Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/581 Wed, 20 Jun 2018 13:27:23 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) 800 Absentee Ballots Not Delivered to Board of Elections for 2017 Vote http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7704:800-absentee-ballots-not-delivered-to-board-of-elections-for-2017-vote http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7704:800-absentee-ballots-not-delivered-to-board-of-elections-for-2017-vote voting booths
(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


In April, the New York City Board of Elections received a late delivery of 1,077 pieces of mail from the United States Postal Service, including what turned out to be 828 absentee ballots cast in the 2017 municipal elections. Of those, the BOE found 533 valid absentee ballots never counted, effectively disenfranchising hundreds of voters through no fault of their own, all of whom were attempting to vote in Brooklyn.

The postal service’s failure was “egregious,” BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan said at a public meeting of the board’s commissioners on Tuesday. “It’s not something that has been brought to my attention in my almost five years as executive director,” Ryan said. “It seems to be an anomaly and we are thankful that the U.S. Post Office has taken responsibility for their failure to deliver the mail as they were required to do.”

According to Ryan, the board received a trove of correspondence in April, including the 828 absentee ballots that had been filled and mailed in by people registered to vote in Brooklyn. Many of the ballots, 295 to be exact, had been postmarked after November 7, the date of the general election, or had illegible or missing postmarks, which meant they would have never been counted. For a ballot to be valid, it had to have been marked before midnight on Election Day and would have to be received by the board no later than seven days after the election.

“In any event that leaves us with 533 individuals who timely delivered their ballot to the post office and for whom the post office did not timely deliver the ballot to the Board of Elections,” Ryan said.

The BOE, which has faced withering criticism for its own failures in election and ballot management in the past, seems blameless in this particular situation. And though the USPS conceded its guilt in an official letter to the BOE, officials offered no plausible explanation of why the hundreds of ballots were simply set aside at a processing facility in Brooklyn for five months before being discovered and subsequently delivered. “They were all first class pieces of mail. So the Board of Elections was under no obligation whatsoever to pick any of that mail up from the facility. It was and remained the Post Office’s responsibility to deliver the mail to us,” Ryan said.

Many of the ballots, he noted, came from university towns such as Rochester and Ithaca, likely meaning they were cast by college students who hailed from the borough. They were also spread out across the borough, meaning they were unlikely to have had a significant effect on any one race. “Not that it made it appreciably better, but if it was something that occurred across the board and didn’t disproportionately impact one district over another, that was certainly better than a circumstance of having them all be concentrated in one area and then potentially cause the outcome of an election to be questioned or reconsidered,” Ryan said.

The 2017 general election in the city included races for the three citywide seats, including mayor, as well as the borough president positions and all of the seats on the City Council. Of those, there was only one remotely close general election for voters in Brooklyn, for City Council in the 43rd district, where Democrat Justin Brannan won by 794 votes.

Ryan insisted that he received assurances the postal service would avoid repeating its mistake and will correspond directly with the BOE’s central and borough offices.

“My conclusion is that the Brooklyn borough staff [of the BOE] did everything that they could possibly do to service the voters in this respect and this happens to be a mistake by the U.S. Post Office,” Ryan said. It was clear that Ryan was sensitive to how blame might be apportioned, particularly since the Brooklyn office was responsible for illegally purging thousands of voters from the rolls in 2016. He also said that, though it was not required, the BOE would in the future send staff to local post offices to pick up bulk mail deliveries during peak election time.

For those whose ballots were not delivered, the BOE will send out individual mailers to inform them that their vote did not count, Ryan said, and their individual voting record will also show scanned copies of their returned envelopes and the post office’s letter of explanation.

“Unfortunately under these circumstances there is nothing the Board of Elections could have done any differently,” he said.

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by Samar Khurshid & Caitlin Bishop

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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800 Absentee Ballots Not Delivered to Board of Elections for 2017 Vote Thu, 31 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Elected Officials, Advocates Push for Instant Runoff Voting http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7650:elected-officials-advocates-push-for-instant-runoff-voting http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7650:elected-officials-advocates-push-for-instant-runoff-voting fair vote sam

Tuesday's press conference (photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)


Several prominent Democratic elected officials and voting reform advocates on Tuesday assembled outside City Hall to call for instant runoff voting in citywide primary elections. Specifically, they said that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Charter Revision Commission, which just began a series of public hearings across the city, should include it among the proposals it puts before voters on the ballot this November.

Instant runoff voting, also known as ranked-choice voting, allows voters to rank primary candidates in order of preference so that if one candidate does not cross the required threshold for victory, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and the votes are redistributed based on the second choice selected by voters who had selected the eliminated candidate first, and so on until a winner emerges. The system prevents what can be costly and labor-intensive runoff elections, such as the one held in the 2013 primary election for public advocate.

Runoffs are currently only required in the three citywide races, for Mayor, Public Advocate, and Comptroller, and occur among the top two vote-getters if no candidate hits 40 percent in the first round of the primary.

Though prior instant runoff proposals originating in the City Council have failed, the group of electeds and advocates sought to seize on an opportunity presented by the mayor’s creation of the Charter Revision Commission. The commission, which is holding hearings across the five boroughs to solicit public input as to what its agenda should be, can consider any proposal presented to it, though de Blasio charged its members with particularly looking at voting access and campaign finance reform. Its recommendations will take the form of ballot referenda to be offered to voters in this year’s general election.

“I am the face of instant runoff, let me remind you,” said Public Advocate Letitia James at Tuesday’s news conference, on the steps of City Hall. The 2013 public advocate runoff -- which James won over then-State Senator Daniel Squadron -- cost an estimated $13 million to taxpayers, surpassing the office’s combined budget for James’ entire first four-year term. James said Tuesday that instant runoffs are the “least expensive and more democratic option” for the city.

“It forces you to appeal to all voters as opposed to one Democratic base,” James added. “And this means more engagement, and less polarization and more democracy. It means listening to people you might not usually listen to and a freer exchange of ideas and is consistent with our principle of democracy and free elections,” James added. She later also suggested that if the mayor’s commission failed to take up the proposal, a separate Charter Revision Commission being created by the City Council, through a bill co-sponsored by James, could step in.  

Also in attendance Tuesday were Comptroller Scott Stringer, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, and City Council Members Brad Lander, Antonio Reynoso, and Ben Kallos, all Democrats. James, Stringer, and Adams are all widely considered to be contenders for the 2021 mayoral race and share overlapping bases of supporters. It’s unclear, though, whether a runoff, instant or otherwise, will come into play in that race and who might benefit from which format. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. is a fourth likely Democratic mayoral candidate, and several others may also jump into the race, creating a crowded field more apt to produce a runoff.

The 2013 Democratic mayoral primary narrowly avoided a runoff, with eventual winner Bill de Blasio earning just above the 40 percent threshold. There was a Democratic runoff in the 2009 primary for public advocate, which de Blasio won. The 2001 Democratic mayoral primary was also settled through a runoff.

“Cities that have adopted instant runoff voting to eliminate runoffs have not only saved millions of dollars but have also improved their democracies by making sure that we are electing our leaders in an election where the most voters, the most diverse voters, are at the polls at one time,” said Grace Ramsey, deputy outreach director for FairVote, a nonpartisan advocacy group, at the news conference. Ramsey noted that 15 cities across the country have already implemented instant runoffs. A FairVote analysis of the 2013 public advocate runoff also showed that the Democratic primary runoff electorate was older, whiter, and wealthier than Democrats overall, and only reflected a 7 percent turnout. It occured on Tuesday, October 1, 2013.

Critiquing the state’s arcane election laws, Stringer said instant runoffs are a “progressive leap” that would allow elections to be decided quickly and efficiently, and he said the mayor’s Charter Revision Commission affords the city a prime opportunity to pursue the policy. “We don’t have to go to Albany and deal with that political dysfunction in order to get this electoral reform,” he said, an apparent reference to that fact that many other voting and election laws are dictated by the state.

In December, Douglas Kellner, the Democratic co-chair of the New York State Board of Elections, testified before the City Council on the 2017 elections and warned them that they had “dodged a bullet” by narrowly avoiding a runoff in the mayoral primary for the Reform Party line. Kellner said at the news conference Tuesday that the state already has the technology and capability to implement instant runoff voting, and reiterated the cost savings associated with implementing the system.  

“We cannot continue to have an 8-track method in an iPhone age,” said Adams, the Brooklyn borough president. “It is time to ensure that the process encourages people to come out. We live in real time, we live in instant time...Let’s make sure runoff elections are a thing of the past and let’s do it in the right way.”

The proposal put forward on Tuesday was not the first attempt at eliminating runoff elections. In 2014, Council Member Lander sponsored a bill to call a referendum on the issue. Mayor de Blasio didn’t support it at the time and has since been lukewarm on the proposal. Asked Tuesday by a reporter if there was any opposition to the proposal, Lander said, “I think it’s just an issue that it’s change and change is not always easy. This is a change to our electoral processes and that’s not something we’re always ready to do.”

As the group was gathered at City Hall, a parallel voting reform effort was being advanced in the state capital as well. The state Senate Democrats, led by Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, unveiled a new report highlighting the shortcomings of the state’s election system that led to an abysmally low voter turnout in the 2016 presidential election. They also released an accompanying package of bills to address voter access and participation. The conference is in the minority, though, and there is limited likelihood that the Republican majority will advance the reforms being sought, such as early voting.

[Read: State Board of Elections Official Says City Must Move to Instant Runoff Voting]

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Elected Officials, Advocates Push for Instant Runoff Voting Tue, 01 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Board of Elections To Roll Out ‘Electronically Assisted’ Voter Registration http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7550:board-of-elections-to-roll-out-electronically-assisted-voter-registration http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7550:board-of-elections-to-roll-out-electronically-assisted-voter-registration boe nyc website

(NYC BOE website)


New York’s voting and registration laws have long been derided as onerous and needlessly restrictive, falling far behind most other states that have implemented modern methods to register and cast a vote. While significant changes to state election laws are being debated in Albany ahead of a new state budget, the New York City Board of Elections may improve, albeit incrementally, people’s access to the ballot by soon providing digital aid to register to vote.

The Board of Elections, a quasi-state agency funded by the city, is set to roll out a new website in the coming months which will provide New Yorkers with an “electronically assisted way” to fill out a voter registration form and an absentee ballot application, according to BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan, who testified at a budget hearing of the City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations on Monday. The two electronic forms would still have to be printed and either mailed to the BOE or delivered in person, in accordance with current state law.

The City Council last year passed a law mandating that the BOE implement online voter registration and, in mid-2016, mandated that the BOE create an online voter information portal where New Yorkers can track their absentee ballots, check their registration status and voting history, as well as access other voting and election resources. Both bills were sponsored by Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the governmental operations committee last Council session.

The BOE has often been reluctant to abide by local laws, since it is governed by the state, and has either implemented common-sense measures that do not necessarily require legislation or has been pushed to do so by litigation. Ryan reiterated that fact Monday, setting aside the “mandate-no mandate argument” and laying out the BOE’s plans for this year. He also explained why the BOE had been slow to implement those measures, when Council Member Kallos sought answers about the delay.

“Simply put, 2016 happened,” Ryan said, referring to the 2016 presidential election, during which the BOE faced widespread criticism for mishandling of election operations and settled a federal lawsuit arising from a voter purge in Brooklyn. “We had the issues, painful as it is for me to resurrect, we had the voter registration issues in Brooklyn, followed shortly after that by the cybersecurity issues that arose just prior to the presidential election.”

The BOE was poised to launch a new website prior to the 2016 election, Ryan said, but was discouraged by its cybersecurity team, which warned that the new platform would require more “robust testing” before going public. The federal lawsuit also required the BOE to overhaul it’s software for processing election results.

Ryan anticipates the launch of the new website in the second quarter of this calendar year, with the voter-registration assistance being mandated by the federal government. He also said the BOE’s voter information portal was “pretty far along” in development.

The implementation delay did, however, fortuitously save the Board some effort, Ryan said. In that time, the United States Postal Service launched its own absentee ballot tracking service which they could now implement. “I would envision that since the postal service has already done it, assuming it works, and we’ve been told that it does, that we will help to advertise that so that the folks who really want to track their ballot can do it in a way that the post office can guarantee,” he said.

Ryan’s promise of the new website came out of larger testimony about the BOE’s budget for the 2019 fiscal year, during the hearing led by Council Member Fernando Cabrera, chair of the governmental operations committee.

As with the last few years, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s preliminary budget underfunds the BOE at $95.1 million. Ryan projected the Board would need at least $137.6 million to fund its operations, which include conducting two citywide elections -- the state primary in September and the general election in November (June congressional primaries will fall in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30). De Blasio has repeatedly denied employing the “budget dance” practice that agencies had to go through under previous mayors but has continued to use that tactic for the BOE and a few others. In each year under his administration, the BOE receives full funding by the time the budget is adopted.

De Blasio has had a contentious relationship with the BOE, and has been very critical of the board’s operations and management, calling for sweeping reforms to its structure and practices. While most reforms can only result from state legislation, de Blasio has had an ongoing offer of $20 million in additional funds for the BOE in exchange for several reforms to its operations. In his State of the City speech in February, de Blasio reiterated that criticism while announcing that he’d convene a Charter Revision Commission that could, among other things, “empower the city government” to handle some responsibilities of the BOE, including voter outreach.

At Monday’s hearing, Ryan pressed a number of different needs for the agency, including more funds for cybersecurity and higher pay for poll workers, which must be approved by the state or through executive order of the mayor. He also pressed the need for electronic poll books, which 34 other states and the District of Columbia have already implemented. Without electronic poll books, Ryan said same-day voter registration is “absolutely impossible” and early voting would be “difficult to implement,” at the least. Both reforms have been considered in Albany for years with little success but leading Democrats, including Mayor de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, have reiterated their support for the proposals this year.

Cuomo, who is currently leading state budget negotiations, put $7 million for early voting in the amendments to his executive budget plan earlier this year.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Board of Elections To Roll Out ‘Electronically Assisted’ Voter Registration Mon, 19 Mar 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Manhattan Democrats Drop Lawsuit Over Nominee to Board of Elections http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7496:manhattan-democrats-drop-lawsuit-over-nominee-to-board-of-elections http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7496:manhattan-democrats-drop-lawsuit-over-nominee-to-board-of-elections Corey Johnson Mark-Viverito City Council

Speaker Johnson and former Speaker Mark-Viverito (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The Manhattan Democratic County Committee is dropping a lawsuit against the New York City Council over a nomination for a commissioner to the Board of Elections.

In December, the Manhattan Democratic Party, led by Chair Keith Wright, filed a legal challenge against then-Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s attempt to confirm her preferred candidate to a Manhattan BOE commissioner seat over the county party’s choice. A lawyer for the Manhattan Democrats told Gotham Gazette on Friday that Wright and new Council Speaker Corey Johnson had come to an agreement and that Wright had instructed the lawyer to drop the suit.

The BOE has ten commissioners, one Democrat and one Republic from each of the five boroughs, who serve two-year terms and are selected through the political party machinery. Current Manhattan Democratic commissioner Alan Schulkin’s term ended in December 2016 but he has continued to serve on the board since the City Council has yet to choose his replacement.

In late 2016, the Manhattan Democrats nominated Jeanine Johnson, an aide to Wright, to fill Schulkin's seat. But the Council did not act on the nomination, after which state law allowed the Council's Democratic conference to choose their own nominee. In November 2017, the Manhattan Democrats chose another nominee, lawyer Sylvia DiPietro. But Mark-Viverito chose instead to advance her own candidate, environmental lawyer Andrew Praschak, over the wishes of the county, leading to the lawsuit. Mark-Viverito and Wright are known to not get along, and the Manhattan Democratic Party is known as particularly lacking in cohesion compared to other boroughs.

The City Council has traditionally toed the county line on nominations to the BOE and the entire body usually votes along with the county's choice. Praschak's nomination was far more complicated. Council Members from Manhattan at first refused to vote on Praschak, insisting on interviewing him and other candidates. After interviews with both DiPietro and Praschak, the latter emerged as the preferred nominee. But a second attempt to vote on Praschak’s nomination also failed when most Democratic Council Members from other boroughs did not show up, meaning the conference could not get a necessary quorum. To some, this indicated that other county leaders were pulling weight to help Wright.

The Manhattan Democrats’ lawsuit was filed December 4, soon after the failed vote attempts to install Praschak. On December 19, the Manhattan Democrats won a preliminary injunction in their suit against the Council, which was lifted after the Council appealed. But the lawsuit was successful in forestalling a vote till the Council’s term ended and Mark-Viverito’s tenure with it. A resolution fell to the new class of the Council under new Speaker Corey Johnson, who, unlike Mark-Viverito, ascended to the speakership with support of the major county party leaders in the Bronx and Queens.

Arthur Schwartz, the lawyer for the Manhattan Democrats in the lawsuit, told Gotham Gazette that Chair Wright and Speaker Johnson had decided to move forward without a lawsuit hanging over the process. “[Keith Wright] said they’re sorting it out but he wanted me to discontinue the lawsuit,” Schwartz said in a phone interview on Friday afternoon.

Schwartz said he would be sending a “stipulation of discontinuance” later that afternoon to the Corporation Counsel’s office, which is representing the City Council in the lawsuit.

Reached by phone, Wright said, “I’m not ready to comment on anything at this time.”

Robin Levine, a spokesperson for Speaker Johnson, said in an email that she “can't comment on pending litigation.” Mark-Viverito did not respond to a request for comment.

It’s unclear if the nomination of DiPietro will go forward as Wright and Johnson continue to negotiate. “That’s up to them,” Schwartz said. “It’s something Keith’s gotta work out with the Speaker.”

“It’s a friendly relationship,” he said of the two, contrasting it with Mark-Viverito’s dynamic with Wright. “I wouldn’t say that was friendly at all.”

Manhattan Council Member Ben Kallos, who supported Praschak’s nomination after hearing DiPietro voice “misplaced” concerns about voter fraud, said he is hoping to see a reformer on the board. The current commissioner, Schulkin, has also faced criticism in the past for expressing similar unfounded sentiments about voter fraud in the city and the need for voter identification.

Kallos, former chair and current member of the Council’s governmental operations committee, which has some oversight of the Board of Elections, is concerned with election administration in the city, which falls under the 10 BOE commissioners as well as the executive director, Michael Ryan, and staff. The notoriously dysfunctional BOE is governed by state law, and there have been perpetual calls for modernization and professionalization of the board, including removing party politics from the commissioner appointment process. Johnson is opposed to such a reform, but has said he wants to see election administration improved.

“I look forward to working with the new Manhattan delegation chairs and the speaker on getting somebody committed to reform on the BOE,” Kallos said in a phone interview. “Whether its Sylvia DiPietro or another nominee, I hope they’re more concerned with not having lines on Election Day and with a smooth voting process rather than non-existent voter fraud.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Manhattan Democrats Drop Lawsuit Over Nominee to Board of Elections Mon, 26 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Favorable to The Bronx, Council Committee Shuffle Also Seen as Retribution http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7452:favorable-to-the-bronx-council-committee-shuffle-also-seen-as-retribution http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7452:favorable-to-the-bronx-council-committee-shuffle-also-seen-as-retribution Kallos Salamanca City Council

Council Members Ben Kallos, left, and Rafael Salamanca (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


When new City Council Speaker Corey Johnson reshuffled committee portfolios earlier this month, Council Member Ben Kallos lost his position as chair of the Committee on Governmental Operations. Sources say the move was punishment for Kallos’ approach to Board of Elections commissioner nominations and because of his support for one of Johnson’s opponents in the speaker race.

By virtually all accounts, Kallos had done an exceptional job chairing the governmental operations committee during last legislative session, from 2014 through 2017. He led the way on a slew of reforms to campaign financing, government transparency and accountability, and was viewed by good government advocates as a valuable partner on the Council. He was praised by many, and snickered at by some, for his independence.

But, with the election of Johnson as speaker, committee portfolios would be changed, with significant influence from the Queens and Bronx Democratic county organizations, which gave Johnson the backing he needed to ascend to what is arguably the second-most powerful position in city government behind the mayor.

Kallos, who multiple sources say wanted to keep chairing the committee, was among a small number of members left out in the cold. His committee chair position went to another member, Council Member Fernando Cabrera of the Bronx, and Kallos was instead assigned to lead the Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions, and Concessions, which falls under the land use committee. He was named as a member of the governmental operations committee, among others.

Kallos declined multiple requests to comment for this article.

The Committee on Governmental Operations has a broad purview, overseeing several city agencies including the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, the Campaign Finance Board, the city Board of Elections, the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, and the Law Department, among others. The committee also has oversight of the city’s 59 community boards.

Government reform groups generally praise Kallos’ leadership of the committee. “He raised a lot of good government issues that otherwise wouldn’t have seen the light of day, and he raised them on the merits,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, in a phone interview. “Maybe that miffed people at times but they were important issues to be raised and I don’t think that warrants removal from the chairmanship.”

As chair, one of Kallos’ priorities was to reduce patronage hires at city agencies, particularly the Board of Elections, a bipartisan body where positions are filled by the county organizations for both parties. Patronage, Kallos said, invariably leads to conflicts of interests and the appointment of subpar employees. The BOE’s ten commissioners -- one from each party in each borough -- are nominated by the county committees and confirmed by the Council. The commissioners play a crucial role in deciding who gets to be on the ballot in elections and in interpreting state election law.

In 2016, Kallos was among those members who rankled the Bronx Democratic County Committee, led by Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, by insisting that a nominee for Democratic commissioner from the Bronx be required to give up her registration as a lobbyist in order to be confirmed as an elections commissioner. The nominee, Rosanna Vargas, initially refused but later relented. Vargas is now the president of the Board of Elections.

“The Queens and Bronx county committees felt that Council Member Kallos wasn’t a team player with regards to BOE appointments,” said one source with knowledge of internal county party dynamics, when asked about Kallos losing his committee chairmanship, and speaking only on the condition of anonymity.

Council Member Cabrera told Gotham Gazette that while he did not push to chair the governmental operations committee, he was “excited” to be offered it. “There were different options that were being put forth, but as soon as it was presented to me, I said that I was very eager to do so,” he said at City Hall recently. Cabrera did not serve on the committee in the last term but was co-sponsor of a few bills under its purview.

Cabrera said he would pursue legislation to improve the city’s campaign finance system, which is centered around public matching of low-dollar contributions and is held up as a national model, and would look to expand voter engagement in a city known for low turnout in the last few elections. “I’m a team player,” he said, insisting he will approach legislation and oversight collaboratively with his colleagues, “and so this is not a solo dance that we’re going to be doing here. Working with the administration as well, we want collaboration.”

He said he sees “eye-to-eye” with Kallos. Asked if Kallos was punished for opposing the Bronx County’s BOE pick in 2016, Cabrera pleaded ignorance. “To be honest with you, I have no knowledge, I don’t even know what you’re really referring to, honestly,” he said.

“I do know he did well,” Cabrera added. “I have to tell you he got, and I spoke to him, he got a very good committee. It’s a committee you can do a whole lot with. Anything related to finance. It’s one that has influence and can bring systemic change.”

The subcommittee Kallos now chairs feeds the land use committee now being chaired by Council Member Rafael Salamanca of the Bronx, an appointment by Johnson perhaps most indicative of the rewards provided to the county for its support of his speaker bid.

Kallos was a known supporter of Council Member Mark Levine’s bid for the speakership of the Council. Levine was among the frontrunners for the post, but was unsuccessful after the Bronx and Queens County Democrats coalesced around Johnson, who gained the backing of those vote-rich counties in part because he had also secured individual support from about ten other Council members, according to Johnson.

“A land use subcommittee is as important or more important than a lot of full committees, honestly,” Levine told Gotham Gazette at City Hall earlier this month. He refused to speculate on why Kallos lost his chair position but said that Kallos was “amazing” as chair of the committee. “I think reshuffling of committees is a standard practice in any new term. Very few people continued in the same committee...the movement is natural.” he said. “I’ll tell you this about Ben Kallos, he’s going to be a leader in this body, no matter what portfolio he’s handed. He’s one of the smartest and most effective legislators I know. So he’s going to be impactful without a doubt in the next four years.”

Asked about the decision to give the chair position to Cabrera, Council communications director Robin Levine referred Gotham Gazette to Johnson’s remarks at a January 11 news conference immediately after the new committee chairs were voted on by the full Council. She did not address a question about whether Crespo wanted Kallos removed from the position.

At the news conference, in response to a question from Gotham Gazette, Johnson emphasized that the committee appointments were a complicated task. “Every decision that was made...when you moved one piece around, it affected the rest of the matrix,” he said. “So that’s why we spent the whole weekend here. That’s why I met with every individual member. That’s why we were in conversations, of course, with the county leaders.”

“The process was a consultative process that, number one, involved the members,” he continued. “Number two, involved of course having conversations with the county leaders, with the mayor -- he wanted to understand who would be chairing certain committees -- with certain labor unions who played a role in this process, with members of Congress, with members of the Assembly, with members of the state Senate. There were over a hundred people who were calling every day for a week wanting to try and ensure that certain people got certain things.”

“I was really trying to make everyone as happy as I could, by being as flexible as I could, by being as creative as I could and to try and give different people avenues for leadership and avenues to work on issues that matter to them,” Johnson said.

In a statement through a spokesperson, Crespo did not directly respond to a question on whether he pushed for Kallos’ ouster. “As it has been in the past, City Council committee chairs frequently change at the start of new legislative terms,” Crespo said. “Our focus is to always advocate for our members in the Bronx delegation of the City Council and in doing so, providing the city and our constituents sound and steady leadership. The primary focus should be on the fact that an important committee now continues to have strong leadership with Bronx Councilman Fernando Cabrera as chair.”

One Council member, who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely about the committee appointments, said Kallos was a victim of a combination of factors. “I think it was an accumulation of the running into the counties on BOE, running up against Corey in the speaker’s race, and he’s also got some very complicated land use stuff in his district as well. Probably didn’t help this matter either, he’s seen as very anti-development,” the Council member said.

But, the Council member added, “He could have fared worse.” Indeed, some other Council members who opposed Johnson’s bid or supported his opponents appeared to come away with less. Among those were Council Members Brad Lander and Jumaane Williams, neither of whom was given a committee chair position after having led the rules committee and the housing and buildings committee, respectively, in the last term. Lander did retain his position as Deputy Leader for Policy.

“Is everyone 100 percent happy? No. Are some people happier than others? Yes,” Johnson said at the January 11 hearing where the new committee chairs were confirmed. “I did my best...There was no level of vindictiveness towards any member of this body from me, there was no level of vindictiveness, there was no score-settling, there was no keeping track of what happened during the Speaker’s race.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Favorable to The Bronx, Council Committee Shuffle Also Seen as Retribution Mon, 29 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Many Election Poll Workers are Placed by Party Machines, Some May Influence Votes http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7374:many-election-poll-workers-are-placed-by-party-machines-some-may-influence-votes http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7374:many-election-poll-workers-are-placed-by-party-machines-some-may-influence-votes poll site samar photo

photo by Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette


With a 16-hour workday, compensation at $200, and the monotony of sitting in what is often a stifling, public-school gymnasium, New York City’s tens of thousands of election poll workers have a largely thankless job.

Mobilized only a few days most years, they are often retired or semi-retired. While unheralded, they are the frontline for the New York City Board of Elections (BOE), which, as governed by state law, is responsible for registering voters, maintaining voter records, and operating poll site locations throughout the five boroughs.

Many, motivated by civic duty, extra income, or both, apply directly via mail or through the city BOE website. However, a substantial portion of poll workers receive their positions through recommendations from local Democratic and Republican leaders, chosen before the BOE dips into the general application pool. The parties also nominate the commissioners to the city Board of Elections, one Democrat and one Republican per borough, and each borough has a satellite operation for election administration.

The injection of political partisanship into the cogs of the electoral process, especially in the wake of a critical audit of the BOE by the city’s Comptroller’s office, has come under increased scrutiny in 2016 and 2017, both years seeing a bevy of election activity in New York.

Some City Council candidates and campaign staffers allege that the influence of local party leaders in hiring and placing poll workers can advantage those backed by county leadership. Benefits range from having sympathetic eyes in polling sites to—at boldest—an extra set of hands to electioneer on election days, influencing votes as they are cast.

The current system is “a cocktail of corruption that’s impossible for these people to not get drunk on,” concluded an experienced Democratic political operative who has worked on high-profile issues and campaigns and wished to remain anonymous for fear of impacting his political career.

“To my knowledge, I know there is a history of local poll workers affiliated with campaigns being placed in specific polling sites,” said Brian Cunningham, a City Council candidate in Brooklyn’s District 40 who is currently pursuing legal action after reports of irregularities at polling sites across his district, where incumbent Mathieu Eugene won a third term in November and is alleged to have illegally been in several polling places on Election Day.

While a few dozen corrupted votes would not typically change the outcome of an election, they would cast a pall over the voting process and can impact contests decided by small margins. For example, Elizabeth Crowley, a Democratic incumbent in Queens District 30, lost her City Council seat to Republican Robert F. Holden in the November general election by just 137 votes.

Despite concern from several experienced political operatives and recent City Council candidates, Democratic Party officials from Manhattan and Brooklyn argue that widespread allegations of poll workers influencing elections are overblown.

Meanwhile, some candidates have reported no knowledge of what others allege is common practice. “[This] is not a claim that I can neither confirm nor deny," said Deidre Olivera, an unsuccessful 2017 Democratic City Council candidate in District 41, in an email to Gotham Gazette.

Although sources did not provide hard evidence of candidate campaigns or local party leaders deliberately influencing elections through the recommendation of partisan poll workers, the spectre of compromised poll sites adds further fuel to the fire for reformers calling for a wholesale revamp of state election law, including the structure and practices of the state and city BOE.

A Partisan Hiring Process
The BOE is crafted along partisan lines in order to guarantee impartiality, or at least opposing partialities. In New York City, this partisan structure extends from executive leadership through mid-level staff, spreading its roots into how poll workers are found and hired.

According to conversations with Michael Ryan, the executive director of the city BOE, and political insiders, poll workers are either recruited based on applications sent directly to the BOE or they are selected by the local Democratic or Republican parties. Party-selected poll workers are chosen by district leaders, or local party officials from state Assembly districts.

Poll workers nominated by district leaders are always chosen before workers culled from the general application pool. The BOE, according to state law, cannot question the credentials of workers forwarded to them by district leaders, explained Ryan, the executive director. “It’s up to the local party’s discretion who they want to designate and it’s not for us to question,” he added. Ryan’s position is an administrative hire made by the BOE board, meant to be a nonpartisan leader for BOE operations.  

The district leaders also have sway over which poll workers are placed where. “From having seen this from the very most ground level, the district leaders have the most influence in recommending where to assign a poll worker the BOE has already hired,” said Barry Weinberg, executive director for the Manhattan Democratic Party.

Adding to the control Democratic party officials have over the assignment of poll workers is a quirk of staffing process called, per Ryan, “cross-designation.” The vast majority of poll sites need an equal number of Republicans and Democratic poll workers manning them. When poll sites are lacking enough Democrats or Republicans, the BOE asks “individuals who might be registered in a different political party to take an oath as a poll worker or inspector for the party with a shortfall,” said Ryan.

Ryan confirmed that, given the outsized number of Democrats compared to Republicans in New York City, usually Democrats “cross-designate” as Republicans.

“Aren’t at Least the Optics Bad?”
The poll-worker and election-administration processes seem flawed to many political candidates, including Randy Abreu, a 2017 Democratic City Council candidate in District 14 in the Bronx.

After the September primaries, Abreu cried foul after receiving multiple tips from friends, supporters, and voters of problems in the polls across his district, reported The Riverdale Press.

These included rumors that poll workers were electioneering for his opponent, incumbent Fernando Cabrera. In comments given to The Riverdale Press, Abreu said, “The incumbent’s campaign workers are picking the poll site workers. Aren’t at least the optics bad?”

In an interview with Gotham Gazette, he elaborated. “My male district leader was my opponent’s campaign manager. The district leaders, if they have a relationship [with a candidate], it’s human nature they’re going to appoint friendly people on election day in the poll sites,” Abreu said.

Another former City Council candidate in the Bronx—who asked to remain anonymous for fear of negative repercussions to their political career—not only echoed Abreu’s suspicions, but stated that the process is common knowledge among political insiders. "A lot of folks know that if you're with county [party] support that your major polls will be covered because you have supporters working them," the candidate said by phone to Gotham Gazette. “On the campaign trail, folks would warn me they have folks that point out who to vote for and keep an eye on the polling sites.”

Whispers were not limited to the Bronx. In Manhattan, Ronnie Cho and Jasmin Sanchez, two Democratic City Council candidates in District 2, were also surprised by the appearance of other candidates’ supporters in the polls during primary day. The party establishment’s favored candidate was Carlina Rivera, an aide to the outgoing, term-limited Council Member, Rosie Mendez, who won the primary and general elections by wide margins.

When asked in an interview whether he was aware of campaigns placing their supporters within poll sites, Cho responded that this “is a common practice that many campaigns employ.”

Sanchez observed that most people working the polls in her district were affiliated with political clubs and organizations, which endorse candidates. “Everyone I know that has worked the poll sites are connected to political organizations and nonprofits,” she said.

“The appearance can seem a little bit awkward,” said Cho, in regards to the supposed impartiality of polling sites.

Polling the Campaign Staffers
Although multiple City Council candidates were aware of these concerns, none could provide detailed accounts of poll site manipulation.

Campaign staffers who spoke with Gotham Gazette similarly provided no specific accusations. However, they either thought the allegations were credible or directly confirmed the existence of the phenomenon. All requested anonymity for fear of causing damage to their careers or receiving political retribution.

“In my experience uptown in Manhattan, we frequently found that the county party selected poll workers for our Spanish speaking community that had no ability to translate, compounded with the BOE not providing translators at many busy poll sites,” said a former City Council aide who has also worked on a number of campaigns for candidates opposing the party establishment. “I can't speak with certainty to poll site workers openly supporting candidates, but it certainly felt like [it].”

Others directly attested that campaigns backed by the party enjoyed the benefits of supporters working the polls.

“The short answer is yes, yes, yes, yes,” said a political staffer who has also worked on multiple uptown campaigns in an email to Gotham Gazette.

A different, experienced Democratic political operative who has worked on high-profile issues and campaigns confirmed poll site manipulation with similar enthusiasm: “Yes, and Santa Claus is not real. This is something I’ve witnessed firsthand,” the operative said.

“I mean, look, it’s a political process. Generally speaking, in your average election it doesn’t impact the final outcome,” the same operative said in a phone interview. “It only matters for campaigns that are explicitly and intensely supported by the party boss.”

For most campaigns, having poll sites manned by supporters is understood to be an implicit advantage, he explained. In fact, he said the practice has benefitted his own career, but that the relevant campaigns “never explicitly” coordinated with the local Democratic Party.

Another experienced campaign staffer in Queens explicitly corroborated these allegations, expressing surprise that he was being questioned about this issue, as he thought it was common knowledge. “In Queens County, this is par for the course,” the campaign staffer said over the phone. “It would be ideal for a campaign to situate affiliated people within the poll sites.”

“I’ve been on insurgent campaigns and I’ve had many supporters apply to be poll workers. The incumbent’s team would have had all their spots taken up,” the Queens campaign staffer continued. “The incumbents are the ones that can get it done.”

He added that inserted poll workers were often asked to electioneer. “If you want a true representative democracy, this is totally a cluster****,” he declared. “If democracy works well, people like me wouldn’t have a job.”

“Definitely Overblown”
Despite concerns from candidates and staffers that party-backed campaigns are rejiggering the cogs of the electoral system in their favor, other political insiders—including previous candidates, observers, and party officials—have either never caught wind of this phenomenon or believe the rumors to be nothing more than hot air.

Kim Moscaritolo, the female district leader for the 76th Assembly District and a longtime political activist, said that she couldn’t confirm or deny these allegations.

Others think these claims, while hypothetically possible, are unlikely. “In theory, that might be true. In my years, I’ve seen very little evidence. I’m skeptical about most allegations of election fraud,” said Jerry Skurnik, partner at consultancy Prime NY, which specializes in election data, and a longtime political aide and observer in New York.

And Democratic party officials in Manhattan and Brooklyn adamantly deny that anything more nefarious than the occasional poll site mishap may occur during city elections. Weinberg, of the Manhattan Democratic Committee, said that at least in Manhattan, these allegations of poll worker bias and electioneering are “definitely overblown.” He also expressed faith in the current system. “The laws are written with mistrust. The system is almost designed to be adversarial,” he added.

Officials in Brooklyn agreed with Weinberg’s skepticism. In a statement, Bob Liff, spokesman for the Kings County Democratic Party, said, “Some [poll workers] are recommended by political organizations, but a larger percentage come from direct application to the Board of Elections. The bigger problem is finding enough qualified people to staff every election district willing to register with the Board and go through training and work the long hours for the low pay.”

According to the BOE, approximately 60% of poll workers are found through general applications and 40% are selected by district leaders. The number of party-designated poll workers forwarded to the BOE has been steadily trending down the past few years, said Ryan, the executive director.

“I think that the system is set up as a bipartisan system to prevent abuse. It really is both sides watching each other to make sure that elections are conducted as fairly and squarely as they can be,” stressed Ryan. “While it would be inaccurate to say we never hear of poll workers doing things they’re not supposed to be doing, it would also be inaccurate to say that poll worker misconduct is rampant.”

Ryan added that party-backed candidates enjoy widespread advantages not through the manipulation of poll sites, but through the money and campaign experience that party support provides. “The folks that are running and don’t have the party backing, what they’re lacking is the experience of running a campaign, and they’re also lacking access to individuals who have experience running a campaign,” he explained. “That I see is a bigger hurdle for candidates to overcome, more so than what an individual poll worker is doing at a poll site.”

Calls to “Professionalize” the BOE
The allegations of partisan poll workers influencing local elections touch on larger efforts to reform the BOE and prevent the Democratic and Republican parties from engaging in what some describe as a system of “patronage.”

Last year, the BOE purged approximately 125,000 Democratic voters from the voting rolls in Brooklyn without explanation, And after the September 2017 primaries the BOE changed more than 20% of its polling sites since 2016, regularly breaking city law by not posting notices of the changes.

"I think the Board of Elections' time has come and gone,” Mayor de Blasio said after the 2017 primaries, as reported by The Daily News. “I think it's time for fundamental change. This model doesn't work, period.”

And this past November, city Comptroller Scott Stringer released a damning audit of the BOE, reporting that 90% of the 156 poll sites observed during three elections since April 2016 had significant problems—including severe infractions of election law, most notably instances of electioneering by poll workers.

Government watchdog groups like Common Cause/NY argue that many of the BOE’s problems stem from employees hired because of party loyalty, not professional competency. “The people who were chosen because they were good treasurers for their local political party may not bring the right skills to the job,” said Susan Lerner, executive director for Common Cause/NY, in an interview. “I have had political operatives, party officials say to me that one of the purposes of the Board of Elections is to provide employment for people who wouldn’t be able to get jobs otherwise.”

She argues that the BOE should be “professionalized,” meaning the board’s posts should be filled not through political appointees, but publicly advertised job postings. “We believe that the Board of Elections should be a nonpartisan, professional operation,” said Lerner.

When asked if she believes allegations of party-backed candidates inserting their supporters into the polls, she responded, “Yes, absolutely.”

Tweak the BOE or Revamp It?
For Michael Ryan and party elites, the BOE needs help, but not wholesale reform. Ryan said that one of the BOE’s biggest challenges right now is finding poll workers willing to work the long hours for low pay. However, these problems are not unique to New York City. He referenced a report released in January 2014 by the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration that detailed widespread shortages of poll workers across the country.

Weinberg, of the Manhattan Democrats, agreed that finding more poll workers was the most pressing obstacle to well-run elections, suggesting that paying them more money would incentivize more people to apply.

However, when asked if the BOE should do away with the current system of district leaders nominating a substantial portion of poll workers, he said no, “they actually need the local, on-the-ground knowledge from District Leaders.”

For reformers like Ben Kallos, City Council member for Manhattan’s District 5 and chair of the Council’s government operations committee, the problem is simple. “I don’t believe people should get jobs in government because of who they know,” he said in a phone interview.

He urged anyone with allegations of campaigns inserting supporters into poll sites to speak up, including through the city Department of Investigations. “We’re calling upon them to do their civic duty,” he exhorted.

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by Ben Weiss, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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Many Election Poll Workers are Placed by Party Machines, Some May Influence Votes Mon, 18 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Online Voter Registration Debate Continues, with Court Challenge Possible http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7371:online-voter-registration-debate-continues-with-court-challenge-possible http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7371:online-voter-registration-debate-continues-with-court-challenge-possible 36995856256 af91cc332f z

Gov. Cuomo voting (photo via The Governor's Office)


Last month, the New York City Council passed a bill that provides for online voter registration for city residents without requiring DMV-issued identification. With guidance from Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office allowing local jurisdictions to pass online registration measures, the bill holds up under state law. But state elections officials can’t agree on the validity of the bill, and city Board of Elections officials have yet to make a decision, portending that the matter may have to eventually be decided in court.

The uncertainty is unfolding as Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to soon sign into law the city bill, Intro. 508, the lead sponsor of which was City Council Member Ben Kallos. The question at hand is whether the city and state Boards of Elections will accept online signatures as valid in registering to vote. As of November 1, per state BOE numbers, there are more than five million registered voters in New York City, but an estimated 700,000-plus eligible voters who are not registered, with more turning 18 years of age each year.

Currently, the only agency authorized to accept online registration forms is the Department of Motor Vehicles, but only for people who already have DMV identification. The city bill would allow the New York City Campaign Finance Board to perform that role as well and would allow voters to submit electronic signatures matching their “wet” ink signature on paper. It would ease the process of registration for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, many from low-income communities of color who may lack DMV identification since they depend on public transportation.

Following the bill’s passage, the New York City Board of Elections sought guidance from its parent body, the State BOE. But the Democratic and Republican state BOE commissioners reached a split verdict. In separate memoranda sent to the city Board earlier this week, the Democrats approved of the bill while the Republican commissioners questioned its validity.

In a memorandum to the city BOE dated December 11, Todd Valentine, the Republican co-executive director of the state BOE, argued that the Council’s bill “would contravene New York State Constitution, state statutes and the rulings by the New York State Court of Appeals.”

He cited a 1985 decision in Clark v Cuomo by the New York State Court of Appeals, which effectively prohibits any state or city agency that has not been specifically authorized under state law to distribute and collect voter registration forms. He also argued against acceptance of electronic signatures, insisting that they do not meet the standards for an affidavit under the Electronic Signatures and Records Act, though he did say the ESRA’s application is voluntary for agencies. (A voter registration form effectively functions as an affidavit and registrants can be held criminally liable for falsifying their information.)

Valentine particularly noted that authorizing the city’s municipal identification program, IDNYC, as a signature repository “raises numerous issue in its own account.” “Specific research would need to be done to ensure that this program and any other so referenced, actually has strict safeguards and identification requirements to ensure that those applying for identification are, in fact, the individuals themselves,” he wrote.

The state BOE Democratic co-executive director, Robert Brehm, wrote to the city BOE one day after Valentine. He included a memorandum prepared by co-counsel Brian Quail which read, in part, that the legislation “is consistent with state law, and the voter registration forms produced under its provisions should be processed in the normal course by boards of elections.”

The memo pointed to A.G. Schneiderman’s informal opinion issued to Suffolk County officials in April last year when they were considering implementing a similar system locally. “Indeed, such electronically-facilitated voter registration is, in our opinion, consistent with the expressed legislative policy of ‘encourag[ing] the broadest possible voter participation in elections,’” Schneiderman wrote at the time.

Quail cited the opinion heavily in his memorandum. “Int. 508-A is little more than the cyber equivalent of requiring an agency of the government to provide pen and paper to persons wishing to complete a voter registration form. The legislation is crafted to comport with the parameters thoughtfully outlined in the Attorney General’s Opinion on the subject.”

The bill provides “sufficient authority” to the Campaign Finance Board, he continued, to implement the law in a way to avoid conflicting with election law, including choosing how signatures can be submitted. “As caselaw evinces, the law defining signature has never been rigid, and Int. 508-A is precisely the type of practical extension of the law of signatures to new realities that changing modes of writing require,” he wrote.

On the sidelines of a City Council oversight hearing on Wednesday, Douglas Kellner, Democratic co-chair of the state BOE, told Gotham Gazette that Schneiderman’s opinion “doesn’t seem to affect the Republicans.”

“On that particular issue, the state Board of Elections really has no role, and ultimately the courts will have to decide,” he predicted. “Someone will register through that system and if the registration is not processed, that person could bring a lawsuit or if the registration is processed, someone who wants to challenge it could bring a lawsuit.”

Kellner said the city BOE could decide to accept or reject electronically submitted signatures. The city BOE, as with its state counterpart, is a bipartisan body with ten commissioners, a Democrat and a Republican from each of the five boroughs, nominated through the party establishments. However, if they deadlock on processing such a registration form, under state law it would automatically be accepted.

A frustrated Kellner criticized his Republican colleagues for rejecting such a common sense measure and more broadly for their obstructionist tactics. “So often, people have said there’s not a Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage and that election administration is similarly a nonpartisan function,” he said. “But it’s unfortunate that increasingly, there is a partisan divide over election administration. That more and more the Republican Party is imposing obstructions to allowing people to exercise their franchise and in an efficient manner.”  

He did say New York Republicans have been more “moderate” and have not pushed the types of voter suppression measures used in many states. “But on the other hand, it’s very disappointing that the New York Republicans have been resisting, so persistently, improvements in election administration that would make it easier for people to register to vote, easier for people to vote.”

The New York City BOE executive director, Michael Ryan, told Gotham Gazette at the same Wednesday hearing that the city commissioners had yet to make a decision. “My expectation is that the commissioners will independently review those documents and give the executive management team of the BOE guidance on the direction that we’re going to go in,” he said. “Until such time as that information has been digested and discussed among the commissioners, we have no public opinion one way or the other.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Online Voter Registration Debate Continues, with Court Challenge Possible Thu, 14 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Council Speaker Candidates Hesitant to Criticize or Reform Party-Controlled Board of Elections http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7368:council-speaker-candidates-hesitant-to-criticize-or-reform-board-of-elections http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7368:council-speaker-candidates-hesitant-to-criticize-or-reform-board-of-elections City Council chambers with members

photo by William Alatriste/City Council


The New York City Board of Elections has widely been acknowledged as a dysfunctional agency in need of urgent and sweeping reform, yet the political will for modernizing and professionalizing the board has not existed, at least in part because its current structure benefits those in power.

Its system of appointments based on political patronage has long been a source of criticism and its mismanagement of election operations has frustrated voters and been the subject of City Council oversight hearings. But, when asked, the eight men vying to become the next Speaker of the City Council recently said concerns about the BOE are misguided. To varying degrees, they indicated that the board is effective and efficient, that its failings are isolated rather than systematic, and that its current structure should be preserved.

At a November 20 speaker candidate forum hosted by Citizens Union, other government reform groups, and New York Law School, seven speaker candidates -- Corey Johnson, Mark Levine, and Ydanis Rodriguez of Manhattan; Donovan Richards and Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens; and Robert Cornegy and Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn -- were present and they mostly took the middle of the road when asked about the steps the City Council, which approves appointments to the BOE, could take to improve the board. The ten BOE commissioners include two -- one Republican and one Democrat -- from each borough.

The Council members hedged their bets and praised the BOE, recognizing that any criticism could potentially be read as directed toward the county party organizations that nominate BOE commissioners and place other employees at the board -- the same county organizations whose support each candidate is seeking in order to become speaker. The eighth candidate, Ritchie Torres from the Bronx, would later give Gotham Gazette a similar response.

None of the members were in favor of a non-partisan restructuring of the board. “That’s a tough question to ask of speaker candidates,” Williams said, to laughter from his colleagues in acknowledgement of the role of the county party machines in both picking BOE commissioners and picking the Council speaker. Williams defended the board but did acknowledge that patronage has played a role in appointments and that the Council could do more to improve it.

“We know that we do have some issues and if we can just do some more thinking through that process and make sure that it’s not as patronage as some folks may think, we can move a lot further,” Williams said, taking the most bold position of the group. “I’m not sure if we push as hard as we can when things go wrong.”

Other candidates spoke generally about reforming election and voting laws, a tangential subject that is mostly the prerogative of the state Legislature, and some staunchly argued in favor of the current partisan composition of the board, which they insisted maintains a balance and prevents one-party hegemony in elections.

“I do not support non-partisan appointments to the Board of Elections,” said Johnson, one of the three perceived frontrunners in the race, along with Levine and Cornegy. “I believe that the parties play a particular role in ensuring that we make sure that any party that’s dominant at a given time cannot run roughshod over another party. If someone came up with a perfect system of a non-partisan way to handle it, maybe I’d entertain it. I’ve never heard of that system, I don’t know how you take political influence out of politics.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Van Bramer said in response.

The city BOE falls under state jurisdiction, like all local boards of election, although the city gets to decide the board’s budget and not much else. The ten board commissioners are nominated by the county party machinery and appointed by the City Council. Representatives from the board testify at City Council hearings, usually during budget season, and receive recommendations and often admonitions from Council members, but are not bound to follow any Council mandates.

The board is often seen as favoring the Democratic Party establishment, given that the vast majority of candidates for city offices are Democrats. Candidates not backed by the party machinery are often challenged in board proceedings and kicked off the ballot, though they are often first-time candidates with fewer resources and without experienced election lawyers.

On Monday, Torres reiterated what his colleagues had said weeks ago. “I suspect you’re misdiagnosing the problem, the problem is a lack of resources,” he told Gotham Gazette at City Hall. “I suspect it’s a lack of resources more than the manner in which the appointments are made.”

He continued, “Does the BOE have inefficiencies? Yes. It’s true of every agency in city government. There’s not a single agency in city government that’s free of inefficiency. So the notion that you would cite inefficiency as an excuse for fundamentally changing the structure of an institution is dubious.” Torres said he would oppose any measures that could weaken the party organizations’ role but conceded that the Council should “study the problem comprehensively” to determine the needs and inefficiencies of the BOE.

There have been studies in the past, and each has found persistent issues.

A 2013 report by the city’s Department of Investigations found a raft of problems in elections management as well as internal board administration. In 2016, the BOE was responsible for a massive voter purge in Brooklyn during the presidential primaries, resulting in legal action by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. In November, Schneiderman announced a consent decree with the BOE that requires added oversight of the board’s voter list maintenance.

Less than a week before this year’s general election on November 7, city Comptroller Scott Stringer also released an audit that excoriated the BOE’s dysfunctional election operations. At each step, the BOE has pushed back and has been resistant to change. Even when Mayor Bill de Blasio offered a $20 million incentive for the board to enact major reforms -- recommending the empaneling of a Blue Ribbon Commission to analyze the BOE, more transparency in hiring and improved poll worker training, among other measures -- its commissioners refused.

“The Mayor believes that it is critical that we reform the Board of Elections,” said Seth Stein, a mayoral spokesperson, in a statement on Tuesday. “They have demonstrated time and again that they are unable to perform the basic functions of their office, like keeping eligible voters on the rolls. The Mayor looks forward to working with whoever the next Speaker is to encourage the Board to accept the $20 million we have offered in exchange for necessary reforms.”

State-level BOE reforms have not progressed in Albany.

Those who could take steps or apply pressure to improve the BOE’s abysmal record are the very people invested in the status quo, however, and the City Council, particularly its speaker, falls squarely within that dynamic. Election experts also tend to agree that the Council can pass little meaningful reform, absent legislative action at the state level, and that the bi-partisan BOE composition is appropriate.  

“There’s very little the City Council can do regarding the structural functioning of the agency,” said Sarah Steiner, an election lawyer. “They could maybe fund the board at a higher level so it could function better.”

“In terms of patronage, it’s a bi-partisan agency, not a civil service agency. Unless that’s changed, the county organizations is where the commissioners and employees will come from,” she added. She insisted that most of the board’s employees are, in her experience, qualified and hard-working professionals. “As in any organization, some employees are better than others,” she said. And she warned that a civil service agency running elections could be open to political interference, while the current structure is designed to prevent just that.

Steiner praised, in particular, the speed and accuracy with which the BOE provides election night results. But, she said, “they are less good at some of the work regarding candidates. I think the rules structure for candidates needs substantial revision.” Unlike the state BOE, the city agency doesn’t provide a public comment period for rules changes, she said, which often leaves the candidates and their campaigns unaware and unprepared. “The administrative rules are not as easy as the board thinks they are, and they’re largely a minefield,” she added.

J.C. Polanco, a Republican who unsuccessfully ran for public advocate this year, has served as  president of the city BOE and saw the problems first hand and attempted to fix them. He campaigned this year on a platform that included BOE reform. He’s blunt about the Council speaker candidates and why they wouldn’t speak up against the agency. “Each candidate has to try not to offend the county organizations,” he said.  

Though Polanco also agrees that the BOE’s partisan structure may be necessary, he believes it can be better. “One of the things to do is to professionalize the board,” he said, “by forcing every candidate to go through the crucible of the [Council’s] investigations process required of commissioners.” He favors merit-based hiring and called for it when he worked at the board.

“There are professionals at the board that get a bad rap for the failures of the board to modernize,” he insisted, echoing Steiner. “You can definitely have a professionalized partisan agency.” The board should post positions with qualifications online, he said, and more publicly seek employees. “It would require an enlightenment of the citizenry and the board,” Polanco said. He also speculated about giving third parties representation on the board, proportionate to their vote shares in prior elections.

Although the Council members poised to be the next speaker may not agree, the official they are hoping to succeed believes that the BOE needs improvement. Melissa Mark-Viverito, who, in the waning days of her speakership, has waded into conflict with the Manhattan Democratic County Committee over a BOE commissioner appointment, said the Council has discussed reforming the BOE for years. Responding to a question from Gotham Gazette, she said, “There’s obviously a lot more work that has to be done. We’ve seen the reports issued by DOI and others with the dysfunction at the Board of Elections and there definitely has to be a lot more professionalizing of the Board of Elections and being able to implement reforms.”

While much of the conversation around elections and voting in New York tends to revolve around the state’s antiquated laws, there have been local attempts at such reform. Council Member Ben Kallos has been a particularly vocal critic of the board and, as chair of the Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, has pushed legislation that can improve elections and voting access. He has time and again urged representatives of the board to move towards merit-based hiring --  “I favor the civil service over the patronage appointment process,” he told Gotham Gazette on Monday. Kallos’ bill allowing online voter registration recently passed the Council. The mayor is expected to sign it into law, and it is considered valid under guidance from A.G. Schneiderman.

We can “find meaningful alternatives that can help fix the BOE at the city level,” Kallos said. “As we learned with online voter registration, with a little bit of creativity and good attorneys, I think a lot can be possible at the local level.”

[Read: City Council Speaker Candidates Address Power, Reform and Transparency]

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Council Speaker Candidates Hesitant to Criticize or Reform Party-Controlled Board of Elections Wed, 13 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
State Board of Elections Official Says City Must Move to Instant Runoff Voting http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7369:state-board-of-elections-official-says-city-must-move-to-instant-runoff-voting http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7369:state-board-of-elections-official-says-city-must-move-to-instant-runoff-voting kallos hearing

Council Member Ben Kallos (photo via @NYCCouncil)


Ahead of the September 12 primary, mayoral candidate Sal Albanese seemingly had the Reform Party ballot line locked up. It meant that Albanese would be on the general election ballot even if he lost the Democratic primary to Mayor Bill de Blasio. At the last minute, however, Republican candidate Nicole Malliotakis and independent candidate Bo Dietl attempted to snatch the Reform nomination from Albanese through an “opportunity to ballot,” which had effectively opened up the Reform line to write-in candidates. Albanese would prevail with 53 percent of the vote, but the spectacle raised major concerns for elections officials. Had all of the candidates failed to reach the 40 percent mark, it would’ve automatically triggered a laborious and costly citywide runoff election between the top two vote-getters.

New York City “dodged a bullet” in avoiding a runoff election, said Douglas Kellner, Democratic co-chair of the New York State Board of Elections, at a Wednesday oversight hearing of the City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations. Kellner, who was there to give his assessment of the recent municipal elections and other matters, briefed the committee members on steps the Council could take to improve election management.

“The first is something that is really in your lap, and that is dealing with the runoff primary election,” he said, calling on the Council to quickly implement instant runoff voting in which voters get to rank multiple candidates in order of preference. For the three citywide positions of Mayor, Public Advocate, and Comptroller, New York City’s charter instead provides for a runoff to be held two weeks after a primary, burdening local election administrators and costing millions of dollars. Most recently, an expensive runoff infamously occured in the 2013 Democratic primary for public advocate, with the primary costing more than the annual budget for the office.

Urgent action is necessary, Kellner said, since a significant amount of time can go into updating election equipment and planning for the next election cycle. Moving soon, four years out from the next city election, would also prevent individuals and parties from predicting, and gaming, the effects on the election system, he said.

“Now, you dodged a bullet...but, that problem hasn’t gone away,” Kellner said, insisting that there was no significant benefit from a full runoff. “And if you’re not gonna do anything, then it’s your fault,” he joked. “But it’s not realistic to make the decision two or three years down the road.” The 2021 elections, when all three citywide posts will be open due to term limits, are expected to be especially competitive in the Democratic primaries.

Council Member Ben Kallos, the chair of the committee, is himself “incredibly supportive” of instant runoffs, he said Wednesday. “I believe that a certain elected official...in the city is opposing that legislation,” he said wryly, referring to Mayor de Blasio, who opposed instant runoff voting when he was public advocate. “While I here in the Council am willing to do so, I believe we still need to get the mayor to sign it,” Kallos added.

All of the eight candidates to become the next City Council Speaker recently said that they support moving to instant runoff voting, often called ranked-choice voting.

Kellner, who also floated the option of a charter amendment petition, which would go to the voters, said if the city failed to implement runoff voting, then it should abolish runoff elections entirely. “The city was lucky this last year that they didn’t have to spend the money on a runoff election,” he said. “And imagine what the reaction would’ve been if the city had to spend millions of dollars to hold a runoff election for one of the small parties, where they might’ve been spending as much as $30,000 per vote in order to administer a runoff election for one of the smaller parties. And that’s how the statute is set up now and it’s a crazy statute.”

Indeed, in the 2013 race to replace de Blasio as public advocate, Democrats Letitia James and Daniel Squadron went to a runoff election that was estimated to cost around $13 million. Both Squadron and James, the eventual winner of the race, came out in favor of instant runoff voting.

“I think that that is a worthy conversation that needs to be had and we certainly would need to make some adjustments,” said New York City Board of Election Executive Director Michael Ryan, at Wednesday’s hearing. Ryan noted that the potential runoff for the Reform Party, which holds open primaries, would be open to approximately 800,000 unaffiliated voters and the 261 New Yorkers registered with the party itself as of November 1. “It would’ve been a full citywide runoff,” he said, “and considering the paucity of actual enrollees in the Reform Party, its very easy to field candidates when you need such a small number of signatures and then open the Board up to significant elections responsibilities and a potential runoff.”

He said the Board had plans in place to hold the election, and pointed out the multiple hurdles they would face. Between primary day and the day of the runoff, there were multiple religious holidays, and the UN General Assembly was convening, where President Donald Trump was scheduled to speak. “So to say we dodged a bullet is an understatement,” he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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State Board of Elections Official Says City Must Move to Instant Runoff Voting Wed, 13 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Ahead of Election Day, Comptroller Audit Highlights Board of Elections Dysfunction http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7296:ahead-of-election-day-comptroller-audit-highlights-board-of-elections-dysfunction http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7296:ahead-of-election-day-comptroller-audit-highlights-board-of-elections-dysfunction unnamed 6

Comptroller Scott Stringer (photo courtesy of Comptroller's office)


Just four days before voters head to the polls on Tuesday, November 7, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer released a damning report highlighting the dysfunctional election operations of the New York City Board of Elections, a quasi-city agency that administers elections in the city.

Stringer’s audit was launched in response to the BOE’s purge of more than 117,000 voters from the rolls in Brooklyn last year, ahead of the April presidential primary. The purge prompted widespread outrage, triggering an investigation by the state Attorney General’s office and a lawsuit by Common Cause New York, a good government advocacy group. The BOE recently admitted to violating federal and state law in the case and agreed to implement reforms.

Following the purge, auditors from the comptroller’s office monitored 156 poll sites over the course of three subsequent elections in 2016 -- the congressional primary in June, the state legislative primary in September and the November general election -- and found that 90 percent of the sample sites showed significant problems ranging from severe violations of election law to inadequate poll worker training and lack of access for people with disabilities.

“We have uncovered deep dysfunction,” Stringer said at a news conference Friday where he released the report.

At 82 sites, about 53 percent, auditors witnessed violations of federal and state election laws and also of the BOE’s own rules. At 14 percent of sites, affidavit ballots were mishandled, and at 10 percent of sites, voters received no assistance when they faced issues. Some poll workers even engaged in electioneering, telling voters which candidate to vote for. Stringer even singled out an “outrageous instance” in which a poll worker failed to notify a voter that their valid ballot had been rejected by a scanning machine. The ballot was marked void.

The BOE failed to adequately staff poll sites, Stringer said, leading to “organizational and logistical chaos” at about 118 sites, or 76 percent. At one site, 41 percent of assigned poll workers did not show up, he noted. Stringer did emphasize that the blame does not fall on poll workers who are “overworked, undertrained and underpaid” and must work nearly 17 hours straight on election days (the state launched a pilot program this year to allow half-day shifts for polling workers). “These are, at their core, the failures of the Board of Elections,” he said.

The audit found that 45 out of 156 polling sites failed to provide adequate assistance to voters with disabilities, with one out of ten sites being inaccessible. “It’s time to own up and fix the voter purge we see in every election,” Stringer said. “This purge happens under the radar...If we’re gonna have participatory democracy, we’ve got to get rid of the barriers to participating in voting.”

New York has notoriously antiquated election laws and consistently lags behind most other states in voter turnout. The state ranked 41 of 50 for turnout in the November general last year. (In the city, which has seen a relatively tame election season this year with many incumbents running for reelection, only about 440,000 voters cast a ballot in the September 12 Democratic primary for mayor, just 14% of registered voters.)

“The right to vote is a bedrock of our democracy, unfortunately our own New York City Board of Elections too often makes it harder for us to exercise those fundamental rights,” said City Council Member Dan Garodnick at Friday’s news conference.

Garodnick called attention to another BOE failing, one he attempted to fix through legislation. For the September 12 primary, the BOE changed poll sites from last year for more than 200,000 voters but did not post notices to inform voters, as required under a law sponsored by Garodnick and passed by the City Council last year. “The Board of Elections does not have the right to pick and choose which local laws it is going to follow,” Garodnick said.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause NY, said the comptroller’s audit “sadly confirms” problems over which good government organizations have long cried foul. “The barriers to voting which incompetence sets up, as the comptroller pointed out, are simply unacceptable,” she said.

Stringer’s report recommended that the BOE implement broader reforms, particularly for poll workers, including more hours of poll worker training, increased poll worker pay, and evaluating the pilot program on half-day shifts. “We haven’t had a new idea on how to run an election in this town in a hundred years, it’s ridiculous, it’s not sustainable,” Stringer said.

“The Comptroller’s audit report once again confirms that the Board of Elections consistently fails the voters in exercising their right to vote,” said Seth Stein, a City Hall spokesperson, in an email. Stein said it was “shameful” that the BOE had to be forced by the courts into accepting reforms, and insisted that the agency needs to be restructured. While the BOE has city jurisdiction, it is controlled by state law, and is not answerable to the mayor.

Stein reiterated that the BOE had refused to accept an offer of $20 million from de Blasio last year as an incentive to reform its operations. “It is essential that they do so now,” he added.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Ahead of Election Day, Comptroller Audit Highlights Board of Elections Dysfunction Fri, 03 Nov 2017 18:54:01 +0000