As the New York City Charter Revision Commission looks to retool the city’s government structure and operation, certain city agencies might need to work on meeting charter standards that have stood for over 20 years.
The charter requires several city agencies to participate in a program to distribute voter registration forms, stating that the forms must be available to “all persons together with written applications for services, renewal or recertification for services and change of address relating to such services.”
City Limits visited 15 random sites at different city agencies in all five boroughs, and found that just eight of them readily offered voter registration forms.
The agencies that offered the forms included Community Board 1 in Brooklyn, Board 1 in Staten Island, Board 2 in the Bronx, Board 4 in Manhattan, the Workforce One Career Center in Brooklyn, The Arsenal at Central Park and the Manhattan offices of Consumer Affairs and Finance.
Among the agencies that did not provide voter registration forms, some agencies simply found it to be an uncommon request. Lucille Hartman, District Manager of Queens Community Board 1—located on 35th Avenue in Astoria—said she has worked there for 30 years and has rarely had to distribute forms.
“I can easily count the number of times I’ve given out voter registration forms,” she said.
City Limits surveyed locations for whether a voter registration form was available upon request. That no form was offered does not necessarily translate to a lack of compliance, nor was this survey an exhaustive look at how city agencies deal with this charter requirement.
“The way the law is written, it does not call for verbal assistance, so when you’re speaking to someone at a front desk, since they are not required to have verbal assistance they may not know,” said Voter Assistance Commission Executive Director Onida Mayers. “It’s part of the procedure to make sure the forms are given out but in terms of verbal assistance they may not be prepared to speak to you.”
This may have been the case at the Department of Homeless Services' men's shelter on E 29th Street. A security guard there said forms were not available, but the agency insists they are in compliance.
“DHS is required to provide voter registration forms to applicants for shelter services and existing clients in temporary housing facilities,” said Department of Homeless Services spokeswoman Barbara Brancaccio in a statement.
“Though not required to provide voter registration forms to members of the general public, during the election cycle DHS will have, and has had in the past, voter registration forms available at our administrative office at 33 Beaver Street, which is a public location,” said Homeless Services spokeswoman Barbara Brancaccio in a statement. “Voter registration forms are currently available for members of the general public at this location.”
Other locations that did not offer the forms included the Department of Probation in the Bronx, the Department of Environmental Protection Customer Services in Brooklyn, and in Manhattan, the City Clerk on Centre Street, the Health Department on East 115th Street and the Department of Correction on White Street.
In a statement, the Department of Correction said: "“The Department of Correction works aggressively—above and beyond what is required in the City Charter—to encourage voter registration among our clients. Registration forms in multiple languages and absentee ballot applications are made available not only in law libraries, inmate program areas and counseling offices in all city jails, but also in the one jail area that accommodates the public--the visit registration areas--as City Limits would have learned had they contacted us. For an independent endorsement of the Department’s efforts to make inmates aware of voter registration opportunities, readers can check with the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU Law School, our partner in jail-based voter registration drives, on its website.”
Looking to increase voter participation was a focus of the Charter Revision Commission's research in July. Several suggestions have been made for altering a political climate in New York City that sees less than a third of voters come out for city elections.
Some proposed measures to increase voter participation include nonpartisan elections and instant runoff voting as well as stronger voter education. Giving people a wider opportunity to register was also considered.
The Voter Assistance Commission is in charge of enforcing the charter’s clause involving voter registration forms. VAC director Mayers was not especially discouraged by the City Limits survey.
“I wouldn’t classify it as frustrating,” she said. “I would classify it as part of our mandate, to work with our fellow agencies to make sure that they stay compliant and make sure we can help them and make it easier for them to reach all members of the public.”
Still others think the current charter requirement needs to be expanded.
“We would like to see the Department of Education discussed in the City Charter, which it is not at the present time,” said Adrienne Kivelson, vice president of the New York City League of Women Voters. “We would really like to see a comprehensive voter education program in the schools and that does not exist at the present time.”