Saturday, February 11, 2017

AAUW, LWV and Voting Efforts in NYS, Part 2

I was asked to present at a “Women and Voting” panel as part of the Gender, Sex and Sexuality Conference held (this year) at SUNY Potsdam on Feb. 10-11. What follows is my presentation paper, in two parts. The Conference is a collaborative effort between the faulty, staff, student and larger community of the four colleges in the St. Lawrence Valley. Learn more at their Facebook page:

The American Association of University Women,
The League of Women Voters,
and Voting Efforts in New York State, Part 2
The (Dis)Enfranchisement Conference 2017
February 11, 2017

Politicians and policy makers routinely make decisions about issues that directly affect women and their families, including our paychecks, access to reproductive health care, and education funding. But more often than not, these conversations do not include women’s voices. To create real change, women must be part of the conversation, and one of the most powerful places for us to chime in is at the polls.

Both AAUW and the League have created tools to use in modern electoral settings.

Launched by the League of Women Voters Education Fund in October of 2006, is a "one-stop-shop" for election related information. It provides nonpartisan information to the public which is both general and state-specific on all aspects of the election process. Voters can find out about on voter registration and laws (by state), as well as information on candidates and issues on the ballot.

The AAUW Action Fund produces nonpartisan voter education materials each election cycle to provide all voters with the information they need to cast informed ballots. These include Voter Guides, Issue Fact Sheets, the Congressional Voting Record, and Ballot Initiative Guides. AAUW recognizes that with so much at stake each time Americans head to the polls, it’s more important than ever to identify those candidates who would best represent our values and those who would roll back our rights.

The 2016 Presidential campaign leading up to Election Day hit many new highs and lows. One high was voter registration, which soared to 200 million people registered to vote for the first time in U.S. history. More than 50 million new people registered to vote in the previous eight years from the beginning of the Obama Administration.

The election didn’t exactly turn out the way many of us had expected it to. But there’s a lesson in what did happen for all of us. We may not have gotten the results we wanted, but we took our place in line at our polling places because of the work, the vision, the commitment and persistence of women (and men) generations ago who wedged open a door that that had been tightly closed. We have gone from a nation where only 6% of the population could vote to one where over 200 million of us can vote – if we chose to.

Where we go from here is the critical question. In recent years we’ve seen a wave of voter suppression tactics play out in state after state, often under the banner of “voter fraud.” There is no real voter fraud in this country, as study after study has proven. But in the counter-reality we live in, where “alternative” facts can be substituted for demonstrable, reality-based information that can proven, there is a wave of voter-fraud hysteria sweeping selected offices in the land.

Once we leave the hallowed halls of the current administration, it is hard to find much evidence of voter fraud, but that won’t stop a new wave of laws designed to root out this non-existent problem. The truth is, voter “fraud” is just another word for disenfranchisement, and so is voter “intimidation” and voter “suppression.”

Here in New York, there is much work to be done to reform our antiquated ballot access laws.

In December, NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman released a comprehensive report following complaints received by his office regarding the April presidential primary. He has proposed a series of voting reforms to make New York a national leader in protecting and expanding voting rights throughout the state. Among his proposals are:

·       Automatic Voter Registration of Eligible Voters
·       Same-Day Registration for New Voters 
·       Online Voter Registration
·       Creating a System of Permanent Voter Registration
·       Allow Registered Voters to Change Their Party Enrollment Closer to Primary Day,
·       and Adoption of a System for Early Voting.

New York State has one of the poorest voting turnout records among all the states, largely due to the lack of modern vote reforms that other states have put in place very successfully. In his several State of The State addresses, Gov, Cuomo also proposed voting reforms. Each year the Assembly has passed bills aimed at modernizing our system; each year the state Senate refuses to bring those reforms to the floor for a vote. It is time for NYS to enact 21st century voting procedures.

The partisan way we redistrict here in New York also creates problems with enfranchisement. There are states that redistrict every 10 years on a non-partisan basis. A perfect example of the mess partisan redistricting creates is right here in St. Lawrence County. As a “purple” county, we have been sliced and diced into three state Senate districts and four Assembly districts.

And our two-party electoral system effectively ignores voters who identified as Independent. And as the two major parties continue to disintegrate and turn off voters, more people are choosing to identify as independent when they register to vote. But that does not give them the same access to help with deciding to run for office. 50% of millennials now describe themselves as political independents – they represent half of the next generation of potential political leaders.

Another issue with our electoral system here in New York is a lack of candidates. All 213 seats in the state Legislature were on the ballot last November, but in about a third there was no opposition candidate to the sitting incumbent. Lack of competition takes away choice from voters and stifles the democratic process at a time when many already have a negative view of government and civic service.

Here in St. Lawrence County, there were local elections without even one candidate on the ballot. In at least ten local elections this fall, there were no official candidates. "Unfortunately it’s happening more frequently as time goes on," according to Tom Nichols, the Republican election supervisor for the County. Those seats were only filled if there was a last-minute write-in on the ballot.

One of the very encouraging signs since the election last fall and since the inauguration last month has been the renewed spirit of small “d” democracy that has swept the nation. The Women’s March on Jan. 22 and other, similar efforts – as well as those being planned - have revitalized people’s interest in government and given them a voice and the desire to use those voices. A few examples:

A group of former congressional staffers drafted INDIVISIBLE, “Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda, that draws on the tea party’s playbook for getting the attention of Congress. More than 4,000 groups have since organized around the strategies laid out in that document. These include seeking out their legislators in town hall meetings and connecting with them by phone, rather than relying on e-communications.

Rise Stronger, started by a former official at the National Security Council, aims to organize ­“citizen watchdogs,” in part by crowdsourcing a “citizens calendar” to publicize the public appearances of elected representatives.

Laura Moser’s Daily Action leaves a text message or voice mail on the phones of her 100,000-plus army of citizen activists wanting to influence the direction the federal government is taking.

Locally, people who live in the NY 21 Congressional District that covers the 11-county region of the North Country have been turning to social media and the streets to organize and discuss policy issues. Congress is more than getting the message. In the face of an unprecedented volume phone calls and letters and e-messages, many members of Congress have locked their doors and have stopped holding in-person Town Halls.

A riled up, politically aware and vocal public looks nothing like the nice safe groups of like-minded donors elected officials usually spend their time with. Those of us who have labored in the trenches of public policy for years to educate and motivate citizens and voters watch with delight all this action and advocacy at the local, state and federal level.

And finally, in order to fulfill the vision our foremothers had for full equality, we must bring women to the table. Your voice can’t be heard from the corridor (although Sen. Elizabeth Warren found more than one way to get her message across after she was told to sit down and shut up the other day). Women must run for office at every level. When they run, women win at the same rates as men. When they don’t run, they never win.

When women have enough seats at the table, our issues will be the agenda.

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