Prepared by Rafaela PRIFTI/
In 2019 NYC Election, the Board of Election had rolled out early voting (October 26-November 3) and had provided brand new electronic tablets, in anticipation of the 2020 primary at the end of April and the general election next November. On the first page of the city ballot were the candidates for local offices. The only citywide race was for public advocate, where the Democratic incumbent Jumaane D. Williams of Brooklyn faced Councilman Joseph Borelli, a Republican from Staten Island. There were the District Attorney’s race in Queens and a few judges’ positions, in some districts. The five ballot questions were on the second page. The issue was that each one comprised several proposed changes to the City Charter, altogether 19 proposals.
For example, Question Nr. 2 which covered the Civilian Complaint Review Board that asked the voter to decide whether to empower the Board to conduct its own inquiries into police officers’ statements, also deals with four other changes to the Board’s makeup and operations, a Yes-or No vote applied to all five issues. The same approach applied to four other proposed revisions of the City Charter. If each measure is tied to several more and the voter slightly disagrees with one part of the question, then the decision of voting ‘all or nothing’ needs to be made at the expense of fairness. New Yorkers voted YES on all five:
- YES on Question 1: Elections, namely bringing ranked-choice voting to primary and special elections for Mayor, Public Advocate, Comptroller, Borough President, and City Council; and extending the amount of time between vacancy of office and the special election.
- YES on Question 2: Civilian Complaint Review Board, including reforms like increasing the number of members from 13 to 15 and giving the City Council and Public Advocate more say in the appointments; setting a minimum headcount budget that’s at least 0.65 percent of the NYPD’s budget for police officer headcount; more transparency from the Police Commissioner when he/she makes decisions about police discipline; and more power for the CCRB executive director to issue subpoenas and to investigate false statements given by officers during probes.
- YES on Question 3: Ethics and Government, such as lobbying reform; creating a mayoral office for the director of the Minority and Women Owned Small Business Enterprise program; having the City Council approve the mayor’s appointment for Corporation Counsel; preventing Conflicts of Interest Board employees from participating in local political campaigns; and giving the Public Advocate and Comptroller one appointment each to the COIB.
- YES on Question 4: City Budget, which will create a “rainy day fund” for NYC; set minimum budgets for the Public Advocate and Borough Presidents; require the Mayor to provide non-property tax revenue estimate in April (versus June); and require the Mayor to submit a revised budget modification to the Council within 30 days of making changes to the financial plan.
- YES on Question 5: Land Use, which will give more information and time to Borough Presidents and Community Boards when they review development projects under Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.
A sample ballot was made available on the New York City Board of Elections website; clicking “Ballot Information” on the top right; and, on the next page, clicking “View Sample Ballot.” Each question, as well as comments in support of and opposition to each one, were posted on the Campaign Finance Board’s website. Each question is more than 100 words long. For English speakers, the questions total more than 950 words. The questions are also printed in Spanish, an addition of 1,200 words. To get all those words — more than 2,100 of them — on a single ballot page, they were printed in tiny, seven-point type, according to a Board of Elections spokeswoman.
Question 1: Elections
The main proposal creates ranked-choice voting for primary and special elections, starting in 2021. Instead of voting for just one candidate, voters would be asked to rank up to five candidates in order of preference.
Under this system, if no candidate gets at least 50 percent of the vote, the lowest-performing candidate is knocked out. If your first choice is eliminated, your vote goes to your next highest-ranked candidate. This process continues until one candidate gets at least 50 percent of the vote. Supporters say these changes empower voters and encourage candidates to compete for broader swaths of support. Critics said the new system might confuse voters.
The other main changes being proposed are extending the length of time before a special election can be held, and requiring that City Council districts be redrawn before candidates start their efforts to get on the ballot.
Question 2: Civilian Complaint Review Board
It allows the review board to investigate and potentially prosecute officers suspected of lying during a review board investigation. Currently, the board recommends those cases to the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau for further action.
In both instances, disciplinary matters are ultimately decided by the police commissioner; that would not change under this proposal. Police reform advocates support this move. Even some staunch supporters of law enforcement favor it.
People debating this question have also focused on two other changes covered in the ballot issue. One would give the review board’s executive director the power to authorize subpoenas. Currently, the board issues subpoenas through a vote of its board members, usually at monthly meetings. The other would require the police commissioner to send a written note to the review board whenever he or she deviates from disciplinary recommendations made by the board or departmental judges.
Supporters of the changes say they would reshape the Police Department’s culture and improve investigations. Opponents including the Police Benevolent Association, the labor union representing officers, say they would have “a chilling effect on law enforcement that will make the city less safe.”
Question 3: Ethics and Government
If approved, it will extend the ban applied to officials lobbying their former agency colleagues to two years. Currently, there is a one-year ban on this type of activity when people leave public service. It would also restrict campaign activities for members of the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board, who act like referees on local ethics matters. The board members would, for example, be barred from participating in local campaigns. Supporters say the changes would bolster the public’s confidence in the board. Others question whether they would unfairly restrict the First Amendment rights of some city employees.
Question 4: City Budget
This proposal would allow the city to employ a “rainy day” fund. State approval would still be required to create the fund. The city is currently barred from creating this type of fund, though mayoral administrations have found creative ways to squeeze money from one year’s budget for use in another year. Critics, like the Libertarian Party, say a fund would discourage tax cuts or simply operate as a slush fund for lawmakers. Supporters, including the fiscally conservative Citizens Budget Commission, said the move would provide the city with financial stability. The other main proposal here would set minimum funding levels for the offices of public advocate and borough presidents.
Question 5: Land Use
Every inch of New York City is controlled by one zoning rule or another. To deviate from them, a person or business needs permission from the City Council. It also helps to get the local community board’s backing. If this proposal is approved, developers seeking that kind of approval would have a summary of their plans sent to the local community board earlier in the review process. The proposal would also extend the length of time during the summer when community boards can respond to those plans.
Numerous good government groups favor this, saying community boards play an important role in urban planning. And the extra time in June and July is needed, they argue, because the boards are run by residents who often do not meet in the summer.
Some critics say that it does not include funding for professionals to assist with the analysis of community boards.