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“It Shouldn’t Be Tolerated”: New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams on Voting Issues, Sandy Relief and Restoring Communities

Jumaane Williams. (Photo: Michael Fleshman / Flickr)

New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams talks about the problems he sees with the organization of voting and Hurricane Sandy relief efforts in New York City, revealing an ethic of responsibility to his own constituents and the larger community.

The 2012 election saw attempts around the country to suppress the vote, with voter ID bills pushed through Republican-controlled state legislatures, early voting hours sliced in many states that used to encourage going to the polls ahead of Election Day and useless purges of voter rolls.

On Election Day, voters around the country reported long lines, ill-informed poll workers, voters illegally asked for ID and other problems. An election night poll found that voters of color were far more likely to have waited in long lines than white voters, and that Obama voters were nearly twice as likely to have waited in long lines as Romney voters.

While the election night focus was on swing states and close elections, voters across the country suffered. In New York and New Jersey, officials had to rush to come up with solutions for voters displaced by Superstorm Sandy. New Yorkers were allowed to vote in any polling place by affidavit ballot, but if they left their state Senate district, their vote for that race would not count. Even without the confusion and stress of trying to accommodate thousands of suddenly homeless people whose polling places had washed out to sea or flooded or simply had no power or viable transportation, New York City’s Election Day was a mess from start to finish.

This matters, even if elections aren’t close. If we forget that voters waited five or six hours to vote, that many walked away, unable to miss that much work or keep a small child in line in the cold with them for that long, because Obama and Kirsten Gillibrand easily won, we don’t fix the problem and the next close race, like New York City’s upcoming open mayoral election, will be characterized by the same problems, only magnified.

New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams was on the case Election Day, live-tweeting his attempts to make sure his constituents and anyone displaced by the storm were able to cast their ballots. Williams, a former community organizer, has been an outspoken opponent of police racial profiling and “stop-and-frisk,” and a supporter of the Occupy movement.

Williams has also been active in Sandy relief, working with local community groups (and criticizing the Red Cross for its failures) and he sat down with Truthout to discuss long-term solutions for the problems, highlighted on Election Day, that are already fading from the news.

Sarah Jaffe for Truthout: On Election Day, I was going from polling site to polling site checking out the lines, and I was following you on Twitter doing the same thing. I’m hoping that New York’s voting problems don’t get forgotten just because the state wasn’t in play in the presidential race.

Jumaane Williams: I’m glad people waited even after the polls closed, because the popular vote is still important. And we still had local elections that needed to be decided.

I knew it was going to be a long day, as I had never received so many calls so quickly from so many places. I got the first call at 5:30 a.m. that people hadn’t shown up to get the machines in. I got the next call at 6:00 a.m. from another location saying that they hadn’t opened yet, so that was my first indication that it wasn’t going to be a good day.

It took probably 30, 40 minutes for me to go to my poll site. I was annoyed there; I thought that was a long time – but lo and behold it was not a long time in comparison to my worst poll site, which was about five, six hours. That was at Vanderveer Park United Methodist Church, Glenwood Road. That was by far the worst, but we had similar ones, and in addition, that one was a fire hazard and was poorly planned out.

You know, a lot of people just didn’t vote; it was very unfortunate. There were things that the Board of Elections could have done. I think they were trying to blame it on the affidavits. Most of the people who voted by affidavit didn’t vote that way because they were evacuees, at least not in my district. They voted because they got tired of waiting on lines. There were more affidavit ballots that were printed than were used.

I was offended when [the BOE] said, this past week, that they did an excellent job. I was dumbfounded by that. I just don’t know where they were.

It was an issue nationally – the president mentioned it in his speech. But as far as New York City goes, it shouldn’t be tolerated. I would’ve been very upset if I was one of those local candidates running for an office; I’m sure many people didn’t get to vote because they did affidavits, and people walked away.

A multiple-hour wait to vote is a poll tax. It’s time out of your day that, if you work by the hour, you can’t get back.

I had a woman ask me, can she get fired if she waits, because she had to get back to work. I tell people to come out and vote and they have to wait on line for hours? I didn’t think they could top the bad job they did in the primaries. I thought we had seen the worst and we hadn’t, so I’m worried about what’s next if this stuff doesn’t get addressed.

When I finally got through the line at my polling place, which was about an hour and 40 minutes, I was talking to the poll workers on the door who were telling me that the only people who’d be allowed to vote after 9 p.m. were people who were inside the building, not on line outside. I tried to call the Board of Elections; their phone number was down; I went to their web site; their web site was down – so I wound up calling a national hotline.

I tweeted at BOE, people had better be able to vote after 9 or I was going to try to get the Feds down here. I drove around the poll sites, saw people at the end of the line; the police actually did a good job that day to come and create some order at poll places, so I’m confident everybody in my district was able to vote, if they waited on the line.

I’m concerned that we have the mayoral race coming up: If we don’t fix this by then, what happens?

The BOE had four years to plan for this presidential election; they have a whole year now, a little less than a year, to plan the next one. The problem is, if they’re saying they did an excellent job, what are they trying to correct? I’m concerned about that. They did not do an excellent job.

There were some things that were out of their control, but the things that they did control they did a poor job. The layouts of the polls were terrible. The training of the poll workers wasn’t adequate. There weren’t enough poll workers there. I had multiple poll workers – I corrected some of them – telling people if you’re voting Democrat vote all the way down, if you’re voting Republican vote all the way down [voting a straight party ticket], and possibly even causing them to vote improperly in the judicial races at the bottom of the ballot. Wow!

The layout of the ballot was terrible. People voted for Obama twice because they saw his name twice, they didn’t understand how the system worked on the ballot [Obama was cross-endorsed in New York by the Working Families Party and so voters could vote for him as a Democrat or a WFP candidate].

So there’s things that can be worked out that I think they have some control over that they just didn’t do right.

What are some fixes that we should see to make sure this doesn’t happen again?

Well, a few of us, [Council member] Gale Brewer and some people from the state and good government groups had a press conference to discuss just that. We definitely need to have early voting in New York City; there’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t, if not the state. We should include some weekend voting. You don’t need to have all these people crammed up on one day.

Also no-excuse absentee ballots would be helpful. One of the things that could be made easier, that we found, was you have to sign a card [when you get your paper ballot from the poll worker]; when you put your ballot in, you give the card back to the poll worker. There’s no need for the card now because that was part of an old system.

One of my colleagues is going to try to use capital funding to get iPads at registration, which is not a bad idea. I think there should be some computerized database; I think the paper should be backup, but you should have something that moves the line a little bit quicker. Every election I’ve seen people have trouble looking up names on the alphabetical order, so we need to have something automated there, and if that breaks down then you go ahead and do the books.

I think they need to do a better job of planning and the schematics of how the polls are going to work and obviously trainings need to get better.

I went to get a hot chocolate to warm up after standing in line outside for an hour and a half and wound up talking to a guy who’d just gotten off his shift as a poll worker. I asked how he got the job, and he said Craigslist. Now, I’ve gotten gigs off Craigslist, too, but that just makes me concerned about how rigorous the process is, the trainings they’re putting people through.

What we had to do is go down the line and just explain to people what was going on – it would be good if they had volunteers to do it. The good government groups were saying that it would be good if they could institute some volunteer programs and people could explain what’s going on.

One of the big things we want to do is get some kind of group together, a task force that consists of the BOE, elected officials and good government groups, and try to put our differences aside to really affect this process. The problem is if we’re saying the sky’s blue and they’re saying it’s not blue; if they’re saying they did an excellent job, it’s just frustrating. Why would you say that, that you did an excellent job and have a little pep rally for yourself?

I think there’s a lot of fixes that can be done on the city level. Most of them would be on the state level because they have more control, but I think there’s some things we could do in the city. I have a bill in there. I think the problem is New York state has one of the lowest voter turnouts in general. So there’s a lot of things, from the time that somebody wants to register, until the time they vote, that need to be fixed.

I do want to ask about the affidavit ballots and people who were displaced by the storm. There were probably people who didn’t get to vote in their local races because of that. Did you see any trouble?

I had a number of evacuees who wanted to vote, but they were by far the minority. I can probably count how many people I remember asking about that while I was there – obviously I’m sure there were more. But I’m quite positive that the abundance of people who did affidavits weren’t evacuees.

I think they should’ve had poll sites at the evacuation centers: That would’ve made things easier. There was some confusion about who could vote and where you could vote; I had some poll sites telling people, “You can’t vote affidavit here.” And of course some places ran out of affidavits at some point or ran out of envelopes for the affidavits.

We learned that there were about 1.4 to 1.6 million affidavits printed and about 600,000 or 700,000 that were cast. So they had an abundance. Of course, not every ballot in Queens is going to look like the ballot in the Bronx, so there’s some things that have to be done there, but they shouldn’t have run out like that. I know that they got last minute notice from the governor, but I really don’t think it was evacuees that caused the problems.

Sandy obviously brought its own logistical nightmares, but I don’t think that’s what caused the long lines.

I do want to talk about the Sandy relief efforts, because I know you’ve been involved in that and that you, like me, have been critical of our friends at the Red Cross – because we haven’t seen a lot of our friends at the Red Cross. Sort of like the BOE, they say they’re doing a great job and I say, “Where?”

I feel like we haven’t done enough. I’ve tried, but I feel like I can’t affect as much as I want to affect. We’ve tried to do what we can do here. Obviously, the first thing was to make sure my district was OK: We had some trees fall in the district, some power lines, so first thing that morning, I was up and at ’em; my staff was up and at ’em – getting pictures, talking to people.

And then it was like – we’re not as bad as everyone else; we need to use our resources in the district – my office, my constituents, I tried to convey to them, whatever you have to donate, time, or items, let’s get that to people who really need the help. We tried to create venues, a place where people can find out about volunteering information; we’ve initiated some volunteer initiatives. We spent a lot of time in Coney Island, some in Canarsie, trying to do that.

The Red Cross, I do have to say, in my district they do respond to fires and things of that nature, so I don’t want to say that they don’t do that, but when it came to this, I just don’t know what happened. How long does it take to get to the ground that you’re already here? Like, you’re in New York City.

I was frustrated by that. And I know people have continued to give money, but I know of a lot of groups that were on the ground doing work well before the Red Cross. Occupy Sandy from Occupy Wall Street – they did a phenomenal job. If they got the kind of money the Red Cross got?

It’s frustrating, these big groups that are supposed to be doing things and then aren’t doing it and then still trying to get more money.

I think I’ve seen more ads for Red Cross donations on the internet than I’ve seen Red Cross trucks, and I’ve been out and about a bit. Anyway, there was Bloomberg’s speech the night before the storm, where he said that he’d been offered help before the storm came in, from FEMA, and he told them that everything was under control.

I hadn’t heard that. I don’t know that it would surprise me that Bloomberg said something like that. I mean, I did give the administration credit for the initial prep of the city for the storm and the initial response, but after that, we were just woefully unprepared. Woefully unprepared.

It’s hard to make good executive decisions after you’re so poorly prepared. You’d have to go back in time and prepare better. I hope that’s what we do, now. And I hope people do go when they say evacuate. There’s also some personal responsibility that has to happen. Going up to this storm, everyone was talking about this in a way they had not talked about any other storm before. It was clear that this was not Irene, that this was not a regular – you need to leave, and people didn’t leave. And so that caused some more complications. Needless complications, I think.

And now we’re hearing that New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is billing people for rent for this month that they’ve spent without power, saying that they’ll get rent credits in January.

You know, NYCHA, I think – clearly they haven’t been up to par. They’re using poor choice of words on certain things…

What was it, “It’ll be a nice Christmas gift for you,” or something.

They are trying. The heat was supposed to be on; it’s not on. The chairperson, I’m meeting with him, I think he means well, I think he’s trying to do a good job. I can’t really comment more than that, I just know that what they’re saying is being done is not being done. I would say they should probably get the credit sooner, but then you also need money to make the fixes that you need, so I understand the cash flow issue as well, but if people weren’t able to live, they weren’t able to live.

At the very least, [they] probably want to choose their words a little more carefully when explaining the situation.

You know, NYCHA residents clearly got a raw deal on this. Sandy didn’t discriminate on lives that she destroyed. But as usual, I think people who are a little poorer than others are feeling the effects a little longer than others and are probably going to be feeling the effects long after. That’s usually the case; it seems to be the case here.

But I think people suffered, rich, poor, black, white, it was just an amazing equalizer in terms of the destruction that I saw firsthand. When I went to Coney Island, when I went to the NYCHA homes there and the Sea Gate, it was heartbreaking what I saw.

I lived in New Orleans, and I was gone when Katrina happened, but I watched it from a distance and watched as the ramifications of that unfolded over the years. And the devastation can hit on a pretty equal level, but the people who get forgotten years later, who haven’t been able to rebuild, tend to be the people who didn’t have resources in the first place. I’m concerned, already I think volunteer turnout is dropping off a bit, and I’m concerned about being able to keep an eye on these issues.

I’m concerned too, I know that people have likened it to Katrina – I don’t know if it’s a good comparison. I know they were both devastating. I think Katrina might have wiped out that area a bit more completely. Obviously, there were pockets that were wiped out here, but it wasn’t the whole city.

But they were both devastating and I’m concerned about, like you said, the people who need the assistance the most will probably be the ones that don’t get it. It’s already dropping off the news cycle a bit, slowly, other things are coming in.

It’s frustrating. There were places in Brooklyn, in Canarsie that didn’t get much attention at all. I don’t know how to fix that except to fix it. It’s just difficult. We’ve got to keep an eye on it.

Places like Far Rockaway and Staten Island, even Coney Island, they’ve got good elected officials that really stay on top of things. At least for now, officials, community leaders are on top of it, I hope they stay on top of it and whatever I can do to help, I will. I didn’t even know Red Hook was as bad as it was until a couple of days ago when it started showing up on the news. I was focusing on Coney Island, Canarsie. Had I known that Red Hook was bad, I would’ve tried to do stuff over there. It’s just difficult.

The one thing I have been impressed with is the MTA getting back up.

The MTA. A mini miracle. It was great to see the MTA and the unions working together, to get things up and running. That is the heart of the city, so if that’s not up and running, when that starts to run then we can move, but if that’s not up and running … we’re all jacked up.

So I’m very impressed by Lhota. I don’t know about his mayoral run, but it was definitely impressive; it was good to see them and the unions really working together, saying we’ve got to get the trains back up and running.

Are they talking about him running for mayor?

There was a rumor that he might want to, as a Republican, and the Republicans need somebody, they’ve got to scrape that barrel.

I know some groups that would like to see you run for mayor.

[laughs] Oh Lord! Ask them to support me for my run in council next year! That’s what I’m focused on. I’m having a good time in the city council; I think I’m trying to be effective here. I don’t want to leap too soon. I try not to believe my own press releases. [laughs]

I want to close with saying that following you on Twitter is an excellent peek into an elected official doing his job. I think Cory Booker gets a lot of fame for running into houses, but I think it’s really important to see elected officials doing their job, being responsive to people, and doing it in public.

Thank you.

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