Making Democracy Work: Make change through the NYS Legislature in 2018

Making Democracy Work: Make change through the NYS Legislature in 2018

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.