Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1870 Tue, 13 Nov 2018 18:39:58 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Experts Confident in New York Election Security, Though Risk of Temporary ‘Chaos’ Remains http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7815-experts-confident-in-new-york-election-security-though-risk-of-chaos-remains http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7815-experts-confident-in-new-york-election-security-though-risk-of-chaos-remains govcuomo votes mount kisco primary

Gov. Cuomo voting (photo via the Governor's office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Tuesday new measures to enhance the security of the state’s elections. They include “comprehensive risk assessments, intrusion detection devices, and managed security services for all county boards of elections,” as well as training for election staff on cyber security.

The initiatives make use of $5 million allocated in the 2019 state budget for enhanced cybersecurity related to elections, which included the creation of an “election support center” and an “election cyber security toolkit,” provides “cyber risk vulnerability assessments” for state and local Boards of Elections, and requires BOEs to report data breaches to the state.

The announcement comes in the wake of the indictment of 12 Russian nationals for interference in the 2016 presidential election, involving the theft and release of emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. A news release from the governor’s office said that the state would solicit contracts in the coming days for the risk assessments, intrusion detection devices, and security services for county boards of elections.

The broader issue of election security has become increasingly prominent in the wake of the 2016 election and the allegations of Russian interference. Cuomo’s announcement of new election security measures came just a few hours after a Tuesday panel at City & State’s Protecting NY Summit, moderated by Gotham Gazette’s Ben Max, where panelists discussed the issue as it relates to state and local elections in New York. New York is in the midst of a busy election year that features races for all of its statewide state-level positions, all of its state legislative seats, one U.S. Senate seat, and all of its House of Representative seats, among others.

The panel consisted of State Senators Todd Kaminsky and Liz Krueger; Assemblymember David Buchwald; Michael Ryan, executive director of the New York City Board of Elections; Eric Hodge, of cybersecurity firm CyberScout Solutions; and Eva Guidarini, a member of Facebook’s U.S. Politics and Government Outreach team.

In something of a twist from how New York’s dysfunctional elections are usually discussed, the state’s election security measures in the wake of the 2016 election were highly praised by the panelists. Unlike many states, New York never abandoned paper ballots so as always to leave a “paper trail” in the event of a hack. New York’s voting machines are also not “networked,” but rather are all independent machines. This makes it impossible to hack the entire system or even the machines.

“The election results are stored on the device, on two separate -- they look like flash drives, we call them portable memory devices, PMDs -- one is for unofficial results, the other remains with the machine itself for the official results,” said Ryan. “And, in addition to that, there is paper ballots. So if there was ever a really catastrophic event, we still have the paper to make sure that even though the mischief occurred, the outcome and the integrity of the outcome, which is all we could ultimately preserve, is maintained.”

Still, in the event of a hack, the city and state may still be underprepared. Ryan suggested that the BOE may be due for an increase in staffing to supplement its monitoring services.

Senator Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, ranking member of the Senate finance committee and a member of the elections committee, said that the focus should be not just on whether the 2016 elections were meddled with, but when and how it would happen again, in 2018 and beyond.

“Rather than talk about the fact that, apparently, they are hacking our elections, and we have to assume we’ll have future elections hacked, I think the lesson from yesterday, I agree, the timing was perfect for this discussion, was if you don’t have any faith that your elected officials are going to follow the law and uphold their duties and responsibilities, we are in serious trouble as a state, a city, or a country,” Krueger said, in reference to the press conference held by President Donald Trump alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Twice during the hour-long discussion, Krueger stressed that New York has never adopted electronic-only voting systems, instead opting to leave the paper trail to ensure votes are counted. She explained that she had been part of the fight to ensure paper ballots were still used as many other states were moving to digital-only, which has come back to haunt them.

Ryan noted that the 2016 election-related hacking led the BOE to conduct, for the first time, election security exercises and simulations meant to quickly and efficiently identify and neutralize threats.

“We did our first tabletop exercises in the lead-up to Election Day,” Ryan said of November 2016. “Tabletop exercises are the way that agencies keep the muscles limber, reenacting real world scenarios in a serious way, and we did a tabletop exercise on the Thursday before a presidential election for almost seven hours. Shows you the seriousness with which everyone took that.”

Asked whether New Yorkers should stop expecting immediate and secure election results, Ryan demurred. Kaminsky said he would love to see Long Island election night results come in more quickly, like New York City is able to do.

Ryan indicated that if there was a vulnerability to hacking it would be in the uploading of results from polling places to the BOE, and that if a bad actor was intent on causing some "chaos" they would possibly be able to do that for a short period of time, but that systems, while expensive, are in place to mitigate any effects fairly quickly. There may be some temporary confusion, he said, but it would be quickly corrected.

“If there is a problem,” Ryan said, “we have backup systems in place. We can leverage police department personnel to shut down the uploading of the results from the poll sites, and shift that to the local police precincts.” Ryan said that BOE sytems are now constantly monitored throughout the year through work with New York City's technology department.

Krueger kept to her admittedly skeptical theme by recounting an anecdote of first-year computer science students successfully breaking into voting machines in Ohio within an hour-and-a-half.

“When everyone who takes the college computer class can do it in the first hour and a half, you should be very, very worried,” she said.

Hodge, whose firm is hired by governments to sure up their cyber security and election systems, said that along with the voting machines and election results, the voter databases and rolls should be protected and secured as well. He also said that policymakers should prioritize being able to detect problems immediately, and that New York carefully vet election vendors to ensure that security is prioritized.

"Thankfully," Assemblymember Buchwald said early in the program, "we've had a fairly proactive approach here in New York, not to toot my subcommittee's own horn, or the entire Assembly election committee, but we've actually had already two public hearings on election security, the most recent of which was this past November after the local elections. And if you were at the hearing, if you watched it online, you would have heard the words 'Cambridge Analytica' four months before they became national news."

Governor Cuomo’s announcement of new measures comes on the heels of a new law aimed at securing the state’s elections passed earlier this year. The law prohibits foreign entities from forming independent expenditure (IE) committees to buy ads on social media, requires ad buyers on social media to register as IE committees and for the name of the IE that bought the ad to be clearly displayed, and requires the State BOE to make political communications more transparent and accessible.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Experts Confident in New York Election Security, Though Risk of Temporary ‘Chaos’ Remains Thu, 19 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
800 Absentee Ballots Not Delivered to Board of Elections for 2017 Vote http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7704-800-absentee-ballots-not-delivered-to-board-of-elections-for-2017-vote http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7704-800-absentee-ballots-not-delivered-to-board-of-elections-for-2017-vote voting booths
(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Samar Khurshid & Caitlin Bishop

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by Samar Khurshid, Senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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800 Absentee Ballots Not Delivered to Board of Elections for 2017 Vote Thu, 31 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Board of Elections To Roll Out ‘Electronically Assisted’ Voter Registration http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7550-board-of-elections-to-roll-out-electronically-assisted-voter-registration http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7550-board-of-elections-to-roll-out-electronically-assisted-voter-registration boe nyc website

(NYC BOE website)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Samar Khurshid, Senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Board of Elections To Roll Out ‘Electronically Assisted’ Voter Registration Mon, 19 Mar 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Many Election Poll Workers are Placed by Party Machines, Some May Influence Votes http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7374-many-election-poll-workers-are-placed-by-party-machines-some-may-influence-votes http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7374-many-election-poll-workers-are-placed-by-party-machines-some-may-influence-votes poll site samar photo

photo by Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Ben Weiss, Gotham Gazette

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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/city/7371-online-voter-registration-debate-continues-with-court-challenge-possible http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/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, Senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Online Voter Registration Debate Continues, with Court Challenge Possible Thu, 14 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Pushing Back, Board of Elections Head Insists on ‘Personal Responsibility’ for Voters http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6933-pushing-back-board-of-elections-head-insists-on-personal-responsibility-for-voters http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6933-pushing-back-board-of-elections-head-insists-on-personal-responsibility-for-voters vote here long line

Long line of voters (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


The executive director of the New York City Board of Elections said at a City Council budget hearing on Friday that recent failings by the board, revealed in a WNYC report, were not entirely the BOE’s responsibility and that voters in New York needed to step up their participation and involvement in ensuring that their votes count.

WNYC radio’s Brigid Bergin reported last week that more than 78,000 affidavit ballots, out of 168,000 cast by voters whose names were not listed in voter rolls in last year’s presidential election, were disqualified by the BOE and the board did not notify those voters in time for them to challenge those decisions in court and possibly have their vote count. Voters fill out affidavit ballots when they believe there is a mistake about their enrollment status, typically when their name is not in the sign-in book when they show up to cast a ballot.

If it is not counting an affidavit vote, the law requires the board to notify affidavit voters immediately by mail and those voters have 20 days to appeal. But, as WNYC found, the board only began sending notifications two days after that deadline passed and was still sending some as of last week -- six months after the election.

Friday’s City Council hearing of the Committee on Governmental Operations was part of the ongoing round of hearings on Mayor bill de Blasio’s executive budget proposal. A new fiscal year 2018 budget is due by July 1, with the mayor and the Council needing to agree on a spending plan by then. While the BOE is governed by state law, it is funded through the city budget and the City Council has oversight. The mayor and Council have virtually no control, though, over BOE operations and personnel.

The government operations committee, chaired by Council Member Ben Kallos, met to discuss the BOE’s $136.5 million proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year. Council members sought answers from the board about the latest WNYC report, which came after a series of reports by Bergin exposing problems at the BOE, including tens of thousands of voters purged from the rolls ahead of the presidential election. Kallos said his wife was one of those voters whose vote did not count, and that she received a notice from the BOE just last month.

“There is a quasi-manual, quasi-automated process,” said Michael Ryan, BOE executive director, insisting that the board could not send notices to voters who aren’t in the system until they provide relevant missing information to the board.

Referring to a specific voter highlighted by WNYC, who shuttled numerous times between two poll sites in attempting to cast her vote, which eventually was not counted, Ryan said the voter’s actions on Election Day seemed “suspicious” and also said WNYC’s report, “simplistically analyzed a complex process.”

He also said the affidavit counting process is open and voters concerned about their votes could, and should, approach the board in the days after the election to ensure their vote was valid. “The fact that there is this burden shift to any Board of Elections...that we have to take all of the responsibility and the voters don’t have to take any of the responsibility, which seems to be the argument that’s being made here, is quite simply not fair to any government agency.”

He insisted that notifications could not be sent out to voters until the election was certified, which was done December 6 last year, nearly a month after Election Day. And the 20-day deadline to challenge a decision on a vote, he said, was a state legislative matter rather than one for the board.

“No amount of money is going to suspend the time-space continuum,” Ryan said, when Kallos asked what the board could do to give people enough time to take a decision to court. “That is something that we all must live with. That is a law of nature.”

Kallos suggested perhaps the BOE could use new technology to read voter addresses. But Ryan refuted that as well, insisting, somewhat contrary to his earlier testimony, that the process was an “entirely manual” one. “It’s the 20 days for the court challenge that is the issue, not the technology, not the process,” he added. “Again, that having been said, this is an open process and people are free a week after the election to come to the Board of Elections and challenge their affidavit if they think it’s an issue.”

He reiterated that voters must accept their part in the process as well. “There is something in this society that I think is somewhat missing and that is personal responsibility,” he said. “And it doesn't all fall to the government to fix that.”

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by Samar Khurshid, Senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Pushing Back, Board of Elections Head Insists on ‘Personal Responsibility’ for Voters Mon, 15 May 2017 11:14:28 +0000
Fixing City's 'Non-Functioning' Board of Elections Relies on State http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6414-fix-for-city-s-non-functioning-board-of-elections-relies-on-state http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6414-fix-for-city-s-non-functioning-board-of-elections-relies-on-state de Blasio voting 2016

Mayor de Blasio votes (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Many eyes will be on the New York City Board of Elections come Tuesday as New Yorkers head to the polls for the second time this year, casting their votes in congressional primaries. The first election, April’s presidential primaries, was so problematic it prompted multiple city and state authorities to launch investigations into the city BOE and caused Mayor Bill de Blasio to offer an extra $20 million in funding for the agency, conditional upon the enactment of certain reforms.

Because of the structure of the law, the Mayor cannot make structural reforms at the BOE. “We need a state law change,” de Blasio said during a June 23 appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show when asked by a caller how to get rid of the “corrupt system” at the BOE. “We can no longer have a BOE that is run unprofessionally and in an outdated way…this is a non-functioning part of our democracy.”

The BOE is comprised of ten commissioners, five from each of the two major political parties, two from each borough, who are (traditionally) appointed by the county party chairs and approved by the City Council. The commissioners then appoint staff to the city’s BOE and have authority over all city BOE employees, including the executive director, currently Michael Ryan.

“I wish it was a pure city agency. If it was under my power, I would tear it down the current reality and start over,” de Blasio added on WNYC, calling the failures of the April 19 primary “pure incompetence” on the part of the BOE. “We literally need to make the BOE closer to other city agencies so the executive director should run it and have the power to put in modern management approaches and have accountability.”

As of June 7, the 120,000 Democratic voters in Brooklyn who were mistakenly purged from the voter rolls have been restored in an attempt to avoid again disenfranchising those who had been turned away or forced to sign affidavit ballots during the primary (90,000 of 121,000 affidavit ballots were rejected and will not be counted). Two employees at the Brooklyn BOE office have been suspended without pay pending an investigation into why the names were incorrectly removed from the voter rolls in the first place.

The BOE has yet to accept de Blasio’s $20 million offer, likely out of reluctance to adopt the reform plan attached to the funds, which includes improving poll worker training and hiring an outside consultant. The BOE did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

“Given all of what’s swirling around this particular election event, our singular focus is making sure that the votes are counted and that the certification is accurate, said BOE executive director Michael Ryan at an April 27 BOE meeting, one day after the mayor announced his offer. “Once we complete that process, I’m sure we’re going to have time to pick our heads up and focus in other areas and we will get to that at the appropriate time. We’re just not in a position to speak either intelligently or publicly on any proposals that are made by anyone right now because we have to, like a laser, focus on getting this election certified and certified properly.”

The mayor and the City Council reached a deal on the budget for the upcoming fiscal year June 8 - one that did not include added funding for the BOE - which de Blasio addressed after announcing the deal by saying, “that discussion is not over, to be fair. I am not thrilled that it hasn’t been agreed to…I would have thought that answer would have been a very fast yes.”

“We can restart that conversation any time,” de Blasio added, though it’s a conversation the city BOE seems unlikely to “restart.”

As evidence of BOE incompetence, cronyism, and corruption has mounted over the years, few seem to know where to direct their ire. The changes in state law that de Blasio referenced were not part of the discussion in Albany as state legislators and Gov. Andrew Cuomo negotiated end-of-session deals earlier this month.

Since the presidential primaries, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has opened an investigation into the BOE and New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer has launched an audit into the agency’s operations and management, calling the BOE “consistently disorganized, chaotic, and ineffective.” City Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the Council’s government operations committee, has promised to hold an oversight hearing on the BOE, though he also grilled BOE officials at the agency’s executive budget hearing May 13.

“Hope springs eternal,” Kallos replied dryly when asked if he believed the heightened scrutiny the BOE is currently facing would help to bring about any changes to the way the agency operates. “I hope that by bringing the commissioners to the City Council to be held personally accountable, we may get the change we are seeking,” Kallos said.

Tensions have remained high since April's primaries, with voters consistently attending weekly meetings held by the BOE to express their frustrations and demand answers. Dozens of angry voters showed up at the Voter Assistance Advisory Committee’s May 17 hearing on issues with the primaries, and many who testified were livid, speaking in loud and frustrated tones about the obstacles they encountered trying to cast their votes, as well as the treatment they faced from BOE officials during a hearing held by the BOE on May 3.

Many who testified were irate that they had been forced to sign affidavit ballots - they knew they were registered to vote, having previously voted in New York city and state elections, they said.

Issues at the BOE aren’t just about the recent Brooklyn voter purge, which was discovered by WNYC. Other primary day problems were indicative of long-standing BOE problems: missing ballots, missing voter rolls, broken ballot machines, poll workers showing up late or giving incorrect instructions. The BOE also sent tens of thousands of newly registered voters notices with the incorrect date for upcoming state and local primary elections.

The BOE performance around the April primaries reinforced its reputation for dysfunction. Key questions now linger more forcefully ahead of Tuesday’s congressional primaries, September’s state-level primaries, November’s Election Day, and the 2017 city-level elections. Chief among them are who actually holds the BOE accountable and how must the BOE be reformed?

Before Michael Ryan was just barely appointed in 2013, the city BOE went without an executive director for three years, as the party-split commissioners were unable to agree upon a replacement for the former executive director, George Gonzalez, who was fired after a series of failures administering the 2010 September primary and additional mistakes leading up to the general election.

A number of city and state agencies and offices have some authority over the New York City Board of Elections, yet ultimately, the power to change it lies with the state Legislature. “The most important decisions about the Board of Elections occur in Albany,” de Blasio said, speaking with press after announcing the budget deal. “We need fundamental change, and one of the things we most need from Albany is legislation that will empower the executive director and the professional staff of the Board of Elections, rather than what is the traditional power structure.”

The Mayor can use his budget powers to try to force change at the BOE. The City Council can hold oversight hearings examining how the BOE operates. The city’s Department of Investigation can investigate the BOE and recommend reforms, which it did in 2013 when it issued a report identifying fundamental flaws and recommending over 40 reforms to improve the agency (which the BOE largely ignored). The city’s Conflicts of Interest Board also has some oversight, and has fined BOE employees for hiring members of their own family in the past.

Additionally, the city Comptroller’s office has the power to audit and investigate the BOE, which can make the agency’s operations and finances more transparent and accountable, since the BOE is funded by the city (though the laws that mandate its structure and duties are controlled by the state). Stringer’s office released an audit on June 6 of BOE inventory practices for office equipment and voting machines, and is currently conducting another audit of BOE operations and management. The June 6 audit revealed that the BOE's inventory records for both voting and office equipment "were incomplete and inaccurate," as well as "numerous instances of noncompliance" with other inventory practices, including "the existence of duplicate serial numbers" and "more than 1,000 items" on-site that had been omitted from the BOE's inventory records.

The Voter Assistance Advisory Commission, which advises the city’s Campaign Finance Board on voter engagement efforts and recommends changes to improve elections, passed a resolution at its May 17 hearing to compile election irregularities and systemic problems and relay them to BOE, to everyone currently investigating the agency, and to the City Council. Yet, true to it’s name, VAAC can only serve in an advisory capacity, and can take actions to facilitate voter registration, but, like the DOI and other agencies with oversight capacities, is essentially powerless to bring about any meaningful structural reform at the BOE.

“At the end of the day, what really has to change is state law,” said Eric Friedman, assistant executive director for public affairs at the CFB.

“The problem is, it’s all reactive,” State Senator Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat, told Gotham Gazette. “Something has gone wrong, and then the appropriate government agencies act - entities that fund the board can try to extract reforms.” Yet “what is really needed is to reform the structure of the board,” Gianaris added, referring to the patronage system at the BOE through which employees are appointed by the board’s ten commissioners, who themselves are selected based on their affiliation with the two major political parties (one Democratic commissioner and one Republican commissioner from each borough, appointed by the county party chairs).

“We’ve been asking them to end patronage since I got into office,” Kallos said.“State lawmakers need to amend the state law that allows BOE to have a patronage system and replace it with a civil service system - the same system that we used to root out patronage from Tammany Hall."

“Having patronage codified in the law is the problem,” Kallos added. The State Senate and Assembly have “created the laws governing the BOE in every county, and many of these reforms could happen there quite easily.”  For example, the New York State Constitution currently mandates that “Party recommendations for election commissioner shall be made by the county committee or by such other committee as the rules of the party may provide, by a majority of the votes cast at a meeting of the members of such committee at which a quorum is present.”

But it’s not all that easy to bring about this sort of change in Albany, says Susan Lerner, executive director of the government reform group Common Cause NY, because “the people who could make change are our state representatives, some of whom are actually county chairs…so long as the county chairs regard the BOE as a place to park people who couldn’t get jobs otherwise and who are party loyalists, we will continue to have a problem.”

What’s needed, Lerner says, is a system that chooses people to administer elections based on their experience administering elections or managing complex systems, not a system in which local political parties use patronage to reward party loyalists.

BOE commissioners, Kallos says ruefully, are “accountable to the county party chairs who appoint them under state law.”

“Ultimately, one would hope that the executive director would be where the buck stops,” Kallos said. Yet, at an executive budget hearing in May, Kallos was “disappointed to learn that the executive director can’t fire his employees, and despite the problems of the last election,” two of the people who were responsible “remain suspended without pay, but not terminated.” Since the executive director doesn’t have the power to terminate employees, the “ten commissioners need to be held accountable, if they refuse, then it goes to the County Chair who appointed them,” Kallos said.

While Kallos sees “overlapping responsibility for the BOE,” Lerner believes “there isn’t actually any real authority,” as “the BOE is a highly politicized body and election law has deliberately set it up so that it really isn’t clear who it is answerable to.” The chairs of the election law committees in the Senate and the Assembly are Senator Fred Ashkar and Assemblymember Michael Cusick, neither of whom responded to requests for comment for this article.

“It appears that the party county chairs could hold their appointees accountable, but there isn’t any clear line of authority in that regard,” Lerner said. “From a taxpayer's point of view, from good election administration point of view, this is not a good system - there should not be any agency which does not have clear oversight, and certainly you should not have a taxpayer-funded entity that doesn’t have to be responsive to the taxpayers.”

De Blasio, Gianaris, Kallos, Lerner, and others view the patronage system as the root of the problem and the cause of the BOE’s persistent failures when it comes to administering elections and performing its other duties. There is a strong sense among those who spoke with Gotham Gazette that the city BOE is not accountable to the voters; that it is accountable to the county party chairs; and that the people who could improve the structure of the BOE don’t have any incentive to do so. A number of city officials and agencies, like the City Council and the DOI, have repeatedly recommended replacing this patronage system with merit-based employees, which would require changing state election laws and amending the state constitution.

In the meantime, people like Gianaris, Friedman, Kallos, and others are looking to get other changes to state law passed that would also improve the way elections are administered. Bills have been introduced in the Senate and the Assembly to make voter registration automatic, expand online voter registration, allow early voting, extend registration deadlines, consolidate the state and federal primary election dates, improve New York’s confusing ballot design, and more.

One of the more comprehensive pieces of voting reform legislation currently introduced in Albany is the Voter Empowerment Act (introduced by Gianaris in the Senate and Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh in the Assembly (Kavanagh was not made available for comment). Kallos has introduced a resolution in the City Council calling on the state to pass the act). The Voter Empowerment Act seeks to update New York’s registration process by expanding online registration and modernizing the way voter information is collected, processed, stored, and shared.

Gianaris calls the VEA an attempt to improve the way elections are administered, “getting at it from the point of view of not really tackling the structure - which is a huge can of worms - but just trying to get at some of the specific ways we can change the laws to make it easier” to register to vote and to maintain accurate voter rolls.

“The Voter Empowerment Act would actually address a lot of the problems that people were talking about from the April 19 primary,” said Friedman, of the CFB. “It would create universal online registration, so that voters could literally take ownership of their voter registration in a way that is impossible with the current pen and paper system.”

Should the Voter Empowerment Act pass, the legislation would improve the accuracy of New York’s voter rolls by reducing the number of outdated or duplicate registration records. Ryan has said that the purge carried out by the Brooklyn BOE office was a response to the DOI’s 2013 report slamming the board for failing to remove ineligible voters from the rolls.

“Better elections start with better election laws,” says Friedman, who traveled to Albany in May along with other members of the CFB and VAAC for the third year in a row to persuade lawmakers to pass the VEA and two other voting reforms: better ballot design and early voting. “The Voter Empowerment Act would make a real difference - devolving power from the administrators to the voters by giving them ownership of the voter records through online registration would make a big difference.”

For now, Lerner, Friedman, and others say the voters should stay mad, keep attending BOE weekly meetings, and keep the pressure on those who have the ability to make a difference: the BOE commissioners and state lawmakers.

The BOE could easily choose to improve its own operations by changing hiring policies or providing better training for poll workers. “I think what we’ve seen in practical, immediate terms, is that the BOE is responsive to public outrage,” Lerner said. “I think if the county chairs and members of the Legislature said to the BOE, ‘you’re making us all look bad,’ there is more potential for the board to improve its procedures.”

Since the last NYC Votes trip to Albany lobbying for better voting laws,19 more sponsors have signed on to the VEA, and 17 new sponsors signed on to the Voter Friendly Ballot Act. Thirty-seven additional sponsors signed on to early voting bills, which have now passed in both the Senate and the Assembly election committees.

The fact that the BOE Brooklyn voter purge “happened to begin with points out a fundamental reality,” de Blasio said after the budget handshake. “A managerial dynamic that is not modern, not up-to-date, not professional enough, and must be updated, or we’ll just keep having this problem.”

“New Yorkers should be pressing all of their leaders, including in Albany,” de Blasio said. ”We call ourselves a progressive state but when it comes to electoral reform we are fundamentally backwards. I think the people are going to rise up on this one."

***
by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Fixing City's 'Non-Functioning' Board of Elections Relies on State Sun, 26 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Government Operations Budget Hearing Leaves Several Questions Unanswered http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6336-government-operations-budget-hearing-leaves-several-questions-unanswered http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6336-government-operations-budget-hearing-leaves-several-questions-unanswered DCAS testimony May 13

DCAS testimony (photo: William Alatriste)


With four agencies testifying over the course of several hours, a Friday executive budget hearing held by the City Council’s governmental operations committee, along with the finance committee, had a lot of ground to cover on important issues like election administration and law department function. Two of the agencies testifying have even been sources of controversy in recent months and the hearing was an opportunity for Council members to air their concerns and get some answers. At many points during the hearing, however, agency officials had little to offer and major questions were left unanswered.

The hearing included testimony from the city Board of Elections, the Campaign Finance Board, the Law Department, and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, in that order. Leading the hearing from the Council side were City Council Members Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, chair of the finance committee, and Ben Kallos, chair of the governmental operations committee.

Perhaps most crucial were BOE and DCAS, two agencies which have dominated headlines in recent months -- the BOE for its shoddy handling of the April 19 presidential primary election and massive, inappropriate voter purges in Brooklyn; DCAS for lifting a land-use restriction that allowed a nursing home owner to sell property to a luxury real estate developer. Both those incidents are being investigated and the City Council will soon hold dedicated oversight hearings. Friday’s budget hearing still provided Council members, and others, the opportunity to ask important questions, even if answers were not always provided.

Board of Elections
Following the April primary, the BOE has been the target of much criticism. Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to use his budgetary power to bring about change and followed through with an offer of $20 million in additional funding on the condition that the BOE agrees to a structured plan of reform by June 1. Of this, $1.5 million was included in the mayor’s executive budget with $18.5 to follow if BOE signs the deal. A budget deal between the Mayor and the Council is due before the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.

At Friday’s hearing, BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan couldn’t say where BOE commissioners stood on the proposal since they had yet to analyze it in detail. “Once the details of the proposals have been fleshed out, they will be shared with the commissioners and, ultimately in a quasi-legislative process, the commissioners will have to pass on that either in totality or in part,” he said.

Ryan also couldn’t say whether the BOE would consider replacing patronage positions with professional employees selected through an open-hiring process, a top priority for Council Member Kallos and several of his colleagues (it is also something de Blasio has called for). This authority, Ryan insisted, lies with the BOE commissioners, who are borough-based. The structure of the BOE is also dictated by state law, which de Blasio and others say they want to see changed.

Kallos was less than satisfied with Ryan’s testimony overall. “I got the answers I have learned to expect, but not the answers that I wanted or needed,” he told Gotham Gazette during a break in the hearing.

Law Department
The Council’s three major issues with the Law Department budget are the projected cost savings in the judgement and claims budget; the financial implications of a recently settled lawsuit against the city; and the department’s contracting with two outside law firms to represent the city in two investigations into Mayor de Blasio.

Law Department officials couldn’t explain how their judgements and claims budget included $430 million in reductions over the next five years. In the preliminary budget, it was projected to increase from $746 million in Fiscal 2017 to $855 million by Fiscal 2020. They also couldn’t say if a recent $140 million judgement against the city in a case concluded in February 2016 was included in this year’s budget.

When Council Member Ferreras-Copeland asked about the calculations that went into these figures, managing attorney Muriel Goode-Trufant said, “We do not know.” She said these decisions were made by the Office of Management and Budget after considering input from the Law Department. “You do not know? That’s awesome,” Ferreras-Copeland responded sarcastically, promising to follow up with OMB director Dean Fuleihan.

Kallos was also interested in knowing how much it would cost the city to contract with the two law firms to defend the mayor and the city. Again, agency officials were scant on details, insisting that the process was ongoing and they had yet to assess the final costs.

“The taxpayers could be on the hook for millions?” Kallos asked.

“We, at this point, don’t know,” said Georgia Pestana, first assistant corporation counsel.

Department of Citywide Administrative Services
DCAS is a little-known city agency that manages the city workforce, property and buildings, and fleet of vehicles. Last year, the agency lifted a deed restriction on Rivington House, a nursing home in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which allowed its new owner to make millions in a sale to a real estate developer. Essentially, the property was flipped and in the process, what had been a nursing home was to become luxury housing. As expected, many questions from Council members to DCAS Commissioner Lisette Camilo revolved around the way DCAS handles deed restrictions.

Camillo would not address the Rivington deal directly, since it is under investigation (several entities at various levels of government are investigating the deal). “In order to protect the integrity of the investigation, I’m not going to be able to answer questions specific to that,” Camillo said. But she did explain how deed restriction payments are evaluated and where DCAS revenue is reflected in the budget.

Naturally, a similar deed restriction sale in Harlem, reported by the New York Times on Friday morning before the hearing, raised more questions about how many deed restrictions the city is considering and how many it had lifted in the last few years. Camillo told Council members that current requests for changes in deed restriction had been put on hold, about 14 in all, and the process was being reviewed.

The Campaign Finance Board testimony was quick and included the least drama, though there are reforms to the city’s system being considered - the bills were the focus of a recent Council hearing - read about those here.

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by Samar Khurshid, Senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Government Operations Budget Hearing Leaves Several Questions Unanswered Mon, 16 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000