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City Council Democrats Appoint New Bronx Commissioner to NYC Board of Elections


voting nyc election under cover

Voting (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)


Update: The Council Democratic conference unanimously confirmed Jodi Morales as the Bronx Democratic commissioner for the New York City Board of Elections at the December 6 meeting. At the meeting, the Council's chief compliance officer, Charles Davis, said the Bronx Democratic Party voted to nominate Morales but failed to file the paperwork with the City Clerk, leaving it up to Council Democrats to appoint her. Council Member Ben Kallos, a Manhattan Democrat, said he interviewed Morales before Monday's appointment vote where he said she committed to a number of measures sought by election reformers, including addressing nepotism at the Board, registering more voters, and increasing the number of early voting and Election Day poll sites. "In our interview, Morales said she would take on nepotism by forming a committee for ethical hiring processes," Kallos said at the meeting. "Morales said that when it comes to patronage, qualifications and competence matters." He also said she expressed support for provisions currently in the hands of state and city lawmakers, including online voter registration, no-excuse absentee voting, same-day registration, and non-citizen voting in municipal elections.

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The New York City Council’s Democratic majority will likely confirm Bronx defense attorney Jodi Morales to the New York City Board of Elections in a meeting Monday morning at 10 a.m.

Morales will be the seventh commissioner appointed to the board since the June primaries, when the city’s Board of Elections made national headlines for publishing inaccurate preliminary election results -- the latest in a series of gaffes that have partially overshadowed most elections in recent years. The appointments, all made in the waning days of the City Council term ending this month, are for the remainder of a four-year term that ends in December 2024.

The Board of Elections is a ten-member, five-borough, bipartisan body that is picked, according to state law, by Democratic and Republican Party leaders (in most cases) to run city elections. Reform advocates say the selection process makes the board unaccountable to the public, enabling political patronage and administrative incompetence.

Morales is the sixth commissioner and first Democrat this year to be selected directly by the Council, which normally confirms party committee choices. This appointment route is used when county party leaders fail to nominate a candidate to the Council for Board of Elections approval. Of the seven who have been appointed or reappointed in the last three months, three are incumbents and four are new. Most if not all of the new selections are party insiders and none are known experts in election administration.

"The fact that so many of these commissioners lack experience administering elections and that so many are being appointed through such a rushed process tells you everything you need to know about the NYC BOE," wrote Tom Speaker, a policy analyst at the transparency advocacy group Reinvent Albany, in an email. "It is one of the last relics of the bad old days and needs to be replaced with an independent, professional agency."

Good government groups have been frustrated by the lack of notice and public scrutiny of the appointments. Watchdogs monitoring the Board of Elections were only notified of the meeting to appoint Morales last Tuesday, six days before it would take place. That’s still more notice than was given recently when the Council’s tiny Republican minority met to confirm the full GOP half of the Board of Elections.

Reform advocates have called for overhauling the state election law to make the Board more professional and less partisan, and for the City Council to use the appointment process and the city budget to hold its commissioners to account.

“Other counties use the budget to rein in or prohibit the board from doing unacceptable things. Our city does not,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of the good government group Common Cause New York, back in 2019, referring to some of the BOE’s missteps, like the illegal removal of thousands of registered voters from the rolls in 2016.

In September, just a week after Commissioner Miguelina Camilo, a Bronx Democrat, quietly stepped down to become the board's associate general counsel, the City Council voted unanimously to appoint Jenny Low, a recently unsuccessful candidate for the Council, to fill the seat left by another commissioner, Manhattan Democrat Tiffany Townsend. If confirmed, Morales will take Camilo's seat just weeks before City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat, and a majority of the City Council will be term-limited out of office.

In November, the Council's three-member Republican minority conference appointed all five Republican commissioners to the Board of Elections, three incumbents and two new members, without the formal input of the five Republican Party county chairs in New York City.

One of the new commissioners was Michael Coppotelli of Staten Island, an associate superintendent at the Archdiocese who also serves on the board of of directors of the social service organization that recently hired Council Member Steven Matteo, the outgoing Republican minority leader, as its executive director (Matteo abstained from voting in Coppotelli's appointment).

In the event that county party chairs fail to file nominating paperwork by the statutory deadline, their party's conference in the City Council may confirm the commissioner(s), alone, without a vote of the full body or even a public hearing. A video of the brief Republican conference meeting is available on the Council's website but Morales' meeting Monday does not legally have to be open to the public.

Before her appointment in September, good government groups urged Johnson to publicly vet Low, who was selected by Manhattan Democratic Party Chair Keith Wright, disclose any conflicts of interest and release her resume. The groups, including Common Cause, Citizens Union, NYPIRG, and Reinvent Albany, wanted to be sure Low had the "experience and fitness to administer elections," according to a letter sent to Johnson and Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo in September, and for it to be demonstrable to the public. The City Council asked some questions related to her expertise at the confirmation hearing, but has yet to release Low's resume or other professional materials, according to Citizens Union.

"The Council is not required to rubber-stamp the parties’ recommended candidates," the letter reads.

Johnson had defended Wright's choice in Low earlier in the month. “She is a completely competent, good, thoughtful person who has been involved in elections for a very long time, has interacted with the Board of Elections as a district leader so she understands where there are issues and where there are problems,” Johnson told reporters in September.

When asked by Gotham Gazette, a spokesperson for Johnson did not say whether the City Council Democrats consulted with Bronx Democratic Party leaders before selecting Morales. Nor did they say if the meeting would be public, whether Morales would be testifying, or if Democrats would "require the nominee to commit publicly to reforms," as the reformers asked of the Low hearing, "including implementing bills passed by the City Council, hiring election staff based on merits rather than party-based patronage, allowing the Board’s Executive Director to unilaterally hire and fire employees, and publicly posting all open job positions."

The other three Democratic commissioners — for Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens — were all appointed or reappointed at the end of last year for the term ending in December 2024.

[Correction: Morales and the five Republican Board of Elections commissioners were confirmed at meetings of their respective City Council conferences, not at public hearings as was originally written.]

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.


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