harassment. We urge the Council to consider this possible consequence and take steps to ensure that the voter file is not used with malicious intent.

We are also concerned that a municipal voter could inadvertently commit a felony by voting a ballot that lists state or federal races. A simple poll worker error—giving a municipal voter the wrong ballot at a poll site—could put that voter at risk. Language contained within the State’s Automatic Voter Registration law provides legal cover for persons inadvertently registered as voters, but we are not certain the same degree of protection can be applied in a situation where a voter actively votes a ballot, even if it is in error.

There are other questions outside of our expertise about the bill’s interaction with immigration laws, such as: Could this bill impact a person’s citizenship status or their ability to vote in their country of origin? To provide assurances to the intended beneficiaries of this legislation, the Council should consult experts in immigration law to ensure that all possible scenarios are addressed.

We also have questions related to how the bill would be implemented. How would the Board of Elections confirm a person’s immigration status is valid, or be notified if that status is revoked or expired? Would an entirely separate set of ballot styles be required for municipal voters? We want to ensure the input of the Board of Elections is taken into consideration, since they are the body that administers elections and manages voter registration. We defer to the Board to discuss specific concerns related to implementation and how this bill would interact with existing state and federal election laws.

We raise these questions because the details of implementation will drive how we conduct the voter education component to support it. From a programmatic perspective, this legislation would have a significant impact on the Campaign Finance Board’s Charter mandate to engage and register underrepresented voters. The scope of our outreach will necessarily increase with the prospect of adding nearly one million newly eligible voters to the voter rolls for municipal elections. To successfully reach this new population and inform them of their rights, an extensive ground game involving collaboration with community-based groups would need to be paired with an investment in an advertising campaign that would amplify the reach of these education efforts.

To achieve the anticipated scale, together we should look to the Census effort as a model for engaging the non-citizen population. Different strategies are needed than those we have traditionally used to reach currently registered voters. A successful campaign would need to rely on qualitative research, where we would hear from non-citizens directly about potential barriers they face, concerns they have, and what would help them to overcome those concerns so they could register and vote. This research should drive an advertising campaign that encompasses traditional advertising through television, radio, newspapers, and digital, but with a greater investment in community and ethnic media to get the word out. This should complement efforts across the city to engage people in their communities, using tools such as presentations and direct person-to-person contact.

We would also need to consider how to design the voter experience to minimize confusion. This bill would create a new type of voter that would register with a different voter registration form. We would need to retool our online resources to create a way to ensure voters are served the right information, without running the risk that a municipal-only voter would use a state registration form meant for citizens, or vice versa. In addition to helping voters locate the correct registration option, we would also need to deliver different types of information to each kind of voter. For example, we would need to serve customized information to a municipal-only voter audience, on the website and in the online Voter Guide, and email or text message election alerts. We would also want to explore providing more in-depth translation of information that we put on our social media platforms.

In addition to the Voter Guide information on our website, we mail a print Voter Guide to every registered voter in advance of municipal elections. Our Voter Guide is printed in several editions, targeted to each voter’s specific district. It is our goal to give every voter the information they need to cast an informed ballot on Election Day. Mailing print Voter Guides to more voters comes with an additional printing and postage cost that depends on how many new municipal voters register. To reduce confusion for municipal voters around which offices they are qualified to vote in, we anticipate the need to create voting instructions specific to municipal voters. We could provide a separate mailing for those voters, or create an entirely new set of printed voter guides that cater specifically to this population.

We are also the agency mandated to provide education and outreach on ranked choice voting, which will be used in the rapidly approaching 2023 City Council elections. In 2021, we accomplished our education mandate through coordination with citywide nonprofits, neighborhood and community groups, and other government agencies. We heard from these groups that our materials would be able to reach more New Yorkers if they were translated into more languages, which we did not have the capacity to accommodate.

To meet the needs of more New Yorkers, we suggest that the legislation include additional language access requirements. The CFB currently translates our website and voting materials into the four federal Voting Rights Act languages: Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Bengali. In our experience working with communities of naturalized citizens, many voters prefer to receive election materials in the language they feel most comfortable speaking in, which may not be English. This means the diversity of languages spoken by New Yorkers should be represented in elections communications and should include written translations and in-person interpreters. By expanding language translations of our voting materials, we can also more effectively reach newly naturalized citizens who are also a historically underrepresented group. Translating the Voter Guide, website, and social media accounts to additional languages will come at an additional cost, but we believe it will be more than worthwhile to provide better service to voters.

Lastly, we would also suggest that the Council consider making the implementation date effective January 1, 2023. A policy measure with so much at stake requires adequate time to implement and ample time to educate newly registered voters. This would also coincide with the 2023 City Council redistricting elections.

New York would be the largest jurisdiction by far to expand the franchise for local elections to lawful permanent residents. Per our responsibilities to inform New Yorkers about their elections, we hope to remain engaged with the Council as this bill goes through the legislative process. Specifically, as part of our Charter-mandated Voter Analysis Report, we hope to include information in next year’s report should Int. No. 1867 be signed into law.

Through our matching funds program, and our NYC Votes initiative, the CFB is dedicated to ensuring all New Yorkers have a say in our democracy.

We thank the Council for considering the issues we have raised here today and for the opportunity to testify. I am happy to answer any questions you might have.