Making Democracy Work

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By Nancy Marr

In July 2015, New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman made permanent the Commission to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York. To measure the impact of the justice gap on vulnerable litigants and others, a task force had been created in 2010 to assess the extent and nature of the state’s civil legal services crisis. 

It held public hearings with civil legal providers, law firms, law schools and other stakeholders statewide and determined that the chronic lack of  free and low-cost legal assistance has led to a crisis in the courts, reflected by the ever-rising number of unrepresented litigants in these cases whose incomes are too low to pay for legal representation (a low-income family of four in New York State earns about 125 percent of the poverty level of $25,750).   

The mission of the commission is to ensure access to justice for all by using every resource, including self-help services, pro bono programs, technological tools and adequate funding (now $100 million of dedicated state funds annually for civil legal services throughout New York State). In order to add more pro bono attorneys, the commission amended the Rules of Professional Conduct to recommend an increase of annual pro bono hours for lawyers and for law school graduates seeking admission to the New York State bar from 10 to 50.   

The commission sought a site for a local pilot in which a strategic action plan could be developed; its goal would be providing effective assistance to all the persons in need and its success could then inform similar efforts in communities statewide. 

Looking at Suffolk County it found significant assets: a supportive judiciary, engaged providers, an active bar association and an involved law school that provides a variety of legal clinics for residents and trainings for legal service providers are significant assets. 

Suffolk’s challenges include its geography, the highest number of veterans in the state, a high percentage of homeless persons and many unaccompanied minors. A substantial  percentage of the population speaks a language other than English at home. 

Because the needs of many community members were still unmet, Suffolk was selected as a pilot. The gaps in legal services in Suffolk County are largest in three areas: family law, immigration and re-entry of veterans and formerly incarcerated individuals. Housing and health care also loom high in need for legal help. 

With funding from the Public Welfare Association, under the leadership of Administrative Judge C. Randall Hinrichs, Suffolk County launched its program with the Suffolk Planning Group, including civil legal aid providers, the judiciary, the Suffolk County Bar and Touro Law Center. Prior to starting the program, they held listening sessions, attended by 70 of the community organizations that are points of entry for people seeking help. 

Despite the number of service providers, many recognized that they were unfamiliar with each other’s services and that gaps exist that present opportunities for community integration and resource awareness. Training will be provided for these organizations and nonlawyer volunteers on how to make effective referrals. Recognizing the importance of talking to people in their own language, and at their level, these organizations can provide assistance to people in need that can prevent the escalation of issues into court matters. 

To publicize the legal resources that exist in Suffolk, and make it easier to navigate the system, the Suffolk Planning Group is soon to launch a website that would include offerings of the many legal service providers and advocacy groups. The two centers for help are Brentwood Public Library, 34 Second Ave., Brentwood, and Middle Country Public Library, 575 Middle Country Road, Selden. Suffolk residents may call 631-822-3272 for appointments with attorneys who provide advice in areas of law to persons in need. Informational materials are available at the centers, as well as training videos. 

The intersections between individuals and the civil justice system are complex. As we begin to break down barriers, we can enable everyone to access the information and effective assistance they need, and in a form they can use. With an integrated system where communities are empowered; courts participate and support access to justice initiatives; and legal service providers are dedicated to serving those in need, the provision of effective assistance will help people improve their lives. 

To view copies of the Community Legal Help Project information flyers in English and in Spanish, visit http://www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org/TakeAction.html.

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 or call 631-862-6860.

'Some 1,300 communities in the U.S. now have no newscoverage at all.' - Pew Research Center

By Donna Deedy

It’s often said that a free press is a pillar of democracy, a fourth branch of government, capable of shining a light on corruption to reveal truth. History is full of cases where news stories have exposed unethical or criminal behavior, essentially helping to right a wrong. 

Consider the story on the Pentagon Papers, which showed how the federal government misled the public about the Vietnam War. When congressional leaders didn’t act, newspapers filled a role. 

Think of the news story about lead contamination of Flint, Michigan’s water supply and the Boston Globe’s series that exposed the widespread cover-up of childhood sexual abuse by Catholic priests. Most recently, the Miami Herald’s series “Perversion of Justice” is credited for exposing the crimes and lenient punishment of Jeffrey Epstein, who allegedly operated a sex-trafficking scheme with underage girls. 

These are just a few cases with incredible breadth and scope that show how journalism raises awareness and ultimately prompts change. Countless other stories underscore the value and impact of journalism, and the news is not always necessarily grim. Aside from exposing bad actors or twisted policies, journalists also celebrate all that is good in a community and can bring people together by showing the great achievements of ordinary people. 

Any way you look at it, news matters. 

In the last decade and a half, though, it’s become increasing difficult for newspapers to survive. Newsroom employees have declined by 45 percent between 2008 and 2017, according to the Pew Research Center. Some 1,300 communities in the U.S. now have no coverage at all in what are called “news deserts.” This spells trouble for democracy. Thankfully, Congress is now opening a door to take a look at the situation. 

A six-minute YouTube video created by The News Media Alliance, the news industry’s largest trade organization, explains what people need to know about the situation. Entitled “Legislation to Protect Local News,” if you haven’t seen it, it’s worth your time. 

In summary, technology — think internet and smartphones — has had a phenomenally positive impact in increasing the demand for news by expanding readership and engagement. In fact, just 2 percent of the U.S. population in 1995 relied on the internet to get news three days a week, according to Pew Research Center. By 2018, 93 percent of the population accessed at least some news online. But while news is more widely circulated, this shift to online platforms is also at the root of the news industry’s struggle. 

Terry Egger, publisher and CEO of Philadelphia Media Network said in the video that he recognizes the power and beauty of the Facebook and Google’s distribution models, but he also sees in detail how they are eroding the news industry’s ability to pay for its journalism. 

“Facebook and Google are able to monetize their distribution of our content, nearly 80 to 85 cents of every dollar in advertising digitally goes to one of those two platforms,” he said. 

The bottom line: News is supported largely by advertisements. By creating and distributing content to an audience, news outlets essentially broker their reach to advertisers looking for exposure. Accessing news through Facebook and Google has essentially disrupted that business model.

Facebook and Google have generated over the last year $60 billion in revenue, explains U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), chairman of the U.S. House Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law Subcommittee in the video. In contrast, news publishers’ revenue is down about $31 billion “over the last several years.”

Cicilline senses that something needs to be done to help local papers and publishers survive. He, along with Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) and Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA), have introduced in April a bill called Journalism Competition and Preservation Act of 2019, H.R.2054. 

The bill provides a temporary safe harbor where publishers of online content can collectively negotiate with dominant online platforms about the terms under which their content may be distributed. 

Collins, ranking member of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, called the bill a first step to see if the nation can bring fairness to smaller and local and regional papers. So far, the legislation continues to gain momentum. 

Danielle Coffey, counsel for the News Media Alliance, stated in a recent email interview that the journalism preservation bill is receiving voices of support from both sides of the aisle. The organization is looking for more sponsors to be added. “We aren’t asking for the government to save us or even for the government to regulate or change the platforms,” said David Chavern, president and CEO of News Media Alliance. “We’re just asking for a fighting chance for news publishers to stand up for themselves and create a sustainable digital future for journalism.”

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said that he is monitoring the bill’s progress.“A free press has been essential to the maintenance of our democracy and keeping people informed,” he said. “As the way Americans consume their news evolves, we must ensure that tried-and-true local journalists are receiving their fair share so they can continue to serve their readers for generations to come.”

Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) is equally in agreement. “Our democracy is strongest when we have a free and diverse press,” he said. “From national to local news, events and happenings, we need the quality journalism of the free press to keep the public aware of what is happening in their country, state, town and local communities.”

Residents are urged to contact their congressman, Zeldin (631-289-1097) or Suozzi (631-923-4100), and ask them to become co-sponsors of H.R.2054: Journalism Competition and Preservation Act of 2019.

 

Caged migrant children at U.S. Mexico border

By Donna Deedy

Local U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D–Glen Cove), after visiting detention centers along the southern United States border July 13 with 15 other House Democrats, has returned to his Huntington office alarmed. The situation, he said, is awful.  

U.S. Immigration Detention Center. photo from Tom Suozzi’s Office

“We need to make the humanitarian crisis at the border priority number one,” Suozzi said. “The system is broken.”

The group toured and inspected facilities that are currently holding Central American migrants seeking asylum and met with several migrant families to hear, first-hand, their experiences and what can be done to help.

“America is better than this,” he said. “I have worked on this issue since before I was elected mayor of Glen Cove in 1993 and I will continue to fight for solutions consistent with our American values.” 

During the visit, Suozzi learned that only 20 to 30 migrants seeking asylum are processed each day. This provides an incentive for people to cross in between ports of entry, he said, and once apprehended, they then turn themselves in to seek asylum. In turn, this leads to their detention.

“My recent trip to the border makes it clear that this issue is incredibly complicated and has been for decades. The policies and rhetoric from this administration have exacerbated the problem, permeating a culture of fear that forces many immigrants further into the shadows.” 

 The congressman is calling for action, insisting that all delegates work together to:

•Address the current humanitarian crisis at the border.

•Secure borders in a smart and effective way.

•Create stability in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras that account for almost 90 percent of current immigrants.

•Protect the legal status of Dreamers and people with temporary protective status and their families with renewable temporary protection and a path to citizenship.

The tour coincided with rallies held in Huntington village and across the country and the world in protest of the policies and inhumane practices at U.S. border with Mexico. 

Suozzi was a guest on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on July 16, where he said that “the president has, once again, shifted the conversation away from important policy issues toward a racial divide in our country.”

The Rev. Duncan Burns, of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Huntington, attended the Huntington rally “Lights for Liberty” and spoke to the crowd that gathered July 12. Suozzi’s trip to the border, the reverend said, has sparked greater concern.

“We encourage people to raise their voices and to call their members of Congress to urge them to work together to find solutions,” he said. “The Episcopal Church is completely backing both parties to find a solution to this humanitarian crisis.”

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) did not respond to phone and email requests for comment on his position on the issue.

June 30, 2019- New York City, NY- Governor Andrew Cuomo on World Pride and the 50th Anniversary of Stonewall signs legislation banning Gay and Trans Panic Legal Defense and marches in 2019 World Pride Parade. (Darren McGee- Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

By Donna Deedy

State Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) has had a banner year. As a freshman senator serving the greater Huntington region, he introduced 68 bills with more than half passing the Senate, according to his office, and 26 percent passing both branches of the state Legislature.

Looking back, Gaughran said in a recent interview the 2019 legislative session, which ended June 20, will be regarded overall as remarkable. He attributes his success rate to the fact that the Senate was comprised of so many freshman senators.

His proudest accomplishment, he said, was passing a bill to provide disability benefits to civilian public employees who responded to Ground Zero after the 9/11 terrorist attack. The bill, called S5898D, offers relief to overlooked workers, such as transit employees and civil engineers who are sick, suffering from severe conditions and are dying from cleanup-related afflictions.

Timothy DeMeo, a first responder for the N.Y. State Department of Environmental Conservation, said he is grateful to Gaughran for getting the legislation passed within four months. 

“This law is long overdue and will help so many of us who need to retire to be able to fully address our health concerns,” he said.

DeMeo arrived at the Twin Towers just as the second plane struck and was injured by falling debris. His vehicle, he said, flipped over and pancaked. He has required multiple surgeries and is scheduled for more. DeMeo worked for the DEC for 20 years and logged more than 1,000 hours over the course of four months removing hazardous waste from Ground Zero. Today, he suffers from respiratory ailments and other conditions.

“I call myself the forgotten responder, because I’m not afforded the same benefits of my respected colleagues,” he said. 

Some of Gaughran’s other legislative achievements include making the 2 percent property tax cap permanent, allowing for early voting in elections and backing the state’s red-flag law, which establishes rules that keep guns out of the hands of people who are mentally ill. 

Gaughran said he opposed bail reform and allowing undocumented immigrants the ability to qualify for a driver’s license, two controversial bills that passed both the Senate and the Assembly and were ultimately signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). 

In the fall, while lawmakers are out of session, Gaughran expects to hold hearings with his constituents. One issue he’d like to see addressed is high property taxes. 

“We may need to open a discussion on consolidation,” he said. Schools, counties and local governments, he said, should work to share more services, which can reduce costs.

With regard to the Long Island Power Authority, Gaughran sponsored several bills. One bill, which proposed financial aid to school districts impacted by LIPA’s tax certiorari cases, stalled in committee. The other bill, S5122A, aimed to prevent LIPA from collecting back taxes through tax lawsuits. The Senate passed the latter LIPA bill unanimously and the Assembly introduced identical legislation, but it remained under legal review in the Assembly and was never put to a vote. Gaughran said that LIPA CEO Tom Falcone and LIPA lobbyists had a strong presence in Albany, after he successfully introduced the LIPA bill. He plans to take the issue up again in next year’s session.

LIPA’s press office did not respond to email requests for comments about its lobbying efforts related to the bills. Record requests filed under New York’s Freedom of Information Law are still pending.

Overall, Gaughran would like to see improvements made to the state’s budget process. Legislators, he said, are bombarded with bills right before the April 1 budget deadline.

“We really have to fix the budget process,” he said. “It’s policy as much as money.”

Photo from Governor’s office

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By Stephanie Quarles

Many organizations, universities, scientists and government officials have studied and spoken out on Long Island’s water issues, with regard to our oceans, estuaries, rivers and our aquifers.  

A recent conference in Riverhead on May 30, organized by the Environmental Advocates of New York (EANY), focused on the contamination of drinking water supplies in Suffolk County and aimed to educate and strengthen advocacy and partnerships on these issues. At the conference the following bills that were pending in the NYS Legislature and supported by EANY were highlighted. Since the conference, the Senate and Assembly have debated and passed all but one of these bills. They are described below (source: EANY). 

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1,4-Dioxane Ban A.6295, S.4389 prohibits the distribution and sale of household cleaning products and personal cosmetic products containing 1,4-dioxane to protect our health and waterways that will take effect Dec. 21, 2021. The USEPA has classified it as likely to be “carcinogenic to humans, and it is listed by California Proposition 65 as known or suspected of causing cancer or birth defects. Studies show that it causes chronic kidney and lever effects and liver cancer.” Since it is not listed as an ingredient in health and beauty and home care products, “it is difficult for consumers to avoid.” Alternative manufacturing processes exist.  

The NY State Drinking Water Council recommends that for 1,4-dioxane, more than 1 part per billion requires treatment. Nassau and Suffolk water suppliers have reported the highest levels of 1,4-dioxane contamination in the nation. It is most prevalent in our Long Island waters with 82 of the 89 wells above the threshold.         

Update: Passed by NYS Senate and NYS Assembly, waiting for governor’s signature to become law.

PFAS-Free Firefighting Foam A.445, S.439 bans the use, manufacture, sale and distribution of firefighting foam containing perfluroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS chemicals two years after the effective date. These bills are to eliminate a major source of drinking water contamination and encourage alternatives. PFAS is associated with cancer, hormone disruption, liver and kidney damage, developmental and reproductive harm and immune system toxicity. There is no safe level of exposure.

Hampton Bays Fire Department was designated as a Superfund site (contamination site) due to groundwater contamination by PFAS.

Update: Passed by NYS Senate and NYS Assembly, waiting for governor’s signature to become law.

“Polluter Pays” A.5377-C, S.3337-C allows public water suppliers and wholesale water suppliers to sue a polluter for damages within three years of water testing that reveals elevated levels of dangerous contaminants in the water supply. This bill makes it easier to hold polluters accountable and helps prevent the costs of remediation from falling on New York taxpayers.

Update: Passed by NYS Senate and NYS Assembly, waiting for governor’s signature to become law.

Restricting Nitrogen Fertilizer A.4568, S.2130 adds to the Environmental Conservation Law to require that only low-level fertilizer with no more than 12 percent nitrogen by weight is sold in Suffolk and Nassau counties. Limits on nitrogen in fertilizers will reduce the nitrogen that runs off during rain. EANY recommends that the bill be extended to cover all of NY state and not be delayed to Dec 31, 2021.

Update: Currently in the Environmental Committee in the Assembly. 

Although the focus of the seminar was on drinking water contaminates, other topics of concern for our water quality were brought up as well; the drop in the aquifer, nitrogen levels and the sewage discharge, lead pipe run off, salt intrusions and septic systems were also noted as major issues affecting water quality. The importance of appropriate standards for detecting contamination was stressed.

Tyrand Fuller of the Suffolk County Water Authority described the water quality mapping and database project known as WaterTraq. It tracks potential threats in the water supply and provides supply information to the public and regulators. It has an interactive map providing the status of LI groundwater for health officials, industry professionals and the public and provides both untreated (raw) water test results and treated water that is sent to the public. http://liaquifercommission.com/watertraq.html.

Another way to find out information about the water quality in your community is at the Suffolk County Water Authority’s Water Quality Report website: http://s1091480.instanturl.net/2019waterreport/water-quality-by-distribution-area-2019-scwa_index.html.

Our fellow Suffolk County residents must be more aware of how fragile and difficult it is to safeguard the quality of our drinking waters. We must continue to educate ourselves and speak loudly for support of legislation dealing with our water crisis. For a list of conference speakers as well as additional resources from expert sites on our drinking water, visit http://www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org/TakeAction.html.

Stephanie Quarles is a director 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 or call 631-862-6860.

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By Nancy Marr

Concern about the school to prison pipeline has mounted in recent years. At the opening of the first federal hearing on the subject, earlier this year, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) said, “For many young people, our schools are increasingly a gateway to the criminal justice system. This phenomenon is a consequence of a culture of zero tolerance that is widespread in our schools and is depriving many children of their fundamental right to an education.” 

Matthew Cregot, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, explained, “With suspension a top predictor of dropout, we must confront this practice if we are ever to end the ‘dropout crisis,’ or the so-called achievement gap.”

A zero-tolerance policy requires school officials to hand down specific, consistent and harsh punishment — usually suspension or expulsion — when students break certain rules. The punishment applies regardless of the circumstances, the reasons for the behavior (like self-defense) or the student’s history of discipline problems.

These policies developed in the 1990s in response to school shootings and general fears about crime. The school to prison pipeline starts (or is best avoided) in the classroom. When combined with zero-tolerance policies, a teacher’s decision to refer students for punishment can mean they are pushed out of the classroom, and much more likely to be headed toward the criminal justice system.

On May 10, Suffolk County Sheriff Errol D. Toulon Jr. (D) and Assemblywoman Kimberly Jean-Pierre (D-Wheatley Heights) from Babylon brought together experts in juvenile justice, child development, human services, law and trauma to develop A Holistic Approach to Deconstructing the Prison Pipeline.

Testimony at the hearing identified domestic abuse, substance abuse, mental health issues, lack of education and gangs as factors that lead young people into crime, and called for the creation of “safe spaces” for “at-risk” children to receive counseling, recreational activities, job training and education.

Intervention to help a child must recognize that he may be calling out for help, angry at himself and his environment; instead, what he gets is punishment. Significantly, three previously incarcerated women testified that prison had rescued them. It changed their environment by providing for their basic needs, making them follow rules, requiring them to go to school.

Jerri Katzerman, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that the increase in police in school buildings, called school resource officers, has contributed to the increase in in-school arrests. The vast majority of these arrests are for nonviolent offenses, often for being disruptive.

A recent U.S. Department of Education study found that more than 70 percent of students arrested in school-related incidents or referred to law enforcement are black or Hispanic. Children with special needs are also arrested at a higher rate than others. Instead of pushing children out, Katzerman said, teachers need a lot more support and training for effective discipline, and schools need to use best practices of behavior modification to keep these kids in school where they belong. 

In restorative justice circles, which bring together the student who has committed the crime with the victims and any others who are affected, it is possible to repair the harm, restore relationships and help the student become accountable for his actions. 

Parent groups have successfully worked with school districts to change zero-tolerance policies and adopt schoolwide positive behavior support systems that create a more welcoming environment for children and their parents, encouraging parents to advocate effectively for their children in suspension cases. These are societal issues that will not be solved solely within schools. We need to take action to create a society that meets the needs of all children.

“Deconstructing the prison pipeline is about mobilizing all facets of the community to prevent juvenile delinquency and crime,” said Toulon. “It’s about implementing practical prevention and intervention solutions that will improve people’s lives and make our communities safer.”

You can support programs in your school or community that work for all children, but especially those who need help to overcome the trauma of family problems or mental illness.

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 or call 631-862-6860.

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By Nancy Marr

After each decennial census, the Constitution requires each state to re-draw the lines for election districts in order to allocate the number of Congressional house seats fairly if they have gained or lost population. In 42 states they are drawn by the state legislature, while in six states they are drawn by independent commissions and in seven states by politician commissions, where elected officials may serve as members. 

We know that technology makes it possible to mine data for many socio-economic factors, but do you realize that candidates who are drawing the lines can access records on political party registrations of the voters in their district and which elections they’ve voted in to configure legislative districts that will protect their incumbency?

Drawing the lines so that members of the opposition party are diluted by being spread out among many districts (“cracking”) or concentrated in only one district (“packing”) denies the right to an equal vote to those in the minority party. 

The Supreme Court had found complaints about apportionment to be a purely political question outside of their purview, but 1962’s decision in Baker v. Carr held that federal courts had a role in forcing states to correct inequities in the makeup of electoral districts, leading to the rule of “one person, one vote.”  Under the Equal Protection clause in the Constitution, inequality in voting power is unconstitutional, especially when it affects the rights of minorities.  

Advocates in many states have challenged gerrymandering in the courts, based on partisanship or race. Currently, many of the cases heard by the Supreme Court have been denied because the plaintiffs lacked standing, without a finding on whether the claims were justifiable. 

The League of Women Voters of the United States and many state and local leagues have been involved in court cases with other groups or on their own. LWVUS is waiting for a decision from the Supreme Court on a gerrymandering case it brought in North Carolina, and leagues in Ohio, Missouri, Michigan, Tennessee and Texas have been involved in challenges to unfair districting or registration practices. The relief that is sought are often independent redistricting commissions to draw the new lines.  

In 2008, Common Cause led an effort to pass Proposition 11 in California. It placed the power to draw electoral boundaries for state Assembly and state Senate districts in a Citizens Redistricting Commission, as opposed to the state Legislature. The act, proposed by the initiative process, amended both the Constitution of California and the Government Code.  

It was passed by the voters in the November 2008 elections and was extended in 2010  to include U.S. House seats as well. It passed by a small margin despite opposition from the California Democratic Party, including Barbara Boxer and Nancy Pelosi, and Asian, Hispanic and African American groups. They argued that it would not prevent politicians from hiding behind the selected bureaucrats, and would not guarantee protection for minority groups. 

HR1, on the 2019 Congressional calendar, includes proposals that would mandate the use of independent commissions and the establishment of redistricting criteria, including racial fairness, protection for communities of interest and a ban on partisan gerrymandering. It would require public hearings before and after a plan is drafted, and a requirement that the responses to public comment be included alongside the final plan. 

The Brennan Center for Justice interviewed a diverse group of 100 stakeholders who were involved with redistricting in state-level redistricting and municipal commissions. It concluded that commissions can significantly reduce many of the worst abuses associated with redistricting but only if the commissions are carefully designed and structured to promote independence and incentivize discussion and compromise.  

Despite efforts to require the use of independent commissions, or amend state constitutions to prohibit gerrymandering, fair competition among candidates can only result if all voters believe their candidate can win. As long as information about party membership or voting patterns is available to those drawing lines, redistricting will not be a blind process. 

Today’s technology and algorithms make it too easy to configure districts that include voters who would consistently return incumbents or elect officials of a given party. For our democracy to prosper, all citizens must have the opportunity to vote and to know that their vote will count.  

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 or call 631-862-6860.

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By Lisa Scott

A few weeks ago, the League of Women Voters was asked by the Girl Scouts of Suffolk County to assist voters at an event on April 8. What we learned that night about the vision, empowerment and maturity of our “not-yet voters” is truly inspirational and remarkable. Keep in mind Girl Scouting’s mission: building girls of courage, confidence and character, who make the world a better place. 

Today, a civil discourse on most issues is nearly impossible. Most influencers seem to drown out individuals who want to learn “the story behind the story” and reach thoughtful well-researched conclusions. Yet the Girl Scouts’ participation in and embracing the 12,000 Voices initiative was a model for us all.

The name 12,000 Voices was chosen for its aspirational value. Start with readings of “12 Angry Men” performed by 12 Impassioned Women, over the course of one weekend, all over the country: in high schools, community and regional theaters, community colleges, universities and community centers. Over the course of time, imagine readings in 1,000 locations, accumulating 12,000 voices. The event is planned to take place nationally every year.

The readings took place in every nook and  cranny of the country, in red, blue and purple communities in all 50 states. And after each staged reading there was an opportunity to update voter registration and learn about voter engagement.  Voter suppression is real. Gerrymandering is real. Individual voices and votes matter. 

We can increase awareness and participation through the power of girls’ and women’s voices as they read this classic play.Only one juror votes “not guilty.” As tempers flare and the arguments begin, the audience learns about each member of the jury. The power of one impassioned voice, speaking with conviction, is breathtaking.

Above, the logo for 12,000 voices. Stock photo

And what did the girls take away from this experience? That taking positive risks builds confidence and leadership skills. They developed greater understanding of the extreme importance of the role of a jury in our judicial system; a civic duty that should be welcomed, not avoided. Girl Scouts promise to serve their country and help people at all times, and civic engagement fits very well within this pledge. They feel empowered, they know they have a voice within the civic community, and that their voices and opinions matter. 

Additionally Girl Scouts of Suffolk County was delighted to have a show of amazing diversity among its women actors, with a wide range of ages, cultural backgrounds and life experience, which is quite different from the original cast of “12 Angry Men.”  Such diversity brought a refreshing and exciting tone to the script, and strengthened the message of the show, allowing it to become that much more significant. 

The audience ranged in age from middle-schoolers through grandparents, but each person was able to take away a clear and cogent understanding of the power of individuals to make a difference in situations both small and personal, or national and affecting our place in in society and the planet we all share. Let’s all learn from Girl Scouts; they will be our future leaders. 

For more information on Girl Scouting in Suffolk County, visit www.gssc.us or call 631-543-6622. The league looks forward to strengthening our partnerships with the Girl Scouts and encouraging youth civic education and engagement in a nonpartisan environment.

Lisa Scott is 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 http://www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org, email league@lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

Early voting will take place in New York State before the Nov. 5 general election. Stock photo

By Lisa Scott

Voting is about to get easier for New Yorkers. New York has long been behind most of the country when it comes to voting. Our election laws were archaic, making it difficult for people to vote and resulting in low voter turnout. However, both the NYS Assembly and Senate passed several bills on election law, most of which have been signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).

Not all are effective immediately and some will require additional money to be added in the state budget. Other reforms such as no-excuse absentee ballots and same-day voter registration must go through the NYS Constitution amendment process, which will delay their implementation for at least three years.

Early voting will take place for the first time in New York for the Nov. 5, 2019 general election. (Thirty-eight states and District of Columbia have already instituted in-person early voting.) Voters will be able to vote at designated poll sites 10 days prior to Election Day. Each county board of elections will follow the law designating the number of and placement of the early voting poll sites and notify voters of the days, hours and locations of the early polling sites. But all NYS county boards of elections (especially those like Suffolk County, which have large populations and geographic areas) face a myriad of challenges to meet the early voting law requirements.

The League of Women Voters of New York (LWVNY) estimates the cost of statewide early voting to be $9.3 million for implementation in the 2019 general election. The law requires one site per 50,000 registered voters over a period of 9 days with 8 hours of weekday early voting and 5 hours of weekend early voting.

The projected cost areas include poll sites (rental fees for 83 additional sites throughout NYS), staffing and training (training session costs and staffing compensation), voting equipment (some counties may need to purchase new equipment including electronic poll books), security (voting machines and ballots must be secure 24/7 throughout the period of early voting) and education (statewide mailings advising all registered voters this would be a one-time cost).

In particular, electronic poll books (utilizing secure tablets or laptops with data downloaded in advance eliminating Wi-Fi/hacking concerns) are essential for Suffolk and similar multisite early voting counties in NYS. They allow greater ease and accuracy during the early voting period and will have long-term cost savings after their initial investment. They provide a fast check-in process, reducing the propensity for long lines. They reduce the need for provisional ballots because voters’ records can be searched for in multiple ways. And if a voter is in the wrong place, she can quickly be directed to the correct precinct in order to cast a regular ballot.

Additionally they can be updated right before the election, reducing the rush to enter registration and updates in time to print and distribute paper poll books; and they make postelection updates much faster and accurate. Three NYS counties conducted successful pilot projects utilizing electronic poll books last year.

As of mid-March 2019, Cuomo had not included funding for early voting in his January 2019 Executive Budget (and his February amendment proposals). LWVNY and other good-government groups have been lobbying NYS Senate and Assembly members to include early voting funding in their budget amendments in March. NYS law requires a budget by April 1 each year, so there will be substantial negotiations for the governor and the NYS Senate president and Assembly speaker in late March.

The governor contends that significant savings from a consolidated single state primary will be adequate to cover early voting costs. But there is only one primary date in 2019, so that money will only become available in 2020. Absent funding for early voting in the 2019 NYS budget, each county will have to find its own funding for early voting this year. Suffolk County will thus face a substantial unfunded mandate from NYS in a time of decreasing revenues and substantial borrowing.

Contact your NYS Senate and Assembly leadership and representatives and Cuomo now to ensure appropriate funding for a successful early voting rollout in November!

Lisa Scott is 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 http://www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org, email league@lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

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By Nancy Marr

According to the Gun Violence Archive, the number of mass shootings during 2018 in the United States has been estimated at 346, with 18 of them in schools. But laws backed by the NRA and other pro-gun groups prevent the public from seeing which firearms dealers are selling the most guns used in crimes, information the federal government collects but won’t share, even with premier research universities. The NRA also pushed through rules that had a chilling effect on federal studies focused on how guns affect public health, denying policymakers a road map for better gun laws.

Regulating the ownership and use of guns by the federal government began in the 1920s and ’30s with support from the general public and the NRA, then a sporting and hunting association. Since then the federal government and the states have passed legislation requiring background checks, waiting periods, licenses for concealed weapons carriers, restrictions on purchases for certain high-risk people and a ban on assault weapons and ammunition. 

The 1993 Brady Act, against NRA opposition, tightened the background check requirements and created the FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS system, to provide speedy background checks. After the shooting at Sandy Hook governments turned their attention to preventing shootings by high-risk people.  

New York State passed the SAFE Act (Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act), amending its Mental Hygiene Law to add a new reporting requirement that mental health professionals currently providing treatment services to an individual must make a report to authorities, “if they conclude that the individual is likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others.” The act requires those who live with a household member “who has been convicted of a felony or domestic violence crime, has been involuntarily committed, or is currently under an order of protection” to “safely store” and lock any guns in a secure gun cabinet.

NRA opponents of the regulations state that the laws only hurt people who adhere to current firearms laws, and the regulations about gun locking devices prevent gun owners from using their guns in self-defense.

The League of Women Voters of the United States has been in support of stricter laws for background checks, more gun safety education, a ban on assault weapons and protection for victims of domestic violence from abusers who possess guns. The LWV of New York supported legislation to establish criminal sanctions for possession and sale of assault weapons, which were banned in 1994 but released from the ban in 2004. 

Currently, on both the federal and state levels, there are laws that are being considered during this session that would deal with many of the loopholes and problems of illegal firearm use.  

On the federal level, proposed legislation this term includes: requiring unlicensed sellers to meet their buyers (with certain exceptions) at a licensed gun dealer who would run a background check using the same process used for his own inventory, support for a ban on assault weapons, broadening the definition of domestic abusers to the laws protecting victims of domestic violence and opposing a national bill that allows people to carry concealed weapons.  

On the NYS level, in January the Assembly and the Senate passed six important gun control bills related to an extreme risk protection order (ERPO/“red flag”) law, background checks extension, a bump stock ban, a ban on arming educators, out-of-state mental health records check and gun buyback programs. In February we hope that Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signs these bills, and that the needed regulations are written and appropriate funding allocated. 

Contact your U.S. representative and NYS senator and Assembly member to find out how they voted or plan to vote, and what they think of these bills. Thank them if they did vote for those you care about, and clearly communicate your concerns and advocacy when they did not. For more information, go to the Senate or Assembly websites to research details on the individual bills or check with individual congressional or NYS legislative aides via phone or email. Make your voice heard on this important issue. 

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 or call 631-862-6860.

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