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Making Democracy Work

Brookhaven Town Landfill. Image from Google Maps

By Lisa Scott and Nancy Marr

Planning and decision making in our county needs to be a more open, thoughtful process. There is a concern on the part of communities in the area surrounding the Brookhaven Town Landfill that the plans for closing it in 2024 are unclear and have not been fully disclosed to the public. 

The League’s March 2021 TBR column on zero waste (https://tbrnewsmedia.com/making-democracy-work-how-can-we-get-to-zero-waste/) set the stage … our goal is to significantly reduce our garbage, but we are far from getting significant action from our neighbors (and our consumer/disposable society) in the next few years. Thus, what the Town of Brookhaven (TOB) does with the landfill site, the surrounding area, and the ash disposal will be a major factor for central Suffolk residents in the coming years. 

The TOB landfill was established on vacant land zoned mostly residential in 1974. Hamlets, developments, neighborhoods now surround the landfill site, including the areas of North Bellport and Horizon Village. 

Looking ahead to the closing of the landfill, TOB officials have proposed changing the zoning of 136 acres on the landfill site from residential to light industry and selling some of the land for an industrial park, with a codicil to prevent certain waste-related uses. (The remaining acres include the municipal recycling facility and yard waste and composting operations and undisturbed woodland.) 

At the zoning hearing held by the TOB in July, residents from all parts of the town protested the plan to sell the acreage and suggested instead that the town seek community input about how to remediate and re-purpose the entire landfill property. Clearly information is required about possible contamination of water and soil and the testing results over the past 50 years (think of the Bethpage and Brookhaven Lab plumes). 

The League is focused on civic education and government transparency. We urge the TOB Supervisor and Board to THINK BIG! The problems and possible solutions to the landfill closure, possible pollution, health effects and ash-disposal are just one part of a proposed ongoing discussion. 

Appointing a sustainability committee could lead the TOB toward better understanding of the problem and solutions and lead a community education effort. The town needs to communicate the issues openly with the public and hold public listening sessions to get constituents’ input. Garbage itself, and its costs in dollars, health, property values, and yes, our children’s future, MUST be described and garbage volume reduced significantly. If the landfill is to close in 2024, time is of the essence. Everyone should have the opportunity to be heard.

In a time of contentiousness and public strife, it’s critical that government brings its citizens/residents into the tent and that accurate, thorough information is the basis. The people must be heard, and decision-making must be transparent and accessible. The Town of Brookhaven owes this to the people who elected them and placed their trust in these representatives. 

Lisa Scott is president and Nancy Marr is 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. Visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

Stock photo

By Nancy Marr

Americans have become aware that our system of family care is disjointed and sometimes inaccessible. The pandemic particularly highlighted the problem of childcare, as essential workers had to leave their jobs because their child care resources had closed. The American Rescue Plan (ARP), passed by Congress in 2021, helped day care centers, home and family childcare providers stay open or reopen and provide protective and sanitizing equipment.  

The League of Women Voters of the United States since 1988 has supported programs at all levels of government to expand the supply of affordable, quality childcare for all who need it. The League also participates in the Pre-K Coalition in New York State, advocating for investing in children’s early years to lay the foundation for reading, writing, and math skills. Many Pre-K programs are funded through school districts, open free to parents through a lottery, but frequently for only half a day. 

The Coalition on Human Needs (www.chn.org, July 19) reported that, even before the pandemic, childcare was unaffordable for many families. In many parts of the country, families pay more than $10,000 a year per child for child care. That’s 16% of the median household income, but far more for many families.

New York State has just announced that it will use the funding of $25 million it has received from the federal government for child care scholarships for essential workers, whose income is less than $79,500 for a family of four. Additional federal funding of $105 million granted to New York State in 2021 will be used to expand Pre-K programs; on Long Island, $31.9 million dollars will make it possible to seat 5,200 four year olds, mostly for full-day care. 

This July, through the Child Tax Credit program (which has existed since the 1990’s), parents with joint incomes of $150,000, head of household filers with incomes of $112,500 and single filers with incomes of $75,000 have received the first monthly payment of $300 for each child younger than 6, and $250 for each child between 6 and 17. Parents with incomes up to $170,000 will receive payments but they will be less. The American Rescue Act recently increased the amount of credit and made it possible for families to receive payment each month, beginning in July 2021 with the remaining funds granted at the end of the year with the tax filing.   

Separately, the Earned Income Tax Credit, or the EITC, is a refundable tax credit for low-wage workers that was expanded through the American Rescue Act. For taxable year 2020, parents “earned” between $1,502 to $6,728 depending on their tax-filing status, and the income they earned that year.

President Biden has proposed the American Families Plan and hopes to have it passed. His proposal would pay for universal Pre-K and free community college, an investment in child care of $225 billion over 10 years to federally supported child care providers and $200 billion for free pre-school programs for 3 and 4 year olds, and a cap on child care costs at 7 percent of a family’s earnings. 

The proposal also calls for a national paid family and medical leave. Should ARP not be refunded, the benefit amounts of the child tax credit and the Earned Income Credit will go back to their original amounts. To support the enhanced amounts and monthly distribution, contact your Congressperson. Also write to support the efforts of New York State Senator Todd Kaminsky (D Long Beach) for his support of child care funding.

Nancy Marr is 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 [email protected] or call 631-862-6860.

Pixabay photo

By Lisa Scott

Americans (remember civics?) know that there is a third branch of government … the Judiciary. Unfortunately, most think of Judge Judy (and the myriad of similar TV judges) and Law and Order (and its spinoffs). If they are politically engaged, it’s the Supreme Court that is a focus. However, judges affect the majority of Americans much “closer to home” at some point in their lives: traffic, matrimonial, drug and alcohol, accidents, property. But there’s so little awareness of how judges are selected  and the pressing need for court reform in New York State.

Because of the League of Women Voters’ nonpartisan principles and expertise with voter education, I was asked by County Executive Steve Bellone to moderate a four-hour judicial reform conference on June 8. Opening keynotes from Congressman Jerry Nadler (Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee) and Hon. Jeh Johnson (former U.S. Dept of Homeland Security Secretary, appointed Special Advisor on Equal Justice in the Courts by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore in 2020) set the stage for the three panels. 

These focused on the history and experience of judicial selection; a robust discussion of judicial selection reform proposals, and a wide-ranging discussion of the challenges: court simplification, promoting diversity on the bench, and criminal justice and public confidence in state judiciary as well as methods to promote and ensure judicial independence and  implications on criminal justice. (View the entire conference at https://www.facebook.com/SteveBellone/videos).

During the conference, Hon. Stuart Namm, former Suffolk County Judge, was given the Suffolk County Public Service Award by CE Bellone. Judge Namm’s experience culminating in 1985 with a letter to then-Gov. Mario Cuomo describing misconduct by the Suffolk County police and the district attorney’s office including possible perjury by prosecutors. 

New York’s State Commission of Investigation followed up on Judge Namm’s charges, eventually filing a report (described as “blistering” by Newsday) condemning misconduct by police detectives and prosecutors. The Suffolk County police commissioner resigned soon afterward; the district attorney declined to run for re-election. A number of officers retired early or resigned. No one, however, was indicted. Denied renomination to his judgeship, Judge Namm was ostracized and moved to North Carolina. 

Although “some who knew him wished he would stay quiet,” Namm’s 2014 “A Whistleblower’s Lament” details his experiences. He said “… in New York state, judges always have to be looking over their shoulders. So long as judges in trial courts are selected through the political process, things will never change.”

The LWV of NYS has been advocating for court reform since 1955, when there were about 1500 autonomous courts in the state. Some progress has been made since then, but there has been tremendous reluctance by the NYS Assembly and Senate and the Governor to fully address issues via legislation and appropriate budget support. Constitutional amendments are needed. We support measures to obtain a unified, statewide court system, and believe judges should be chosen on the bases of merit although with ultimate control of a major governmental institution resting with the people. 

New York’s existing multiple court structure creates confusion for the people the justice system is supposed to serve. For many, and frequently in matters involving the safety of families and children, the scenario is this: different judges decide on different pieces of inter-related cases, as a result each judge has an incomplete story of a case causing individuals to receive multiple decisions and faulty resolution of their cases. As a result, all parties to a case have to make multiple appearances, along with any government agencies, attorneys and witnesses and have to repeat, again and again, the trauma that caused them to appear in court. 

This not only wastes time for everyone, it is completely unfair and an unproductive way to provide justice, causes the loss of work and wages and perpetuates a system that is difficult, if not impossible, to understand, and hurts individuals and their families as they get caught up in systemic chaos. (To learn more, visit https://simplifynycourts.org/)

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 www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org, email [email protected] or call 631-862-6860.

Let your voice be heard. METRO photo

By Nancy Marr

The New York State political year will end in June, when the legislative sessions are over. We have only a short time to influence our legislators about issues we care about. We can contact them by phone or letter or email or twitter. Always include the bill number. If the Senator or Assemblyman has supported or co-sponsored the bill you are referring to, thank them and ask them to advocate with leadership to bring the bill to the floor for a vote, and then get it passed. If they did not support It, tell them in your own words why you think it should be supported.  

Twitter is the most effective social media for influencing your legislators. A sample tweet might be @SENATOR bring #SinglePayerHealthCare to the floor for a vote! Vote YES to #New York Health Act!. Even better would be to send your letters or tweets from a group of your friends or colleagues.

Many bills have been submitted that could be passed by the legislature and signed by the governor. Those that follow are supported by the League of Women Voters of New York State.   

Three bills of special interest would continue the modernization of voting that began in the last two years. 

S253 (Myrie)/A1144 (Paulin): Safeguard ballots from technical disqualification where the express intent of a voter is clear. This legislation will safeguard the constitutional right of absentee voters to have their votes counted when there are stray marks or writing on an absentee ballot, as long as the express intent of the voter is unambiguous. This legislation passed in the Senate in Jan. 2021 and is pending in the Assembly Election Law Committee.

S909 (Sanders)/A1044 (Dinowitz): Provide postage paid return envelopes with all domestic mail ballots so that no one is personally burdened in casting their vote. This legislation is in the Election Law Committee in both the Senate and Assembly.

S1046 (Myrie)/A6678(Walker) (The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of NYS): Prevent and redress acts of voter suppression, disenfranchisement and require certain localities to clear local changes to voter access. This legislation is pending in the Election Law Committees in both the Senate and Assembly.

Public Ethics is the subject of a bill to reform the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE):

A6611(Hyndman)/S5254(Biaggi): Remove the political party veto that requires that officials cannot be found guilty of ethical violations without the votes of two members of his or her party. Established in 2011 to ensure compliance with the State’s ethics and lobbying laws, it has been found to lack independence from the Executive and the Legislature. 

Two important health care bills have been introduced:

S6471(Savino)/A4321(Paulin): Allow a terminally ill, mentally capable adult to request life-ending medication from a doctor that the person can self-administer at a time of his or her choosing. Written after studying similar laws in Oregon, Washington, and California among 9 other states that already allow it.

A6058(Gottfried)/S5474(Rivera): Establishes a comprehensive system of access to health insurance for all New York residents, provides for administrative structure of the plan, provides for powers and duties of the board of trustees and five regional councils, establishes the scope of benefits, payment methodologies and care coordination. Establishes the New York Health Trust Fund which would hold monies from a payroll tax like the Medicare tax, establish a temporary commission on implementation of the plan and provide for collective negotiations by health care providers with New York Health. 

Under the proposed legislation, there would be no network restrictions, deductibles, or co-pays. Coverage would be publicly funded and would include outpatient and inpatient medical care, long-term care, primary and preventive care, prescription drugs, laboratory tests, rehabilitative, dental, vision and hearing care. Although this bill has many co-sponsors it is not likely that it will be passed during this session. It is currently in committee in both the Assembly and the Senate.

These are some of the more important bills that the League is endorsing. For more information about any of the bills, find them at https://www.nysenate.gov or https://nyassembly.gov/. Via these websites you can contact your own New York State legislator, and the legislator who sponsored the bill, to support them. 

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 https://my.lwv.org/new-york/suffolk-county or call 631-862-6860.

Microplastics. Photo by Erica Cirino

By Nancy Marr

How many plastics do you use each day  — cups, straws, food containers, water bottles, toys, shoes? How many of them could you live without? How have we become so dependent on plastics – most of which we use once and then discard? 

Beginning after World War II, the invention of items like plexiglass, impressive because of its durability, started the growth of the plastics industry. More recently, with the fossil fuel industry facing cutbacks, and with fracking reducing the price of natural gas, fossil fuel companies in the United States found they could make products from their waste, making it into things people could use. Since the 1960s, plastic production has increased by approximately 8.7% annually, evolving into a $600 billion global industry. Fossil fuel companies supported building more pipelines to make more plastic products.

Recycling was regarded as the way to dispose of the plastics, turning them into new products. In 1975, producers lobbied the United States government for more recycling programs. But recycling has not been a solution. Now, 400 million tons have accumulated over the world, most of it created within the last 15 years in the United States. Plastics degrade when they are recycled; the World Economic Forum estimates that only 2% has been effectively recycled to create new products. Burning the plastic waste to melt it releases toxic compounds and carbon. 

The public has become aware of the problems created by plastic waste. Efforts to clean the oceans where the waste has accumulated have revealed micro and nanoplastic pellets and beads, which we are also finding in cosmetics. Other countries are responding to the problem of the waste piled on their shorefronts and waterways. 

Current estimates find that oceans have 60% fish but 40% plastics. China, which received and recycled much of the plastic waste we shipped to them until 2013, passed a law refusing all shipments of waste from the United States. 

Additionally, when plastics are exposed to natural forces like sunlight and wave action, plastics will degrade into microplastics. Over time, plastic particles contaminate the marine ecosystem and the food chain, including foodstuffs intended for human consumption. In vivo studies have demonstrated that nanoplastics can translocate to all organs, affecting human health.

Plastic producers say the plastics are OK, people need them; it is what the consumer does after their use that is the problem, leaving the problem to us. Local efforts to reduce the use of plastics have had some success – cutting back on the use of plastic water bottles, for instance. But the public believes they need them, encouraged by advertising and publicity from water bottle manufacturers like the Ohio manufacturer Fiji who convincingly tells consumers that their water is safer than the public water supply. 

Environmentalists have realized that change needs to start with the manufacturers, not the consumer. Freeing the oceans from the deposits of plastics and creating plastics that are compostable or biodegradable will take strong citizen action. According to The Daily Planet, “we are seeing that public demands are clear, and they want plastic waste to be addressed.”

We need to ask the Federal Government to stop giving rebates to fossil fuel companies. The Center for Biological Diversity has petitioned the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate plastics as a pollutant under the Clean Water Act and will keep pushing for plastic pollution to be treated as the hazardous waste that it is. On a federal level, the Break Free from Plastics Act that was re-introduced recently includes a strengthened EPR policy that holds plastic producing companies accountable for their waste. It also would implement a three-year pause on issuing permits for new plastic production facilities. 

In New York State the Extended Producer Responsibility bill (S1185), co-sponsored by Assemblyman Steve Englebright and Senator Todd Kaminsky, will be addressed in the Senate most likely in June. It would require producers and manufacturers to finance the disposal of their packaging materials and plastics, with incentives for finding ways of making recycling easier. The American Chemistry Council, which represents plastic producers, would put the onus on consumers to pay taxes on plastic to pay for recycling. 

Although recycling will not make the plastics go away, we should all do  what we can to reduce our personal use of plastics. Contact the legislators who have written the EPR bills, Senator Kaminsky ([email protected]) and Assemblyman Englebright ([email protected]) and your own state legislators, to tell them you support the EPR bill and reusable packaging to reduce the use of plastics.    

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 https://my.lwv.org/new-york/suffolk-county or call 631-862-6860.

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By Lisa Scott

Every person has dignity and potential. But one in three American adults has a criminal record, which limits their access to education, jobs, housing, and other things they need to reach that potential. Observed in the United States during April since 2017, Second Chance Month is a nationwide effort to raise awareness of the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction and unlock second-chance opportunities for people who have completed their sentences to become contributing citizens. 

NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice reports that the number of people incarcerated in America today is more than four times larger than it was in 1980, when wages began to stagnate and the social safety net began to be rolled back. We’ve long known that people involved in the criminal justice system — a group that’s disproportionately poor and Black — face economic barriers in the form of hiring discrimination and lost job opportunities, among other factors. People who were imprisoned early in their lives earn about half as much annually as socioeconomically similar people untouched by the criminal justice system.

The staggering racial disparities in our criminal justice system flow directly into economic inequality. These consequences are magnified and reinforced throughout a lifetime of discrimination in employment and access to economic opportunity. They are felt by individuals, of course, but also by families and communities. And they are felt in such large numbers, and in such a systemic way, that they constitute a major structural factor in economic inequality.

Suffolk County has the highest parole population in the State, so New York State legislative criminal justice and reentry reform proposals (and action) in 2021 can have a powerful impact for our community members. Here are a few examples :

Relocation So Parents Can Be Closer To Their Children While Incarcerated was passed as Correction Law 72-C

HALT (Humane Alternatives To Long-Term) — Limiting Solitary Confinement was passed and will take effect April 1, 2022. 

Fair and Timely Parole Act (NYS Senate and Assembly Bills S497A/A4346) This would shift the standard for discretionary parole release, moving toward a presumption of release under state law. It would remove language that says an inmate should not be given parole if their release will “deprecate the seriousness of his crime” and under the bill, parole could be denied if there’s a “current and unreasonable risk” the person will break the law if released, and that the risk “cannot be mitigated by parole supervision.” 

Juvenile Offender Second Chance Act (NYS Senate And Assembly Bills S7539/A6491) This would allow a person previously adjudicated a “juvenile offender,” who did not receive “youthful offender” status (converting the criminal conviction to an adjudication), an opportunity to petition the court and get “youthful offender” status on the previous charge when they are: at least 26 years old and fulfill other requirements.

Clean Slate — Automatic Expungement (NYS Senate and Assembly Bills S1553A/A6399) Of particular interest (although less likely to become law this year) is the Clean Slate law that will automatically clear a New Yorker’s criminal record once they become eligible. With more than 400,000 New Yorkers arrested on criminal charges each year, the exclusion of people with criminal records from employment opportunities via background checks and other barriers hurts productivity and deprives the workforce of crucial talent. The ACLU estimates that, nationally, excluding individuals with conviction histories from the workforce costs the economy between $78 billion and $87 billion in lost domestic product. 

Expansion Of Sealing Convictions 160.59 would be a small, positive step but currently is only under discussion in the NYS Senate. 

Voting-Restoration For People On Parole (NYS Senate and Assembly Bills S1931/A4987) Last year, the Governor issued an executive order granting 35,000 voting pardons to people on parole, but that’s just a stopgap measure. This law would make voting rights for people on parole permanent, so that a future Governor could not overturn the executive order. Additionally, it would automate and simplify the process, removing confusion from eligible voters and officials that currently keeps people on parole de facto disenfranchised. 

Other sites that offer information on prison reform and reentry justice are the Prison Fellowship, the Center for Economic and Policy Research, The Vera Institute, The Collateral Consequence Resource Center, Prison Policy Initiative, and The Sentencing Project.

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 www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

Stock photo

By Nancy Marr

Climate change is the most important threat we face, as one of the three greatest threats imperiling the Earth, in addition to the loss of biodiversity and global pollution. Reducing the carbon dioxide that we release into the atmosphere into the atmosphere is critical. The mantra — reduce, reuse, recycle — has become more important as incomes rise and consumption increases, particularly in urbanizing communities where local government must find ways to deal with the waste stream. 

Leftover food is a major component of landfill waste. It has been estimated that only 40% of the food that is produced is consumed, due partly to overproduction on farms and poor distribution methods. The EPA estimates that food waste comprises about 22% of our entire waste stream.

In 2022 the Food Donation and Food Scraps/Recycling Law will take effect in New York State. It will require businesses that generate an average of two tons of excess edible food per week to donate it to food banks and charities. All remaining food scraps, if the business is within 25 miles of an organics recycler, must be recycled instead of ending up in a landfill. 

One method is feeding it to an anaerobic digester, in which microorganisms break down organic materials in a closed space where there is no air (or oxygen). The material that is left over following the anaerobic digestion process, called digestate, can be made into soil amendments and fertilizers, improving soil characteristics and facilitating plant growth. 

Biogas, which is produced throughout the anaerobic digestion process, is a renewable energy source that can be used in a variety of ways, depending on its quality. Biogas treated to meet pipeline quality standards can be distributed through the natural gas pipeline and used in homes and businesses.  However, on the controversial side of this positive energy gain, remains the fact that anaerobic digesters generate an inordinate amount of methane (CH4), an enemy in our effort to combat climate change. 

Our waste stream includes packaging materials and paper goods. Bill S1185 has been introduced by Senator Todd Kaminski and it will be followed by A5801, to be introduced by Assemblyman Steve Englebright. They require producers and manufacturers to finance the recycling of their packaging materials and plastics, with incentives for finding ways of making recycling easier. Within three years of the bill’s implementation, producers will have to comply with the provisions of the bill or work with a producer responsibility organization. 

Very good news is that agronomists have found that improved soil management can reduce the carbon that is released into the atmosphere and can increase the amount of carbon that is drawn down into the soil through photosynthesis. Led by Suffolk County Cooperative Extension, many farmers are using the methods of no-till farming, cover crops, and natural fertilizers, recognizing the importance of the biodiversity of the soil. Farming can transition from a net carbon emitter to a carbon sink.

In order to reduce the amount of methane coming from landfills, New York State passed a law in 1990 that prohibited municipalities from retaining household waste in their landfills.  (Construction and yard waste and recyclables can remain.)  

In the case of Brookhaven Town, which built a landfill in 1974 in Yaphank, the waste is currently transported to a waste-to-energy facility in Hempstead for incineration. The ash by-product is then returned to Brookhaven (along with the ash from four other  municipalities) to be deposited in the Brookhaven landfill, which will be closed in 2024.  There is a question of how that ash will be stored, recycled, or disposed of. Until we can get to zero waste that question will remain. Can we do so in a timely way? Can we do so at all?

The League of Women Voters of New York State supports policies that protect food production and distribution while diverting food waste from landfills, incinerators and other waste treatment facilities. 

One thing we already know: we will only achieve zero waste conditions when everyone participates.   Look for ways to make easy changes at home – using imperfect fruits and vegetables and organizing your pantry can help reduce waste. Plan to re-use and repair your goods, recycle, and compost your food waste.  Regenerative farming methods will improve the soil in suburban gardens and lawns as well as farms.  Let your state legislators know that you support the EPR bill to require end-of-life recycling by producers.

Nancy Marr is 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. Visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

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By Lisa Scott

The League of Women Voters encourages informed and active participation in government and thus prioritizes voter registration and getting out the vote. 

The 2020 elections had a record shattering turnout —  158,254,139 ballots were cast for President from 66.7% of eligible voters. Does this mean that we have achieved our goals or can look forward to even greater election participation and thus more representative government in the coming years? The answer is definitely no! Here’s why …

Many Americans believe that voting rights and laws are derived from the Constitution and federal law. That’s only partially true and mostly just for federal elections. Voters’ lives are much more affected by state election law, which as was seen in the 2020 election results. Add our (decennial) census and the absolute power (in most states) of the state legislature to “reapportion” Congressional and other district lines. You now have a recipe for institutional power monopolies; reducing the ability for voters to actually select their representatives (the elected officials choose their voters = gerrymandering) in free and fair elections. Many state legislatures have already introduced hundreds of new voter suppression laws aimed at decreasing voter turnout.

As residents of New York State, many of us were shocked to learn that our state voting laws and constitution are an anachronistic embarrassment. Other states had pioneered and proved the value and reliability and security of 100% mail-in voting, many days of early voting and no-excuse absentee ballots. In 2019 New Yorkers had our first early voting opportunities in a local election year with sparse turnout. 

Only a few months later, COVID lockdowns and quarantines changed everything. Governor Cuomo issued a state of emergency allowing him to issue many executive orders, some of which liberalized our election laws and processes. However, these need to be enacted as state law in order to be made permanent.

The Senate met in January to pass a package of absentee voting reforms and two constitutional amendments related to voting: 

Speeding Up the Absentee Ballot Counting Process: This bill, S.1027, sponsored by Deputy Majority Leader Senator Michael Gianaris, amends various provisions of the Election Law in order to allow for expedited review and canvassing of absentee ballots without compromising the integrity of elections.

Preventing Disenfranchisement of Absentee Voters: This bill, S.253, sponsored by Senate Elections Committee Chair, Senator Zellnor Myrie, prohibits voiding absentee ballots on technicalities where intent of voters is clear and the law has been substantially complied with, including where there are stray marks or the ballot is undated but is time stamped by the Board of Elections.

Permanently Authorizing Absentee Ballot Drop Boxes: This bill, S.492, sponsored by Senator Brad Hoylman, authorizes the Board of Elections to establish absentee ballot drop-off locations or drop-boxes to provide voters with a convenient and secure option for delivering their absentee ballots.

Increasing Transparency and Information about Absentee Ballots through a Tracking System: This bill, S.1028, sponsored by Senator Leroy Comrie, ensures that all voters in the state have access to absentee ballot tracking by requiring the New York State Board of Elections to create a statewide absentee ballot tracking system for absentee voters to ensure that their vote is counted in the election while allowing counties and the New York City Board of Elections to also maintain their own absentee tracking systems.

Implementing Permanent Authorization for Applying for Absentee Ballots Online: This bill, S.632, sponsored by Senator Robert Jackson, permanently allows voters to apply for absentee ballots online and allows absentee ballots postmarked through Election Day by making permanent Chapter 91 of the Laws of 2020, which sunset on December 31, 2020. Under current Election Law, applications may only be made by mail or fax.

Creating Accountability for Timely Receipt of Absentee Ballots: This bill, S.516, sponsored by Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, establishes mandatory timeframes for processing of absentee ballot applications and ballots by Boards of Elections based on when the application was received.

Enabling Earlier Applications for Absentee Ballots: This bill, S.631, sponsored by Senator Julia Salazar, permits Boards of Elections to receive absentee ballot applications earlier than thirty days before the applicable Election Day by making permanent Chapter 138 of the Laws of 2020, which sunset on December 31, 2020.

Ensuring Voters Timely Receipt of Absentee Ballots: This bill, S.264, sponsored by Senator Zellnor Myrie, sets deadline for absentee ballot applications sent by mail to 15 days before the election, up from 7 days, to better allow for voters timely receiving their absentee ballots.

No-Excuse Absentee Voting Constitutional Amendment: This legislation, S.360, sponsored by Senator Leroy Comrie, amends the State Constitution to allow for any voter to vote by absentee without an excuse.*

Same-day Voter Registration Constitutional Amendment: This legislation, S.517, sponsored by Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, removes 10 day deadline to submit registration.*

*Both constitutional amendments were passed by the Senate and Assembly in the last session but are also required to be passed by both houses during this session. If they are passed again they will be placed on the ballot in November as voter referendums.

At this time we are unsure when the Assembly will be taking up these reforms. In the last three legislative sessions, the Senate has made election reform one of their early priority issues. The Assembly typically does not take up these bills until after the state budget has passed. (Note: Gov. Cuomo submitted the budget in late January, the 2021 fiscal year starts April 1.)

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 www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

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By Nancy Marr

The United States is an outlier in family care policies. It is one of the few wealthy democracies without national provision of paid parental and sick leave. New York has established a better record at protecting working families, from the women’s Equality Agenda to the landmark paid family leave law, to this year’s statewide paid sick time law. During the pandemic, workers who need to care for themselves or a sick loved one have been protected by the family leave and sick time laws. But there is more to be done.

Child care providers across the state have closed, leaving the child care workers without jobs and asking parents to stay home to care for their children. With schools largely virtual, parents have had to use family leave time or leave their jobs to stay home with the children. Women were twice as likely as men to report leaving work due to caregiving duties; a large percentage were low-wage workers, many of whom faced discrimination or might not be eligible for family leave payments. (To be eligible they had to have worked 40 hours a week for at least 26 weeks, or 175 days for the same employer if they were part-time workers.)  

Ending this care crisis is a crucial step toward gender equality and racial justice. Workers who are themselves experiencing COVID-19 deserve the same rights. Under the Disability Benefits Law, employees are eligible for benefits of 50 percent of their average week wage but no more than the maximum benefit of $170 per week for a period of 26 weeks. The benefits cap, raised last in 1989, must be raised. 

The paid family leave act, which will reach full phase-in in 2021, must be updated to remove exceptions and ensure coverage for all private and public sector employees, including part-time domestic workers. Workers who move between jobs or face unemployment should be covered, and we should expand the definition of family to include all those whom workers consider family.  

The New York Human Rights Law should be updated to expand the prohibition on familial status discrimination to encompass all forms of caregiver discrimination. It must ensure that domestic workers, who are predominantly women of color and immigrants, can benefit from all of the law’s protections, and we should fully fund the Division of Human Rights to ensure robust enforcement.

In 2021, the New York State Department of Labor must enact strong regulations for the paid sick time rights. There needs to be outreach and education to ensure all workers know and can use their rights.

New York must also lead the way to insure that workers have meaningful access to alternative work arrangements, including telecommuting and part-time work. Workers, especially in low-wage industries, should know in advance what their schedules will be, and have a say in planning them. Worker-protective legislation on misclassification and fair pay for all New Yorkers is also needed.  

The financing of long-term services and supports for older Americans and people with disabilities has come chiefly from Medicaid and private long-term care insurance, neither of which are available to the average middle class person. 

Direct care services for the elderly or disabled, either in nursing homes or at home, are among the fastest growing jobs in the economy, but, like child care, have low pay and few protections. Women of color are the most likely to be in this cohort, and are the most likely to leave their jobs to perform uncompensated care at home. Home care, whether by an outsider or a family member, should be paid for and protected.

Funding for family leave and disability pay comes from payroll deductions from employees and employer contributions through insurances held by employers. We need to find ways to assist employers of domestic and part-time workers to comply with regulations or seek help from the Department of Labor in order to guarantee the eligibility of their workers for benefits. More information can be found at https://www.abetterbalance.org/.

Contact New York State Governor Cuomo (www.governor.ny.gov), NYS Senate Majority Leader and Temporary President Andrea Stewart-Cousins ([email protected]) and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie ([email protected]) to let them know you care about worker and family rights.  

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.

By Nancy Marr

While we await the BOE’s certification of our election results (required by Dec. 7) we need to plan our priorities for the incoming NYS Legislators. Of critical importance is post-census redistricting. After the mid-2021 release of the 2020 census results, states must redraw their state and congressional district lines. These districts determine how communities are represented at the local, state and federal levels, influencing how our government works for us.

Gerrymandering (the intentional manipulation of the redistricting process by the people in political power to keep or change political power) can result from partisan redistricting in a number of ways, such as by consolidating communities into one district, or packing, which gives that community only one representative in the legislature; or by dividing the community across districts, called cracking, ensuring that the community is always the minority and less likely to be adequately represented by their representatives.

Two common forms of gerrymandering are racial gerrymandering and partisan gerrymandering. In 2018, the Supreme Court had the opportunity to set federal standards when states draw their districts that could ultimately curb partisan gerrymandering. Instead, the Court ruled to allow states to make their own determinations about partisan gerrymandering practices.

The New York State Constitution was amended in 2014 to designate an Independent Redistricting Commission to replace the legislature-controlled New York State Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment (LATFOR) as the entity responsible for drawing the lines. The new commission is made up of four Democratic and four Republican appointees. Two additional nonaffiliated commissioners who are not members of those parties are then selected by a majority vote of the eight politically-appointed commissioners.

Members shall represent the diversity of the residents of the state with regard to race, ethnicity, gender, language and geographic reference. They cannot have been a member of the NYS legislature or U.S. Congress, or a state-wide official, or have been a state officer or employee or legislative employee, a registered lobbyist in NYS, or a political party chairman, or the spouse of any of those mentioned. Co-executives, one from each party, direct it. A chairperson, to organize the panel, is elected by majority vote.

The legislature has recently appointed its eight members, and those eight members selected two additional nonaffiliated commissioners. The commission also recently met to hire its Co-Executive Directors and begin planning its bylaws and staffing plans

To ensure that the redistricting process is fair and doesn’t lead to racial or partisan gerrymandering, districts should contain as nearly as possible an equal number of inhabitants and shall consist of contiguous territory and be as compact in form as practicable. It should consider the maintenance of cores of existing districts, or pre-existing political subdivisions, including counties, cities and towns, and communities of interest. Data showing race, income, education, employment, and age will guide the process.

Although New York State has not passed a Voter Rights Act, it should follow the guidelines set by the federal Voter Rights Act, which targeted certain New York election districts for pre-clearance before changing election lines.

Because the date for releasing the census counts was moved from April to July 31, 2021, and June 2022 is now the first NYS primary affected, there is a shortened time frame for public review of the plan, and input of community members as the plan is made. The commission must hold 12 public hearings with proposed maps available at least 30 days prior to the first public hearing. The plan must be submitted to the legislature by Jan. 1, 2022. If it is rejected by the legislature or the governor, the commission must submit a second plan no later than Feb. 28, 2022, to be approved by the legislature and implemented by March 2022. If it is not then approved, the plan will be drawn up by the legislature, or by a court master.

The Independent Redistricting Commission can curb gerrymandering through increased public input, accountability and transparent processes. We urge the legislature to ensure that the commission follows open meetings laws and allows for ample citizen input at the twelve public hearings that are required and as the plans are drafted. The success of New York’s first independent redistricting commission hinges on whether the legislature can provide adequate support and allow sufficient independence for the newly formed maps commission. 

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.