Thursday, October 2, 2008

Westchester Guardian/Catherine Wilson.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief
Northern Westchester

Yes, We Can Vote

Election Day is effectively next week for thousands of local voters. Are you among them? October 10th is the deadline to be registered to vote in the General Election in November. Local residents need to file official New York State voter registration forms if they meet one of the
following conditions:

• You are a first time voter;

• You are a new resident in the state;

• You have changed your address since you last voted;

• You have changed your name since you last voted;

• You want to enroll in a political party;

• You want to change your enrollment in a political party.

Anyone needing to register to vote may do so in person at the County Board of Elections Office (BOE), 25 Quarropas Street, White Plains, or by mailing in the voter registration form to the BOE before October 10. The forms can be obtained by contacting the BOE office at 914-995-5713, or by downloading them from their website, www.westchestergov.com/citizenparticipation_boe).

Officially registering to vote allows a resident to cast a ballot on Election Day at their local polling place. But what if a resident is unable to vote in person at the local polls on that day? The State and County BOE allow for absentee ballots, ballots that may be cast in advance and mailed or hand-delivered to the BOE. Local residents may need to use an absentee ballot if:

• You will not be in Westchester County on Election Day (working abroad, travelling, away at college, business trip, etc.);

• You are unable to appear in person at your local polling place due to an illness or disability;

• You are a patient in a hospital, including Veteran’s hospitals;

• You are detained in jail awaiting grand jury action;

• You are confined in prison for an offense other than a felony.

This year’s campaign has inspired young voters to become involved. But young voters are particularly unlikely to vote since they often need to officially file not one, but two forms: the Voter Registration Form, and the Absentee Ballot, if they are away at college. Many college students jeopardize their votes by doing what students do best – procrastinating!

The Guardian spoke with Mr. Steven Levy, the Republican Deputy-Commissioner of the Westchester County BOE concerning voter registration forms and absentee ballots. “These forms are pretty straightforward,” Levy noted. “They are designed to make the process simple. If a new voter is registering and will need an absentee ballot as well, they can check o the box on the top of their voter registration
form and we will send an absentee form to them so they don’t even have to remember to apply for one!”

Levy noted that the biggest mistakes the BOE encounters with the voter registration forms and absentee ballots are individuals not filling them out completely or forgetting to sign them. “We (the BOE) review all forms submitted for accuracy and completion before the information is put on the county registration files,” Levy acknowledged.

The biggest concern for the BOE is potential voters forgetting to include their identification information. “If they forget to do so, we will still place their names on the register for voting,” Levy said, “but we will require identification from them on Election Day.” Requesting identification information from voters at their polling places on Election Day slows down the voting process and frustrates the voters.
“People will argue ‘but I registered’, not realizing that if they are a first-time voter, they need to be identified,” Levy stressed. Presidential elections attract more first-time voters; so it is critical for those local residents who wish to vote for the first time to make sure they
provide the correct identification to the BOE to be properly registered.

Once an individual is registered or submits an absentee ballot, this information is updated on County records and is provided to the polling places on Election Day. However, if a local resident who submitted an absentee ballot has a change of plans and wants to vote in person, the BOE encourages them to do so. “We want voters to be able to vote at the polls,” Levy stressed. “So if they submitted an absentee ballot,
they can still show up to vote.” However, that resident’s vote will not be counted twice. “The polling places have all information on each voter, including any submitted absentee ballots,” Levy noted. “So if someone shows up who has already submitted a ballot, the poll workers will ask them if they wish to cancel the absentee ballot before they can vote at the polls. That individual will not be able to vote twice!”

This year’s elections are attracting another group of voters in New York State, the handicapped. All state polling places now have ballot-marking devices to assist those individuals who may be unable to use regular voting machines. Every polling place will have workers to offer voters as much assistance as they require to place their votes. These devices and assistance are not limited to physically handicapped voters, anyone wishing to use them may do so, including individuals who may need extra time due to reading disabilities or who desire extra privacy due to emotional or psychological needs. As Sandy Galef noted to The Guardian in her press conference on this issue on January 31, “those individuals may be conscious of ‘holding up the line’ for other voters, and may have avoided voting in the past. Now everyone who wants to
may vote”.

Yet for many local voters, a major concern for them this Election Day is who to actually vote for? Undecided voters are being bombarded with messages for and against each candidate, from a variety of sources previously unseen in prior campaigns. This election is not only the proclaimed ‘year of the woman’ on the national front, it is also the year of the internet. On September 18, the League of Women Voters in Westchester and the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville hosted “The New Selling of the President 2008”, a bipartisan look at the impact of the internet on this year’s Presidential campaign.

The participants in the evening’s panel included Mr. David Schwartz, the chief curator of the Museum of the Moving Image, whose exhibits include Presidential Campaign Commercials 1952 – 2004, Mr. Micah Sifry, editor of the Personal Democracy Forum and the author of Is that A President In Your Pocket?, and Ms. Allison Fine, a Senior Fellow at ‘Demos’. The participants noted that voters are indeed being bombarded with more messages each year. In the 1950’s, President Eisenhower spent $1 million on campaign generated ads, whereas the presidential candidates spent $1 billion in 2004. But this figure does not include messages being produced outside of the campaigns, by individuals and groups on the internet.

According to Schwartz, “commercials are the one area where the candidate has full control. They can shift the dialog to where they want it to go. However, with the internet, the war is now being taken straight to the press and the people. Individuals and groups are now making ads that they’re hoping their supporters will spread. These messages are spent with little or no money”.

In a crowded information environment, Schwartz noted that individuals still make time to open emails that a friend shares. “Web ads are being forwarded, often generating millions of ‘hits’, ” he noted. “In the typical television environment, there are fewer and fewer opportunities where the bulk of Americans are watching,” Schwartz added. “But the internet provides niche opportunities. And those ads can be shared with like-minded individuals”.

The panel noted that the internet niche campaigns are “good at shoring up their basis, but bad at persuading those in the middle. Trying to win the 24-hour cycle is difficult,” Schwartz added. Using the internet as a means to spread a campaign message separates voters along more than just issue lines.

Poorer voters may not have computer access or may use less expensive phone ‘dial-up’ methods to access their emails, making downloading videos and other internet ads time-consuming and dif-ficult. Schwartz referred to this as the “digital divide” facing voters and candidates
alike.

While the typical campaign managers may find this new system to be disruptive, Sifry views this as democracy in action. “We now have citizen reporters who can capture and spread information.

The campaigns are learning not only to accept this, but to even embrace it.” Steve Apkon, the Director of Jacob Burns, showed the audience an individually-produced ad for Barack Obama called Yes We Can. The individual took a speech from Obama and remixed the material with actors and music. “This ad has generated millions of hits on the internet” Apkon noted. “The Obama campaign allowed the individual to use
proprietary material, his speech, in this ad. Candidates and government representatives are learning to work with this new environment. Mitt Romney asked his supporters to make commercials for him; even the Bush administration is hosting a competition for individuals from around the world to submit their own films on ‘Democracy Is’ ”.

This new medium allows for ads to be produced quickly, sometimes in response to something the candidate has said or done the day before, or in response to other internet ads. The audience at Jacob Burns, mostly middle-aged or older, as noted by Apkon, laughed at an ad, similar in style to the Yes We Can video, that mocked a Mc-Cain speech. The panel noted that the internet ads can be just as powerful in using visual imagery as their television equivalents.

The audience viewed an ad for Mc-Cain, made in response to a speech by Obama where he referred to the Iraq war as a ‘mistake’. The video showed a young soldier in uniform, standing in front of an American flag, speaking of his efforts and those of his friends. The long parting shot of this soldier walking away, revealing his artificial leg, drew an emotional reaction from the audience.

While the audience at Jacob Burns reacted to the McCain commercial, they gave a more muted reaction to the three-minute Yes We Can mantra on the Obama ad, a speech that has evoked strong emotions from younger voters, many of whom now sport T-shirts and bumper stickers with this message. The use of the internet for campaigning may be revealing another divide among voters, a generational one. The panel members noted one way for the candidates and their supporters to get their messages out to a wide range of voters is to use humor. A video from the Jib-Jab web site, http://www.jibjab.com/, It’s Time for some Campaign in, skewering all candidates equally: Bush packing boxes, McCain driving a tank, Obama singing about change, Hillary waving a 2012 banner, drew peals of laughter from the audience. “Many individuals already get their political information from shows like The Daily Show’ or Comedy Central,” Schwartz noted. “We have a long history of satire in this country.”

One audience member voiced a concern that the niche-driven internet ads might create an echo-chamber where “We don’t know how people
who don’t think like us are thinking”. Schwartz noted that people do watch what makes them feel comfortable but Sifry disagreed. “People who go online are more likely to seek out information on people they don’t agree with. If you are a blogger, a writer of an internet diary or personal internet log, you are more likely to get comments from people who disagree with your opinions,” he said.

With all of these commercials and videos and conflicting opinions and messages, an audience member voiced concerns on how to know what information is actually accurate. Mary Beth Gose, the President of the League of Women Voters, and the panel members, offered some websites and organizations that are committed to providing accurate information for voters. Ms. Gose mentioned a website,
http://www.smartvoter.org/, for voters to access for information. “This (site) brings you to the home page where you can enter your home address to find out your polling location, as well as what is going to be on the ballot,” Gose told The Guardian. “Candidates have the opportunity
to provide their own information directly on the website. You may want to check the website periodically for updated candidate information,
lists of upcoming candidate meetings, etc.” The Westchester League of Women Voters website may be found at http://www.lwvwestchester.org/.

The new communication mediums are also being used to ‘get out the vote’. Fine noted that young voters are text-messaging their friends to remind them to register. She and the other panel members agreed that all of this activity will continue after the election. “All this time and effort will now turn to the act of governance,” Sifry noted. “This election is the tip of the sphere. Each and every one of us now has the ability to hold elected officials responsible.”

Schwartz noted that an individual can turn into a reporter with a candidate’s misstep captured on a cell phone camera. “An initial misstep can now be replayed over and over again on the internet,” Fine said. “But that means we will eventually filter this out. As these new systems and videos follow people through their lives, we will get used to seeing other people’s mistakes and concentrate on the issues instead.”

For local voters who want information on candidates and the issues, the panel recommended three bipartisan websites and organizations: factcheck.org, Project Vote Smart, 888-VoteSmart, and OpenCongress.org. Eventually the local undecided voters will make up their minds, some on Election Day itself in the voting booth. But they can take heart that in a few months, the entire process will start all over again; 2009 is a County Executive election year.

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