| Thursday, September 18, 2003 - 11:15 am |
The Public Ought to Know: Schools could help increase voter participation
By Corey Bearak 09/18/2003
As Primary Day approached, I read a statistic that disturbed me and anyone who cares about a representative democracy. I read in Newsday that the New York Public Interest Research Group found about 1.85 million city residents registered to vote. That means the voting rolls include only 30 percent of the total eligible electorate. Can you imagine an election with six million eligible voters?
A larger potential electorate makes it much more difficult for appeals to the "dark side" that so permeates our elections. Concerned New Yorkers ought to support voter registration through our public schools, colleges and other educational institutions and community- and faith-based organizations.
Old disincentives to enrolling to vote no longer exist. Your failure to register to vote offers no guarantee that you won't serve on a jury.
Reforms over the last decade opened up the electoral process. These include public campaign financing of city elections, less restrictive petition signature requirements to qualify for the ballot and smaller city council districts when our local legislature, by a City Charter vote, got expanded from 35 to 51.
Some reforms even encouraged voter registration. Federal, state and city laws require voter registration forms at government offices, and you can get a voter registration form online. It makes sense to allow people to register where they may seek public services.
Why the low number of registered voters? Councilman Eric Gioia's (D-Woodside) Investigations Committee completed a study that found barely half the offices surveyed had registration forms available. Gioia now proposes legislation to require voter registration forms get handed out with high school diplomas. I remember getting registered to vote during my senior year at Martin Van Buren High School. I believe most of my fellow 1973 graduates chose to register.
Frankly, anything that induces more potential voters to become eligible voters works for me.
Voting represents one of the ways we participate in civic life and public affairs. If we expand access to voter registration, it stands that we expand public access and participation in government; however, nothing prevents city government from doing even more than already mandated by the 2000 local law that increased access to voter registration by requiring free and wide distribution of voter registration forms at city agencies.
At the end of that same year, the City's Voter Assistance Commission held a meeting where then Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer offered some sound proposals. It would be nice almost three years later to report the proposal's implementation. Perhaps some renewed attention might result in the current folks at City Hall embracing and seeking to implement them.
First, designate New York City public schools as agencies for voter registration. This builds on the example of the City University system, where institutions follow a legal mandate to make voter registration forms available to their students.
Each year, thousands of New York City high school students reach the voting age while still enrolled in school; still others will reach the voting age in the year they graduate and could — as I did in the spring of 1973 — register forfor the election the following fall. (While I was too young for the primary and run-off elections, I did get to cast my first ballot in that year's November mayoral election.)
The act of making voter registration forms available to young people empowers and encourages them to become active and concerned citizens. Voter registration also builds on existing citizenship curricula in our schools.
Making voter registration forms available at city public schools would also benefit students, parents and/or guardians, who could obtain voter registration forms when they visit schools to enroll their children or attend PTA meetings. After-school programs, beacon schools and other educational resource centers also offer opportunities to engage eligible voters.
It's important to note that while registration in public schools can be mandated, we can and should also enlist parochial, yeshivot and other non-public schools to assist in voter registration of students and parents.
It also makes sense to encourage voter registration through our faith-based institutions and civic organizations not connected to designated agencies that deliver services. This process need not and should not interfere with the separation of church and state. Houses of worship remain an integral part of our community; it would be short-sighted to miss this opportunity to encourage involvement.
NYPIRG, Common Cause and other such organizations recommend a citywide mailing of voter registration forms and election information during presidential election years. This represents the most direct way to reach potential registrants — at their homes.
How many times have you voted and watched aa disappointed would-be voter leave the polls? Same-day registration on Election Day would cure that.
Corey Bearak is an attorney and adviser on government, community and public affairs. He is also active in Queens civic and political circles.
Reprinted with permission.
©Times Ledger 2003