NAM: In 2000, you became the first Greek-American elected to the New York Assembly and then to the Senate in 2010. Were your parents immigrants and, if so, did that have any bearing on your work on voter modernization legislation?
Gianaris: Yes, I am the son of immigrant parents. My first political involvement was leading a voter registration drive in the Greek-American community that registered over 10,000 people. That was 1987. The community was excited to participate for Mike Dukakis, who was running for president that year. I really had a great experience and gained knowledge of immigrant communities integrating into the political system and how cumbersome it is, when governments should be making it easier for them to participate.
NAM: What is your national overview of the increasingly heated debate over voter suppression and voting rights at this point in America’s history?
Gianaris: There’s a movement around the country being pushed by right wing groups to make voting more difficult. In Florida, for example, they are purging voters off the rolls – disproportionately people of color – and, in other states, they are erecting barriers to voting in the form of ID requirements. The point we’re trying to make is that these actions are completely in the wrong direction. Our government should function to make participation easier, not more difficult. And it’s very dangerous when a government itself is trying to suppress voting. The legislation we’re advocating would move us in the right direction.
NAM: How much ethnic diversity is there in the part of the Borough of Queens that you represent?
Gianaris: Queens has over two million people. In my part of Queens alone, there are over 114 different languages spoken. It’s a very, very diverse area. It’s the most diverse population on earth, I’d venture to say.
NAM: Are the people within those communities aware of your work on voting modernization and government reform?
Gianaris: Some people are paying attention, but government reform efforts are not often as popular as they should be because people, understandably, are worried about putting food on the table, getting good jobs, making sure their kids are educated. But the point I try to make is that these are not unrelated. Participation in the political process makes those other important issues easier to achieve because one’s voice is stronger when they are active in government.
NAM: Have you been able to forge a broad-based coalition of support from fellow legislators who represent those communities?
Gianaris: Yes, of course. First of all, Brian Kavanagh is the Assembly sponsor and is very active on this, but, just to name a few, I’ve spoken with Sen. Jose Peralta, one of the first Dominican-American legislators elected to office, and I’ve talked to Assemblywoman Grace Meng, a Chinese-American and Queens native, who’s actually running for Congress right now [for the seat of Rep. Gary Ackerman, who is stepping down]. Anyone who has had experience in his or her own community with the difficulty of immigrants integrating into the political process has a keen understanding of why this legislation is necessary and so, we have a lot of support.
NAM: Your legislation would mandate state agencies to allow citizens to register to vote when they seek services from the state. Would that mandate apply to federal agencies as well?
Gianaris: We would need the voter modernization components to be passed nationally. It’s not that complicated. There’s all sorts of paperwork that these agencies process and the idea would be that they should afford to people, who are in the process of interacting with these agencies, the opportunity to register to vote as well.
NAM: So, as it relates to voter registration by federal agencies, your legislation lays the foundation for that to occur in New York should a federal bill be enacted, like the one recently introduced in May, also named the Voter Empowerment Act?
NAM: Your legislation would pre-register New York youth as voters at age 16 and facilitate voter registration at colleges and universities. Have you received any feedback from those institutions on the issue of student IDs?
Gianaris: Not specifically, though we’ve had a lot of great support from good government groups; from groups that are interested in having young people participate more; from immigrant groups. Colleges certainly are among the groups where I try to encourage young people to get involved in the political process.
NAM: Why pre-register voters at age 16 if they can’t vote until they are 18 years old?
Gianaris: There’s no time that’s too soon for young people to learn about and prepare to be involved in the political process. Rather than just having someone confronted with the ability to vote all at once, there’s nothing wrong with preparing them for a two-year period so they have some level of education about the process when they are eligible to vote. In fact, in New York City, there’s already a policy that, at graduation time, everyone gets a voter registration card as well. But the more we can extend that awareness, the better.