ARE YOU BEING ASSISTED?:
VAC REACHING MATURITY

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On Election Day eve, many New Yorkers seem unaware that there’s a city agency charged with educating voters, targeting disenfranchised communities, and facilitating the voting process, separate from the Board of Elections.

However, the independent and non-partisan Voter Assistance Commission (VAC) has not been completely silent of late. In fact, for the first time in years, VAC took an active roll to fulfill, at least in part, its mission as mandated by the city charter.

Voter Awareness Month, which ran from mid-September to mid-October, was “the first-ever five-borough coordinated campaign to promote voter education, awareness and participation” according to the press release issued by Mayor Bloomberg’s office. Some 60 events were held.

Onida Coward Mayers, VAC’s executive director, said Voter Awareness Month was “a flagship program for us…we hope it’s a new beginning for the agency.”

A new beginning may be just the ticket for an agency that has been more or less moribund since the mid-1990’s. Virtually gutted by the Giuliani administration, VAC subsisted on only an office manager and a meager budget, leadership-less for the eight years from 1996 until Mayers, the founding director of Brooklyn Community Access Television, was hired in 2004. VAC currently has three full-time staff members.

In fact, the agency was dormant for so long that the City Council passed the Pro-Voter Law in 2000 to ensure greater voter access to registration forms via city agencies. After a 2003 Council investigation determined that there was little compliance, the law was expanded in 2004.

Established in 1989 after voters approved citywide charter reform a year earlier, VAC initially had nine staff members and a $750,000 budget. The VAC staff, and most importantly, the coordinator/executive director, work on the daily operations of the Commission to fulfill its charter mandate.

Nine of its 16 commissioners are appointed either by the Mayor or the City Council; seven are ex-officio members. The Commissioners sit on a board that meets bimonthly and must hold annually one public hearing. They are unpaid.

According to Ron Hayduk, the VAC chief during the Dinkins administration, VAC became “a political football” subject to the whims of politicians, “unlike the Campaign Finance Board, which comes from the same section of the charter.”

“They were meant to be sister agencies with similar mandates: to ensure the electoral system … is effective, participatory and inclusive,” Hayduk said. “I am heartened to know the budget was partially restored to allow for a coordinator and a full time staff person … [this is a] huge improvement over the defunding of VAC from 1996 to Mayers’s hiring.”

The fiscal 2007 budget of $172,398 — which is augmented by printing and tech support from the Department of Citywide Administrative Services — represents a marked increase over recent years, according to Counselor to the Mayor Anthony Crowell. In fiscal 2002, the budget was only $40,044, and remained nearly that in 2003 and 2004. It rose to $121,860 in fiscal 2005, and $124,398 in 2006, Crowell said.

At its most active, VAC’s staff created a system whereby all city agencies distributed voter registration forms which VAC ultimately tracked, as directed by charter. This ability offered a gauge to see which agencies were complying with the law, which were not, and where they needed to target underserved communities.

The special coding system is no longer in place, according to John Ravitz, executive director of the city’s Board of Elections, who sits on VAC’s board as an ex-officio member.

Another vital function of VAC, according to Hayduk, is to “monitor” the Board of Elections and the electoral system to help “improve” its functioning. But Mayers said her organization had “really shifted our attention…to outreach and awareness.”

Hayduk, now a professor of political science specializing in voting at BMCC, also believes VAC should play a significant role to ensure the city’s compliance with major new federal voting rules such as 2002’s Help America Vote Act. “We hope VAC will assist us to spread the word,” said Ravitz.

“There’s huge potential to work through not just government agencies, but affiliate ones like Con Edison,” said Hayduk. Mayers agreed, saying, “We’re working with city agencies to make up for our lack of resources.” She pointed to the “major” role that CUNY played in Voter Awareness Month and hopes to involve it again next year. In 2005, VAC collaborated on a Video Voter Guide with NYCTV.

While VAC may be on the slow road to recovery, there will always be inherent conflicts preventing VAC from accomplishing its mission, explained Hayduk. “That need means resources and staff … [and] support as an independent agency, out of the mayor’s office, not subject to the interference of the mayor or City Council.”

This story has been updated.

– Jillian Jonas