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New York's Election Administration Accountability Vacuum - Part I: 'Bad Choices at Every Step'


joint comm hearing regarding issues

NYC BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


After each election cycle, New York elected officials, government insiders, and interested members of the press and public gather at City Hall and in other hearing rooms for a bit of political theater. The protagonist is the electorate, or the democratic process, itself; the one cast as villain is Michael Ryan, the executive director of the New York City Board of Elections, who is there to respond to questions about how voting went that year.

“Mr. Ryan, do you apologize to the public for what happened on Election Day?” asked City Council Speaker Corey Johnson in the opening question of an oversight hearing following the calamitous midterm elections this past November.

Ryan has been responsible for election administration in the city since August 2013, when he was selected to replace former executive director George Gonzalez. Gonzalez had been fired three years earlier after a botched general election in 2010 and the position had been left vacant. In the six years since Ryan’s appointment, elections have been plagued by poorly trained staff and failing machinery. Confusing ballot design and limited translation services have added to the frustration many voters experience trying to access the polls.

Responding to Johnson, Ryan went along with the apology, a tack he often takes when he’s not defending his agency’s work. "Yes we do,” he said. “We want what you all want and what the voters want: an ease of experience."

While he occasionally testifies at the City Council or the State Legislature, mostly acting as a punching bag for venting politicos, Ryan gets his authority through an irregular -- explicitly partisan -- process in New York State, which allows his agency to avoid a high degree of public accountability. The structure has been criticized for creating a system of election administration that is resistant to modernization and favors the type of political patronage characteristic of machine party politics. Experts say the patronage causes extensive inefficiency throughout what should be a coherent 21st century election system.

“The problem is operational. The BOE’s technical capacity and its inefficiency does have consequences for the integrity, fairness, and the equity of the election process,” said Ester Fuchs, director of the Urban and Social Policy Program at Columbia University, in an interview.

As executive director, Ryan really only answers to the ten commissioners of the New York City Board of Elections. They hired him, and only they can fire him. Amid the 2018 Election Day snafus, Johnson called for Ryan’s resignation, but he still has the job.

A Creature of State Law
The New York City Board of Elections is governed by state law, which gives power to the City Council to appoint commissioners, but the Council must make the appointments from lists selected by political party leaders at the county level. A balance of five Democratic and five Republican commissioners is supposed to add checks within the system, but critics say it serves more to protect incumbents from challengers.

Ryan and the agency he manages are still the subject of scrutiny by the City Council at oversight hearings, but are ultimately controlled by the Democratic and Republican party organizations in each county (borough). Though the city BOE receives most of its funding from city government, its policies are largely based on state law, state Board of Elections guidance, and its own commissioners’ decisions. It generally has not responded to the law-making power of the City Council, nor the directives of the Mayor.

The State Board of Elections, which also has a bipartisan structure, functions as an elections and campaign finance oversight body, unlike the city board. The state BOE sets certain rules and regulations that local boards, including New York City’s, must follow.

Good government advocates say the structures of the city and state boards of election make major-party collusion possible, transparency elusive, and efficiency second to party loyalty.

“Every step along the way the board makes bad choices and they are never held accountable for it,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of good government group Common Cause New York, in testimony at the City Council oversight hearing on last year’s elections. She was talking about the board’s decisions around ballot design and staff training, which advocates have sought to influence and improve upon for years without success.

Running Elections, Poorly
The city Board of Elections is responsible for carrying out all the administrative functions of running elections across the five boroughs. In reality, it is a decentralized operation in which the executives of the city board oversee five borough boards with few direct management controls.

“Each one of the borough boards operates a little fiefdom and they do what they do,” Lerner said in an interview with Gotham Gazette. Local patronage dictates hiring practices all the way down to the part-time poll workers, often chosen by party district leaders, who do not have to pass a civil service exam like other professionals in city government.

The board is responsible for arranging the sites where elections are held, ensuring proper equipment and staffing are present, registering voters, certifying the contents of the ballot, and securing, validating, and counting them after an election. This requires an immense amount of recruitment and training, machine testing, and government contracting, much of which must be done according to guidelines outlined in state law and regulations.

Voters in the November elections -- which included congressional, state legislative, and statewide races -- turned out in modern record numbers across the five boroughs, overwhelming poll sites and ballot scanners, and causing lines out into the rain. Ryan admitted at the hearing that the board was unprepared for the number of voters, despite the high turnout in the primaries that preceded the general election and the overall atmosphere of heightened political engagement in the Trump era.

Turnout in 2018 was still lower than in a presidential year. There were similar problems in 2016 and many are worried about the upcoming 2020 elections, for which turnout is expected to be enormous. New reforms like early voting and electronic poll books offer the potential to ease the burden on the board and those administering elections, but could also lead to new hurdles.

Other problems, like the way the 2018 ballots were designed and how well each poll site was staffed, also contributed to the debacle.

The unusual two-page, perforated ballot used to accommodate three additional ballot questions where confusing to voters and jammed scanners frequently, especially after getting damp from the rain. The average time a scanner broke down was roughly 53 minutes while poll site coordinators waited for a limited number of available technicians per borough. At some poll sites, all scanners were down at once.

Critics including Johnson, Lerner, and others at the Council hearing, wondered why the BOE had not taken greater steps to test scanners and train staff in handling the new ballot format, and why they would not allow translators of certain languages at the polls.

Reformers in and out of city government have for decades been pushing for changes to address election administration failures, which make voting difficult, discourage turnout, and can even disenfranchise voters.

Election after election, they seek improvements like more interpreters at poll sites, better voter outreach, professional staffing, and a less paper-based system while maintaining security. But advocates often face resistance or inaction and have virtually no recourse to the commissioners or the party leaders who pick them. The line of accountability is blurred, with only a distant state law to ultimately point to.

“Mr. Speaker, we have to work to re-earn your trust and I appreciate that,” Ryan said, addressing Johnson at the oversight hearing in November. As is typical at these hearings, no elections commissioners spoke that day. Ryan took the punches, even as he discussed what was beyond his authority.

The Two-Party Split
Many of the board’s problems can be traced to its bipartisan structure -- the two-party split that is built into its operations. The partisan balance is the result of reforms made over a century ago to create a system of checks and balances within the election process, but experts say it no longer works.

“This is a vestige of the most well-regarded thinking about preventing fraud in the late 19th century. There was no such thing as a nonpartisan approach back then,” Lerner told Gotham Gazette.

Controlling election administration had a great deal to do with controlling the outcomes. Following intense public debate around the turn of the last century, the state passed reforms based on the idea that the two major parties “would watch each other and make the election system honest,” according to Gerald Benjamin, director of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz.

Each county has a bipartisan board of elections with commissioners representing the two major political parties, as mandated in the state constitution. According to state election law, each county board must have an equal number of commissioners -- one, or in some cases two -- from each of the two parties earning the highest votes; New York City’s five counties fall into one citywide board with 10 commissioners -- one Republican and one Democrat chosen from the party leaders in each of the five boroughs.

“The partisan dimension is what keeps it equal,” Brooklyn Democratic Party leader Frank Seddio said in an interview. “For every Democratic worker in the Board of Elections there is a Republican worker in the Board of Elections, which balances the actions of the board, so to speak.”

It has also had the effect of entrenching the established party organizations, and creates the prospect of them “collaborating to the disadvantage of insurgencies in either of the parties,” according to Benjamin of SUNY New Paltz.

Changing the bipartisan structure in the state constitution is an arduous process that would require the Legislature to pass an amendment in two consecutive sessions and for voters to approve it. Many legislators also hold leadership positions in the county party organizations that select elections commissioners under the current system.

“Corruption is a lesser problem than collusion. The majority of the Board of Elections is needed to act. Since there are two commissioners, that means they both have to agree,” Benjamin said, referring to a typical county board, which has two commissioners (as is the case for each borough in New York City). Benjamin was an elected member of the Ulster County Legislature during the 1980s and early ‘90s, and said he received selections from county party leaders from which to appoint elections commissioners.

“Any one commissioner can block an action. If somebody complains about something or there’s an appeal to the board, they can get together and say, ‘You back me on this one, I’ll back you on that one.’ That kind of thing happens all the time,” he said.

"The idea that the Democrat and the Republican would collude against the voter has never occurred to anybody," Lerner said, "but that’s what we’re seeing."

This is part one of a two-part series. Part two -- Partisanship, Patronage & Potential Fixes -- will be published soon.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

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What's The [DATA] Point? 16,000 - The Future of Gifted & Talented Schooling in New York City


whats the data point


What's The [Data] Point? Episode 79 -- 16,000, with David Tipson of Appleseed & City Council Member Robert Cornegy [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

cornergy tippson wtdpMayor de Blasio's School Diversity Advisory Group recently released its second and final set of recommendations to integrate the city's schools and improve the overall education system for 1.1 million studens. One particular recommendation -- to replace current gifted and talented programming -- caught a lot of attention, including from City Council Member Robert Cornegy of Brooklyn, who has worked to expand G&T in his district and across the city. Cornegy and David Tipson of Appleseed, a nonprofit dedicated to school integration and improvement, joined the podcast to discuss the work of the SDAG, the future of gifted and talented programming in the city, and how G&T fits into the larger school system.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis of CBC (@MariaDoulis). Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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De Blasio, City Council Look to Move Ahead with Private Sector Retirement Savings Program


retirement saving event

Feb. 2016 (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)


In his State of the City speech in January, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised that the city would create a system of retirement security for millions of New Yorkers who work in the private sector and may not have access to employer-provided savings plans. It was a revival of an effort the mayor had first pushed in 2016 but that bumped up against the change in presidential administrations and federal approvals apparently needed. But eight months after de Blasio’s speech at the start of this year, the New York City Council is ready to look at the idea through two bills that will be examined at a hearing later this month.   

“We'll create a universal retirement system in our city, because if you've worked for decades, then you've earned the right to retire in peace,” the mayor declared in January. There has been little public movement since, but as the mayor continues his presidential campaign, an initial Council hearing provides new promise.

De Blasio first put forward a “Retirement Security for All” proposal in 2016, but the legislative effort to achieve it was cut short in 2017 when President Donald Trump approved new federal regulations passed by a Republican-led Congress that undid an Obama era rule and limited municipalities from creating private-sector retirement programs. City officials believe they can still move ahead, however.

In May 2018, City Council Members Ben Kallos and I. Daneek Miller sponsored the pair of bills that would establish such retirement savings programs for roughly 2 million private sector employees working in New York City.

Kallos’ bill would create individual retirement accounts (IRAs) for workers at New York City businesses that employ 10 or more people and do not currently offer such programs. Employees would be automatically enrolled unless they choose to opt out and the IRAs would be funded through payroll deductions at a default rate. Though they would have to help administer the paperwork, employers would not have to contribute to the savings, nor would any public funds be directed to the individual accounts. The bill also sets up a complaint mechanism for employees in case businesses do not comply and creates varying civil penalties for violations of the law.

Miller’s bill creates an unpaid three-member retirement savings board appointed by the mayor to oversee the private IRAs. The board would be responsible for investing IRA funds and contracting with financial institutions to manage them; it would also be charged with ensuring that fees for the programs remain low and for informing employers and employees of their rights and responsibilities under the law.

“All New Yorkers deserve the opportunity to plan for the future and save for their retirement,” said Laura Feyer, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, in a statement. “The Mayor called for retirement security for all New Yorkers in his State of the City earlier this year, and we look forward to working with the City Council to make retirement security a reality for millions of New Yorkers.”

Despite what seem to be hurdles at the federal level, both bills will be considered on September 23 at a joint hearing of the City Council’s Committee on Civil Service and Labor, which Miller chairs, and Committee on Contracts.

Miller said the city’s involvement in the program, through the board his bill would create, will mitigate some of the administrative burdens that small businesses would otherwise face. “We want to try to fill a gap here,” he said in a phone interview. “I think there's a real opportunity for a win-win for everybody involved to provide sensible retirement opportunities.”

Miller said the need to pass retirement security legislation was much like the issue of climate change, something that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” he added, referring to the stark data around the many thousands of New Yorkers who have little to no retirement savings.

Kallos said in an interview that he is confident the proposals will pass and stand up to scrutiny under the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, citing other jurisdictions that have advanced similar programs, including New York State.

“What has changed is that several jurisdictions have moved forward with the program with thousands of Americans gaining access to retirement accounts for the first time ever, and we're not seeing those plans being challenged,” he said. “And that seems to be putting forward a pathway for us.” 

At least ten states including New York have enacted legislation to allow private sector retirement programs. In last year’s state budget, the Legislature approved the creation of the New York State Secure Choice Savings Program, which, unlike the Council proposal, is a voluntary opt-in plan for private sector employers rather than an opt-out one. It is meant to be formulated over two years. 

“I think there's a national energy around this,” Kallos said. “The mayor, he's bringing universal pre-K around the country. And I think that in a nation that is growing more and more concerned about how and when they will be able to retire and whether social security will even be there for them, having ‘Retirement Security for All’ is something important for the mayor to interject into a national conversation.” 

Kallos expects an aggressive timeline, saying that the bills could pass as soon as October and be signed into law by the mayor by November. If so, and even as they simply get new consideration and attention, they could provide a headline issue that the mayor can tout if he continues to seek the Democratic nomination for president.

On the campaign trail, de Blasio has focused on issues he believes are of paramount importance to “working people,” including his signature universal pre-kindergarten program. That includes his boasts of a proposal to give paid personal leave to private sector employees, something the mayor has repeatedly said will happen this year even though the City Council does not appear close to approving it. 

“When the mayor’s chosen to champion issues, he’s made it happen,” Kallos said. 

Beth Finkel, state director of AARP New York, praised the Council’s and mayor’s efforts. “We're very interested in anything that helps people to be more prepared financially for their retirement,” she said, noting that individuals are 15 times more likely to save for retirement if they have access to a savings program that automatically makes payroll deductions. “That's our mission, that people can age with dignity and be prepared for their retirement. And you can't wake up when you're older and say, okay, now's the time. So having something like this in place where people can save throughout their career, that's exactly the type of policy that AARP is very, very supportive of.”

AARP members, Miller, and Kallos were among those who celebrated at the February 2016 City Hall rally de Blasio held to advance the retirement savings plan, which has stalled in the three-plus years since.

Both Kallos and Miller expect little opposition at the local level, but there is a possibility that the bills may come under fire from private groups such as the ERISA Industry Committee, which lobbies on behalf of the country’s largest private employers with regards to employee benefits policies, or companies that sell retirement investment products.

“Retirement Security for All is tantamount to what would be the equivalent of a public option for insurance companies,” Kallos said. “And ultimately, companies that sell 401(k), 403(b) and other investment products have traditionally opposed this because they would rather see people not saving for retirement than see competition. And I think the real competition is having the fees that they can charge undermined.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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