Making Democracy Work

A letter to the editor of your local newspaper will reach members of the public as well as your legislator.

By Nancy Marr

As we debated whether or not to support a New York State constitutional convention on Election Day, we considered the only other way change is possible — through the state legislature itself. If our legislators do not choose to make the changes, change cannot happen.

One example is the New York State election system. For many years, the League of Women Voters and other “good government” groups have worked together to convince legislators that our election system needs major improvements. Concern about the very low number of New Yorkers who actually vote has led us to lobby to remove some of the roadblocks to registering and voting.

Although there are no charges of voter suppression in our state, the state constitution prohibits early voting and stipulates that you can change your party designation only prior to the previous year’s election. Access to absentee ballots is very limited. The state requires that we have a full-face ballot, resulting in a ballot that is difficult to read. Counties cannot make any of these changes, so we have turned to the state legislature for action, with no results.

What is the most effective way to bring about change? The Legislature can change these constitutional roadblocks but will have to pass the legislation in two consecutive years and then present it to the voters for approval. To advocate for change, we have to start with our individual assembly member or senator regarding one important issue, for instance, a no-excuse absentee ballot.

How can we convince our legislators to support legislation to allow state residents to vote by absentee ballot without requiring a specific reason? Currently voters must state that they will be out of the county, that they are ill or disabled, are in a veterans hospital, in jail or prison or that they are primary caretakers of a person who is ill or disabled. If you believe that it would benefit all voters if they could vote by absentee ballot for any reason — if they are busy on Election Day, or if they have no transportation — how can you communicate this most effectively?

If we hope to see a change enacted this year, we will have to reach our state legislators by March (or earlier) in order to have the issue considered in the April budget. Start by locating your assembly member or senator and his or her contact details. Check in the league’s Directory of Public Officials at http://www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org/files/DPO2017_3.pdf or go to the website of the Board of Elections at www.suffolkvotes.com to identify your district and legislators.

Call to make an appointment at your legislator’s local office. Explain who you are or who you represent (if you belong to an organization you will be representing) and explain that you want to discuss no-excuse absentee voting because you think it will increase the turnout in your district (which is also your legislator’s district). Try to arrange for two or three persons who agree with you to attend as well. Including a young person can add a new perspective to your presentation.

Before you visit, find out about the legislator: voting record, committee assignments and leadership positions in the legislature, and any bills he or she sponsored that you support. (This information is available on legislators’ websites.) Decide with your companions what you will say, and who will say it. It is helpful for one of the visitors to agree to be the leader or spokesperson, another to be the recorder, and the others to have specific points to add.

Introduce yourselves to the legislator and present your concern about the low turnout in the voting district. Give any statistics that you have to back up your concern. If the legislator is not equally concerned, you and your colleagues may want to talk about why you think it is important that people feel involved in election issues.

Be sure to watch the clock. Knowing ahead how much time the legislator has agreed to spend with you, the leader should allot an appropriate amount of time for each issue and keep everyone on the subject. Record the legislator’s response. If you anticipate printing any part of the interview, you are obligated to get the legislator’s permission and specific conditions under which it may be printed.

Be sure and write a follow-up thank you after the visit. This gives you the opportunity to underscore some of the points made or answer any questions you were asked.

Other ways to express yourselves to legislators are by phone, letter or social media. A letter to the editor of your local newspaper will reach members of the public as well as your legislator. Rallies often are effective ways to make your opinions known and to show support for them. You may be able to arrange a public information meeting to discuss the issue and its significance. Invite your legislator to speak. Even if not concerned about low voter turnout, you could invite him or her to speak along with a representative who would present the opposite point of view.

Maximum impact results from many constituents visiting and communicating with their legislators. Many factors will affect the legislator’s response. Those who are now in office may be reluctant to expand the voting base to the benefit of possible opponents. New York State has representatives from counties that differ widely in their goals and interests. Upstate and downstate representatives are often in opposition because they face different challenges. In a later article we will discuss the political dilemma posed by the downstate/upstate differences and the differences between members of the same party in New York State government.

Nancy Marr is first vice president of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org, email league@lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

By Judie Gorenstein

On Election Day this November, 31.9 percent of registered voters in Suffolk County turned out to vote in an off-year election. Although this means that less than one-third of those registered actually voted, this was more than 50 percent greater than the turnout four years ago, when only 20.9 percent voted (presidential/congressional elections consistently have greater turnout in even-numbered years).

This substantial increase in the 2017 turnout was the result of an organized opposition to the proposed constitutional convention. For the most part, the opponents were concerned that they might lose their rights to collective bargaining and pension rights for teachers and other public workers.  People are always energized when they fear they might lose something they have, when they believe their rights will be taken away, and turn this energy into action and voting.

What about being motivated to fight for rights you do not have? The women suffragists were highly motivated to fight for the right to vote. In fact, they began in 1848 in Seneca Falls and finally got the right to vote in New York State in 1917; 100 years ago — three years before all women in the United States got that right. Currently, however, New York has one of the lowest voter turnouts, ranking 41 out of 50 states.

It’s true that we do not have laws deliberately designed to discourage voting or restrict those who can vote (such as states whose selective permissible IDs allow gun permits but not college IDs, which disenfranchise specific groups of voters, or require special IDs for those without driver’s licenses, which are only issued in a small number of locations statewide). But we discourage voting in less obvious ways:

• New York is one of the minority of states that does NOT have early voting, which allows voters to go to the polls on selected days prior to Election Day. Allowing people to vote on weekends before Election Day helps those whose work schedules prohibit them from getting to the polls on the first Tuesday in November.

• We are in the minority of states that do NOT have no-excuse absentee voting. Currently, voters must attest that they have a legitimate reason (travel, illness, etc.) to ask for an absentee ballot.

• We have one of the longest time requirements between registration and voting. A New York State voter has to register 25 days before the election. And anyone who wants to vote in a party primary must be registered in that party over a year before the primary (since New York is a “closed primary” state).

• The full-faced ballot that the state requires is difficult to read (requiring magnifying glasses at each polling station) and confusing in design.

• In addition, in even years when we have both state and federal primaries, these are scheduled during two different months; and when there is a presidential election, we add a third primary day. This is not only costly but confuses voters and leads to low voter turnout.

• With our archaic election laws, it is no wonder that New York State voter turnout is low!

Voters who supported the constitutional convention (Proposition 1 on the 2017 ballot) saw it as an opportunity to modernize our election and other laws through citizen involvement in updating the state’s constitution. Since that proposition was defeated, laws can only be changed through the existing legislative process in Albany. This means that bills to change election laws must pass in both the New York Assembly and the New York Senate in two consecutive years.

Can this happen? Yes, it certainly can.

Will it happen? Remember that our state senators and assembly members were elected with the current laws and redistricting that favor the incumbents. New York’s incumbent return rate is one of the highest in the nation, hovering close to 95 percent. Thus, to convince them to introduce and pass bills to change the laws, there has to be a groundswell from the public demanding such change.

Voters need to advocate for the modernization of our election laws and lobby their legislators to introduce and vote for bills that enfranchise voters. We need no-excuse absentee ballots. We need early voting. We need to be able to register closer to the day of the election.  In fact, same-day registration would be preferable. Voters must do their part to bring about these changes.

What can you do?  First, know who your elected New York State officials are. The League of Women Voters of Suffolk County produces a Directory of Public Officials annually, which can be viewed on the LWV of Suffolk County website: www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org and print copies are also available. Once you identify your state senator and assembly member, contact them.

You can join and participate in the good government groups that already exist advocating for change.  You can go the LWV New York State website www.lwvny.org and click on advocacy and see what the League has been doing. You can also organize your own group — get others who like you are civically minded and want to bring about change.  It is true that right now, big money plays a major role in influencing policy on all levels, but remember it is only people who can vote. Speak up, encourage others to do so and have your voices heard. Our democracy works best when everyone participates.

Judie Gorenstein is vice president for voter services of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org, email league@lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

The legacy of those women and men 100 years ago is democracy at work for all.

By Lisa Scott

On Election Day next week, you may be offered a blue sticker that says “I Voted.” If you take a closer look, you might wonder why it has a quaint and old-fashioned image with the words “Honoring 100 Years of a Woman’s Right to Vote.” For every one of us that struggle, the victory and the legacy made a tremendous difference in our lives, rights and American democracy today.

The sticker’s image, chosen by public vote across New York State, is Long Island’s Rosalie Gardiner Jones (yes, that Gardiner’s Island and that Jones Beach!). Far from being a grandmotherly, stern face in a photograph, Jones was a flamboyant young socialite from the Oyster Bay-Cold Spring Harbor area who, much to the dismay of her anti-suffragist mother, preferred campaigning for women’s suffrage over the performance of her social duties.

Always with an eye for publicity, in 1912 she joined fellow suffragette Elisabeth Freeman in a trek across Long Island in a horse-drawn carriage to distribute suffrage pamphlets and literature, and in December of that year received much publicity for leading a 170-mile, 13-day march in the midst of winter from the Bronx to Albany to deliver petitions to the governor, demanding a woman’s suffrage amendment in the NYS Constitution.

Jones believed that the movement should exhibit a more military stance and discipline and thus began calling herself “The General.” She carried the suffrage message into small towns and villages with a personal attention that was both impassioned and provocative. After suffrage was achieved, she continued to campaign for equal rights and social reform until she died in 1978.

New Yorkers have long led the struggle for women’s rights; a fight with diverse people and disparate ideas (people disagreed vehemently for years about goals, partners and methods to further the cause). Seneca Falls is considered the birthplace of the women’s rights movement, and some of its greatest leaders, from Susan B. Anthony to Matilda Joslyn Gage and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who summered in Shoreham with her suffragist daughter and family), did their pioneering work in the Empire State. In passing women’s suffrage in 1917, New York fueled the momentum for the entire nation to follow suit three years later.

Women vote today because of the women’s suffrage movement, a courageous and persistent political campaign that lasted over 72 years, involved tens of thousands of women and men and resulted in enfranchising one-half of the citizens of the United States. Inspired by idealism and grounded in sacrifice, the suffrage campaign is of enormous political and social significance, yet it is virtually unacknowledged in the chronicles of American history.

For women won the vote. They were not given it, granted it or anything else. They won it as truly as any political campaign is ultimately won or lost. And they won it, repeatedly, by the slimmest of margins, which only underscores the difficulty and magnitude of their victories. It was a movement of female organizers, leaders, politicians, journalists, visionaries, rabble rousers and warriors. It was an active, controversial, multifaceted, challenging, passionate movement of the best and brightest women in America, from all backgrounds, who, in modern parlance, boldly went where no woman had ever gone before.

The suffrage movement holds a particular relevance now as it has helped lead us as a country and a people to where we are today. It celebrates rights won and honors those who helped win them. It puts women into our national history as participants. It reminds us of the necessity of progressive leaders, organizers and visionaries in every local community. The legacy of those women and men 100 years ago is democracy at work for all: civil rights, gender diversity, equality and civic engagement.

For more about our local suffragists, read Antonia Petrash’s book, “Long Island and the Woman Suffrage Movement.” For thought-provoking insights on the suffrage movement and its legacy, read Robert Cooney’s essay, “Taking a New Look — The Enduring Significance of the American Woman Suffrage Movement,” and his comprehensive book, “Winning the Vote: The Triumph of the American Woman Suffrage Movement.”

Lisa Scott is the president of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org, email league@lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

The polls will open at 6 a.m. on Election Day.

By Lisa Scott

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7. Voting is not only a right, it is a responsibility — our democracy works best when everyone participates. Polls in Suffolk County will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. To confirm that you are registered to vote and confirm your polling place, visit www.suffolkvotes.com — the website of the Suffolk County Board of Elections. If you believe your information is incorrect, call them at 631-852-4500.

If you think you may not be in the county on Election Day or will not be able to get to polls because of illness, complete an absentee ballot application (available at libraries, post offices and town halls or download at http://suffolkvotes.com/Images/ABSENTEE_APPLICATION_%20English.pdf). Print and mail it to the Suffolk County Board of Elections by Oct. 31. They will mail you your ballot, which you must complete and mail back by Nov. 6.

Remember Nov. 7 is a general election. The Suffolk County ballot will include candidates for district attorney, sheriff and judges. All 18 Suffolk County Legislature seats are on the ballot as well. Locally there are elections for various town offices.

In addition to electing public officials, voters have an opportunity to approve or reject proposals made by any local governmental body. These are usually printed on the back of the ballot. This year, New York State has offered Proposals 1, 2 and 3 for consideration by the voter.

The first — “Shall there be a convention to revise the Constitution and amend the same?” — is offered by law every 20 years to the electorate.  If the vote is negative, there will be no convention.  If the majority vote yes, there will be a convention in 2019 to consider amendments to the New York State Constitution.

In November 2018 delegates will be elected by the voters — three from each state senatorial district and 15 at large.  The amendments that are adopted by a majority of the delegates will be submitted to the voters for their approval at least six weeks after the convention adjourns.  Proponents of the convention hope that it will affect election and voting and ethics reform, changes that have been proposed to the legislature but never passed.

Other areas for improvement are judicial reform, environmental issues and health care and women’s issues. Opponents of the proposal are concerned that it may lead to a complete overhaul of the state constitution, removing or revising protections of state pensions and collective bargaining, the Adirondack Forest Preserve and school funding.

The second proposal — “Allowing the complete or partial forfeiture of a public officer’s pension if he or she is convicted of a certain type of felony,” — would allow a court to reduce or revoke the pension of a public officer who is convicted of a felony that has a direct and actual relationship to the performance of the officer’s duties.  In reaching this determination the court must consider the seriousness of the crime and whether the forfeiture would result in undue hardship to dependent children. If approved, the amendment will apply only to crimes committed on or after Jan. 1, 2018, because the New York Constitution now provides that the benefits of a public pension or retirement system cannot be reduced or impaired.

The third proposal — “Authorizing the use of forest preserve land for specific purposes,” — would create a land account with up to 250 acres for use by towns, villages and counties that have no viable alternative to using forest preserve land to address specific public health and safety concerns.  Another 250 acres will be added to the forest preserve as a substitute for the land removed. The proposed article would allow counties and townships of certain regions to conduct repairs on road and bridges and allow for the installation of new bike paths, broadband internet and water well infrastructure.

Although the Adirondack Forest Preserve is protected by the “Forever Wild” clause of the constitution, local governments, elected officials and the NYS DEC all support this amendment, feeling it is necessary for the safety of residents and to ensure that quality of life is maintained.

Make sure you are registered to vote by Oct. 13. If you moved since the last time you voted, you must reregister. Watch for news of candidate forums in your community and articles in your local newspaper or visit www.Vote411.org and the Suffolk County Board of Elections website, www.suffolkvotes.com. Be a voter, and have your voice heard.

Lisa Scott is the president of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org, email league@lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

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