As election day nears, the City agency charged with ensuring that New Yorkers are registered to vote–and that we get to the polls–malingers quietly on Chambers Street, the product of neglect and financial starvation. There may be nearly 2 million unregistered city residents, but the Voter Assistance Commission can’t do much about it. With only one staffer and a budget of $173,000, the job of bringing all those New Yorkers to the voting booths is a bit out of reach.
Most New Yorkers aren’t even aware of the independent, non-partisan Voter Assistance Commission, which was conceived in the 1988 City Charter reforms. Created with the best of intentions and the input of good government groups, VAC’s mandate was to reach out to groups and neighborhoods that typically have very low voter registration and turnout rates.
In the beginning, VAC had a staff of eight, and a budget close to $750,000. During much of the early 1990s, the agency ran a program that functioned as an urban version of a motor voter program. With the understanding that fewer than 50 percent of city dwellers have drivers’ licenses, VAC developed a campaign to register almost anybody who came into contact with the various metropolitan social services agencies–a good way to efficiently target lower income and minority voters.
Former VAC coordinator Ron Hayduk estimated that during four months in 1993, the commission registered 75,000 people through that agency-based program and through community outreach. In addition to the registration drives, VAC also pushed for voter reform measures, compiled and analyzed voter data, and oversaw the election process.
In 1995, the Giuliani administration accused the commission of overstepping its bounds with the agency-based registration drive, and the courts agreed. Coming on top of budget and staff cuts, the decision left the agency a shell of its former self, and it “defaulted to the path of least resistance,” according to the New York Public Interest Research Groups’ Neil Rosenstein, who helped create the commission.
Since then, VAC has been whittled down to a single office manager, and has gone without a coordinator for two years. So even while motor-voter provisions were boosting upstate registration numbers, the equivalent urban program has been going nowhere. “I’m never going to forgive Rudy for denying citizens their rights,” said one of the civic activists who was involved in creating the commission.
“The City was ill-served by the basic reduction in staff and scope of VAC’s work,” agreed Hayduk. “We had a great opportunity that was lost–and that’s a shame.”
But the original project will soon have a second life. A new city law that the mayor signed in May will launch another agency-based registration drive. Sponsored by Public Advocate Mark Green and Councilmember Gifford Miller, the law requires certain agencies to include registration forms with whatever other forms they distribute, and requires the same of city contractors and subcontractors.
This time, since VAC will only supervise the process, the program should be immune to legal challenges.