Gotham Gazette

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Espaillat asks whether Board of Elections is reliable: 'I feel not'

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Photo by azipaybarah

State Sen. Adriano Espaillat, after conceding for a second time to U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel in the race for the 13th Congressional District, said there were still questions to be asked about the election.

But the biggest one of all, so to speak, concerned the agency that runs the vote counting machine in the city.

"This is sort of the elephant in the room. Is the Board of Elections a reliable entity? I feel not,” Espaillat said to reporters yesterday as he announced he would gracefully bow out and let Rangel keep his seat.

He said he expected other groups to look into problems that occurred during the election. "You know, from the changing of election district numbers, to some change in poll sites to perhaps a lack of proper notification to voters and a bunch of other things," he added.

It had been a strange trip to get to this repeat concession by Espaillat. Nearly two weeks have passed since the chaotic election night that initially saw Rangel reported as the clear victor in the June 26 primary. Initial vote tallies put Rangel thousands of votes ahead of Espaillat, and the challenger conceded.

However, new votes were soon discovered and Rangel's lead shrank – at one point down to only 802 votes. Both candidates said the race was too close to call. Espaillat filed a lawsuit alleging widespread voter fraud. But over the weekend, after paper ballots were counted, the BOE announced Saturday that Rangel had won out with a margin of 990 votes.

Chaos is nothing new for elections in the city. The last major elections saw initial vote tallies vary wildly from later counts.

“People are getting used to this chaos, but not in a good way. It reduces the faith people have in the integrity of our elections, it temporarily skews the results," said state Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, who has sponsored legislation that would streamline election night processes and could avert future debacles like the one seen during this most recent primary.

"We live in a culture where people expect real results right away, campaigns make decisions based on them," he continued. "It looks like Espaillat made a decision based on them and it was based on the wrong information.”

If Kavanagh had his way, his bill would have passed both houses of the Legislature and would have been in place for the September primaries. But it was frozen in the Senate, where it is sponsored by state Sen. Marty Golden. Kavanagh says he doubts the Legislature will return and pass the bill in time for it to affect the upcoming elections.

BOE employees currently tally election night data by hand – using scissors, paper, pencils and calculators to tabulate the votes -- even though the voters are taken on electronic machines.

Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who has been an adamant supported of Kavanagh's legislation, said at a recent BOE hearing that the answer is so simple that not implementing on it borders on the absurd. “To take a memory stick out of the scanner and take it to another computer and run the numbers …. It’s very hard for the public to understand we’re still not doing this.”  

Some policy observers believe that even without legislation, the Board of Election could move forward administratively and change the process of election night vote reporting.

“We think the attorney general's office and the state BOE should weigh in on the city's ability to change closing its closing procedures," said Alex Camarda, director of public policy and advocacy for Citizens Union, the sister organization of the Gazette's publisher.

It isn't just the Board of Election's counting methods that have come into question in the last few weeks.

The New York Daily News also reported that Rangel's representatives met with a representative of the board the weekend before the election.

The board claimed it was a routine meeting but Espaillat's camp denied getting the same personal service. Assemblyman Michael Benjamin, who supports Kavanagh's election-night closing bill, wrote in a New York Post op-ed on July 5th that he thinks the board is staffed by “B team talent” because of “political patronage.”

“From its top managers all the way down to the Election Day poll workers — the public face of the agency — everyone at the Board is a political appointee,” Benjamin wrote.

The assemblyman advocates putting the BOE in the hands of the mayor. In that situation, Benjamin would have the City Council approve the appointments of any chief clerk, executive director or deputy executive director.

Benjamin's proposal would require a major legislative overhaul -- something that will not happen before the November elections. But most lawmakers are not optimistic that anything will change soon enough.

“I expect we will be in a similar situation with some of the same stuff playing out during the September primaries,” Kavanagh said.

Guide for the last minute (primary) voter

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From the 82-year-old ethically-challenged Charlie Rangel's first serious electoral challenge since he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1971 to the surprise endorsement of City Councilman Charles Barron by a former Ku Klux Klan leader, this year's Congressional primary election season hasn't lacked for drama.

Voters will go to the polls throughout the state today, but here are highlights for New York City. 

5th Congressional District

The newly drawn 5th Congressional district includes Jamaica, Ozone Park, all of the Rockaway Peninsula and and parts of Nassau County.

Rep. Gregory Meeks is fighting to keep his job in Congress in the new district against former NYC Councilmember Allan Jennings, small businessman Jospeph Marthone and law school graduate Mike Scala. Meeks has held a seat in Congress since 1998. He was investigated for fraud in 2009 but won relection in 2010. Jennings was elected to the City Council in 2001 and lost relection in 2005; he has been fined for sexual harassment and owes the Campaign Finance Board thousands of dollars in back payments and fines. 

Marthone is running on an anti-hydrofracking playform while Scala is running on helping the poor and has a side gig as a rapper.

6th Congressional District

The 6th Congressional district is made up of pieces of the old 5th and 6th districts that were represented by Reps. Gary Ackerman and Bob Turner, respectivley. Both men decided not to seek reelection.

The district encompasses a large portion of Queens, including Flushing, Bayside and Forrest Hills.

A number of popular city politicians jumped at the chance to represent the new district:

  • Assemblywoman Grace Meng has the support of Ackerman and an endorsement from the New York Times. She has outraised her opponents significantly. She is expected to appeal to the foreign-born, thanks to her work on immigration issues in the state Assembly.
  • Assemblyman Rory Lancman, who has focused heavily on labor issues during his time in the state Legislature, has been endorsed by the Daily News. 
  • City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who has focused on economic issues, has knocked Menh and Lancman for their votes in the Assembly supporting the generally loathed new district lines. 
  • Robert Mittma is a medical doctor and has unsurprisingly focused on health issues. He opposes the federal Affordable Care Act.
7th Congressional District

The 7th Congressional District includes parts of Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens.

Rep. Nydia Velazquez has held a seat in Congress since 1993. She was the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress and has been endorsed by President Barack Obama, Sen. Chuck Schumer, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Majority Leader Sheldon Silver.

Velasquez's most viable challenge comes from Councilman Erik Martin Dilan. Dilan is the son of State Sen. Martin Milave Dilan and has the support of Assemblyman and Brooklyn Democratic party boss Vito Lopez.

Also running are Occupy Wall Street member George Martinez and former district leader Daniel O'Connor.

8th Congressional District

The 8th Congressional district is made up of Brooklyn neighborhoods including Fort Greene, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Howard Beach, Canarsie and Brighton Beach.

Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries and City Councilman Charles Barron are locked in an intense battle for the district. Jeffries has the fundraising advantage and has been endorsed by Ed Koch and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But Barron has the support of a number of fellow council people. Barron, a former Black Panther who is adamantaly opposed to Israel and opposes same-sex marriage, recently earned the endorsement of former KKK head David Duke. He also enjoys tremendous union support.

9th Congressional District

The 9th Congressional District is made up of Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Crown Heights, Prospect Heights, Flatbush, Brownsville Prospect Park and Sheepshead Bay.

Rep. Yvette Clarke has been in Congress since 2007 and has been endorsed by President Barack Obama. She was elected by large margins during her last two races. Clarke faces Sylvia Kinard, senior legislative attorney for the New York City Council. Clarke has focused on unemployment and education, but her biggest claim to fame is that she is the ex-wife of former Comptroller Bill Thompson. Kinard's campaign has nowhere near the fundraising abilitiy of Clarke's.

13th Congressional District

Eighty-two year-old Rep. Charlie Rangel has served in Congress since 1971. The race for the 13th district is expected to be his biggest challenge to date thanks to a series of ethics issues and health problems.

The district, made up of Upper Manhattan and the lower Bronx including East Harlem, Manhattanville, Washington Heights, Inwood, Fordham Manor and Norwood has been the center of attention when it comes to the city's congressional battles.

Rangel's challenger, Adriano Espaillat, is a progressive Democrat who served 13 years in the Assembly before winning a seat in the state Senate. He has focused on immigration, economics and housing issues during his time as a legislator. Espaillat is well funded and thought to be a serious threat to Rangel. However, Rangle has marshalled a great deal of support from the Demcoratic establishment – including Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Also running are former Bill Clinton Staffer Clyde Williams and former executive Jorce Johnson. Johnson challenged Rangel in 2010 and lost despite the endorsement of The New York Times.

16th Congressional District

Made up of the North Bronx and Southern Westchester, the 16th Congressional District features a contest between long-term incumbent Eliot Engel, who has held a seat in Congress since 1989 and Aniello Grimaldo, an attorney, teacher, reverend and author who wants to balance the federal budget, end world hunger and win this election.

Engel is expected to have all the support of the Democratic establishment.

Redistricting Battle Comes to a Head

Photo provided by Office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Albany is hurtling toward a massive agreement that will likely resolve the state budget, create a new pension tier, expand the state’s DNA database and perhaps most notably finally resolve the long battle over the state district lines.

Late on Sunday night, just moments before midnight the legislature introduced their final proposal for Senate and Assembly district lines and an amendment that would change the process after the next census. On Monday U.S. Magistrate Judge Roanne Mann released her final proposal for Congressional districts—a proposal that would become law if the legislature fails to agree on their on plan—something they seem fated to do.

The battle lines were already drawn over redistricting earlier this year but now the major players have at least partially revealed their hands as negotiations continue between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the legislature.

So who stands where? What do legislators have to gain? What does the Governor have to gain? What to good government groups have to gain and why can’t they all agree on a solution?

The Lines

The legislative majorities have submitted lines that most observers agree are only a miniscule improvement over their initial proposals that were hailed as blatant gerrymandering. Initially it was difficult for reporters to evaluate the new lines as LATFOR didn’t post maps on their homepage for quite some time after the legislation was introduced. A spokesman for the Senate Democrats eventually sent the maps to reporters with this statement, “Since the Senate Republicans are content on keeping the public in the dark and concealing the maps that they produced, we will do it for them. Attached you will find the maps which show very clearly that there is virtually no change from their previous proposal. These hyperpolitical maps cannot rationally be considered a better product.”

However, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a radio interview on Monday that his office worked with legislators on improving the initial lines. “They consulted with my people in redoing the lines,” Cuomo told Fred Dicker on Talk-1300. “The lines are far from perfect but I believe they made progress on the lines.”

Cuomo also insisted that he would veto the lines if the legislature does not agree to an amendment that would change the redistricting process when it occurs again more than a decade from now.

The final legislative proposal includes a 63rd Senate district which carves out rural parts of upstate New York—avoiding the edges of Democratic leaning cities like Albany and Schenectady in what is s seen as insurance for Senate Republicans. Without control of the district map most experts agree they would not be able to sustain much of a conference in the state because New York is such a heavily blue state.

The Amendment

At the heart of the disagreement between the legislative minorities and majorities and the major good government groups is the proposed legislative amendment and how it would alter redistricting a decade from now.

The amendment would establish a commission that would be made up of 2 legislative appointees from each legislative conference. The legislative appointees would then pick two more members—creating a 10-person panel.

The members of the commission would draw district lines and seven of them would have to vote to approve the legislative lines. Those lines would then have to be passed by the legislature.

According to the proposed legislation if the commission was unable to reach consensus on a plan the commission would be required to submit, “that plan (or plans, if two or more plans garnered an equal number of votes) that garnered the highest number of votes in support of its approval.”

The legislature would ultimately have to pass the commission’s lines. If the legislature rejects the commission’s plan twice in a row the legislature can make slight changes to the maps. A limit is set at a 2 percent deviation.

The Argument For

Two major good government groups have come out in support of the deal that would allow the legislature to go forward with their lines as long as they pass they agree to a constitutional amendment and a failsafe that would enact the changes should two successive legislatures fail to pass the amendment.

Citizens Union and League of Women Voters New York support for the deal is admittedly pragmatic. (Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation the sister organization of Citizens Union. ) They admit that their efforts earlier this year—that lead to 184 legislators signing a pledge to enact a non-partisan redistricting commission –have basically failed. They insist that Cuomo should go ahead with the agreement because this is a rare opportunity for him to force the legislature to enact changes to the process as a whole. “We are not going to trust them again,” said Dick Dadey executive director of Citizens Union, “the promise of let the court draw the lines and we are going to reform the process next time around. They haven’t done it and they never going to do it until they are backed into the corner like they are now.”

During a press call hours after the amendment was released Dadey told reporters:

"Citizens Union's approach to good government isn't just about taking positions, critiquing the actions of government officials and pushing an agenda," said Dadey. "We want to be both principled yet pragmatic and try and actually achieve the solutions that we set out to address."

Citizens Union and League of Women Voters have not offered steadfast defense of some of the qualities of the amendment when questioned by reporters. When asked why the bill allows commission members to be family members, or business partners with legislators Dadey responded that such restriction would “limit the pool” of candidates. Adding, “Another thing is, simply because you're the brother of a legislator doesn't mean you're going to agree with him or her on these issues.”

Argument Against

Common Cause, New York Public Interest Group as well as former Mayor Ed Koch, the man who lead the pledge drive during the 2010 elections, opposes the deal—as does the Senate Majority and a number of Assembly members.

They say that if the governor vetoes the legislature’s lines and puts them in the hands of the court New York could wind up with significantly improved maps. They point to the maps Congressional maps proposed by Judge Mann. Common Cause has created their own maps and feel that they could provide as a guide to the judge that was tasked with drawing the lines should Cuomo veto.

But they also have major concerns about the amendment itself. Common Cause said in a statement that

“The proposed Constitutional Amendment is a far cry from independent redistricting, with final approval of the maps squarely in the hands of the legislature. “ This is not reform let alone even an improvement. This is change for change's sake.”

Further more they point out that the criteria for drawing districts favors incumbency over criteria such as “communities of interest.”

“Incumbency, in coded language, is given primacy,” Common Cause’s statement reads, “and there is no mention of prison based gerrymandering. In stark contrast, the proposed criteria devised in the 1967 constitutional convention states simply: "Gerrymandering for any purpose is prohibited" (Section 2, subsection c).

In order to achieve meaningful reform in the future, and for the next ten years, the Governor must hold firm to his promise to veto any politicized maps, and work toward a solid constitutional amendment which truly reforms the redistricting process.”

What’s Next?

With Albany hurtling towards the next “Big Ugly” it seems that a deal could be reached at any time. Cuomo’s move—to veto or not to veto could be weighted heavily by deals made on other issues such as Tier 6 and the budget. On March 15 judicial panel will review Mann’s lines unless the legislature comes to an agreement on Congressional lines.

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