Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Friday, the day before early voting kicks off in New York City, that he planned to recruit hundreds of city workers in a matter of days to join an “Election Observer Corps,” a group assigned to stand outside poll sites across the city on Election Day, November 3rd, and help ensure voters don’t face intimidation at the polls.
Speaking on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, the mayor characterized the program as a response to incendiary rhetoric coming from President Donald Trump and his campaign that could lead to voter suppression if there are not enough eyes and ears on the ground, as he explained later on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show.
“This year, for the first time in a long time, we have to be worried about systematic efforts to suppress the vote in communities of color and immigrant communities. Purposeful efforts and intimidation. Look, the president has made very clear, he is intending to try to defy the will of the voters,” de Blasio said.
While the program may be aimed at protecting people’s civil rights, the hasty announcement came with scant details about who the volunteers would be, where they would work, how they would be identified, when they would be trained, what they would do and why the city was opting to mobilize its own resources when several experienced organizations already do this work.
The day before the mayor’s announcement, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams joined New York Attorney General Letitia James and Susan Lerner, head of the good government group Common Cause New York, to unveil their own program, consisting of nearly 600 volunteers statewide who have already been assigned to monitor poll sites starting Saturday, the first day of early voting. This year, they also introduced roving bike monitors who can move from site to site.
“We have a command center and captain structure so that our volunteers are well supported and are able to identify and escalate problems to the command team,” said Lerner, adding her poll watcher program was affiliated with the national nonpartisan Election Protection program, which reports problems at poll sites to a hotline, 1-866-OUR-VOTE, staffed by election lawyers affiliated with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Lerner, who was informed of de Blasio’s plan on Thursday, noted that Common Cause New York has been recruiting volunteers for months and training them for weeks, in 90-minute sessions that review New York Election Law, and provide more detailed information about how volunteers can report problems to the command center. These poll watchers will all be wearing masks that say “Election Protection.”
In contrast, there are many details of the city’s program still to be worked out. The effort will be overseen by Laura Wood, senior adviser and general counsel to the Mayor’s DemocracyNYC office, which launched in 2018 and is currently operating without a director after the resignation in January of the city’s first and only Chief Democracy Office, Ayirini Fonseca-Sabune.
Wood said the city was in the process of recruiting its volunteers with an email set to go out today to all city employees notifying them of this opportunity. She also said her office would tap staff in the Mayor’s Office of Community Affairs, the Law Department, and the Census office, but could not provide many specifics beyond a goal of recruiting people in the next four to five days, with a training session set for later next week.
“We know that there are community groups and others that have worked on these efforts for years. And we will do everything we can to partner and coordinate with them and really try to stand together, united as a city to protect voters,” Wood told Gothamist/WNYC.
She said City Hall decided to launch this initiative after hearing concerns from community groups that were working with the city on voting issues. “There's definitely been an escalation in the rhetoric,” Wood said. “We are trying to be responsive to what we are hearing.”
She described the new poll watchers as an extension of work the mayor’s office routinely did, sending people out to check poll sites, now with a more public branding. As eyes and ears, she said the poll watchers would report back problems they hear from voters who appear upset leaving a poll site. She said they would even watch for New York City police officers not wearing masks and report that back to the NYPD counsel’s office.
For specific voter problems, Wood said they planned to direct voters to call the New York Attorney General’s election hotline (1-800-771-7755), or 311, for answers to basic questions like poll site locations.
At the same time, Wood could not say where any of the city’s watchers would be assigned or how a voter could identify them, as opposed to volunteers from a campaign or just a random person offering misinformation. She noted that places with more highly contested races were likely to see bigger issues at the poll sites.
One of the most competitive races is in the 11th Congressional District where incumbent Democratic Congressman Max Rose is running against Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis. The district includes parts of South Brooklyn and all of Staten Island, the only borough that President Trump won in 2016.
Rose, who has run his re-election campaign against anything associated with de Blasio, did not respond to a request for comment about the prospect of the city sending poll watchers to sites in his district. Rob Ryan, the campaign spokesman for Malliotakis, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2017, said de Blasio’s proposal was unnecessary and wrong.
“The mayor has crossed the line; inserting hundreds of partisan city workers under his control into the electoral process,” Ryan said.
The city committed to providing more information about its volunteers and training next week.