Since the Brooklyn Voters Alliance was limited in terms of voting data for State Senators, we decided to analyze the legislation supported. Brooklyn Voters Alliance believes there is a foundational right in this country to the right to vote. Our project had to be different because New York does not pass many, if any in a given legislative session, bills related to voting rights. Therefore, we focused on what bills were put forth by our elected representatives. Aware of the reality that New York electeds claim to support voting rights legislation and exercise of the franchise, however, the state has not passed any significant voting rights legislation in 100 years. Therefore, the Brooklyn Voters Alliance was limited in what data it had available.
Determined the scope and purpose of the report card.
We started by brainstorming the focus and purpose of our report cards:
- Greater transparency
- To bring awareness to voters that most legislation does not make it out of committee (here, the elections committee) let alone pass
- Accessibility for constituent use when meeting with or calling their elected representatives
- Push our elected representatives to move from speeches and promises to action
- Voter education (state and federal)
- Opposition research
- Development of a process for a duplication for other key issues
- Brooklyn vs. New York electeds; Assembly vs. State Senate
Pulled legislative information related to voting rights.
What data did we pull:
We started by analyzing bills that were either introduced or co-sponsored by Brooklyn state senators during the 2017 legislative session. Though we decided to grade the state senators based on the two year legislative session, we decided to use just the 2017 bills to determine how we wanted to grade them and categorize bills etc. We gathered from the New York State Senate website, all voting rights bills that came through the elections committee and were introduced or co-sponsored by Brooklyn State Senators during the 2017-2018 legislative session.
Additional bills that were voted on before the close of the legislative calendar and bills that were not introduced in the elections committee were added to the data, analyzed, and categorized.
August 4, 2018, was our cutoff date for co-sponsorship as we realized while compiling our data that some representatives were still signing their name to bills after the end of the legislative session. We support each representative signing on to co-sponsor legislation, however, we felt there was greater utility to this process if it was actually done during the legislative session. Any co-sponsorship after this date will of course factor into the next report card.
Brainstormed categorization of voting rights bills.
At a meeting, we then categorized the bills based on the summaries that we had of the data that was pulled. We started with brainstorming categories for the bills and then went bill by bill to analyze the category that they fit in best. As we put bills into the categories, we further refined our categories.
Members settled on four categories:
- The right to vote: participation
- For example, felons and people under 18 are excluded from voting
- Strict interpretation based on the class of the person i.e. disenfranchised by law (felons, under 18 years old)
- The ability to vote: registration
- What allows you to go to the polls
- Eliminating state imposed barriers to access to the franchise; how to express your franchise; the process the state has a voter complete in order to vote on election day; state requires proving eligibility, what procedures are standing in the way?
- The ease of voting: access and aid voting
- How easy it is to cast your ballot once you have overcome the barriers to get to the polls
- For example, an excused absentee ballot helps people exercise the franchise
- Access, voting experience, casting ballot, now that the state has recognized your eligibility as a voter – how easy is it?; divorced from physical poling place, individual hurdles, no longer state imposed barriers
- Integrity of the voting process: protect the vote and privacy
- Protecting the franchise after the vote
Reading the bills.
Members were then assigned to read the bills and write summaries of their contents (such as impact/purpose, what the bill did) so that we could categorize each bill into the four categories.
Each reader was assigned to about twenty-seven total pages, which consisted of at least five different bills to read and write notes. Most bills were 1-2 pages. Each reader read their assigned bills and then summarized the facts of the bills, breaking down the bill into easy to understand parts. Based on what the bill actually did or its requirements in order to understand the bills and not just rely on the summaries provided on the Senate website of the bill itself.
Categorizing the bills.
The group met and categorized the bills into the four categories based on the summaries compiled by the members and discussion of their contents. Most bills were categorized into one of the four categories, but a few were tabled for additional research to determine categorization. For example, the omnibus bill 1697, the members wanted to review to determine the impact of the bill and all of its provisions.
The bills were then categorized on BVA’s spreadsheet. With the bills categorized, our next question turned to how we would quantify the data. Our brainstorming questions included whether we would consider public support but without action (such as sponsorship or co-sponsorship) would a state senator get credit?
We also considered questions such as weighing categories and legislation, defining our priorities, and determining points.
Defining point categories and values.
To categorize the points, we chose number values based on sponsoring, co-sponsoring a bill and Let NY Vote coalition and BK voters alliance priorities:
5 points = Sponsor/Introduced
3 points = Co-sponsor
2 points = LetNYVote coalition priority (early voting, automatic voter registration, change party affiliation, pre-registration, voting rights for parolees)
2 points = BVA priorities (voting rights act, online voter registration)
So each politician would received points for each bill based on these four categories. However, during our scoring of the bills, we realized that some politicians were receiving lots of points even though they had no sponsors. Co-sponsors show that an elected is doing work to get support for his/her bill whereas the lack of any sponsors shows (what we felt) either unlike-ability or lack of effort. Therefore, if there was no co-sponsor on the legislation (not strictly BK state senator, could be any senator as a sponsor) then 2 points were subtracted:
5 points = Sponsor/Introduced
3 points = Co-sponsor
2 points = LetNYVote coalition priority
2 points = BVA priorities
-2 points = no co-sponsor
Then as we moved through the bills we added an additional point for constitutional changes as those were ambitious pieces of legislation that deserved credit.
After a discussion that we wanted to keep the point allocations positive rather than negative and to reduce points for co-sponsoring. We also decided to separate the co-sponsor categories to make them clear.
So once we had the points, we went through the bills category by category (see our chart for categorization and bills) and started assigning points. We first went through each bill in the category and determined what the bill was about. This helped us assign the point values. We then went through and actually assigned the points to the sponsor and co-sponsors (BK senators only) and added additional points for Let NY Vote and BVA priorities for the 2017-2018 legislative session.
Let NY Vote Priorities:
- Automatic voter registration — multiple locations
- Early voting
- Flexibility in changing party affiliation
- Pre-registration of 16/17 year olds
- Restore voting to people on parole
- Restoration of voting rights act
- Online voter registration
- Same day voter registration
We then looked at who sponsored each bill. If they were a BK state senator (since they are the only ones we are grading right now) they got 3 points. Then if it was an Let NY Vote priority +2. If a BVA priority +2. If no co-sponsors = no additional points. If constitutional = +1.
We repeated this process for all 4 categories and it came out to a final tally:
Overall Points (All Categories)
Assessing additional questions.
We had additional questions such Like omnibus vs. smaller bills that are pieces of an omnibus being introduced and if the senator gets points since it’s the same thing. And other considerations that were assigned to members who attended the meeting. We also looked at issues such as bills with more than ten co-sponsors, the impact bills based during the end of the 2018 legislative session had on our categories, bills that are similar, bills with state vs. local impact, and the overlap between omnibus and one issue bills
Answers to additional questions:
- 10 sponsors – there were not many bills that had more than 10 co-sponsors and that additional points did not need to be given. Especially since the legislation may have had more than 10 co-sponsors but still did not pass during the legislative session. We decided that there was no added benefit to have many sponsors and therefore give additional points.
- Similar bills – Such subtle differences between the bills that to look at these minor differences would unnecessarily complicate and would not be in line with our goal to keep things simple. Mary came to the conclusion that these subtle differences will not add additional video and would actually make our report card harder to understand.
- Local vs. State impact – determined that since the bills had impact to help voters that they should stay in the data set
Throughout this process, we had further discussions about how points would be allotted and what would be graded.
For example, some bills did actually receive a hearing during the 2018 legislative year because of an arcane rule that Kavanagh used to force a hearing. Questions included whether points should be given for “initiative” and other action outside of the legislative record. However, those determinations were hard because they are not as quantifiable and replicable over time.
Redefining and adding additional point categories.
We added a category for deducting points for legislation that limited the franchise which mirror-imaged points allocated for sponsoring or co-sponsoring legislation. The 2017-2018 bills relevant to our data set did not have applicable legislation.
Through further discussion, we also reduced the number of points for sponsoring a bill. Therefore sponsorship was reduced to three points and co-sponsorship to two points. And then we discussed not penalizing electeds for not having co-sponsors, but rewarding them for having co-sponsors. So an additional two points to a total of five points was agreed to for having co-sponsorship of a bill.
Our final evaluations:
3 points = Sponsored legislation
2 points = Sponsored legislation has a co-sponsor
2 points = Co-sponsored legislation
2 points = Let NY Vote coalition priority
2 points = BVA priority
Limitations of our methodology.
BVA understands that the grading mechanism used in these report cards is limited by the lack of votes on this issue. However, there is still significant work that our electeds can do concerning the drafting and support of legislation. Further, by publishing this information, we hope to foster transparency in our opaque electoral process in New York. Voters should not have to look up speeches and articles to find out what their representative supports, but should be able to rely on their legislative record.
Quantifying the raw data.
Based on the raw numbers for each category, final points were then allocated. We determined that the evaluation of these raw numbers would be based on a curve of the total scores for each state senator included in the respective data set. We looked at the total points in our spreadsheet and calculated the mean and median. Based on those considerations, we settled on the following point allocation:
|76 and up||A|
|Median (middle value) = 39|
|Mean/Average = 419/9= 46.5555|
We determined that there would not be additional points for unquantifiable actions within our data set, but that significant actions would be mentioned on the elected’s report card. Further, we explicitly identified electeds who came into office in the middle of the legislation session, such as Kavanah, and electeds who lost their office in 2018. Such additional information is signaled by an asterisk.
In order to make sure all data was included, we did a final review of all nine state senator’s websites and reviewed their legislative records for the 2017-2018 legislative session to ensure all relevant bills were accounted for in our data set. Any bills that were missing were added and the steps repeated.
A final review of the bills, summaries, and point calculations were reviewed prior to publication.