Gotham Gazette

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New York State and City Must Come Together to Fix the Board of Elections Mess

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Voters voting (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

The latest local election debacle -- another botched effort by the New York City Board of Elections (BOE) -- is simply inexcusable. A structural overhaul to the BOE is necessary to create an accountable and transparent 21st century agency and restore voters’ faith in the city’s election system.

Nearly every election for decades has been plagued with problems: untrained poll workers, delays in poll site openings, coordinators who don’t know how to close down the poll at night, poll workers who are abusive to voters, botched absentee ballots, registered voters being wiped from the rolls, and most recently inexcusable delays and inaccurate balloting results.

To understand how we got into this mess, let’s examine the origins of this structure. Our state Constitution requires that county Boards of Elections are governed by a two-party structure. Each county and each New York City borough selects a Democrat and a Republican to serve as BOE commissioners. This bipartisan structure was created to prevent corruption, theoretically motivating the parties to act as a check and a balance to one another. This form of bipartisanship probably looked good on paper once upon a time, but it has become a recipe for dysfunction. 

Over the past decades, county leaders from both parties have used the BOE as a dumping ground of sorts for their family, friends, or political allies. Here’s the challenge: some such “patronage” employees are terrific workers – smart, skillset aligned, with rock-solid work ethic. Yet there are also too many employees who are merely party loyalists, or friends and family of those with political influence, whose skills and work ethic do not align well with the Board’s formidable responsibilities. The well-documented culture of nepotism and favoritism has created a largely untrained workforce without the necessary skills, education, or initiative. A system can absorb only so many unskilled and unmotivated workers before it malfunctions. 

Neither New York City nor its voters are well-served when patronage and ineptitude are the pervasive norm. It would be easy to blame one person or one party or one practice. It’s much bigger than that. The system needs a complete overhaul.

During the decade I served as Democratic District Leader, I repeatedly witnessed election problems up close, and called for reform along with many others, testifying numerous times at city and state hearings. In fact, back in 2013, a New York City Department of Investigation report recommended professionalizing the Board into an independent, nonpartisan structure. Instead, with each election, ineptitude manages to further erode the public’s confidence. 

Last year, I called for a professionally-managed, nonpartisan structure for the New York City Board of Elections. To date, there has been no comprehensive review of our election laws, our constitutional mandates, nor the policies, practices, and procedures followed by county Boards of Elections. The New York City BOE is not alone in its dysfunction, but its level of dysfunction seems to be on steroids. For that reason, I’m calling for the New York State Legislature to establish a Joint Legislative Task Force charged with conducting a comprehensive analysis with recommendations for action. The City of New York must become a vocal and active partner in these reform efforts, and the City Council should require that proposed BOE commissioners, which the Council approves, have qualifications beyond mere party support before authorizing their appointment.

We need a Joint Legislative Task Force that investigates both the structure of our Boards of Elections as well as the policies and procedures that have led to the current state of affairs; studies the various models for conducting fair, reliable, modern elections in a digital age; and makes actionable recommendations to the Legislature to fundamentally restructure the way we conduct elections in New York. Our democracy requires nothing less.

Jo Anne Simon is a state Assemblymember for District 52, a former Democratic District Leader (2004-2014), and a current candidate for Brooklyn Borough President. On Twitter @JoAnneSimonBK52.

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