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Diplomacy in Action

How do State and Local Governments Run Primaries and Elections? How do Candidates Get on the Ballot?

Adrienne Kivelson, City Affairs Chair, New York City League of Women Voters
New York, NY
November 12, 2015

Date: 11/12/2015 Location: New York, NY Description: Adrienne Kivelson, City Affairs Chair, New York City League of Women Voters, briefs journalists on the role of the League of Women Voters in U.S. elections at the New York Foreign Press Center. - State Dept Image

3:00 P.M. EST


MODERATOR: All right. We’ll go ahead and start our roundtable today. We’d like to welcome Adrienne Kivelson from the League of Women Voters. She’ll be speaking about the elections and New York State’s role in them, and she’ll give some remarks and then we’ll leave some time for some Q&A. Please state your name and media affiliation before you ask your question. Thanks.

MS KIVELSON: Okay. Thank you. My name’s Adrienne Kivelson and I am a volunteer with the League of Women Voters. I’ve been a volunteer for over 40 years with the league. I’d like to introduce my colleague, Lalitha Sarma, who is our staff with the League of Women Voters of the City of New York.

We’re a national organization. We’ve been in business since 1919. We grew out of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the United States, and when women got the right to vote in 1919, the leaders of suffrage said, “Now, we need a league of women voters to teach the women how to vote.” It soon became apparent that women weren’t the only ones who didn’t know how to vote, and so the league has had general education programs since that time, and in the ‘70s, we welcomed men as members in the league, but we didn’t change our name because our name was iconic in this country and we wanted to stay with our name.

So we have been around for a long time. We are a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. We don’t support candidates, we don’t support political parties, but we do take positions on issues – environmental issues, civic issues, government issues, health, women’s issues, and we do take positions and we do lobby on positions – not candidates. And the league is one of the oldest, longest-lasting NGOs at the United Nations. We were an NGO, one of the first ones recognized when the UN was organized here, and we still have a representative at the UN in the – as an NGO representative for the league.

So we really – we are a national organization. We have leagues in every state in this country, in every big city in this country, and in most small towns. And everywhere I go, somebody comes up and says, “My mother was a member of the League of Women Voters,” or “My aunt was a member of the League of Women Voters.” So we are a wide-ranging organization. And because we were highly respected as a nonpartisan organization, we got into the debate business.

Now, the first presidential – televised presidential debate was in 1960. It was a debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, and it was the first televised debate and the use of makeup wasn’t so well processed and people didn’t exactly know how to deal with the debate. John Kennedy knew what makeup to wear; Richard Nixon did not. And so he sweated through the entire debate, and some people really attributed his loss in the election to that debate. And there were two or three of them, but that first debate in 1960 really did not do well for Richard Nixon. And after that, there were no debates because the candidate – some candidates said, “I’m not debating,” because they saw what happened to Richard Nixon, until 1976.

And then, televised debates were reintroduced in the country and the League of Women Voters was the sponsor of the debates. And we sponsored these debates until – through 1984. Usually, we had two presidential debates, not these primary things – just for the general election. We had two primary debates and a vice – two presidential debates and a vice presidential debate. And the last one was when Jimmy Carter was running for president against Gerald Ford. We continued until 19 – that was 19 – we continued till 1984. But after the 1984 cycle, the parties got involved, and they decided they wanted to plan the debates and they wanted to set the terms for the debates – not the country, this isn’t government sponsored – the two political parties decided they wanted charge of the debates. And they announced the creation – they came up with a Commission on Presidential Debates, and that commission chose the league to be the sponsor of the debate. But they set up so many preconditions that the league said, “We are not going to participate at all.”

And so the League of Women Voters got out of the debate business and this Commission on Presidential Debates has been in existence and they arrange these debates. And that’s why we have what we have, which are very strange debates where the parties determine when the debates will be held, each party determines in the primary when its debates will be held, selects the moderators and the people who ask questions, and the people who ask questions make up questions from whatever they do. And I have a feeling for foreign visitors these are very confusing happenings to watch. I don’t know if you’ve watched any of the debates, but I watch them and say, “Do any of these candidates know anything about our government?” Because you watch them and they stand up there and they talk about what they’re going to do.

Now, the United States has very clear separation of powers in this country, and so a president basically can only do what the Congress goes along with and isn’t found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. And so presidents do not – they’re not dictators, they’re not – this is not a kingdom, and they really have to operate. Budget-making powers start in the House of Representatives – our budgets start in the House of Representatives; the President doesn’t do the budget. Candidates are getting rid of offices, they’re getting rid of departments. They can’t do that without the advice and consent of the Congress. And so bearing in mind that we’re watching this and saying, “What country do some of these people think they’re running,” because it doesn’t seem to have – so it’s – there’s a lot of hyperbole, there’s a lot of shouting.

But when it really – as it narrows down and as the primary season ends and when you get to the debate between the two candidates – or if there’s an independent third-party candidate – it will be a much more reasonable and reasoned exercise in discussion, and I think we have to go through this process. Now, the process itself is interesting because our Constitution – I should have brought one – but our Constitution, if you’ve seen it, is very little. We have a very small Constitution. It doesn’t say anything about elections. It says when the presidential election shall be held and it says there’ll be an Electoral College. That’s what’s in the Constitution. The rest of it is really determined by the states, and the states pass election law in this country – not the federal government.

And that’s why you see different types of primaries held all over the country, because some states have primaries, some states have caucuses, they pick their own dates when they’re going to have them, they decide how they’re going to elect delegates to conventions. That’s all done under state law. They have different qualifications for voting in different states. The federal government now has set some restrictions on what they have to allow people to vote, but by and large, the states make the laws.

For example, the states determine what type of identification you need to vote, and that’s become a very critical issue in this country. In New York, we’re fairly liberal with that. You only have to show identification the first time you register or the first time you vote if you didn’t show it when you were registered, and identification is – can be a driver’s license, a student ID, something with your picture on it. It isn’t very complicated. It can be a fishing license if it has your picture on it. It’s very – because that’s state law; that’s all determined by the state of New York and it’s fairly liberal. The most common form of identification, the one we ask for, is the – your New York State driver’s license, if you have one, and the last four digits of your Social Security number. Those are the most common forms and those are requested right on the registration form.

But if you don’t have them, we accept other forms of identification, and it’s a fairly liberal – and then when you fill out a voter registration form – and I knew none of you were going to register so we didn’t bring any forms, but when you fill out a registration form, at the bottom of this – the first thing they ask you is, “Are you a citizen?” That’s the first priority of voting and you – and that’s the first priority of voting in any state. You must be a citizen of the United States to vote. And then at the bottom, it gives the criteria, and one – and it says, “I’m a citizen, I live at this address, I am not presently serving time as a felon,” and I don’t remember the – and it says, “If you answer to any of these questions incorrectly or inaccurately, you’re subject to a $5,000 fine or a year in jail.” I don’t know anybody who wants to register that much that they would subject themselves to such an onerous penalty.

Some states are now coming up with voter identification laws which are much more difficult to comply with, and there is – in some states, we feel there is an attempt at voter suppression, and they’re asking for birth certificates from people who were born in counties where the files burned down or you have to get three states away to pick up the birth certificate. And the most onerous of these so far have been turned out by the courts, but we’re fighting that in every state, and the League of Women Voters is a plaintiff in those cases that we are – we are suing to make sure that voter registration requirements and voting requirements do not suppress voters. So this is still an issue in this country when you don’t think it should be an – it shouldn’t be an issue anymore. Unfortunately, it’s still an issue, but it’s publicly an issue. We have been winning in the courts, and we’re going to keep fighting those cases wherever they turn up.

So now we’re coming into the season where we’re going to have primaries and caucuses, and the first primaries are on – the first primary and caucus is February 1st. The first primary is in New Hampshire and the caucus is in Iowa. And this is – New Hampshire’s been having primaries for 100 years. Not primaries exactly, but like town hall meetings, basically. It’s a progressive state, and they’ve been getting together to pick their delegates to conventions for 100 years. Many states didn’t have primaries at all.

Iowa has had a caucus for many years. I have read two books on that caucus, and if you think I understand what they’re doing, I still find it mindboggling. But basically, what they do is they get together on February 1st and they get together on the precinct level, which is probably a village. In New York, it’s an election district that has been 4- and 800 people in it, so it’s probably a village. And they pick delegate – they vote, and delegates announce for which candidate they’re supporting. And then they vote, and then they go to a town convention next, and then to a county convention, and then to the state, where they pick the delegates. That’s the way the Republicans do it. They vote for the candidates in their precinct and then in their town, in their county, and the state, and that’s how they pick the delegates to the Republican Convention.

The Democrats are even more interesting. They get together in a big room in their precincts and they separate themselves physically. The group that’s supporting this candidate stands here, and the group that’s supporting – they’re preferential: the group supporting another candidate stands there, and et cetera. And then they try – and then there are undecideds, and then they all talk to try and convince people to come and join their – take their preference. And at the end of the evening, whoever is left standing, they count up the number of people voting for each candidate and they take that to the town, the county, the state, and – but it isn’t until June that they’re actually going to elect their delegates to the conventions. So it can be – it can take a long time.

The next set of primaries – then we’re going to have – oh, and then you’re going to have an interesting one in Nevada and South Carolina. Those are the second states to have primaries, and that’s quite deliberate. When the first states actually self-selected and said we’re going to have a caucus first – and New Hampshire actually passed a law saying that our primary has to be earlier than anybody else’s, and at one point they were pushed into January because everybody kept trying to frontload their influence on the campaign. So now it’s back to February 1st.

At that point, the parties decided that New Hampshire and Iowa were not representative states. They were not ethnically representative; they were – there was no diversity in those two states. They’re really fairly monolithic states. And so they expanded it and they took two more states, and Nevada and South Carolina. Nevada has a high concentration of Spanish-speaking population and South Carolina has a large black population. And that way they thought they were getting four small states that were diverse, and that would be frontloading the – an opinion on who the candidates were going to be. And then – but because the parties control it, on February 20th, the Democratic caucus is happening in Nevada and the Republican caucus in South Carolina. And then on Tuesday, February 23rd, Nevada is having its Republican caucus, and on February 27th, South Carolina is having their – so what I’m just saying is it’s whatever goes. Whatever the parties decide in the states, this is our process of electing. You are here really when we are at our craziest. I think that’s the way I would put it.

Then on March 1st, there are 12 primaries in 12 states, including some of the biggies that – big states. Texas has a primary that day, Georgia has a primary, Massachusetts, Minnesota has caucuses, Vermont, Virginia – these are large states. And then we go on down, and we have our primary in New York on April 19th. By that time, our primary will probably not mean much, because if you start adding up the states and the big states, mid-March/early April you start to get a picture of who has the most support, and other candidates start dropping out.

Our primary, we elect delegates. We have direct election of delegates, and they’re proportionally distributed depending on the vote that they get. And then in August, they will – all these delegates are going to go off to the conventions. Now, this is relatively new. When I was growing up – which wasn’t a century ago, even though sometimes I think – and you may think it was – although it was in the last century. But we didn’t have all these primaries. You always had New Hampshire; New Hampshire was always doing a primary. But you didn’t have all these primaries, and there was a lot of wheeling and dealing going on. We didn’t have the television that you have, and the decisions were made at the political conventions in August or – whenever the two political conventions are.

And so the reputation was out there that the delegates were selected in the states to go to the conventions, either by a primary or by some party process, and – but they weren’t committed to anybody and they went off to the convention, and the convention really picked the presidential candidates. And the reputation was it’s all done – it’s smoke-filled back rooms and the public has nothing to say about these elections and who the candidates are.

And so they changed the system and introduced these primaries, and they seem to go on forever and ever and ever. And – but it’s a much more democratic – it’s a very – really a very democratic way to select the people who are going to be your national elected officials. There is – it does get people involved to a certain extent in elections, and it is – as with anything else, there’s always a way to in some way spoil it or corrupt it or do something. And many of us – and the League feels that the presence of so much money now in these campaigns, the amount of money that’s being spent on behalf of candidates or on behalf of an independent committee without a lot of transparency, is really affecting our elections.

Some people say it enables more people to stay in longer, that they don’t run out of money to campaign as fast as they used to and so they can stay in the campaigns longer. But we feel it’s not a good influence, and the League and other good-government groups are looking at ways that we can – because we had a Supreme Court decision saying that – not removing limitations, but basically saying anyone and any entity can contribute to a campaign, that a corporation is a person in terms of free speech. And so there’s no limitation on who can contribute to campaigns.

And so suddenly we have all kinds of committees that are not connected to candidates giving huge sums of millions and millions of dollars to campaigns, and there’s no limitation. And there are limitations to give to congressional candidates, to senatorial candidates, and – but by and large, if you don’t have to give it to the candidate directly, you can just buy advertising without involving the candidate and you can spend as much money as you please.

The League has a problem with this, and that’s now our priority: to try and see how we can level the playing field and – because we really think what the money is saying is that the money is influencing the elections where we really think the people should be influencing elections. And we think there has to be more transparency and more equality, and that’s what we are pushing for.

So I’d be happy – I’d love to hear what your thoughts are on what you’ve seen here since you’ve been here and what your impressions are of our elections, or answer any questions you may have.

QUESTION: Yeah. I am Imran Ansary; I am a Bangladeshi TV journalist representing the Ekushey Television.


QUESTION: So I would like to know who conduct the election? Is it conducted by federal government or the state government?

MS KIVELSON: The state.

QUESTION: The state government?

MS KIVELSON: Yeah, the state government –

QUESTION: Any machinery – any (inaudible) machinery to conduct –

MS KIVELSON: Yeah. The state government owns the machinery – actually, the local governments do. The state governments dictate what type of equipment you buy. The federal government did in 2002 or ‘03 pass something called Help America Vote Act. And for the first time – I don’t – for the first time they said, “We will give the states money to buy more modern voting machines, more modern equipment,” and set up a few criteria. One is that whatever you’re doing, the votes have to be recountable. You have to be able to go back and recount the votes. They have to – they did put the ID requirement in, and there are one or two other minor requirements. And they gave the states money to go out and buy equipment.

We used a variety of equipment. The states always decided what we used. In New York State, for 60 years we used a mechanical voting machine. It was a machine that had levers next to the name, and you pushed the lever and it worked like an adding tape. It just cumulative added the votes. So you never could recount it because it was cumulatively for each candidate, so you didn’t know how many people voted for – you couldn’t recount it. It – 60 years we used those. I think they’re at the bottom of the ocean forming reefs at this point.

But it took 10 years after the federal government said, “We’ll give you the money to buy them,” that we actually bought new equipment. And what we use and what’s used in about – I don’t know, probably 50 percent – are optical scanners. It’s a paper ballot. The voter marks the paper ballot and feeds it into an optical scanner. The optical scanner has a computer which reads the ballot and can give you an instant count on the scanner.

But our machines are not connectable, so they can’t be – you can’t hack the system. So we have these self-standing pieces of equipment because there was lots of concern about hacking into the electronic systems. And some systems bought – when you go in the bank and you use an ATM, they had that type of electronic equipment, and some of them found that it was easily hackable, so they had to throw out what they bought and buy new equipment.

So this was in 2002. It was the first time the federal government ever gave money to the states, and the states then could choose the equipment based on what they needed for their state. These things do not have an internal life, and so, particularly, new equipment has a useful life. And this is a very expensive thing to purchase new voting equipment, and we haven’t seen any evidence that the federal government is ever going to give any money to anybody again to do it. So it’s going to be up to the states.

And so in some states – Oregon does – some states do mail-in. We don’t do that in New York. Some states do early voting, where they set up voting machines a couple of weeks before so people can go. We don’t do that yet in New York. We’re trying to get that in New York. But it’s up to the state. And the state buys the equipment; they pay for the elections. In New York – in New York State, the towns pay for the elections. New York City pays for all elections in New York City, and each of the towns in New York State pay for elections.

QUESTION: So if I understand you correctly, there’s still just this one day –

MODERATOR: Can you state your name and media?

QUESTION: I’m Tom von Gruenigen from Swiss TV.


QUESTION: It’s still just one day. If you’re sick on that day or –

MS KIVELSON: No. Well – no, there’s one day, but there is early voting in some states where – in some states there’s early voting. They set up poll sites around the city or the state, and people can come a week before, two weeks before, and they can vote early. Those votes aren’t counted, but they can vote early in some states. Election day is still officially – nothing can get counted until close of polls on election day on the presidential – November 8th, thank you.

QUESTION: But since you said there’s no early voting in New York, I mean, here in New York –

MS KIVELSON: Here in New York it’s one day. If you’re not going to be town you can – or if you’re in the hospital, you can get an absentee ballot and you can vote by absentee ballot. You just send to the Board of Elections or you contact them or you go there, and they will give you or send you a ballot, and you fill it out wherever you may be. You can be out of the country, you can be wherever, as long as it gets back – it’s like a week after the election. The ballot has to be postmarked the day of the election, get back to the Board of Elections; it’ll be counted. So we do have absentee voting, but it’s one day. And the presidential –

QUESTION: Do you have to apply for this absentee ballot?

MS KIVELSON: In New York you do. New York is very strict with this, and I don’t think a lot of other states are as strict.


MS SARMA: Adrienne – I’m Lalitha from the League of Women Voters.

MS KIVELSON: Yeah – oh, I’m sorry. Yeah.

MS SARMA: One thing that I want to follow up what Adrienne said is that each state is different, so it really goes back to the voter understanding what’s happening –

MS KIVELSON: Your own state.

MS SARMA: – in their own state, because you can have one experience where they have early voting, you have more options, and then you have someplace like New York where we’re so dictated about election day.

MS KIVELSON: Yeah, it would require a change in law, and we’ve been trying to get changes if not in the early voting, except – at least in the absentee ballot so people could get an absentee ballot whatever reason and – or go to the Board of Elections early and vote. But we don’t have that yet in New York. So I’m not bragging about – New York is not in the vanguard of election law.

The other thing is – and I didn’t mention it – is there are two kinds of primaries in the United States. There are closed primaries and open primaries. And in New York we have a closed primary, and what that means is that in order to vote in the primary election, you must be enrolled in the party that’s holding the election. You have got to to have been enrolled in the party before the election and – in order to vote in the primary. And in New York, we make it even more complicated. You must be enrolled in the party basically a year before the election.

All right. Open – so – and it’s more, because it was October 8th, 2015 you had to be enrolled in the party in order to vote in the primary, which will be April 19th, 2016. Now, if you’re a new voter or you’ve moved into the city, that doesn’t apply. This only applies to voters who are currently registered in the City of New York.

The reason – and there is a reason – it sounds stupid, but there is a reason. The other kind of primary is an open primary, which says just go to the polls on primary day and you are enrolling in the party by the very act of voting. And that’s an open primary. People think that’s more democratic. There’s some issue with that. The issue with that is that there’s a fear that people will move back and forth not because their political differences change, but because, gee, this is – if we vote for this guy, he’s really the weakest candidate against the guy we really want to have run, and so they move back and forth. And states say, “We’re not going to” – New York says, “We’re not going to put up with that.”

So it’s – there are differences in laws. But it’s the only – it’s one day, it’s the presidential primary. The rest of the election days in this country are all determined by the state. There’s no uniform election day. Most of the election days in this country are Tuesdays, and I’m told they’re Tuesdays because when they originally wrote the Constitution, these were farm people and they had – went to church on Sunday and they had to get everything ready on Monday for the week. And so in order to go and vote, they needed that extra day, and that’s how we got to Tuesday. I don’t know. But most of our elections are on Tuesday. But –

QUESTION: And so people who work on a shift (inaudible)?

MS KIVELSON: They have to give you four hours off in the course of the day to be able to vote. And the polls in New York are open from 6 o’clock in the morning till 9 o’clock at night, and they must give you – an employer must give you four hours off to do that at some point.

QUESTION: Even if you’re a surgeon or whatever your job is?

MS KIVELSON: I’m not defending this. (Laughter.) But I have to be honest. You’re –

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS KIVELSON: Yes, absolutely, that’s exactly right. Yes. I mean, I’ve had people in the hospital who have called up and they went into the hospital the day before, and they find themselves in the hospital and they want to vote – because we take calls at the league on – and the only way they can do it, and some people have done it, is they have somebody go down to the Board of Elections, pick up an application for an absentee ballot, come back to the person in the hospital. The person in the hospital signs the application. They take it back to the Board of Elections, they get them a ballot, and then they can mail it in. I’m not – sometimes I think part of our – part of what we are is – and now in some ways, and I’m looking at China and Switzerland, other countries – we’re an old country, but our democracy is old. And we haven’t really changed that much. We’re – some things we think are just in stone and we haven’t – our democracy has evolved, but it hasn’t really changed.

So if that’s the way we did elections in 1789, in some places, we’re still doing elections the same way. And election law – I mean, I went to a meeting with – The election law in New York State’s a thick book and I’m sitting in a meeting with the election law and this woman looked at me and she said, “Well, you must be in the League of Women Voters,” and I said, “How did you know?” And she said, “I don’t know anybody else in the world who would walk around with a book on election law.” People aren’t interested in it. They don’t like some things that happen, but – and they complain, but this is not a sexy – this isn’t a sexy issue.

And improving elections – people only get angry when some terrible thing happens, and that was – I mean, in 2000 – and was it 2000 – 2000? Yes. In 2000 when one candidate won the popular vote and another one was elected by the Electoral College and there were missing votes and they couldn’t count them, that’s when we ended up with the first federal act on doing anything about elections. And it was very limited to “We’ll buy you new machines, because obviously, the ones you have don’t work.” That was the extent of the outrage and then it calms down.

This is – there are more – I’ll acknowledge it: I do this, I’m a volunteer. There are more awful things happening in this country; we still are electing people in a democratic way that we don’t have stuffed ballot boxes that I know of. This actually, in its – all its foolishness, it works in some way. It certainly could be better. But it’s not at the top of many people’s priority to fix it. So we keep doing –

MODERATOR: We’ve got a –


MODERATOR: – question in Washington.

MS KIVELSON: Oh, okay.

MODERATOR: Go ahead, Washington.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. 21st Century Business Herald with China. About Hillary Clinton, the – today, there is news that the FBI starts to investigate this private email incident. So we also saw there is a House hearing before – in terms of Benghazi incident. Also, the – this email incident involved in this hearing. So I wonder how this investigation or hearing will affect the candidate’s qualification for his campaign to be elected as president.

On any condition, will – would a candidate lose his candidate status in terms – because of such investigations?

MS KIVELSON: Well, I can’t comment on the election at all and the candidates because we’re a nonpartisan organization, so I can’t comment. No one that I can think of is going to lose his status. They’re self-declared candidates and no one has been convicted of any kind of crime, and so I don’t think there’s any procedure for someone to lose their status as a candidate. Anyone can run, and there are just laws in terms of how you run. And so I don’t think this will affect – this affects the ability – the legal ability of someone to run. I can’t make any comment on the candidacies or the investigations because the league is a totally nonpartisan organization and we’re really – our role is to make sure that the process is as democratic and open as possible, and that’s what we’re trying to protect: the open democratic process in voting.

QUESTION: I have another question: Why so many presidential candidate we can see from the Republican Party?

MS KIVELSON: Well, it’s – this is not – I mean, this is unusual because we’ve had all these debates, and I will admit that 12 or 13 or 14 is a larger number than usual. Usually, the party that’s not in power, in the president – doesn’t hold the office – has more candidates than the party that does hold the office. This is – these are strange years. These are – this is an interesting campaign because there’s such a divergence of opinion and background, and there obviously is – there are people – the country is divided and there are lots of points of view out there, and so you have lots of candidates reflecting more points of view than generally – than you would normally have.

This is unusual, but there’s nothing preventing – actually, if you will look at the – I don’t know what the number is in New York and I usually look before the election – there may be 3- or 400 people who have signed up, there may be a hundred people in New York who have signed up with the board of elections of the state to run for president. Anybody can run for president, and so – and people have their own cause and they will run for president. So there’s nothing that limits the number of candidates.

The fact that there’s a lot of money, I think, does play a role in the number of candidates because there’s more access to money. It costs money to run for president, and there’s a lot of money out there. And so a candidate who might run out of money at some other time now may have just one backer who’s willing to put in millions of dollars to keep that candidate in the race longer than they might otherwise be in the race.

So I think that’s – there’s nothing. Anybody can run, anybody can list – give their name. They have to be 35 to serve and – but anybody, any American can run. There’s nothing restricting them.

QUESTION: I have another question.

MODERATOR: Why don’t we go back to Washington?


MODERATOR: Is there a follow-up question in Washington?

QUESTION: Yes. In United States, is there any candidate drop out because of authorities’ investigation?

MS KIVELSON: I don’t know of any. I don’t know. Personally, I don’t know of any.

QUESTION: Okay. Have any chance in the USA election system, as I mean the – any rigging chance, as we can see in third world country?

MS KIVELSON: Well, this – the Help America Vote Act and the idea that elections had to be recounted has – we don’t see – we haven’t really seen evidence of it. There – I don’t remember in my lifetime of that – in a state or national election. There may have been some issues in local elections, but there may – I don’t want to say this. I find more as a result of error than of corruption in terms of counting votes. But there is – we see very little voter fraud. I mean, everybody is concerned there’s voter fraud all over the place. We see no – very, very little evidence of voter fraud.

As far as I know, no one has been convicted of voter fraud in this state for many, many years. We see very little evidence of it. We’re hoping that the equipment which was upgraded this century – it’s not even a matter of rigging it. I mean, I guess it can be hacked, but that’s – with the new technology, there’s more opportunity for hacking and getting into systems. New York took 10 years to try and figure out how to come up with a system which was not hackable. So our equipment’s standalone; it doesn’t feed into a general system that can be changed.

So I don’t know. I can’t rule it out, but I personally have not seen it and I haven’t read about anything that has been – that has been – do you – yeah.

MS SARMA: And I’d like to add, one of the things that you’re going to notice is that both political parties – I’m using the – they have so much data available and they’ve both spent a lot of money on accumulating data, that they are also aware if they see inconsistencies. So I think, as Adrienne said, more chance of error versus fraud because if you all have such high-level statistical data that if you see – you’re both looking at each other’s work and seeing, are you trying to do something – so I would say that the likelihood is –

MS KIVELSON: Well, yeah, and in New York – I mean, I can’t speak for any other state, but in New York – and it does go to extremes because sometimes it’s very funny – you register to vote, you fill out a registration form, it gets to the board of elections. A Democrat has to look at the form and a Republican has to look at the form. Both parties – now they’re the major parties; we have other parties, and parties also can – candidates can want to run to for office, they can create a party to run on, I mean, so we – that’s possible. But we have bipartisan – and I think most states have that, so that you have two political parties. They look at everything. Nothing goes out without both political parties approving it. They have a board of elections in the city of New York, 10 members – five Democrats, five Republicans.

Now, people from smaller parties resent the fact that it’s five Democrats and five Republicans and not people from other parties, but that’s passed by the legislature in the state, and surprise, surprise, the legislature are Democrats and Republics and they’re not welcoming other parties in to take over their authority.

But it’s – I observe this. We’ve observed, as the League, non – people – candidates can have poll watchers come in on Election Day and sit in a polling place and watch the election go on. There are police in the polling places. I’ve been watching elections for over 40 years in the state, and I’ve just not seen that.

QUESTION: Thank you.


QUESTION: I’m wondering if you could say a few things about gerrymandering.

MS KIVELSON: Ah, okay. He was a congressman, actually. Congressman Gerry. Yeah, it’s – that’s a terrible thing. And basically, it’s drawing lines of – the way – the legislatures draw the lines for the congressional districts and for the state legislative districts, and Congress – we have a census every 10 years. And based on that census – and we have 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, 100 members of Congress, so each state has two senators and it doesn’t matter what size the state is, two senators. And each state has congressional districts based on the population of the state.

And Congress decided – and I think it’s now – they – we haven’t changed the 435 members in a long time. Congress can do that, but we have not changed them. So they have 435 members. They get the total population of the United States and of each state, and they divide up the states and decide how many congresspeople we will be entitled to based on our population. Now, that can get thrown off because every state gets at least one congressperson, so smaller states may have two or three or four congresspeople, and larger states have 40, 45. New York has – we have gained population and we’re losing – and we’re losing congressmen because other states have gained more population than we have. And so our congressional districts – we didn’t bring it – they represent you – but they’re about – each congressman in our state represents about 700,000 people. In other states they can represent much less because the way – they can’t divide the state any differently.

But then the legislature gets to choose how the lines are drawn in each state. And again, we have Democrats and Republicans, and so they – sometimes they get together and protect certain districts and they draw strange lines. They draw lines to protect the parties, or they draw lines to protect the congressman who’s in power, or they draw lines to try and get rid of a congressman they don’t like. And that’s really the – if you look at the lines – and I should have brought our book, but if you look at the lines, they can look like snakes, they can look like elephants, they have the strangest shapes, because they have to comply with a certain population, but it doesn’t tell them where they have to draw the lines.

And so there are serious issues with this, and in New York, particularly serious issues. New York is a very divided state. We have New York City with almost 9 million, now, people. New York State has about 18 million people, so the other 9 million are in a huge state. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to travel around New York State. It’s a beautiful state. I encourage you to go up to Niagara Falls and go to Buffalo and go to Rockport and see the state, and just drive a little north and see our farms. But those are rural areas and there aren’t a lot of people there, but they want to be represented in Congress. And they – upstate-downstate in New York is very much an issue. They don’t love New York City people in upstate New York. I think they probably visit New York City people less – they don’t come to New York City as much as people from the West Coast come to New York City.

And so the way we’re divided in New York State, the Republicans control the Senate and the Democrats control the Assembly. And the Republicans have more of an upstate – they’re more upstate-oriented. The Democrats are more downstate-oriented. You can’t draw the lines without both parties agreeing on the lines. And what they decided on the lines – and I think it’s still – the difference between districts can’t be any more – plus or minus five percent. But somehow we end up in New York with the plus and they end up with the minus. So their districts are smaller than ours in order to protect the political majorities in both parties. And sometimes it’s a deal. Sometimes they decide.

It’s – it is something we have tried very hard to alleviate, and we support a nonpartisan redistricting done by a machine. You just divide the population up and you draw the lines. We haven’t gotten there yet, but we’re closer. There is a commission that’s going to be drawing lines in New York State the next time, which seems to have – members of the legislature cannot be on the commission drawing the lines. That’s the first time we’ve had that. And we will have more independent people on the commission. So for the next census – because we only do this every 10 years – for the next census we’re hoping we will have a much more democratic drawing – small-d democratic drawing of the lines. I always have to – small d.

MS SARMA: And I think also, going back to things being so state-centric, that’s kind of – that’s a perfect example about how you think would be a national issue, but it is – becomes a state and a local issue, especially when they see the demographics and they see maybe the states turning in one direction or it’s becoming purple that you’re going to start – as Adrienne mentioned, like how they cut the chart. They start trying to make it to their advantage so they can have that. And it’s something you could probably see in states that are kind of mixed or, like, changing in what was primarily maybe a blue state becoming a red state, a red state becoming a blue state, that when they start seeing the demographic shifts happening before the census, that’s when that kind of horse – the backroom trading happens.

MS KIVELSON: Trading. New York really is a purple state. I mean, we never used those terms before, but we have elected Democratic – we have elected – we’re a Democratic state predominantly, but we have elected Republican governors and we’ve had – we had a famous Republican senator. We are predominantly – New York City is predominantly Democratic and upstate New York is more likely Republican.

QUESTION: I have another question. Do you think that the recent emergence of (inaudible) in the world politics will be the important issue in –

MS KIVELSON: The – I’m sorry. The emerging what? I didn’t hear.

QUESTION: The emergence of Russia in the world politics.



MS KIVELSON: Well, Russia was very emergent when I was growing up, so I always thought Russia was emerged. I can’t – I don’t have an expertise. I really don’t want to comment on the international. I’m totally puzzled by it now. It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen before, and I have no expertise. I try to keep to what I know. I don’t have a good opinion to give you because it would be totally not based on anything other than I wake up in the morning and I listen to NPR or – on the radio, and I want to pull the cover up and go back to sleep every morning. And people say, “Why don’t you wake up to music?” But it’s just a habit, and they – I get up in the morning and I hear about ISIL doing this and about what’s going on in the Ukraine here, and I really – I really – so I don’t know. But Russia has been – in my lifetime, Russia has been a much larger player than it is now. And I grew up in the Cold War and we had Russian – we all thought Russian submarines were going to be coming up the Hudson River any day. So this is – for somebody of my generation, what are – is the emerging country, that’s where we’re – we just don’t understand. We could understand big powers, and I think we’re just having more trouble understanding what’s going on today. But I don’t know.

Anything else?

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) I just wanted to ask about, like, voter turnout, I mean, because that’s also a really big issue that, like, America is one of the, like –


QUESTION: – worst as far as, like, developed nations are concerned in terms of voter turnout. So like, what are your opinions on how we can change that and what the problem actually is?

MS KIVELSON: It is – well, it is a really serious vote and I don’t – I don’t exactly understand it, frankly, because we’ve made it easier and easier for people to vote, and I really have trouble understanding why they don’t. I think there’s a certain complacency in this country that things are not really that bad and then, “So what am I going to vote for that’s going to make it better?” I think that’s beginning to change and I think young people are changing it.

One of the saddest things is that young people don’t vote in this country. I worked very hard to get the vote for 18-year-olds in this country, and they don’t vote. Eighteen-to-twenty-five-year-olds do not vote. They say, “It doesn’t affect me,” “It doesn’t concern me,” “It has nothing to do with me,” or their better one is, “They’re both awful,” or, “They’re all awful. There’s no one who’s good.” And I say very frankly, “Well, then you’re letting someone else make that choice for you and you’re invariably going to get the person who’s less desirable.”

It’s easy to vote in this country. Maybe it’s too easy. Some countries have – make it more difficult. We have a real responsibility to try and get out there and educate people on why it’s important. And I’m not sure I know – I’m not sure I know why they don’t, other than – well, there are – I mean, they just don’t see that anything that happens affects them, that the election affects them.

And when I speak to high school students, I say the minute you go – close the door of your house and you go out into the street, every single thing you do is decided by somebody in an elected position. Everything you do. So the kid will raise his hand, and say, “Not breathing.” And I’ll say, “Oh yes, breathing. Because if the environment in New York was as bad as it was 20 years ago, you wouldn’t be breathing so well.” And I try to go through every single thing you do – the quality of the clothes you wear. Everything is regulated by somebody who wrote a law. And that’s just difficult to – somehow it’s difficult to make that connection.

Now, some people say we should all vote on one day, because you work at – everybody in the country should vote on – there should be one national election day so that people – every – and there’d be – nobody would – working. And so everybody should vote on one day. And then there was a while it was going to be Sunday. And then the people who went to church had a problem with being Sunday. And then it’s Saturday. And then the people who went to synagogue had a trouble. And then the Muslims had a problem with Friday. So we haven’t come up with a way, but there has to be a way. And somehow I take responsibility that, as somebody who does this, that I’ve got to do more of it. But somehow we have to get particularly young people, particularly students.

Now, young families, single mothers and young families, I understand that, because they have so many obligations and problems, and picking up the – I understand why they don’t vote in the numbers that they should. But single young people between 18 and 25 years old, there is no reason. People my age vote in huge percentages. We took voting as an obligation and a duty, not just a right. And somehow, somewhere that message is – the day I turned – because when I turned – when I was of voting age, it was 21. You had to be 21 in this country. When I turned 21, I went down to my local town hall and registered to – I didn’t even wait for an election. I went down, I registered to vote.

We do local registration. We do a registration form that’s a mailing. You don’t even have to put a stamp on it. So it is a major problem, and it’s one that we take very seriously and feel that we’re going to have a very big get-out-the-vote campaign for the presidential election. We’re working on it. We’re going to set up some competition between different parts of the city. We have done voter registration at NYU. We go to the colleges. I go to high schools. If you have any suggestions, let – any suggestions at all. We will listen to anything. We think this is a very important thing, and I just think in some ways people are complacent and it’s too easy, and they don’t – their life is not terrible, and they don’t see how electing somebody is going to make a difference.

MS SARMA: I think it’s very difficult that we still have a system where the elections are still run state-by-state. Because when college-aged students go out of state to college, I think that makes it difficult for them to vote, right?

MS KIVELSON: Well, no. We – no. In New York – now, some states are – in New York and nationally, they are permitted to vote in either place, either the place they’re going in college – going to college, or in – at home. Whichever place. And we did it every year – I don’t know if they did it this year – we went down when the new students come to NYU. First we train faculty and staff at NYU, they did voter registration. Then there was a big day when seniors – when freshmen were signing in and we were down there with voter registration forms. They can vote where they go to school, or they can vote at home. And they can use their dorm as – and homeless people can vote, just giving an address of the doorway they’re – I mean, we have gone – absolutely. We have gone legal – I mean, we try to figure out ways that everyone in this state should be able to vote and be encouraged to vote.

I think they have to change the absentee ballot issue, and we’ve got to look at some other things. But basically, anybody who wants to vote in New York State will not be turned away and will be able to vote.

MS SARMA: I think also we’re going to see some interesting things being set up by – with – just as said, going back to the data, what people know. As Adrienne said about the absentee – there probably will be a push among college students to get people registered or getting them – know about the absentee ballots this cycle, because they see it as an untapped part of the population that they could sway to either political party. So we’re kind of aware – we want people to vote, but we’re also aware of different trends that other parties – both parties are kind of implementing, which could also – you’ll probably see around the world. Because a lot of things that happen in the United States, and they sort of spread around the world with voting strategies and tactics –

MS KIVELSON: What kinds of turnouts are in your countries? What type of turnout?

QUESTION: Yeah. Sometimes we have 80 percent. Sometimes we have –

MS KIVELSON: Eighty percent?

QUESTION: Or sometimes we have 35 percent.

MS KIVELSON: Ah, okay.

QUESTION: It depends on election quality.


QUESTION: Because you know we are from third-world country.

MS KIVELSON: Yeah. Well, that’s –

QUESTION: Sometimes we have only 10 percent.

MS KIVELSON: And what – 10 percent. Well, we haven’t got – the day – I’ll just – the day I get 10 percent, I’ll be in – but we have – we’re barely doing a little bit over 50 in the presidential elections. We had 30 percent in off-year congressional election. It’s not – it isn’t – people – I mean, the other way you can look at it is everybody – I mean, most of it is people think there isn’t any difference in the candidates. And I don’t know how you can look at the polarization between the Democrats and the Republicans in this country at this time and say there isn’t any difference between the candidates. That seems to me nuts. I don’t even know how to answer that.

QUESTION: Do women vote at the same percentages as men?

MS KIVELSON: No, we vote at higher percentage. And we are – there are more of us in the population. And so when – when you hear all this stuff about the women’s vote, women voted a higher percentage than men. And I think women influence their children more than – so it’s women – when they talk about the women’s vote, they’re very serious. The women’s vote is a very – now, the women’s vote has not been monolithic in this country. It never has been monolithic. And –

QUESTION: And they vote more Democratic, generally?

MS KIVELSON: They have. But now they’re putting up – they’re putting up – I mean, we’re now having races between two women. And we’re seeing more of that. The – it’s even more competitive among the women. And interestingly enough, the women in Congress – because there have been studies on the women in Congress – the women in Congress, and it’s 20 percent of the House and 20 percent of the Senate, there are 20 women in the U.S. Senate – they tend to work together better than the male – and they certainly work across – they work across aisles. And there are groups of women senators who just meet on a regular basis across party lines. So there is a belief that there is a women’s perspective that goes beyond party identification and affiliation.


QUESTION: So how does organizations like you, like the League of Women Voters, influence the voters at this level?

MS KIVELSON: We don’t influence them in terms of who to vote for. We do not influence them in terms of who to vote for. That’s – we are of – an organization that does – that’s the basis of – we try to help them go out there and find out information about the candidates. So for example, we used to do the debates, and we don’t do the debates, but we have something online, which I encourage any of you – if you want to look at it, it’s called Vote411 – so it’s And it – I don’t know that – we don’t have any national candidates yet, do we?

MS SARMA: We will in the beginning of the year.

MS KIVELSON: So it’s an online database nationally, and it has all the candidates running in every election in the country. We feed in our local stuff and the people in New Jersey put theirs on, and in Connecticut. It’s run by the League of Women Voters. It’s called Vote411. We give the candidates an opportunity to present, to make statements, so you can read the candidates’ statements. You can read – we ask questions – the national ones and the state ones, we often ask two questions of the candidates about issues, and the candidates will provide – not as short as I think they should be, but they provide some answers. And that’s basically where – what our – we moderate debates. We moderate candidates’ forums. Our goal is to see that voters get as much information as they can about the candidates and from the candidates. We’re not going to tell them what – how to vote. But we think that we’ve done a job if we let them know what the positions of the candidates are, what – where they stand on issues. And then the people can make up their own minds about who they vote for.

MS SARMA: I think also we’re – we try to get the candidates to respond. I think that’s one of the things, like, the dogged persistence, like, always trying to get – connect with them and say this is an important reason to do it. And some people think that they don’t have to do this to get elected, that they can –


MS SARMA: – run a very high-tech, image-oriented campaign. But with us having such a strong legacy and a very – a brand that – our reputation is about transparency of elections. It – really – calling out people to respond is a very powerful message.

MS KIVELSON: And they – and we have a reputation, so they tend to give us information when we ask for it, because they know we’re going to use it – we’re going to use it judiciously, and we understand that. And that’s what – Lalitha was on the phone trying to get all of these local candidates in our last election. But this year we are – and April 19th is the presidential primary. In June we’re going to have a primary for congressional seats.

And that goes back to that – they passed a law – because they do – so this isn’t exactly election law. But they – particularly with so many American servicemen overseas, they became conscious of the fact that when you have a primary, you have a general election, there may not be enough time to get the ballots out from the votes in the general – the votes back and counted on the primary and send the ballot out for the general election, giving them enough time – you’ve done absentee ballots from outside of the country. So there’s a time factor.

So they passed a law that said you had to have 45 days in order to get – send the ballot out and return it for the general election. New York has had a September primary. And that – getting the results does not give enough time in November for them to get the ballot. So they passed a law in Congress; it said 45 days. New York State got really stubborn and said, “We want to have our election in September; we like having it in September,” although the League of Women Voters disagrees, but they wanted – so a judge said, “Well, that may be what you want to do with your local and state elections, but there’s a federal law that says for federal elections there has to be 45 days. Therefore, you’re going to have a federal primary in June.”

So our primary for Congress and the Senate – but I don’t know if we have a Senate seat up this year – for Congress and the Senate is in June. And then we have a local state primary in September, and then the general election in November. We’re electing all the congressmen, and – because they serve two-year terms – and about a third of the Senate is up for re-election and – in November.

MODERATOR: Great. Well, thank you so much.

MS KIVELSON: Okay. All right. I hope I gave you correct information.

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