Coming off our second Student Voter Registration Day, our office was excited for Primary Day. SVRD registered over 8,500 high school students to vote in time for the presidential primary, and it brought civic education to thousands more. Across the city, students learned about the hard-fought right to vote, and at Brandeis, we heard from 80-year-old Mary, who marched from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965.
On Primary Day we knew over 8,500 newly registered voters would have their first taste of democracy. Our fingers were crossed for smooth sailing. Well, things didn't turn out as we had hoped.
Instead, the April 19th primary brought to light some of New York City's deep-rooted problems with voter engagement.
Seemingly overnight, the Board of Elections (BOE) changed several poll sites. P.S. 166, which is deemed inaccessible by the BOE's own website, was open for voting. P.S. 84 was closed as a poll site, and some residents complained about being reassigned to poll sites several blocks away.
The BOE also purged hundreds of thousands of voters from the voter rolls, and it seems unlikely that all of those voters died, moved, or haven't voted in two election cycles. Gothamist reports that over 120,000 people voted with affidavit ballots, nearly five times as many as the last contested presidential primary in 2008. At my poll site, many people just walked away.
If the Board of Elections' agrees to reforms, it will receive $20 million from the city to implement them. Reforms like better training for poll workers as well as email and text message notification for voters are much needed.
I'm hopeful that the reforms also will include consideration of primary days coinciding with school days. The Congressional Primary will be on June 28th, the last day of school. The State Primary will be on September 13, the third day of the new school year. It's always challenging for principals to keep wandering adults away from the children, and these days will be particularly hectic.
Frankly, with four elections this year in New York State (three primaries and the general election), keeping up voter turnout may be difficult. There is no good reason we cannot have all three primaries on the same day to increase voter turnout.
At a very practical level, we have to study the path of voter foot traffic inside the schools to minimize noise and gawking outside of classrooms. At the P.S. 75 poll site on 96th Street and West End Avenue, poll workers required voters to use an entrance that took them down a long hallway where they passed six filled classrooms. The cafeteria where the voting booths were set up had an entrance of its own from the street, which could have diverted the majority of voters from passing student classrooms.
Why stop there? What if we had elections on a weekend, so kids in schools would be undisturbed and fewer residents would have to miss work to vote? What if New York State joined the twelve states plus D.C. that offer same-day voter registration, instead of requiring voters to register 25 days before election day? What if New York State had open primaries, so voters in all parties, including Independents, could vote on the same slate of candidates for the primary?
If any neighborhood were to lead the way on voter reform, it would be the Upper West Side, which consistently has the resident engagement and the highest voter turnout in the City. I'll do my part to keep fighting for reforms at City Hall, and I'll work with our state legislators to bring about voter reform in Albany.
Helen Rosenthal represents the Upper West Side on the New York City Council