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February 09, 2020 HUMAN RIGHTS

Improving Voter Turnout: A Candidate's Perspective

by Bobbi M. Bittker

Running for office in my small New York City bedroom community was enlightening. Like many women post-2016, I reevaluated my priorities and decided to run for public office when the opportunity came. I officially became a candidate for Town Council in Bedford, New York, in February 2019.

Shortly before I announced my candidacy, New York State passed a voter reform package. Changes implemented in 2019 included aligning state and local primary elections with federal primaries and instituting early voting, both intended to increase voter participation. Practically speaking, this meant I began petitioning to get on the ballot in February rather than July, making the election cycle very long.

I envisioned me, a broken record, selling myself to voters. Instead, I spent a lot of time explaining why local government mattered, convincing people to show up and vote in 2019, when all they were talking about was 2020. Persuading voters that officials who made decisions about their daily lives were just as important as those on the national stage was an uphill climb. I thought often about how to improve voter turnout and the compulsory voting debate.

Soon after petitions were filed, I learned my opponent challenged me for the Independence Party line causing a “forced primary” using the “opportunity to ballot” procedure. The spring became a “dry run” for the general election rather than the breather I expected. I was canvassing voters, developing a strategy, and this primary turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I won. Because it was for one of the smaller party lines, I cultivated relationships with a couple hundred voters I would not have during the larger game plan in the fall.

Meanwhile, this same opponent submitted a petition to start a new party designation. I became a regular at the Board of Elections and after tediously scrutinizing petition by petition, line by line, I filed specific objections. Of the 502 signatures, over 130 were invalidated for reasons like voters lived out of district, they were not registered, they signed other petitions (“one person, one vote”), signatures did not match voter registration cards. I had reason to believe they were not properly notarized and witnessed. I questioned whether more signatures were invalid and repeatedly sought out the commissioners’ rating sheets with no response. The new designation was allowed to move forward.

It was discouraging that the Board of Elections did not enforce state law. My opponent was encouraging voters to submit absentee ballot applications though they did not meet the criteria. When I questioned the Board of Elections about it, they said, “they all do it.”

Candidates are required by law to file regular financial disclosures throughout the campaign. My filings were timely and accurate. However, for months, my opponent failed to disclose his contributions altogether. He and his treasurer were likely receiving and ignoring notices from the Board of Elections, yet the electorate was unaware and no action was taken. He finally disclosed when our local newspaper editor phoned him, made aware of his lack of transparency. The Board of Elections still hadn’t taken action and the public never knew. No consequences.

Some of these problems could have been remedied in court. However, I was running on a slate with other candidates and, because of the nuances, there was no consensus and we decided not to file.

With native Spanish-speaking immigrants in town, we made efforts to overcome the language barrier. I carried Spanish language voter registration forms and absentee ballot applications, made a Spanish version of my website, and did my best to communicate in Spanish verbally and in writing. I hope this brought more voters to the polls, and I plan to do more for our Latinx community in 2020.

I won the Town Council seat and was sworn in on January 1, 2020. Campaigning isn’t just a successful race to Election Day. It’s a learning process—about the people, history, and substantive issues in the town I’ve called home for over 25 years. But I also learned about what’s working and how our system is broken. Major voting reform is necessary, but things need attention on the micro-level. It’s up to us to be vigilant, stay active, and use our expertise to make change where we are. 

Bobbi M. Bittker is an attorney focusing on civil rights advocacy and Town Councilperson in Bedford, New York. She is the Co-Chair of the ABA Civil Rights and Social Justice Section’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Committee, sits on the New York State Bar Association Committee on Civil Rights, and is a founding member of the Human Rights Campaign’s Project THRIVE.