Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/581 Tue, 20 Feb 2018 03:54:36 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) 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.

***
by Ben Weiss, Gotham Gazette

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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.”

***
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
     

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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
Public Advocate Candidate Outlines Election Reform Agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7154:public-advocate-candidate-outlines-election-reform-agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7154:public-advocate-candidate-outlines-election-reform-agenda polanco bronxnet

JC Polanco on BronxNet


With candidates vying for votes ahead of New York City’s September primary and November general elections, many in and around campaigns know that the state’s antiquated election laws will, in part, ensure that a small percentage of potential voters will cast ballots among limited choices.

One candidate, Juan Carlos Polanco, known as J.C., is currently the presumptive Republican nominee for Public Advocate and has released an extensive package of proposed reforms to New York voting laws.

As a former member of the New York City Board of Elections (BOE), Polanco has had personal experience with the system that certifies candidates and runs elections. In a document provided to Gotham Gazette and subsequent phone conversation, Polanco outlined plans he believes will update, improve, and secure elections in New York through a combination of legislative changes, ballot referendums, and even changes to the state constitution.

“We have to really take a look at our election system and we have to modernize it,” said Polanco, who is eyeing a likely general election matchup with incumbent Letitia James, a Democrat.

Polanco is putting forward 10 proposals, some of which – like expanding the BOE’s reporting in the twice-yearly Mayor’s Management Report (MMR), which details performance of city agencies based on delivery of services – would be relatively easy shifts, and others – like instituting nonpartisan elections and starting a statewide voter identification program – would be fundamental reexaminations of voting in New York that would be very difficult to enact.

Among the former group, in addition to the MMR initiative, Polanco calls for forwarding of voter death and new address data to the BOE from city and state agencies, a new procedure for a nationwide search of the board’s executive director, and an increased budget for the agency to help it run the expanded programs.

The latter group are likely to be much more controversial; chief among them a proposal from Polanco for a statewide “free and fair voter identification program,” which the candidate framed as a compromise for including early voting and and no-fault absentee voting.

Polanco explained that free identifications would be arranged by the BOE using its central voter registration database and then be distributed through municipalities for free to voters who did not otherwise have a valid ID. He could not provide a cost estimate, and when asked why such a program was necessary when research has shown that voter fraud is almost nonexistent, he said there were two schools of thought on voter fraud.

“One is the [President Donald Trump] school, that 3 million people voted illegally in the election. Absolutely not. That’s an extreme view. Then we have the other extreme that no voter fraud happens. And that’s ridiculous,” Polanco said. He insisted that voters who turned up without IDs would not be disenfranchised, as they could fill out affidavit ballots – currently used by voters who arrive at polls to find they’re not on the rolls – that would be counted later if valid.

Another proposed change for voters would be the early voting provisions, which would have to be approved in the unsympathetic Republican-controlled state Senate. The plan would allow New York City residents to vote one week before the election, and to vote absentee without having to prove inability to vote in person, which is currently required for absentee ballots.

Polanco wants to change not only how New Yorkers vote but who they can vote for, by providing free legal counsel to candidates participating in the Campaign Finance Board’s public matching funds program who raise less than $10,000, and easing restrictions on ballot access for candidates.

“Candidates are getting kicked off the ballot after spending all summer campaigning and collecting petitions, and they’re getting kicked off for the most ridiculous reasons,” said Polanco, citing issues like having a slightly incorrect petition number listed on a cover sheet. Indeed, various candidates have been kept off or taken off the ballot for multiple city races this cycle, including one of two final candidates for the Republican mayoral nomination.

Unlike other populous cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, New York has a partisan election system where only voters registered to a particular party may vote in that party’s closed primary; that arrangement generally means that viable candidates tend to be selected only by the city’s registered partisans with one of the two major parties. Polanco wants to shift to a nonpartisan system, where rounds of voting, as opposed to primaries, would whittle down the candidate field.

“If you look at our city, it’s become much more of a nonpartisan city,” he said, adding that independent, or party unaffiliated, voters “are not participating.” While unaffiliated voter enrollment has indeed grown in the city over the past five years, nonpartisan voters still represent a minority (17.6%) of all registered voters. As Polanco looks ahead to the general election, he knows that there are many more unaffiliated registered voters in the city than those registered with the Republican Party (about 10.4% of all registered voters). It is those types of “independents” who helped Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg win their mayoral terms.

Finally, Polanco wants to address the undemocratic trend of elected officials stepping down from campaigns after ballot petitions have already been filed, allowing partisan county committees to pick their candidates and denying voters the opportunity to vote in an open primary. “They take it out of the hands of the voters and into the backrooms,” said Polanco of the practice. He said he would like to see, if not his ultimate goal of a nonpartisan election, then at least a mandated primary for special elections.

Polanco suggests that gerrymandering – the practice of drawing districts to maximize or minimize a particular class of voters – is partly responsible for ensuring that Democratic candidates routinely win special elections, though in general city districts are not considered to be gerrymandered.

Polanco acknowledged that in order to enact such an agenda, the Public Advocate – a largely ceremonial citywide elected position with little direct authority – needs to heavily rely on the bully pulpit and organizing, as opposed to hard power. Easier said than done. Polanco would be far from the first person to go to Albany seeking voting reforms. With the Senate controlled by his GOP party-mates through a power-sharing agreement with breakaway Democrats, there has been virtually no appetite for election reform.

He could have some ways around that, he said, such as getting proposals into a referendum to be voted on directly by voters. If the upcoming November vote on whether the state will hold a constitutional convention is approved, Polanco said he would support trying to enshrine some voting reform measures into the updated constitution.

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by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette
     

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Public Advocate Candidate Outlines Election Reform Agenda Thu, 24 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
In Manhattan, District Leader Maps Redrawn Last Minute and Hard to Find http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7111:in-manhattan-district-leader-maps-redrawn-last-minute-and-hard-to-find http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7111:in-manhattan-district-leader-maps-redrawn-last-minute-and-hard-to-find district leader palm card kim

Kim Moscaritolo and Adam Roberts, district leaders for Manhattan's Assembly District 76, Part B


While much of the media and public’s attention is focussed on New York’s mayoral and City Council races, lesser known elections are also slated to take place this fall.

On primary day, September 12, and election day, November 7, Manhattanites will vote on their district leaders. While the position is part-time and unpaid, it comes with a degree of influence and is often a stepping stone to greater political posts. Sometimes elected officials at higher levels are also district leaders, giving them additional power.

The county committee, which is made up of two to four representatives from each election district, is too large and unwieldy to be an effective body. Therefore, district leaders are elected biennially to form an executive committee and are enabled to exercise all or most of the powers of the county committee. In addition to acting as a liaison between constituents and paid elected officials, district leaders play a role in nominating civil judicial candidates, making formal party endorsements, and appointing paid poll workers.  They also vote for the Democratic Party county chairman.

In three boroughs -- Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the Bronx -- a pair of district leaders are elected per State Assembly district, one male and one female. But in Queens and Manhattan, Assembly districts may be divided into two, three, or four district leader parts, marked by the letters A, B, C, and D.

To get on the ballot, candidates must collect 500 signatures from residents of their Assembly district, or their part of an Assembly district, which in Manhattan can be comprised of between 10 and 50 election districts, BOE subdivisions marked by designated polling places within Assembly districts. Signatures from outside these boundaries can be challenged by an opponent, potentially leading to removal from the ballot.

This year, several candidates for district leader positions say that a last minute redrawing of the Manhattan election district map sparked confusion and misinformation just days before the June ballot petitioning period kicked off. Ballot petitioning is the signature-gathering process whereby candidates qualify for the election ballot.

When election districts are changed, the party must then adjust the district leader parts. A preliminary draft of the new “party call” -- which lists which election districts belong in which Assembly district parts -- is submitted to current Manhattan district leaders along with a map to see where additional adjustments can or should be made.

Typically, district leaders agree on the boundaries amongst themselves and the party sends out a third version of the party call, which according to Manhattan Democratic Party rules, must be approved by district leaders with a two-thirds vote.

This year, petitioning for district leader races began June 6, with the forms due between July 10 and July 13. Due to the newly drawn election districts, the district leader parts had yet to be made permanent or public by the final week in May, and candidates say the related confusion cut into their petitioning time and chances for success.

"It was very short notice to find out the lines have changed and that greatly impacted people's targets,” said Ny Whitaker, a candidate for the 68th Assembly District, Part D. “I know for sure that I lost some huge blocks where I've built relationships over the last few years."

In New York City, getting on the ballot for any elected seat is a notoriously complex process, riddled with pitfalls that can cause even experienced candidates to stumble, but for county party races like district leader, in some boroughs it can be that much more challenging to obtain basic information and clarity about guidelines.

To deduce where their district parts are located, district leader candidates in Manhattan (and Queens) must match up the most recent “party call,” which lists which one- to two-block election districts are located in each part, with the latest election district map, available from the Manhattan (or Queens) Board of Elections.

"There are many intricate layers to running for a party position, but there isn't a manual for telling you how to run,” said Whitaker. “Calculating the number of voters that you need for party positions and county positions is like a statistical equation involving algebra, geometry, and geography."

For non-incumbents, unless they are very knowledgeable about the process, obtaining this information is even harder. The party call listed on the Manhattan Democratic Party website is out-of-date (though this is an improvement from Queens, where the Democratic Party does not have a website to reference).

Whitaker, who ran for district leader positions twice before, said the information was changed on such short notice that Votebuilder -- the voter roll database compiled by the Democratic National Committee, made available to Democratic candidates for a hefty subscription fee -- had not been updated with the new data, and until the very last petitioning day, even the Board of Elections could not provide an updated election district map.

Whitaker, who wound up obtaining the new party call and latest electoral district map from the Manhattan Board of Elections office one day before the start of petitioning, said she only knew of the maps being redrawn because she attended the New York County Democratic Party’s executive committee meeting on May 17.

During that meeting, district leader Johnny Rivera, who represents the 68th District, Part B, raised concerns about the short window he had to review any changes that were made to his part. However, he said, party officials were unwilling to address his concerns citing time constraints.

“I am a district leader and I had some difficulty getting that information. It’s fundamental to running in a race, you need to know the boundaries to use your time wisely in collecting signatures in that particular election district,” Rivera told Gotham Gazette. “Not knowing that can cost you the election.”

The last time Assembly districts are redrawn was in 2012, however, the Manhattan Board of Elections is required to regularly alter election districts to accommodate demographic shifts and ensure that poll sites are well utilized. The redistricting often results in a complete renumbering of election districts on the map and with some EDs, as they are called, even dragged from one Assembly district into another.

This year, the redistricting triggered a three-step effort to reconstruct the map in a way that is understandable and agreeable to current district leaders, according to Barry Weinberg, executive director for the New York County (Manhattan) Democratic Party, who was involved in the painstaking process.

Weinberg said he and the party’s law chair received the new part lines on May 11, stayed up all night to create the preliminary party call and sent it out to district leaders the following day for review.

“From the party’s perspective, we worked as fast as we possibly could to turn around the draft of the party call in under 24 hours, given the time constraints,” said Weinberg.

There were some disagreements, such as one case, in Lower Manhattan’s 65th Assembly District, where one boundary cut through a housing project. But in most cases, the district leaders worked things out on a conference call, according to Weinberg. There were also a few errors with the original election district map that had to be corrected by the Board of Elections.

But Rivera, the district leader, said he was not aware of changes made to his part until hours before the May 17 vote, and asked that the vote be postponed, a request that was denied. The party call was due to be submitted to the BOE by May 23.

Politics of course plays a role in how the boundaries are determined, and those who are not allies of County Democratic Party boss Keith Wright say they can be subtly shut out of the process.

“The final changes, I didn’t have a say in it. I think it all depends on your relationship with the chairman. If you are in, you probably get the lines you wanted. If you are not in, you get whatever he decides, and you get it two or three hours before the meeting,” Rivera told Gotham Gazette, referring to Wright..

For district leaders, petitioning was particularly stressful this year for other reasons. Most political candidates throughout the city obtain their petition printouts from a single print shop, owned by Alan Handell, who is entrusted to make sure the forms meet the BOE’s byzantine requirements. When it is an “on year” -- when City Council, mayoral, and other elections are taking place -- this creates a printing backlog delaying the petitioning process, according to at least one district leader who spoke with Gotham Gazette.

“Because of the backlog, I wasn’t able to get my petitions until June 9,” three days after petitioning began, said Kelmy Rodriguez, who is challenging District Leader John Ruiz in the 68th Assembly District, Part C.

There are few rules dictating how county Democratic parties operate, since they largely are empowered to set their own, and really only answer to the New York State Democratic Party.

"The district leaders and the county have the right to have the parts redrawn because the parts are entirely the creature of the party. This year seems like it was done really close to the beginning of petitioning" said Sarah Steiner, a Manhattan election lawyer, who is involved in several district leader races. She added, “I do think the process should be more transparent."

The inconsistent divisions in Manhattan formed over a century of New York’s history, a result of regulatory changes, demographic shifts and controversies, according to Doug Kellner, co-chair of the State Board of Elections and former law chair for the Manhattan Democratic Party.  The splits often occurred to settle disputes between political clubs or district leaders.

“It was something [former Manhattan Democratic Party Chair Herman ‘Denny’ Farrell] did not like to do when he was county leader, because it kept watering down the authority of the district leader,” said Kellner. “When you have eight district leaders in an Assembly district, it’s as if nobody is in charge.”

In Manhattan, the practice dates back to the turn of the 20th Century, when it was mainly used as an anti-reform measure, when Tammany Hall -- the political machine that ruled the borough for the first half of the century -- was in power.

“It was a method of redistricting and gerrymandering the party organization,” said Kellner. “Until reforms that [former First Lady] Eleanor Roosevelt pushed in the early 1950s, it was abused to prevent insurgents from gaining footholds within the county organization.”

Roosevelt, who became heavily involved in reforming city politics after her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt became governor of New York in 1929, was instrumental in democratizing the vote for district leaders. Previously, only county committee members were able to vote for these representatives. Roosevelt and the League of Women Voters were instrumental in implementing the male and female pair, a structure that ensures the inclusion of more women in the party establishment.

Redrawing of the parts, Kellner noted, was historically a way to ensure that people who  belonged to a particular political club lived in the appropriate part.

“It always came down to, from what I observed, it really was where club people resided, so people wouldn’t always join the club for the territory where they lived and when it came down to do the party call. They might address that by massaging the boundaries between the part,” he said.

The regulations have since been loosened to allow club members and district leaders to live in any section of the Assembly district and choose which “part” they run for.

Ultimately it is up to the party to find a system that works. The Staten Island Democratic Party previously divided its Assembly districts into parts, calling them “zones,” but at a county committee meeting in May, district leaders voted to adopt the two leader per district structure used by other boroughs.

A spokesperson for the Staten Island Democratic Party said it has already saved the county and candidates time and money, streamlined the election process, and made petitioning easier for the upcoming election.

In recent years, the Manhattan Democratic Party attracted a lot of young people -- many of whom were energized by the 2008 and 2016 presidential elections -- into the political process, which has sparked a push for more transparency and access across the borough.

“There has been an effort to sort of modernize things and make things more available to people and a little more transparent,” said Kim Moscaritolo, district leader for the 76th Assembly District, Part B. “When I was first getting involved, it was nearly impossible to find that information, even finding out who the district leaders were for those parts.”

Stephen Redden, member of the Manhattan Young Democrats, which Moscaritolo is active in, is working on creating an interactive, color-coded map to make the district leader information more accessible on the party’s website, according to Weinberg.

Previously, candidates would have to get the maps from the BOE and color them in. “If there's a race, you would just draw with a highlighter where the lines are,” said Weinberg. “We’re hoping to bring that into the 21st Century.”

The New York City Board of Elections did not respond to a request for comment.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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In Manhattan, District Leader Maps Redrawn Last Minute and Hard to Find Mon, 07 Aug 2017 20:12:09 +0000
Longshot Mayoral Hopeful Outraises & Outspends Opponents, Technically http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7071:longshot-mayoral-contender-contributes-5-million-to-own-campaign http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7071:longshot-mayoral-contender-contributes-5-million-to-own-campaign reform party3

Michael Tolkin (center) at a Reform Party forum (photo: Tolkinformayor.com)


Michael Tolkin, a 32-year-old tech entrepreneur who is among over a dozen long-shot candidates running to unseat New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, appears to have outspent every other contender in the race, including the mayor, with a $5 million in-kind contribution to his own campaign.

An in-kind contribution is one in which goods or services instead of cash are given to a campaign, and in this case the entire contribution is also listed as an expenditure towards “campaign literature and assets,” according to the latest filings with the New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB). As such, they require an estimate of the goods’ or services’ worth.

Mayor de Blasio himself has so far raised over $4.7 million in cash, with only $570 worth of in-kind contributions, and spent over $2.2 million of it. GOP contender Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, who represents parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island, has raised just over $340,000, with $5,117 in in-kind contributions, and spent over $69,000.

Tolkin, who is seeking the Democratic nomination, explained in a phone interview that the contribution would manifest in the coming weeks through “a bunch of content and programming that will be self evident” and which would leverage existing assets he controls. Tolkin, a New York native and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, has launched several startups and also advises companies based in New York, such as virtual-room showcase website Rooms.com, which he founded.

He referenced one of the potential projects that would form part of his purported $5 million expenditure, a “human rights council” that he would convene in New York. He declined to provide further details about the spending.

Asked how this would relate to his campaign for mayor, Tolkin said that the programs would help promote his candidacy as well as a “better vision for New York.” He also said that he expected some of the programs to be revenue-generating, and that the revenue would be put back into the program to help develop that vision once he is elected mayor. Tolkin’s website describes his campaign as “non-ideological and apolitical,” and outlines an agenda centered on applying design and technology concepts to city governance; a campaign video refers to protecting small businesses, investing in emerging industries, and upgrading subway infrastructure, among other items.

Tolkin was similarly cryptic about the eye-popping value of his contribution, saying simply that he comes from the “startup world” and that the $5 million is a “ballpark” figure based on startup-type valuation models. Essentially, the contribution estimate appears to be based on the revenue that he expects his upcoming projects to generate.

“I’ve never heard of a campaign asset generating revenue,” said Matt Sollars, a spokesperson for the CFB, though he could not recall any specific prohibition against that. At this point, the figures on file with the agency are self-reported, and have not been audited by the CFB.

Sarah Steiner, an attorney specializing in election law, said that she had never heard of anyone making an in-kind contribution of the type Tolkin was making to himself, but that might be the point; she said Tolkin’s supposed campaign initiatives could be a preview of the programs he’d want to promote as mayor.

As for the scheme’s legality, Steiner said that as long as the programs were run with “his own money, and he’s not a campaign finance [public matching funds system] participant, and as long as he’s doing this as his campaign, he’s not breaking any campaign finance laws.” In terms of the presumptive revenue from the programs, those would generally be acceptable, depending on what was done with them.

“If you thought of it as, ‘We’re going to buy a silk screen machine, we’re going to print t-shirts, we’re going to sell them, and it’s going to create revenue,’ that would be okay,” she said.

A potential advantage of Tolkin’s massive contribution is that he may be able to qualify for the CFB’s official debates ahead of the September 12 primary election. Since Tolkin is not participating in the city’s public matching funds program, he would have to raise and spend at least $175,000 to qualify for the debates, a threshold that many of the candidates have struggled to meet. Even an in-kind contribution to himself might count towards this threshold.

Steiner had her doubts about that argument, saying that the threshold was “$175,000 in real money.” Debate organizers could decide to count it “but I don’t think the system is intended for that threshold to be met by Silicon Valley valuation techniques for apps, basically,” she said. The Democratic primary debates are scheduled for August 23 and September 6.

In any case, Tolkin appears to have more immediate issues: a city Board of Elections document on “campaign enrollment issues” reviewed by Gotham Gazette says that Tolkin is “not enrolled in the identified party on the petition,” the Democratic party. When presented with a copy of the document, Tolkin said in a text message, “That's incorrect and currently being resolved.” Calls to a BOE spokesperson went unanswered.

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by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette
     

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Longshot Mayoral Hopeful Outraises & Outspends Opponents, Technically Tue, 18 Jul 2017 23:48:31 +0000
Rochester Mayor Accused of Circumventing Campaign Finance Rules http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7058:rochester-mayor-accused-of-circumventing-campaign-finance-rules http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7058:rochester-mayor-accused-of-circumventing-campaign-finance-rules lovely warren

Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren (via Facebook)


Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren is drawing scrutiny for apparently using a political action committee she founded in 2015 help finance her 2017 re-election campaign and for repeatedly accepting over-the-limit contributions from business interests, as shown by her campaign finance records.

The Warren for a Strong Rochester PAC can accept virtually unlimited donations, but like other donors, the PAC is prohibited from contributing to Warren’s re-election campaign beyond the combined primary and general election limits set by the Monroe County Board of Elections, or $8,557 per four-year election cycle. These limits apply to monetary and in-kind donations.

Warren, a first-term Democrat who is facing two primary challengers, created the PAC without a clear objective beyond fundraising for Rochester initiatives and supporting local candidates, but similar spending patterns by her re-election campaign, Friends of Lovely Warren, and the PAC suggest the two pools of money are improperly being used to advance the same political objectives, which would be in violation of state election law.

Since 2015, the PAC has raised $325,020 and spent $105,314, largely on what appear to be campaign-related activities, according to a review of its expenditure reports. The spending significantly surpasses the $8,557 cap on what the PAC is allowed to contribute to the campaign. While elected officials occasionally start their own leadership PACs, typically the committees are created to advance a particular cause and support other candidates, rather than backing the individual's own electoral endeavors, according to a spokesperson for the state Board of Elections.

Both of Warren’s committees have been infused with cash from interests with business before the City of Rochester, with several donors exceeding campaign finance limits, according to campaign finance reports reviewed by Gotham Gazette.

A formal letter of complaint sent to State Board of Elections Chief Enforcement Counsel Risa Sugarman in April by one of Warren’s primary challengers alleges illegal coordination between the campaign committee and the PAC and calls for an investigation.

James Sheppard, a Monroe County legislator and former Rochester police chief who is running for mayor on the Working Families Party line and competing in the Democratic primary, charges in the letter that Warren’s two organizations “maintain common operational control with the same individuals exercising actual and strategic control over the day to day activities of both organizations,” and that Friends of Lovely Warren has received from the Warren PAC “goods, services and funds well in excess of what is permissible.”

Sheppard identifies overlapping expenditures by the two entities, pointing to an annual fundraiser typically organized by Warren’s electoral campaign which in 2016 was organized by, and benefited, the Warren for a Strong Rochester PAC. Sheppard notes that the event was organized by and benefited Warren’s campaign in 2015 and 2017, however, in all three years, Warren solicited contributions to benefit her own re-election bid in a note posted on the event website.

“The Mayor’s Ball is my annual fundraising event. As we celebrate Rochester’s accomplishments, this gathering raises money to support my vision for Rochester and my reelection campaign,” the note reads.

A review of the PAC’s spending since 2015 confirms that the majority of $105,314 spent went to Rochester Riverside Convention Center, which is where the Mayor's Ball event is held each year. In addition, Warren’s campaign committee and PAC have made payments to 11 common vendors and payees during the four-year 2017 campaign cycle, totaling $14,577 of the PAC's spending. The PAC has contributed a comparatively small amount, slightly more than $5,000, to local candidates.

“It is apparent, therefore, that Ms. Warren is permitting the two committees to act interchangeably as vehicles to conduct campaign activity in violation of the NYS Election Law. The value of funds, goods and services received by Friends of Lovely Warren from the Warren PAC from the event well-exceeds the amount permissible under controlling law,” states the Sheppard letter, which was obtained by Gotham Gazette and can be read in full below.

PACs may coordinate with and donate to a particular candidate’s campaign committee, but may not spend money to “aid or take part in the election or defeat of a candidate or to promote the success or defeat of a ballot proposal, other than in the form of contributions, including in-kind contributions to candidates,” according to the state Board of Elections website. PACs are also subject to the same contribution limitations as regular donors. Using a PAC to fund one’s own campaign would show a disregard for campaign finance rules and, in the case of an incumbent, provide an especially unfair advantage, according government watchdog groups.

New York Public Interest Group Executive Director Blair Horner said the allegations against Warren and her groups are serious enough that they warrant scrutiny by Sugarman, whose job is to identify and investigate potential violations of campaign finance law.

“New York’s campaign finance system is already riddled with loopholes. If the allegation is true, allowing this arrangement would demolish whatever limits still exist,” he said of using a PAC as a second campaign committee.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause NY, said this practice is virtually unheard of, and indicates a significant lack of oversight at the county and the state levels. "It seems to be a flat out disregard for the law,” she said.

Sugarman’s office, which is staffed with several investigators, lawyers and supporting staff, was created in 2014 by Governor Andrew Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, after the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption determined that the board’s prior investigations of election law were ineffective. It operates mostly independently from the state Board of Elections, and there have been disagreements in the past between the board’s commissioners and Sugarman.

Sugarman declined to comment on whether an investigation into Mayor Warren is underway.

Aside from the questionable coordination between Warren’s committees, Friends of Lovely Warren has accepted more than $20,000 in total over-contributions from at least five donors, according to filings from the last four years. Nearly a dozen more entities contributed the maximum allowed to the campaign committee and also donated to the PAC (which, again, has no contribution limits).

The list of these donors is mostly comprised of Rochester real estate companies, many with business before the city. Buckingham Properties, a development company that has benefited from a sale of city property and tax break authorized by Warren, contributed an over-the-limit total of $10,350 to Friends of Lovely Warren in 2014 and 2015, and another $5,000 to Warren’s PAC in 2016.

Winn Development, which owns Rochester’s historic Sibley Building and sought to have a government-subsidized photonics company headquartered there, donated a combined $20,000 between Warren’s campaign ($5,000) and PAC ($15,000).

One of the most flagrant over-the-limit donations came from the powerful healthcare union 1199 SEIU, which following two $7,500 donations to Friends of Lovely Warren in early 2015, and already in excess of giving limits, wrote the campaign committee another check, for $10,000, in March 2016.

Representatives from state and local Boards of Elections said there are no routine overcontribution audits for county-level filers, because the local campaign limits are set by county boards, but filers who pull in or spend more than $1,000 typically register with the state Board of Elections.

“It’s a quirk with the way things work. [Local contribution limits] are based on voter registration. There’s no process in place where all the different contribution limits are provided to us,” said State Board of Elections spokesperson Thomas Connolly.

He said that the agency’s compliance unit instead focuses its auditing resources on state-level filers, those for the state Legislature or statewide offices, for example. “We literally have tens of thousands of filers. There’s no realistic way our staff of a dozen and a half can look at every single filer,” he said.

Connolly did note that both of Warren’s committees had in the past received correspondence from the BOE’s compliance unit for “items that were considered deficiencies and/or training issues.”

Reached by phone, Monroe County Board of Elections’ Democratic Commissioner Thomas F. Ferrarese said the agency does not have the authority or means to audit local filers because the agency does not have access to filers’ data. “We just don't have that information,” he said.

When asked if there was any routine overcontribution screening process by state and county boards of elections for local races, Ferrarese said, “No, not really.”

Instead, campaign finance information is simply posted to the Board’s website, and an investigation may be opened if a formal complaint is filed and the special counsel deems it worthwhile.

The county contribution limit is based on a formula set by the state and is calculated based on how many ballot lines a candidate is running on and how many eligible voters are in the district. While it may still fluctuate slightly, it’s not likely to change more than a few dollars for the Rochester mayoral race, according to Ferrarese.

A spokesperson for Warren’s campaign committee said that its staff works hard to comply with election law and coordinates closely with the state Board of Elections, but did not address the illegal coordination charge.

“Our all volunteer treasurer and fundraising teams always strive to be certain that contributions are within the limits set by the election board,” said Brittaney Wells, campaign manager for Friends of Lovely Warren. “If any contributors have unknowingly exceeded that limit in the past we have refunded the contribution in question and believe we are in full compliance. We will continue to work closely with the Board of Elections in the future on these and other campaign issues.”

However, a review of refunds made by the committee during this election cycle indicates that just $5,300 was returned to Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local No. 3 in 2016 and a $2,500 donation was refunded to a nonprofit called Rochester Community TV Inc. in 2015.

There are other problems with the campaign finance filings of Friends of Lovely Warren committee that span more than a decade. Warren began her political career as aide to long-time Rochester Assemblymember David Gantt, who has described her as family. A comparison of Warren and Gantt’s campaign committees shows discrepancies, including more than 10 contributions between 2005 and 2015 reported as expenditures by Gantt’s committees that Warren’s committees shows no record of receiving.

Warren’s campaign has also reported more than $22,000 in contributions from unspecified donors between 2005 to 2016, with approximately half of those donations received by the committee after Warren won the mayoral seat in 2013, according to the filings. The donations are simply listed as “unitemized,” and it is unclear if they meet the $100 threshold for including the donor’s name because they are grouped together by date.

Warren has made significant campaign committee reimbursements to herself and an employee that have not been explained. Between 2007 and 2016, Warren has paid herself $17,783.98 in total from both of her committees, including at least $3,921.98 since she became mayor, records show. At least 18 reimbursements totalling $4,315.98 are either left blank or vaguely identified as “REMI” or “reimbursement.”

In 2015 and 2016, Warren’s committees also collectively paid 10 unexplained reimbursements totaling $1,615 to Kiara Warren (it is unclear if Kiara is related to Lovely Warren).

Finally, the campaign committee has failed to submit several filings and appears to have accepted contributions from nonprofits and other likely prohibited groups, such as a neighborhood association that is not officially registered as a corporate entity.

A representative for the Warren campaign -- erroneously assuming Gotham Gazette was tipped off to these issues by lobbyist Robert Scott Gaddy, a former supporter of Warren who has since had a falling out with the Rochester mayor -- responded by pointing out that Gaddy’s lobbying firm was late in filing disclosure forms with the state's Joint Commision on Public Ethics (JCOPE).

Gaddy, who also once worked for Gantt alongside Warren, was involved in questionable campaign finance practices the first time Warren ran for mayor. In 2013, shortly before the Rochester mayoral primary, Gaddy spent more than $40,000 to support Warren through a last-minute independent expenditure committee called Rochester Rising. The committee was opened just prior to the Democratic primary and closed within one month. The practice, drew criticism from Rochester elected officials and good government groups given that it allowed Gaddy to circumvent the $3,335 contribution limits from a single individual to the Warren campaign. Gaddy is now backing Warren’s other Democratic challenger, Rachel Barnhart, a former television reporter.

Areas of Upstate New York have seen outside expenditure committees infusing big money into local races for more than a decade. At times, these have been lawful but perhaps unseemly attempts for wealthy interests to influence political campaigns, but in other instances, lines appear to have been crossed. Recently, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office charged Erie County operative Steve Pigeon and two others with bribery and "knowingly and willfully" coordinating illegally with campaign committees through their WNY Progressive Committee.

Note: The figures in this story are from before January 2017 -- the next batch of campaign finance filings are due on July 15. 

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Rochester Mayor Accused of Circumventing Campaign Finance Rules Wed, 12 Jul 2017 19:03:00 +0000