What’s So Hard About Peace, Love, and Text Notifications About Upcoming Elections?

Legislation for text and email election reminders has been introduced to the NY City Council, but it could still take a while to become reality.

After Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of New York and New Jersey in 2012, election officials had to hastily relocate polling places for Election Day, which took place the following week, to replace those made inaccessible by the storm. They didn’t have time to notify voters by mail of the change. As a result, many voters were confused about where to go. Some may have skipped the election entirely. This inspired New York Senator Charles Schumer to write legislation requiring states to create disaster contingency plans for national elections. On a local level, it prompted New York City Councilman James Vacca to introduce legislation that would require the New York City Board of Elections to send election notifications to New Yorkers via text and email.

That was in August 2014.

After a year-and-a-half lull, the legislation is back on the agenda, and was among the innovations to increase voter turnout that New York City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito promised in her State of the City address. (In 2014, only 29 percent of eligible New York State voters went to the polls—the second-worst voter turnout in the nation.)

In her February address, Mark-Viverito celebrated the innovative strategies used to get New Yorkers to vote in the Participatory Budgeting (PB) process, including reminder texts and emails, and then pledged to “push for key innovations that will make it easier to vote” in regular elections as well.

“We’re also going to create voter notifications through email and text messaging—just like we’ve successfully done with PB,” she said. “We are going to bring democracy right to your fingertips.”

It might have been just the push Vacca’s legislation needed. At the end of February, Vacca’s bill was one of a number of voting reforms considered at a hearing of the Committee on Governmental Operations.

But the testimony given at the hearing suggests that the road ahead may yet be long and bumpy for an idea that seems simple.

First, Michael Ryan, the executive director of the New York City Board of Elections, testified that the bill “changes the duties and responsibilities of the City Board as prescribed by the Election Law and conflicts with existing State Law.”

Ryan also pointed out some problems that could arise over the collection of additional information—like email addresses—by the Board of Elections, including the fact that state law does not prohibit the sale of telephone numbers or email addresses for commercial or fundraising purposes.

Henry Berger, special counsel to the mayor, testified that sending text and email notifications about elections is a “massive undertaking” requiring “significant resources, staff, equipment, and technological infrastructure before it can even begin to be realized or implemented.” Berger also raised concerns about the “scope of the City’s authority over the Board” and suggested that “the concerns sought to be addressed by the bills could be more appropriately addressed, in cooperation with the administration and Board, outside the legislative process.”

Representatives from the Citizens Union of the City of New York and Common Cause both supported the bill. Prudence Katze from Common Cause addressed the New York City Board of Elections directly when she said, “we call on the NYC Board to accept the direction from the NYC Council contained in these needed bills and resolutions and to work with every level of government to ensure that voters can receive the best experience possible.”

She added, “the Board’s stubborn insistence that it is not answerable for the way in which it spends tax dollars does it no credit and simply re-enforces the unfortunate public perception that it is an agency that is unresponsive to public concerns.”

Seth Flaxman, the co-founder of Democracy Works (and Civic Hall member), also spoke in favor of the idea. “The idea of a government sending election reminders or notifications to their constituencies perfectly represents the driving notion behind TurboVote—that voting should fit the way we live.”

“We are a culture that increasingly lives in our mobile devices,” he continued. “We expect to be able to access more information in our phones than ever before.”

Flaxman also offered some words of advice and caution, suggesting that the city not be excessively prescriptive and to allow room for iteration and a slow roll-out.

In a phone call with Civicist, Flaxman reiterated that “technology is usually harder than you think. When the stakes are high, you want to make sure you get it right.”

“It’s not free and it’s not cheap,” Flaxman told Civicist when asked about cost. As for specifics, he hesitantly ventured, “I would be surprised if it cost over a million.”

But it’s certainly doable. When Flaxman began working on TurboVote in 2010 with Democracy Works co-founder Kathryn Peters, Peters’ county clerk in Boone County, Missouri, was already sending email notifications to voters about upcoming elections.

And the demand for a service like this isn’t going anywhere. “I’m one of a million New Yorkers who always checks his texts,” Councilman Vacca told Civicist. “By using texting and email we can communicate [with voters] much more effectively.”

When asked about the executive director of the Board of Elections’ testimony that the legislation conflicts with state law, Vacca told Civicist, “there’s nothing that prevents the BOE from doing this administratively,” in addition to the requirements laid out by state law.

He added, “my understanding is they think this is a very good idea.”

The bill will need to go through a process of readjustment now.

“I think the Speaker would like to put together a voter engagement package,” Vacca said. “And I hope that some version of my legislation will be included.”

But don’t expect texts from the city before you head to the polls this November. Even if the legislation moves quickly from here on out, Flaxman told Civicist that the city would ideally take two years to develop the product.