Archive for October 2016

The Myth of Voter Fraud

Posted by NYPIRG on October 31, 2016 at 2:12 pm
Share on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter

As the national election races to the finish line, one issue that has made its way to the top of the debate is voter “fraud.”  It is stated frequently and consistently that voter fraud is a huge problem that could undermine the results of the national elections.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

National experts say that credible allegations that someone may have pretended to be someone else at the polls are incredibly rare.  The most comprehensive review of these allegations found only 31 different incidents (some of which involve multiple ballots) since 2000–anywhere in the country. Included in that analysis were all general, primary, special, and municipal elections from 2000 through 2014.  In general and primary elections alone, more than 1 billion votes were cast in that period.

While some of these 31 incidents have been thoroughly investigated (including some prosecutions), many have not.   The author of the study guessed that some of the 31 were just honest mistakes, but he wanted to err on the side of caution.

And that conservative approach still found only 31 credible allegations out of over 1 billion votes cast.

Hardly sounds like a widespread problem.

Yet, the relentless message that somehow there is a widespread problem with election fraud is having an impact on the nation.  According to one recent poll, nearly half of Americans believe that voter fraud (defined in the poll as “like the same person voting multiple times or someone voting who is not eligible”) is a problem.

Nearly half of Americans believe that there is a problem, when the research says there is none.

What evidence do proponents of the “voter fraud” myth use to advance their cause?  While the charges are usually based on anecdotes, a recent study issued by the independent think tank, the Pew Research Center, which estimated that there are approximately 24 million—one of every eight—voter registrations in the United States that are no longer valid or are significantly inaccurate.  This is an argument proponents like to use.

But that report, “Inaccurate, Costly and Inefficient: Evidence That America’s Voter Registration System Needs An Upgrade,” was an examination of the problems with voter registration.  It wasn’t a report that looked at voter fraud.  Ironically, it also found that over 50 million eligible voters were not registered.

That seems like a much bigger problem.

There is evidence that the use of the term “voter fraud” is just an attempt to suppress the vote – particularly among young voters, other first time voters, and voters of modest means – including voters of color.

A national – or even statewide – debate over voting in America should be based on the facts, not overblown – or false – allegations.

Efforts to suppress the constitutional right to vote is much more of a problem than voter fraud.  Candidates for office should use their time to advance measures to protect and expand that constitutional right, not dream up ways to sow public unease for their own narrow partisan advantage.

Here in New York our voter registration and voter participation rates are anemic. A U.S. Elections Project analysis showed New York to have among the five worst turnout rates in the nation among eligible voters. New York must take immediate action to address systematic problems that disenfranchise voters and remove barriers that suppress voter turnout.  Here’s a checklist of three reforms that would help:

  1. Allow automatic voter registration and automatic updates to enrollment information of citizens interacting with all state and local government agencies.
  2. Allow voters to register and vote on Election Day. In the interim, New York State should shorten the registration and change of enrollment deadlines to 10 days before the election, the current minimum under the State Constitution.
  3. Eliminate the patronage-controlled Boards of Elections, starting with the merit selection of permanent Board employees across the state.

Reforms are needed, but they must remove obstacles to registration and voting, not respond to myths that are easily debunked.

Nuke Bail Out Will Cost New Yorkers Billions

Posted by NYPIRG on October 24, 2016 at 11:48 am
Share on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter

During the lazy, hazy days of last summer, the Cuomo Administration approved a plan to hike New Yorkers’ electric utility bills by billions of dollars. The hike is to bail out three upstate nuclear power plants in central and western New York. Some of these plants, built during the Vietnam War era, were slated to be shut down because they were no longer efficient or profitable, having run well past their projected lifespan of 40 years.

Instead, New York ratepayers – be they commercial, industrial, municipal governments, schools, nonprofit groups or residents – will have to pay an estimated $7.6 billion more on their electric bills to bail out three nuclear power plants operating near Oswego and Rochester.

The $7.6 billion estimate was calculated by the Public Utility Law Project, an independent think tank. Of that amount, an estimated $2.3 billion will be paid over the next 12 years by residential consumers—homeowners and renters.  Niagara Mohawk residential customers, for example, will pay nearly a half of a billion dollars more; Con Edison consumers in downstate New York, will pay over $700 million more.

New Yorkers will be paying more for electricity so that the Illinois-based company Exelon, the owner of two of these plants and prospective buyer of the third, can turn a profit.  Exelon is already a hugely profitable energy company that makes billions every year; the plan to transfer billions of New York ratepayer dollars to Exelon has been described as one of the biggest transfers of wealth in state history.

Despite the magnitude of the subsidy, there was little public debate or transparency about the process. The Cuomo Administration downplayed the possible impact. In its initial reports last spring, the Cuomo Administration estimated that the cost of the bailout could range from as little as $59 million or as much as $658 million. It wasn’t until July that the true cost of the bailout began to emerge.

In mid-July, the Cuomo Administration unveiled the biggest—and most accurate—cost estimate right before the August 1st vote to approve the deal; the time when many New Yorkers were barbecuing and enjoying vacations.

The new estimate was a ten-fold increase over the highest that had been projected in the spring.  And then New Yorkers were given less than two weeks to comment.  Certainly not enough time during any part of the year, but particularly difficult to engage the public during the middle of the summer.

There can be no doubt that New Yorkers would agree that investments in the state’s renewable energy future are worth it, but spending billions of dollars to bail out old, dirty, unprofitable 20th century energy sources makes no sense at all. It’s the equivalent of spending big bucks to keep the horse-and-buggy industry alive while Henry Ford is moving cars off the assembly lines.

It is crystal clear that instead, New Yorkers should invest in clean, renewable, 21st century energy technology and reap the economic, health and environmental benefits that brings, while at the same time keeping the cost as low as possible for ratepayers. Renewable technologies and energy efficiency programs are already cheaper than nuclear power, so these investments would save money while greening the state’s energy system.

This November, the Cuomo Administration will decide whether to go through with the bailout by approving the sale of one upstate nuclear plant and drafting a contract to subsidize all the upstate plants.  If the governor chooses to pull the plug on the deal, then the state entities involved will have to come up with a new plan for better, cleaner, cheaper energy.  If that happens, there is a good chance New Yorkers will be part of that process, not out of the loop and then stuck with the bill.

Hunger Hits Colleges

Posted by NYPIRG on October 10, 2016 at 10:03 am
Share on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter

College students are not the ones that we think of when identifying people who are hungry in America.  Yet, as the income gap has grown, there are an incredible number of college students who go hungry.

Last week, a national report documented just how serious the problem has become.

Four campus-based organizations – the College and University Food Bank Alliance, the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, the Student Government Resource Center, and the Student Public Interest Research Groups – surveyed college students on food insecurity in 12 states.

Food insecurity – the lack of reliable access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious food – is common at colleges and universities across the country, potentially undermining the educational success of untold thousands of students.

In their report, the groups surveyed almost 3,800 students at 34 community and 4-year colleges across 12 states – the broadest sample to date.  The report, Hunger on Campus: The Challenge of Food Insecurity for College Students, found that over 20 percent of those surveyed had the very lowest levels of food insecurity, and 13 percent of students at community colleges were homeless.

The report also found that consistent with prior studies, nearly half of those surveyed reported food insecurity in the previous month, including 22 percent with very low levels of food security that qualify them as hungry.

The report also found that students experiencing food insecurity often also suffer from housing insecurity, such as difficulty paying the rent, mortgage, or utility bills.  Nearly two-thirds of food insecure students reported experiencing some type of housing insecurity. Fifteen percent of food insecure students reported experiencing some form of homelessness – the most extreme form of housing insecurity – in the past 12 months.

Not surprisingly, the impacts of food or housing insecurity make it harder for students to perform in college.  Of the food insecure students in the study, over 30 percent believed that hunger or housing problems had an impact on their education. These students reported a range of consequences: Over half reported that these problems caused them to not buy a required textbook or missing a class; and twenty-five percent reported dropping a class.

Remarkably, these problems existed for students who were employed, participated in a campus meal program or received other forms of financial aid.  Over half of food insecure students reported having a paying job. Of those employed students, nearly 2 in 5 worked 20 hours or more per week.  Being enrolled in a meal plan with a campus dining hall does not eliminate the threat of food insecurity. Among the respondents from four-year colleges, over 40 percent of meal plan enrollees still experienced food insecurity.

And financial aid programs appear to be insufficient for college students in need.  According to the report, three in four food insecure students received some form of financial aid. More than half (52 percent) received Pell Grants and nearly 40 percent took out student loans during the current academic year.

What should be done?

A good place to start is for policymakers to examine the problems of hunger and homelessness among college students.  There is a real need to address these concerns through creative measures, such as making it easier for students to access financial aid, food programs, and offering housing and meals to needy students.

No person should ever have to worry about how they’re going to get their next meal. Unfortunately, that situation is the reality for far too many of today’s students.

The Root Cause of New York’s Scandals – Lack of Independent Oversight

Posted by NYPIRG on October 3, 2016 at 11:49 am
Share on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter

Reformers kept up the pressure last week for Governor Cuomo and the state Legislature to overhaul the state’s economic development programs.  In a letter to the state’s political leaders, the groups urged that steps be taken to reduce the risk of corruption in how the state doles out government contracts.

For anyone reading the recent news, reducing the possibility of corruption in how the state spends billions of taxpayer dollars seems appropriate, timely and absolutely necessary.  The recent charges brought by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara have highlighted the reality that New York’s government contracting process is ripe for abuse.  Currently, New York uses an array government-created non-profits and branches of the State University of New York to award billions in subsidies.

Yet, at the same time the governor sought these new ways to spur the state’s economy he pushed measures to reduce public accountability of those programs.  For example, in 2011 the governor and the legislative leaders agreed to a deal that removed oversight by the state’s chief fiscal watchdog, the Comptroller, of certain government contracts.

And the bid-rigging charges brought by the U.S. Attorney show that the combination of shadow government entities and inadequate oversight only increase the likelihood of corruption.

In light of the U.S. Attorney’s investigations, the governor’s response has been to hire an attorney to review the state’s procurement process.  The outside attorney’s company, Guidepost Solutions, has conducted its own internal investigation of the state’s contracting process and is being used by the governor as the plan for how to improve the oversight of awarding contracts.

But this company was hired and is being paid by the governor and has been reported to have other government contracts involving New York, which raises the question, “Is it truly independent?”

When you look across the landscape of state government, there are no good examples of watchdogs that are adequately structured to be independent.  The board members of the state’s top ethics watchdog agency are all appointed by elected officials – the same people who are subject to its oversight.  Not surprisingly, after three national searches, all three of the executive directors to this agency have been former employees of the governor.

And a recent report by the news outlet Politico NY found that the agency, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, has focused its sanctions on mid-to-low level public officials and lobbyists at a time when the U.S. Attorney has found evidence of widespread unethical activities at the highest levels in both the legislative and executive branches.

The state’s Comptroller is a separately-elected official, which is supposed to make him or her independent of the governor.  Yet, often the two elected officials are from the same political party, which can raise questions of adequate independence.  Yet in the most recent case, the governor has used his power to limit the Comptroller’s oversight over the New York’s economic development activities.

The state’s Inspector General is supposed to root out corruption in the executive branch of state government, but is appointed by the governor, with the consent of the state Senate.  The Board of Elections has equal numbers of political-appointees from the two major parties, which limits its aggressiveness.  A recent law created an independent elections enforcement counsel that is supposed to be free of political influence.  However, that person is chosen by the governor as well, with the approval of both houses of the Legislature.

All of these entities can act independently, but the political nature of their structures and approval of their budgets can seriously limit their aggressiveness.

It’s long part time to set up entities that are as independent as possible.  There are effective models that the governor can look to and build on.  For example, the New York City Independent Budget Office’s budget is pegged to the size of the budget office of the Mayor.  The state of Hawaii has an ethics commission in which a special judicial entity chooses two nominees for the commission and the governor chooses one.

However Governor Cuomo decides to move, the goal must be to unshackle the state’s fiscal and ethics watchdogs from the political elite that runs the state.  Those entities must follow investigations without fear or political favor.

And he must act now.  Preet Bharara’s term as U.S. Attorney runs out at the end of this year.  New Yorkers deserve open and accountable government and shouldn’t have to rely on the feds to get it.