Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/581 Thu, 17 Oct 2019 13:23:35 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) In Its First Year, Early Voting May Give Glimpse of Modern New York City Election https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8843-first-year-early-voting-glimpse-modern-new-york-city-election https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8843-first-year-early-voting-glimpse-modern-new-york-city-election voting gen election may office

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Major changes are coming to the way New Yorkers cast ballots as the New York City Board of Elections prepares to roll out early voting for the first time later this month. In a sort of test-run during a very quiet election year, the Board will be opening up the polls for nine days leading up to Election Day and is taking the opportunity to pilot new technology that can make voting easier and more accessible.

Throughout 2019 New York City elections administrators have had the immense task of expanding voting days from a single day to ten days -- in a city of over 5 million registered voters -- thanks to recent changes in state law. Early voting passed in January as part of a host of election reforms long sought by good government advocates, which finally gained legs when Democrats took control of both chambers of the State Legislature. It begins for the first time in just two weeks.

There will by 61 early voting poll sites across the five boroughs open for varying hours from October 26 through November 3, followed by Election Day, which this year falls on Tuesday, November 5 (there will be no voting on November 4).

What voters experience at the early voting sites will be markedly different from the traditional voting experience New Yorkers are used to, including changes from the more paper-based past. Given it is something of a pilot year, Election Day itself will be a hybrid of old and new.

“What we’d like to be able to do, if we can make this change,” BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan told Gotham Gazette in an interview this week, is give voters and poll workers a taste of the coming changes prior to the presidential election in 2020, “so that people will be a little more familiar with the process.”

There is little on the ballot this year, though there is a citywide special election for Public Advocate and charter revision proposals that could alter voting and governance in the city. There are also some local races, like the Queens District Attorney election and judicial contests. Turnout is expected to be very light this year, before a massive showing in 2020.

As part of this year’s reform package, state lawmakers not only created the early voting program, but authorized local elections boards to use electronic poll books for the first time, a move critical to implementing early voting but one that comes with its own logistical hurdles.

To help administrators meet the demands of the new voting process and comply with the state laws that created it, the BOE has created new positions to coordinate early voting operations in each of the five boroughs and has expanded and updated it’s poll-staff training. These preparations, among others, will soon be tested.

Many voters who take advantage of early voting will be casting their ballot at a poll site different from their assigned Election Day site. By replacing the limited and cumbersome paper poll books used to look up voter registration information, electronic poll books will allow poll sites to track whether a voter has already cast a ballot and enables early voting sites to serve a wider spread of election districts, each with its own unique ballot.

The shift to early voting requires a large amount of digital technology, in addition to e-poll books, all of which has to be backed up, secured, and operated by the Board’s temporary poll-site staff. During the early voting period, the New York City BOE will use the new e-poll books and a ballot-printing system known as “ballot-on-demand,” which syncs with the voter rolls to produce the correct ballot without each early voting site having to be stocked with what could otherwise be a prohibitively large range and number of pre-printed ones.

“Any Line, Any Time”
The ballot-on-demand and e-poll book systems together allow the BOE to pilot a concept Ryan is calling “any line, any time” in the early voting days.

Typically on Election Day, a voter has to check in to a specific table assigned based on Assembly and/or election district where they are given the proper ballot from a pre-printed pack stored in shrinkwrap.

According to Ryan, starting this year when a voter enters an early voting site they will be checked in by a poll worker at one of usually ten e-poll books at each location and will be given a ballot by another poll worker stationed near a ballot-on-demand printer. The system is supposed to create more simplicity for voters and efficiency for poll workers, and is one the BOE believes it can reproduce at Election Day sites in the future.

The new procedure means staff at early voting sites require a different type of training from Election Day poll-site staff.

“That is a difference in the way we currently run elections and our hope is that that will work well, we’ll get rid of those A to L, M to Z lines,” said Ryan, referring to the assigned tables. “Here, for early voting, if there’s a line at one you’ll go to the next one and so on down the line. You’ll basically be able to go to the shortest line, or the empty slot.”

“We’re very encouraged based on our preliminary assessments that this will be something that can be replicated for all of our Election Day sites,” he added.

But execution by the BOE remains to be seen, and there are limitations. The way the system is set up this year, voters may only cast ballots at their assigned early voting site (as opposed to any early voting site in their borough or across the city), which may not be the same as their Election Day poll site and could be further from their home. The differences may cause confusion and the limitations in convenience undermine the intended purpose of the new voting system.

Jarret Berg, an election lawyer and founder of advocacy and watchdog group Vote Early NY, told Gotham Gazette the BOE decided to invoke an exception in the law that allows the city to assign voters to specific early voting sites. “This is one of my top grievances with the program they have. Frankly, it is my top grievance,” he said, indicating his preference that the city allow voters to cast a ballot at any early voting site in their county (also known as borough) or even citywide.

Spoon Feeding on Election Day
Election Day will look differently in the first year of early voting.

Rather than the 61 locations open during the early voting period, a New Yorker who chooses to cast their ballot on Election Day -- November 5 -- will arrive at their local poll site, one of over a thousand operating citywide. The greater number of poll sites means each is serving a smaller number of election districts and has to furnish fewer pre-printed ballot variations.

On Election Day, e-poll books will be used to check in voters, which involves matching a signature with the one on their voter registration, but they will not be connected to ballot-on-demand printers. Instead ballots will be supplied the old-fashioned way from the packs.

Part of the concern with undertaking the “any line, any time” approach on Election Day was the sheer newness of it, Ryan said.

“The fear was, we’re doing it for the first time. So we didn’t want to introduce too much to our poll workers and have too much change but we also have to recognize that we didn’t want to impose too much change on the voters either, because they have to get used to the new system,” said Ryan.

“So we figure we’ll spoon feed it a little bit,” he added. “The voters that vote early will get used to the new way of doing it. The voters that go to vote on Election Day will get used to a new piece -- that being the e-poll pad.”

Kate Doran is a member of the city’s League of Women Voters who has been attending commissioners’ meetings to monitor the BOE’s progress on implementing early voting. “I think they’ve been cautious. I think that they are trying not to make mistakes,” she told Gotham Gazette.

Preparing for the Big Day(s)
In order to get to where the board feels it needs to be by the start of early voting this year, Ryan and his staff have to ensure that each piece of technology will be able to carry out its function or be easily replaced at a polling location, and that the locations themselves could accommodate the technology.

Locations
The most essential task was finding early voting locations -- often school buildings, churches, or community centers -- that had the necessary space and power capacity to run machines, and that could be open for an extended period of time.

“It is an imposition on the regular operations of these facilities. That was, first and foremost, the biggest concern -- finding suitable sites,” said Ryan.

Some of the sites are feeling that imposition. Gothamist reported this week that some principals have been caught off-guard by their schools being used as early voting sites over two weeks this fall. In some cases, the Department of Education didn’t inform principals until weeks before the early voting period is set to start, in the middle of the first months of the school year.

The boroughs with the fewest early voting sites will be Manhattan and Staten Island, which will each open nine this year. Brooklyn will have the most with 18.

Good government groups have sought internal BOE documents under the Freedom of Information Law to determine how the city came up with the poll sites it chose. The groups also want to know why voters will only be permitted to vote at one early voting site, “when the law's default position is that each voter should be permitted to vote at any site in their county of residence,” according to Perry Grossman, a voting rights attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and a signatory on the information request.

Technology
Ryan says the BOE purchased 10,000 e-poll books in order to have sufficient numbers for each early voting and Election Day site, plus extras for training purposes and back-up. According to BOE meeting minutes, the e-poll books are part of a four-year, $19.1 million contract that also includes software, maintenance, and training.

Each early voting poll site will have roughly 10 books -- some will have eight, some may have 11 -- that will each connect to its own ballot-on-demand printer. The e-poll book vendor, the St. Louis-based company KNOWiNK, was chosen because it had integrated ballot-on-demand and e-poll book devices and tested them for compatibility.

Ryan says in the BOE’s testing so far that has proven to be true, but the Board is still in the process of testing to make sure the printers will be able to produce every ballot style (including the 7.5 point font for the ballot referenda questions). While the board has set out a one-to-one ratio of e-poll books to printers, the machines are capable of operating at a ratio of up to four-to-one, which will allow poll sites to continue running even if some printers break down.

The city of Philadelphia was recently in the process of contracting with KNOWiNK to supply e-poll books for elections this year, but the plug was pulled when compatibility issues were discovered with another company’s voting system, ES&S’s ExpressVote XL. Ryan claims he has been assured by both KNOWiNK and Philadelphia elections administrators that the problem would not impact New York City because the BOE is not using Express Vote or even a similar piece of technology. (In March, according to a BOE letter obtained by NY1, Ryan urged the State Board of Elections to use the ExpressVote XL before it could be fully tested and certified, but was denied the request and the devices were ultimately not cleared by the State Board for New York City. Last year, NY1 reported that Ryan had been a member of a secret advisory board at ES&S since 2014 and had received trips, hotels, and dinners on the company’s dime. Ryan resigned from the ES&S advisory board after the story broke.)

Connectivity and Election Security
One of the main functions of e-poll books is to prevent double-voting at early voting sites or on Election Day. The devices communicate with one another to note when a voter has checked in and received a ballot. They are connected both internally with the other machines at the poll site, and externally to machines at other poll sites through wireless signal provided by contracts with Verizon and AT&T.

“Under the old way, there was no way to check this. If you were a rogue and went from location to location and attempted to vote, there would be no way for the system to know because your name would be signed in a book at some other location and you couldn’t share it,” Ryan said.

To ensure that the e-poll books work as intended, the BOE has purchased wireless routers called Cradlepoints to boost signal at poll sites. The devices are each customized with SIM cards from Verizon and AT&T, which they can toggle between depending on signal strength to ensure connectivity.

For security purposes, the Cradlepoints will arrive at poll sites in a military grade case with a padlock and a tamper-proof seal.

“A missing red seal would be a red flag, literally and figuratively, to a poll worker that something was done with that,” said Ryan. The devices’ hardware is complicated and the human error of temporarily hired poll workers can lead to mishaps, so the city will be using machines designed to function as long as they are plugged in, with no additional set-up.

The security of the e-poll books themselves have been kept under wraps. Ryan says the books have been programmed with internal security measures, which he cannot discuss publicly. According to Ryan, the books as compared to a traditional tablet have “significantly more robust cybersecurity and encryption, et cetera, to make sure the information can’t be tampered with.”

The BOE was required by law to submit within 60 days of early voting a security plan to the State Board of Elections if it planned to store any voting material remotely during the early voting period. The City recently reported that as of the last week of September, no plan had been submitted. The State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services tested the cybersecurity of e-poll books earlier this year, but a representative told Gotham Gazette the agency could not discuss any of its findings.

The BOE is still in the process of testing the Cradlepoints at each site, which Ryan says simply requires turning it on and seeing if it connects to the e-poll books. The e-poll books themselves are essentially tablets that connect to a wireless signal the same way a mobile device would. Should a Cradlepoint go down, the board will have backups in zones throughout the five boroughs, to be delivered to the poll site, rather than having it be serviced by a limited number of technicians (a similar method of using technicians to repair broken ballot scanners last November led to chaos at the polls).

Staff
To manage the overhaul of voting days, sites, and technology, the BOE has created dedicated positions to assist in the implementation of early voting. There are two early voting clerks in each borough -- one Republican and one Democrat, mirroring the board’s bipartisan structure -- to serve as point people in the rollout of early voting.

While Ryan says the clerks have been hired to assist borough chiefs and deputies he also says their roles haven’t been fully determined and will likely vary from borough to borough.

“We’d certainly like to segregate early voting to the extent that we can,” he told Gotham Gazette, referring to differentiating those operations from Election Day operations.

By the same logic, the BOE has divided its poll-site staff into Election Day workers, who will need to be trained on using e-poll books and setting up the poll sites differently, and early voting workers who also need to be brought up to speed on the ballot-on-demand printers.

“The training has been rather robust,” said Bill Meehan, who has been a poll-site worker in Jackson Heights for roughly a decade and poll-site coordinator for half of that time. The five-hour training he attended in late September was more hands-on than ones he’d been to in the past, he said.

“The mechanics of [the e-poll books] worked really well,” he said. At a poll site, voters will simply be asked to give their names and poll-site staff will enter the first couple of letters of the first and last names into the devices. “It pulls everything up. And if it doesn’t, then you go with the date of birth. And then it pulls it up. But it gives you everything you need. It’s right in front of you.”

Ryan is hoping to expand the early voting system to Election Day sites in the future and is treating the 2019 election as a test run. This year happens to be the one in every four-year cycle where there is little on the ballot in New York. With fewer, low-profile races (namely, the Public Advocate race, some judicial positions, Queens District Attorney, and five ballot referenda on changes to the city charter), turnout is expected to be lower than midterm, presidential, or mayoral election years, giving administrators a chance to introduce the new methods to the public.

But the BOE is also now grappling with the task of rolling out so many new components in the truncated period between when early voting was passed in Albany and takes place in New York City.

The preparation “wasn’t without concern and it wasn’t, certainly, without work,” Ryan told Gotham Gazette.

***
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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In Its First Year, Early Voting May Give Glimpse of Modern New York City Election Thu, 10 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
With Under a Month To Go, Board of Elections Mum on Shift to Electronic Poll Books https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8816-board-of-elections-shift-to-electronic-poll-books https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8816-board-of-elections-shift-to-electronic-poll-books poll pad e poll book

(photo: knowink)


With just one month before New York rolls out early voting for the first time, it is unclear exactly where the city’s Board of Elections stands on acquiring and readying new technology considered essential to the new voting system.

BOE commissioners and staff have been discussing the acquisition of electronic poll books at board meetings since January, when the State Legislature passed and Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law establishing early voting and authorizing counties to purchase the new tech, which enables implementation of early voting. In June, the State Board of Elections approved three vendors that counties could contract with, and the same month the city BOE appeared to have chosen one.

But as of late September, the city board has been silent on its progress toward purchasing the 10,000 e-poll books it says it requires, much less loading them with the voter rolls and training staff to use them.

Early voting sites in all five boroughs will open on October 26, but the BOE has given no word on the status of various aspects of the e-poll book rollout, despite repeated attempts by Gotham Gazette over the course of two weeks.

Electronic poll books are considered a necessary tool in the implementation of early voting because they better allow elections administrators to manage the flow of voters at polling sites scattered around each borough over the course of nine days of early voting, followed by the full slate of poll sites typically open on Election Day.

According to city Board of Elections meeting minutes, the commissioners moved to adopt a $19.1 million four-year contract with an electronic poll book company called KNOWiNK in July, but no contracts have been submitted to city or state fiscal oversight entities. The city BOE did not respond to multiple requests for information by email, phone, and text message leading up to the publication of this story. After an initial exchange with Gotham Gazette about scheduling an interview with Executive Director Michael Ryan, a BOE representative stopped responding.

A number of other unanswered questions remain. Where the city BOE is in terms of acquiring supportive technology like back-up generators and wireless network connections are under wraps, as well as any efforts to test machines, meet security needs, or transfer voter registration data.

“In theory, that’s all done ahead of time and preloaded,” said Jarret Berg, an attorney, election reform advocate, and founder of Vote Early NY, referring to programing each electronic poll book with the city’s voter roll. Berg, who has met with elections administrators in counties throughout the state to monitor early voting implementation, believes the city BOE is already in possession of the new poll books. A BOE spokesperson provided no information to confirm or deny that possibility.

Running New York City elections has been a largely paper-based operation. Currently, poll workers use physical poll books to look up voter registration information and provide voters with a ballot. The paper books are cumbersome and limited to the names of voters assigned to a particular poll site.

Electronic poll books provide a way to track whether someone has already voted at one or another site, preventing overvoting during the early voting period. They can also contain larger voter rolls than the paper books, allowing poll workers to identify a voter’s registration information and direct them to the proper poll site, even if they arrive at the wrong voting location. They should also speed efforts to look up registrations in the voter rolls at various points in the process.

“We are hoping the new electronic poll books will help us eliminate human errors in poll sites,” wrote John Conklin, director of public information at the State Board of Elections, in an email. He said they will also enable county boards of elections and the five-borough New York City BOE to track wait times and voting patterns to identify where adjustments may need to be made in future elections.

“Most of all we hope it will improve the voting experience and get feedback from the electorate,” he wrote, saying he did not have specific knowledge of the city BOE’s roll-out of electronic poll books.

The Adjustment Period
Elections in New York City are run by county boards in each of the five boroughs under the umbrella management of the city BOE. The State Board where Conklin works is a separate entity that provides some policy-making and oversight around state elections and campaign finance laws, but does not in most cases directly administer local elections.

Under the new state law, counties are required to open poll sites for nine days in the lead-up to any primary, general, or special election. The first round of early voting statewide will take place from Saturday, October 26 through Sunday, November 3, ending two days before Election Day. By law, counties must have at least one early voting site for every 50,000 registered voters open during each day of the early voting period, and late hours are required on at least two weekdays. New York City will have 61 sites open across the five boroughs during the early voting period.

Each county is responsible for developing its own specific electronic poll book implementation plan, including procuring the technology, training staff, and deploying the machines, according to Conklin. Because this is the first year local boards have been authorized to use electronic poll books, the State Board may field questions and provide guidance to the jurisdictions planning on using them.

“While we hope that the e-poll book systems offer efficiencies in various processes, such as voter check in and updating of information, any time a new component, technological or not, is inserted into an existing process, there may be an adjustment period,” Conklin wrote.

The city Board of Elections has already failed to meet in a timely fashion certain requirements of the law that created early voting. As The City recently reported, the BOE missed a deadline to notify registered voters of their assigned early voting location 65 days before an election, while also posting the information to its website late, and only after an inquiry from The City.

“We expect that there is a bit of a learning curve and we know that,” Berg told Gotham Gazette. “This timetable, in fairness to the administrators, was very truncated.”

Acquiring New Technology
Earlier this year, the State BOE began piloting electronic poll book systems in local elections in Albany, Tompkins, Madison, and Onondaga counties. In June, it issued a list of three approved vendors that county boards could contract with.

The decentralized nature of elections administration means the State BOE is not involved in local efforts to implement electronic poll books, like selecting an approved vendor or negotiating contracts. “We do not have direct oversight over procurement. Most counties bought them using their local procurement agencies,” Conklin told Gotham Gazette.

New York City elections administrators, however, appear not to have gone through either the state or city comptroller’s office to get approval for their contracts.

“The procurement did not fall under OSC [Office of the New York State Comptroller] jurisdiction and did not receive that contract. You should probably reach out to NYC BOE for it,” wrote Matthew Sweeney, the assistant communications director at Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office, which reviews contracts involving state funds.

A spokesperson for New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer told Gotham Gazette that no contract had been submitted to the office for registration.

Board minutes from June indicate the city BOE would follow rules set out by the Public Procurement Board when purchasing the new poll books. Those rules require “all contracts, agreements, contract changes, change orders, amendments, modifications, contract time extensions, and “Buy-Against” procurements [to] be presented to the Comptroller for registration.”

It is not unusual for city agencies to submit contracts to the comptroller after they have already begun. According to a report by Stringer’s office, “In FY18, 80% of all new and renewal contracts arrived at the Comptroller’s Office for registration after their start date had already passed.”

The city BOE’s budget comes from New York City allocations, but the state has a plan to reimburse counties for certain early voting expenses, including equipment purchases like electronic poll books.

The city BOE’s total budget in the current fiscal year is $246 million, of which $21 million will go to purchasing electronic poll books and another $75 million for early voting operations, according to the board’s meeting minutes. Some of these expenses will be reimbursed by the state.

The state allocated $14.7 million in capital funding for electronic poll books in all 62 counties, and another $10 million from the aid to localities budget for early voting operations to be distributed at a rate of $15,000 per early voting site. The Auburn Citizen reported in June that New York City’s five counties would receive a total of $8.5 million from the state for 57 poll sites (the city now plans to open 61 sites). New York City BOE meeting minutes from mid-July indicate the state will reimburse $5 million specifically for electronic poll books.

According to the BOE meeting minutes, the city Board began discussing the implementation of new early voting procedures and electronic poll books almost immediately after the law was changed. By mid-February, according to the minutes, the BOE’s chief contracting officer was looking into potential vendors and the commissioners were already expressing concern with the truncated timeline to bring electronic poll books to the city.

By May, the city BOE’s executive director, Michael Ryan, had met with numerous jurisdictions and an election consultant and reported the conclusion that, “Electronic Poll Books are essential to proper Early Voting management and operation,” the minutes read.

After what appears to be extensive evaluations in which three committees were set up to score vendors based on “user experience,” “technology,” and “feasibility,” the city BOE chose a St. Louis-based company called KNOWiNK, which sells electronic poll book systems and is one of the three vendors approved by the State Board.

KNOWiNK also had the capacity to provide another technology known as ballot-on-demand, which enables poll workers to print a voter’s unique ballot on-site at a polling location, allowing individual early voting sites to accommodate a wider catchment of the electorate. Together, electronic poll books and ballot-on-demand create a streamlined voting experience and a simpler process for arranging poll sites.

On June 11, according to minutes, the city Board of Elections adopted a motion to begin contracting with KNOWiNK under Public Procurement Board rules. On July 16, the BOE approved a four-year contract for $19.1 million. The contract includes $405 per poll book, $4 million for software, and $1 million a year for maintenance and licensing.

KNOWiNK did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls requesting information about any contracts or contract discussions with the New York City Board of Elections.

The contract discussed in the minutes included another $48,000 for training, though it is unclear what exactly that money will go to. The last mention of training in city BOE meeting minutes was on August 27, when Ryan reported to commissioners that the poll worker training video had been updated to include information on electronic poll books. In that same meeting, Ryan told the Board that 12,000 of the roughly 21,000 general election poll workers had received training, but that “Early Voting poll workers will receive separate Early Voting training.”

Challenges Ahead for the New System
New York City BOE meeting minutes provide a sense of the multifaceted operation to determine the new technological needs of the largest metropolitan democracy in the United States. But the city Board of Elections has provided no recent comment on how close it is to meeting those needs.

Adding new technology to the system comes with additional obstacles that must also be addressed before the early voting period begins. During the June 25 primary elections, the city BOE experienced connectivity issues with the mobile wifi hotspots it used and in July Ryan reported to the Board that his staff was exploring other providers.

Power is another concern. In late August, Ryan informed the Board of a discovery that some poll site outlets could not provide the amperage electronic poll books and ballot-on-demand require. The minutes state, “The Board’s long term plan would be for the poll site to update their electrical capabilities in the designated poll room.” In the meantime, it appears the Board is exploring options to secure generators, which are also necessary in the event of a power outage.

There may also be security steps that must be taken. According to The Citizen, KNOWiNK and other vendors were evaluated on cyber security as part of the state’s pilot program by the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services and the New York State Technology Enterprise Corporation. Chet Lasell of DHSES told Gotham Gazette the agency could not disclose specifics about its cyber assessments due to “internal protocols and security considerations.” NYSTEC did not respond to a request for comment.

The new voting system, intended to make voting easier and improve the state’s low turnout record, will change the way New Yorkers experience elections, not only next month, but for years to come. This year, with few items on the ballot and little voter turnout expected, is seen as an important warm-up for the 2020 election cycle, which is likely to see high turnout.

“This is not just about staff that needs to be trained and brought up to speed. I think we have to break a bunch of bad habits among the public,” said Berg, adding, “I’m fond of saying, we need to grow a culture of early voting.”

***
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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With Under a Month To Go, Board of Elections Mum on Shift to Electronic Poll Books Thu, 26 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
One Promising Reform with Rare Support from Both the City and Board of Elections, But Little Movement https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8791-promising-reform-board-of-elections-poll-workers https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8791-promising-reform-board-of-elections-poll-workers mayor bdb public

(photo: Edward Reed/Mayor's office)


While city officials and elections administrators clash over what changes the Board of Elections should make to improve operations and the voting experience, one widely-supported option the city could pursue sits on the back-burner.

A municipal poll workers program would allow the Board of Elections to hire Election Day poll workers from a pool of city employees, significantly reducing the hiring and training burdens for administrators and helping to ensure poll sites are more effectively staffed.

The proposal is an unusual point of agreement among the city Board of Elections, the City Council, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and good government advocates, who have all indicated varying levels of support for it, and it is one voting policy the city can enact without action in Albany. It would still require compromises, not only between the de Blasio administration and the BOE, but with the city’s politically active municipal labor unions as well.

The mayor and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who have been highly critical of the BOE’s performance, have both said that poll worker hiring and training is among the top priorities they would like to see the board take up. Michael Ryan, the board’s executive director, has repeatedly highlighted a municipal poll workers program as a powerful tool the BOE would like to have at its disposal to better run elections.

“I would like to take this opportunity to renew the Board’s request to enter into a partnership with New York City to develop a robust municipal-workers-as-poll-workers program,” Ryan told Johnson and other Council members at an oversight hearing following the general election last November. Johnson said he was “open to that” but emphasized alternatives he would like to see the board pursue to address training and staffing shortages.

Election Day is perennially plagued by mishaps like jammed ballot scanners and long lines of voters, created or compounded by overworked poll site staff who are not necessarily experienced in liaising with constituents or quickly moving voters through the process, or equipped to handle some of the more technical problems that can arise. Currently, the BOE struggles to recruit the roughly 36,000 temporary poll workers needed to staff a general election day. In part to help fill those positions, the board requires applicants to have few professional qualifications beyond a mandatory four-hour training.

The board currently finds candidates through referrals from local political party organizations, subway ads, a CUNY initiative to recruit students who typically have the day off, and other such avenues. Despite these sources, turnover is high.

Since 2016, the mayor and City Council have offered the BOE $20 million to improve its operations, including $10 million to expand poll worker training, recruitment strategies, and salaries, which the board has repeatedly turned down. Faced with resistance from Ryan, de Blasio has expressed some interest in working with the BOE on a municipal poll workers program, but is also frustrated with the lack of cooperation on his preferred approach.

When asked about the program at a press conference in April, the mayor told reporters, “Look, we’re happy to work with them on any approach that will improve things, but that’s exactly why we offered them the $20 million.”

Jose Bayona, a mayoral spokesperson, affirmed that sentiment in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “We’re committed to having fully staffed polling locations, which is why we’ve offered the BOE $20 million for necessary reforms, including increased staffing. In the meantime, we are exploring whether there is a path forward for a municipal poll workers program in New York City,” he wrote in an email.

Johnson took a tone similar to de Blasio’s when Ryan raised the issue at the November oversight hearing -- frustrated by the BOE’s rejection of city funding, but willing to discuss alternatives. More recently a spokesperson for the Speaker expressed explicit support for a municipal poll workers program to Gotham Gazette, but is not aware of any specific proposals being discussed by the administration. The spokesperson added that it is clear to Johnson that the city needs a robust plan to ensure proper election administration, including staffing at poll sites.

Ryan was hired by the board’s commissioners who are chosen by county party officials and enjoys a high degree of insulation from the mayor’s or Council’s influence. Because they are limited in their ability to compel the board, which is an entity of state law, to take action, de Blasio and Johnson have sought to use the city budget to incentivize reforms. But they have clashed with Ryan over how to spend the money and the best approach to staffing poll sites.

Hovering in the background of this dispute is the possibility of finding common ground on a municipal poll workers program. That would require coordination among city agencies and negotiations with municipal unions, which have never been pursued under de Blasio, according to Bayona.

Under the supervision of poll site coordinators, poll workers are responsible for looking up names and addresses in the voter rolls, distributing ballots, and directing voters to ballot reading machines. They work long hours -- over 16 hours, from 5 a.m. to after 9 p.m. -- and are paid $250 for the day, plus $100 to attend the required four-hour training, according to a BOE spokesperson.

The long hours and low pay make it difficult for the board to recruit and retain poll workers in the leadup to an election. According to a New York Times report, 70 percent of potential poll workers recruited by the board drop out before Election Day. A municipal poll workers program would allow the BOE to supplement its hiring with vetted city employees who have experience providing government services.

"They’re dealing with the challenges of hiring 35,000 poll workers, which is essentially a temporary job that is a couple of days per year. So you’re not going to get the best and the brightest,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy analyst for the good government group Reinvent Albany. “If you tap the city’s employees...you’re going to get a much more qualified workforce that at least in theory is used to dealing with people, because they do so at their agencies every day.”

“A lot of the problems would be solved by having city employees work as poll workers, or at least some poll workers,” he added.

Because it is illegal for municipal employees to be paid twice for one day of work -- like being paid by the BOE at the same time that they are on the clock at their primary city job -- the path forward would require a change in the law or a provision in municipal employee contracts.

“So then the question is how to handle it. Is it appropriate to give an additional vacation or personal comp time day in order to balance that out,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of the government watchdog Common Cause New York, in an interview.

“That’s a collective bargaining question, which so far it is my understanding the city has not taken up with the unions,” she added.

There are roughly 332,000 full-time city employees, according to Citizens Budget Commission, most of which are represented by unions, such as District Council 37, United Federation of Teachers, and the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association.

The BOE has also been reticent to allow part-time poll workers to handle problems with ballot scanners -- which are prone to jamming and a major contributor to poll site chaos -- because of the technical expertise required to deal with the machines. Ryan says having an additional team of municipal employees dedicated specifically to clearing simple jams would go far. He has sought a model similar to Los Angeles County’s.

“One of the direct fixes that we can do is have steady staff at the poll sites who are there simply to clear what I am going to refer to as the ‘top-side’ ballot jams,” he told Johnson at the November hearing. “So if a ballot does jam it can be cleared quickly, as opposed to relying on a team of field technicians to have to be dispatched from one location to another.”

If the mayoral administration was interested in pursuing a municipal poll workers program through municipal employee contract negotiations, nothing in the law would prevent it from doing so.

“As a general matter, at present public servants are permitted to work as election day poll workers and translators; they do not require waivers of Chapter 68, the City’s conflicts of interest law, to do so,” wrote Chad Gholizadeh, assistant counsel at the Conflicts of Interest Board. COIB does not have any specific guidance related to poll workers in the rules it has promulgated.

One obstacle the city may face in creating a municipal employee poll worker program is the level of political activity by labor unions in New York. Unions often back candidates and encourage their members to participate in get-out-the-vote campaigns in the leadup to and on Election Day. Having city employees working for the BOE at the polls means they would not be available to do the type of electioneering their unions may endorse.

"We’d have any conversation with [the BOE] but again I find it a little contradictory that we had an approach that would start to address that issue while still allowing city workers to do the work that they are doing – there wasn’t even interest in engaging that seriously," de Blasio said at the April press conference.

Council Member Ben Kallos, who has sponsored legislation on BOE hiring practices, does not believe union political activity has been a consideration for DC37, the city’s largest municipal employee union. “They and their members are just so about the public service and I have never heard a concern that they would prefer to have their members out in the field. For them it’s just about what else can we do to help our city,” he told Gotham Gazette.

Kallos says for DC37 “the only question they had was a logistics question,” like whether the compensation is appropriate and how it would affect time off.

DC37 did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. Three other unions representing city employees contacted by Gotham Gazette would not weigh in on a municipal poll workers program.

“We have not seen any details and have taken no position,” wrote Dick Riley, a spokesperson for the United Federation of Teachers, in an email, and the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association declined to comment.

Gregory Floyd, president of Teamsters Local 237, which represents employees of NYCHA, CUNY, and some city agencies, told Gotham Gazette the union would not take a position on a municipal poll workers program without seeing specific proposal details.

He did, however, offer the city some advice: “They need to find qualified people wherever they can.”

***
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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One Promising Reform with Rare Support from Both the City and Board of Elections, But Little Movement Sun, 15 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
New York's Election Administration Accountability Vacuum - Part II: Partisanship, Patronage & Potential Fixes https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8786-new-york-s-election-administration-accountability-vacuum-part-ii-partisanship-patronage-potential-fixes https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8786-new-york-s-election-administration-accountability-vacuum-part-ii-partisanship-patronage-potential-fixes mayor bdb voting

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one: New York's Election Administration Accountability Vacuum: ‘Bad Choices at Every Step'

New York City’s Board of Elections, the maligned ten-member commission responsible for overseeing the administration of voting in the five boroughs, has been the subject of criticism for decades owing to inefficiency and ineffectiveness that often characterize its operations. At the root of the many problems the Board of Elections has in managing voter rolls, poll sites, and other aspects of its domain, are partisanship, patronage, and, as some put it, collusion between the two major parties in order to protect the politically powerful at the expense of regular voters.

The commissioners of the board are appointed by the City Council, but only from selections made by Democratic and Republican party leaders in each borough, giving the major parties ultimate control over election administration and limiting public accountability.

Michael Ryan, the board’s executive director since 2013, receives the harshest censure from elected officials and voters who are frustrated by recurring election failures, but he is accountable almost exclusively to the commissioners who hired and alone can fire him. Nevertheless, he answers questions before the City Council and State Legislature in oversight hearings following each election cycle, where he alternately apologizes for unforeseen circumstances or asserts the limits of his authority to address them.

Reform advocates say the board’s accountability problems stem from its bipartisan structure and a lack of professionalized staff and management. State law requires an even number of commissioners from each of the two parties earning the most votes serve on the board, each checking the actions of the other. In New York City, the board is balanced with a Democrat and Republican from each borough.

While the bipartisanship was intended as a reform to keep election administration fair over a century ago, many say it has led to the entrenchment of political parties and allows the board to operate as a patronage mill, awarding party loyalty over competence, with little concern for achieving the most inclusive and effective democracy possible. The results are administrative blunders -- failing ballot scanners, purged voter rolls, a lack of interpreters and signage at poll sites -- that can deter and even disenfranchise voters.

When Ryan attends oversight hearings at City Hall and in state hearing rooms he has the opportunity to explain these failures but is not otherwise compelled to fix them.

Partisan, or Non-Partisan, Election Administration
The idea of partisan representation in voting administration as a safeguard to the democratic process is highly disputed. One of the biggest criticisms is that power is concentrated in the hands of too few, and leaves unaffiliated voters, so-called third parties, and even rank-and-file major-party voters without a voice in election administration.

Over one million registered voters in New York City -- about one in five -- are not affiliated with either the Republican or Democratic parties. Statewide, nearly 3.5 million registered voters, roughly a third of the total, are not affiliated with either major party.

“If you’re going to have partisans run elections, then you should account for the actual partisanship of the electorate, which is not limited to the two major parties,” Benjamin noted, adding that he is opposed partisan election administration.

Jessica Thurston, communications director of New Kings Democrats, a reform-focused Democratic club in Brooklyn, believes the problem has less to do with partisanship and more to do with county party leaders controlling appointments. The process, she told Gotham Gazette, should be more inclusive of rank-and-file members with the goal of being “representative of the [Democratic] electorate, in as great a proxy as we can summon.”

There are alternative forms of election administration, but they carry their own risks. Thirty-four states have a single administrator -- often called the secretary of state -- who is either elected, appointed by the governor, or selected by the legislature to run elections, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

“I have never been persuaded that there’s an easy solution to this because...there have been multiple instances of politicized secretary of states’ offices around election administration,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at the good government group Reinvent Albany.

“In 2000, during the controversial Bush v. Gore election, Katherine Harris was the secretary of state in Florida and her name became infamous with politicization of the recount process,” he added. More recently, then-secretary of state for Georgia, Republican Brian Kemp, was accused of suppressing minority voters leading up to his 2018 election as governor over Democrat Stacey Abrams, who has still refused to formally concede the race.

Patronage
The city Board of Elections is one of a few places where “old style political party control of appointments and resources” -- the type used by party machines to influence voting in the era of Tammany Hall -- still thrives in New York, according to Ester Fuchs of Columbia University, a former Bloomberg administration official. “It’s sort of ironic that it’s concentrated in the Board of Elections, where you want ‘nonpartisanship’ and ‘professionalism’ to be the bywords, not ‘party control.’”

‘Professionalism’ is a common refrain for modern reformers who are wary of a patronage system that rewards party loyalty and connections over qualifications.

“Why is it because you’re a political leader that you can’t pick somebody very competent,” asked Frank Seddio, the leader of the Brooklyn Democratic Party. “Who would decide who those nonpartisan people should be that get hired?”

“What method would he choose?,” he asked of a hypothetical nonpartisan appointment authority.

One solution reformers have proposed is for commissioners and the staff they hire to be professional civil servants like at other city agencies -- subject to competitive hiring and screening by the city -- with the hiring entity also held responsible by other parts of government and the public.

“A lot of times the county election commissioners are the county party chairs, or their wives, or their cousins. So it turns out it’s used as a way for giving financial support to a person who spends most of their time on partisan activities,” according to Gerald Benjamin of SUNY New Paltz.

Some feel the bigger problem is the patronage concentrated in the lower ranks of the elections bureaucracy, like the coordinators and part-time employees needed to certify the voter rolls and manage polling locations in the lead-up to and on election days.

“It’s a patronage mill particularly for the people at the bottom who are probably getting minimum wage or very slightly above,” said Esmeralda Simmons, a veteran election lawyer and founder of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn.

State law gives Ryan the discretion to hire the staff of the city Board of Elections under the supervision of the commissioners, with deference to the two-party split, which the board interprets as extending throughout the agency’s ranks. The lack of accountability “arises out of a particular portion of the law that gives the board absolute, unreviewable discretion regarding who to hire,” according to Lerner. “Now that’s clearly designed to protect patronage.”

Ryan told Gotham Gazette in 2017 that the BOE, according to state law, cannot question the credentials of workers forwarded by district leaders. “It’s up to the local party’s discretion who they want to designate and it’s not for us to question,” he said.

The hiring procedures based on party affiliation and the low pay means the board is often hiring under-qualified candidates who have limited employment options. “They only got the job because a district leader or the county leader asked for them to be hired, otherwise they never would be there,” according to Simmons.

“It has nothing to do with intelligence, but it does have a lot to do with where you can get a job,” she added.

Experts say the patronage leads to inefficiencies and limits the capacity of the city Board of Elections. “These are not professional civil servants that can be easily removed…[nor is there] any kind of broad based accountability to somebody who is elected, like a mayor or even a member of the City Council,” said Fuchs.

The outcome is a system that is antiquated and resistant to change, she said, and inefficiencies contribute to mishaps in election processes, especially at the polls.

Inefficiencies
At the city Board of Elections operations are largely paper-based, a surprise to many observers who have seen government agencies across the board embrace digital technologies. While acknowledging the importance of paper ballots to protect the integrity of elections against cybersecurity threats, reform advocates have pushed for a process of fully online voter registration.

The State Legislature passed a law earlier this year to allow the use of electronic poll books, rather than cumbersome and limited paper books, which many view as essential to implementing the new early voting process that was also approved.

Another commonly cited problem is that poll workers are overworked and under-trained leading to disorganization and misinformation on election days. Poll workers navigating large poll books by hand is often cited as a contributor to long lines and confusion at poll sites. But there are new concerns about whether poll workers will be trained well enough in the use of electronic books for the new technology to be as effective as intended.

Ryan has asked for, and Council Speaker Johnson and Mayor de Blasio have expressed openness toward, a municipal poll worker program to help recruit the tens of thousands of vetted employees needed to staff poll sites on election days. The program would require a partnership with city agencies and raises collective bargaining questions, which it appears the city has not tackled.

Since the State Legislature passed a series of voting reforms this year, like early voting and voter registration transfers, reformers and administrators alike have been concerned about the board’s capacity to roll these out effectively.

“I don’t think [the Board of Elections is] really trying to adversely impact elections,” said Fuchs. “They can’t roll out the whole thing more efficiently than they are proposing because they don’t have the capacity and they don’t want to let go of control,” she said referring to the BOE’s plan to open just 38 early voting sites despite the city’s offer to fund 100 locations.

For Simmons, it comes down to a “basic question: If the operations don’t work, how are the elections working? They are not...Let’s see how they do with all of these great good government improvements still within the same system.”

There is a feeling among reformers that, if the board is not required to act by law, it will not implement changes to improve the voter experience. Attempts have been made to encourage the city Board of Elections to improve poll worker staffing, increase accessibility, and conduct more comprehensive voter outreach. Mayor de Blasio and the City Council have offered the board significant additional city funding to implement some of these, which it has turned down.

A major issue for advocates is language access. Simmons’ center, along with other groups, has been pushing the Board of Elections to provide non-English materials at poll sites. “The only time the Board of Elections would translate materials is when the Justice Department required them to do it -- this is real, this is still happening -- even if they knew there was a large population that did not speak English,” she said, referring to events within the last decade.

An Agency of the City?
What makes failed attempts for accountability and improvement so frustrating to reformers is that the city Board of Elections appears to be a city agency in many senses, yet it operates largely beyond the influence of the mayor and City Council.

The city funds the board’s budget almost entirely, according to Bernard O’Brien, a senior budget analyst at the Independent Budget Office; and the City Council technically appoints its commissioners (though it doesn’t ‘select’ them). An informal opinion issued by the state attorney general in 1989 determined “the Board is a local agency.”

But boards of elections are ultimately given their authority by state law. “Any powers the city enjoys are really delegated powers,” said Joseph Viteritti, chair of the Urban Policy and Planning Department at Hunter College.

While state law outlines its general format and obligations, it gives considerable authority to localities. The election law is structured so that local laws still apply unless they are explicitly prohibited by the state. There are also provisions of the municipal home rule law that give the city authority to deal with aspects of voting and elections.

For example, lower and appellate courts have upheld the city’s campaign finance law as a valid exercise of the city’s home rule powers, according to Rick Schaffer, chair of the city Campaign Finance Board, which is nonpartisan. (The city campaign finance system is more robust and extensive than the state’s regulations, which were established in the same provision that created the State Board of Elections as an oversight body in 1974.)

The same process that established the city’s campaign finance system -- a charter revision commission -- will place a new voting system known as ranked-choice voting on the ballot this November. If voters approve it, the city charter will be amended and the Board of Elections will have to implement the changes.

Yet, despite the city’s enormous political and fiduciary interest in election administration, many argue city elected officials have limited tools with which to compel action. Short of offering funding in exchange for certain obligations, deputizing the (new) chief democracy officer to work with the board, or empanelling a charter revision commission, the city has few options. “This mayor and this Council I think have done a lot, particularly the mayor, to try to encourage the board [of elections] to perform better,” Camarda of Reinvent Albany told Gotham Gazette.

Not everyone agrees. Some advocates feel that one of those tools -- the city’s budget authority, and the use of binding terms and conditions -- is not being employed effectively to direct the actions of the board. “Other counties use the budget to rein in or prohibit the board from doing unacceptable things. Our city does not,” according to Lerner. “And I think again it’s because of the political nature of the body.”

Ryan’s arrival in City Hall after the general election provided reformers a tiny foothold on which to seek accountability, even from the Council. “If there is a problem, if the Council has passed a law that the Board of Elections is not following, and the Board of Elections refuses to follow it after negotiations and various requests, frankly, the city is going to have to sue because otherwise the law is useless,” Lerner told the Council members assembled.

"What we have is a showgame,” she said in an interview with Gotham Gazette, “where elected officials are more than happy to criticize the board publicly, but are not doing anything effective to rein it in."

[This is part two of a two-part series. Revisit part one here.]

***
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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New York's Election Administration Accountability Vacuum - Part II: Partisanship, Patronage & Potential Fixes Tue, 10 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
New York's Election Administration Accountability Vacuum - Part I: 'Bad Choices at Every Step' https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8785-new-york-s-election-administration-accountability-vacuum-bad-choices https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8785-new-york-s-election-administration-accountability-vacuum-bad-choices 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.

***
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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New York's Election Administration Accountability Vacuum - Part I: 'Bad Choices at Every Step' Mon, 09 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
'So Completely Compromised': New York Watchdog Agencies Have a Credibility Problem https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8554-new-york-watchdog-agencies-have-credibility-problem https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8554-new-york-watchdog-agencies-have-credibility-problem mayor commissioner exec

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/ Mayoral Photography Office)


In January, the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, a governmental watchdog agency, revealed that it had held a closed-door vote on a potential ethics investigation into a former top aide to Governor Andrew Cuomo. The aide, Joe Percoco, was convicted on federal corruption charges in a highly publicized trial that also laid bare work he had done from his executive chamber office while on leave to work for the governor’s campaign.

Despite the obvious appearance of an ethics violation, JCOPE only held a vote on an investigation when its commissioners’ hands were forced through a lawsuit -- and even then, the outcome remains shrouded in mystery because JCOPE refuses to announce it to the public.

Created in 2011 to monitor the behavior of more than 250,000 public officials and to enforce state lobbying laws, JCOPE has become the epitome of New York State’s lax ethical oversight, and the agency’s opacity is a source of widespread consternation. As is the case with other watchdog entities, JCOPE has to balance the privacy of individuals against its duty to inform the public and instill confidence that it is effectively carrying out its work.

By design, many of these agencies are not required to inform the public about the complaints they receive, or are prohibited from doing so to prevent reputational harm against individuals or entities that may be the subject of a complaint. But good government groups say that must change in order to build trust in institutions, and that the public would be better served if agencies provided more transparency about how they handle complaints and report on outcomes of investigations.

JCOPE is just one of several governmental watchdog entities in New York, but its lack of disclosure is not unique. Among a variety of governmental bodies with mandates to scrutinize elections violations, nonprofit fundraising, and public integrity, there’s no standard protocol for reporting on the number and status of complaints received, the investigations initiated or concluded, or the final disposition and enforcement actions taken.

It’s true in many cases at both the state and city levels: other such entities include the State Board of Elections, the Inspector General, the New York City Department of Investigation, and the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board.

In New York City, for instance, recent news reports revealed that though two agencies had concluded that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s fundraising practices during his first term violated guidance about conflicts of interest rules, the mayor did not face any punitive action and neither agency -- the Conflicts of Interest Board and Department of Investigation -- publicly disclosed that it had ended its investigation or the results. Even after news outlets reported on the general conclusions of those agencies, the specific reports and their findings were either heavily redacted or kept secret.

Government reform advocates say some agencies aren’t following the letter of the law in reporting on their work, and they argue that all the agencies, either proactively or through legal mandates, should be releasing more information than they currently do.

“We feel like there’s inconsistency across the many enforcement entities in New York State as to how they make known, or don’t make known, the way they process complaints,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor for Reinvent Albany, a good government group. “And generally speaking we’d like to see more transparency. At the very least, complainants ought to be told what the outcome is of their complaint after a period of time has passed, if not immediately.

This criticism rings particularly true in a recent case regarding an allegation of sexual misconduct against former State Senator Jeff Klein by a former aide, Erica Vladimer. JCOPE has refused to reveal the status of its investigation into the matter -- even to Vladimer, she has said.  

Camarda acknowledged that agencies have a duty to maintain confidentiality. Accusations of impropriety against an elected official, public servant, or candidate for office could serve to harm them if they are publicized but later found untrue. This would be particularly important in the case of spurious complaints, which agencies regularly receive and dismiss on a lack of merit.

But, Camarda said, “that hasn’t been the problem in New York State.”

“In this state, we’ve erred more on the side of protecting the reputation of the accused rather than transparency of complaints, and I think the pendulum needs to swing in the other direction, towards transparency,” he added. “The problem has not been that people are wrongly accused and their reputation is sullied as a result. The problem has been lack of enforcement. So we need to compensate for that by having greater transparency with how complaints are handled and making that known to the complainant and to the public.”

Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE)
The lawsuit over the Percoco matter, brought by New York State Republican Party Chair Ed Cox, was not the first time JCOPE was compelled by the courts to vote on an issue. In 2014, Donald Trump sued the agency to hold a vote on his complaint against then-Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, whose office was suing Trump over fraud claims related to the now-defunct Trump University.

In both cases, JCOPE did not hold a vote within 60 days of receiving a complaint, as required under state law, raising questions about how regularly it flouts requirements. Even after holding a vote, JCOPE doesn’t disclose whether it voted to open an investigation -- the agency is exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Law, as well as from the Open Meetings Law.   

Under the law, JCOPE only makes public the results of a Substantial Basis Investigation, which involves a more detailed probe of a particular complaint. (In case the complaint involves a member of or candidate for state Legislature, or a legislative employee, the agency isn’t authorized to impose any penalties, however, and refers the matter to the Legislative Ethics Commission.) Substantial basis investigation reports are also published online with related documents detailing the complaint and settlement reached.

While it has a broad mandate, in 2018 the commission processed 257 matters across a range of possible violations including conflicts of interest, nepotism, improper gifts, failure to file financial disclosure statements, and post-employment restrictions, according to its annual report.

Those 257 matters resulted in 27 investigations initiated. By the end of 2018, JCOPE had 38 open investigations and 93 matters pending review. The report only includes data in the aggregate, which, Camarda of Reinvent Albany pointed out, is in fact more transparent than other agencies but does not seem to fully comply with the law, which requires the agency to report a list of complaints and referrals received alleging violations, and the status of each complaint.

JCOPE spokesperson Walter McClure disagreed with this reading of the law, saying the agency cannot release certain information “because it would be providing confidential information to people who should not have access to it….[A]nything that has to do with an investigative matter is subject to the confidentiality provision and we cannot make it public unless or until the Commission votes to allow that.”

“This is just one small niche issue in a bigger enforcement system that we believe is a problem, and that is, we file these complaints, they seem to go into a black hole and we don’t get a lot of information back as to what happens, at any point,” Camarda said.

Reinvent Albany was among several civic organizations that sent a letter to Governor Cuomo and state legislative leaders on May 16, calling for an overhaul of ethics enforcement by amending the state constitution. The coalition of groups -- including NYPIRG, Citizens Union, New York City Bar Association, Common Cause NY, and others -- surveyed ethics agencies in 50 states and found that New York’s agencies, including JCOPE, are “among the very weakest in the nation” on independence and public accountability. “Few, if any, other states have ethics watchdogs so completely compromised by lack of independence, partisanship, lack of transparency and the other failings described,” the survey noted.

As the groups noted, JCOPE’s structure and independence, or lack thereof, have been a perennial cause for frustration. The agency’s commissioners are appointed by the state Legislature and the governor, who also chooses its chair. The executive director is appointed by a majority of the commissioners. The agency’s three executive directors so far have been close allies of Cuomo. Seth Agata, who was previously counsel to the governor, currently holds the position but recently announced that he would be departing for a job with a law firm.

The call for an ethics agency overhaul has been echoed by state lawmakers. Among them is state Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat who has proposed an amendment to the state constitution to replace JCOPE with a ‘truly independent’ state ethics commission. [Read: ‘It’s just not designed to do its job’: Will New York reform its state ethics agency?]

“[O]ur official position has been, and remains, that when it comes to calls for reform/changes to the Commission and the proposed constitutional amendment that calls for a replacement for the Commission, it is up to the Executive and the Legislature to make decisions about the laws that govern what we do and how we do it,” said McClure, in response, noting that JCOPE itself has made legislative recommendations in the past to strengthen its authority.

State Board of Elections
In 2014, the state election law was amended to create a new independent enforcement division headed by a chief enforcement counsel, a role that has only been held by Risa Sugarman, who was nominated by the governor and confirmed by the state Legislature. The creation of the division and Sugarman’s appointment was meant to depoliticize the agency, whose commissioners are appointed on party lines, and lend credibility to the BOE’s oversight of election and campaign finance violations.

As with JCOPE, the BOE’s enforcement division has not been immune from criticism that it has failed to fulfil its obligations under the law and has shown minimal investigative activity. Last year, in an apparent power grab, the BOE commissioners voted to curtail the enforcement counsel’s power to issue subpoenas, and mandated that the division issue regular reports on investigations as well as complete them within six months.

At the time, BOE’s Democratic co-chair Douglas Kellner said it was prompted by the enforcement counsel’s failure to adequately investigate election law violations, despite thousands of referrals particularly related to candidates failing to file campaign finance disclosures. “I think it's pretty clear that I'm fed up with the current process of the enforcement unit,” Kellner said at the time.

At the root of that issue is the fact that the enforcement counsel’s unit is separate from the campaign finance compliance unit, which essentially keeps two oversight roles removed from each other. At public hearings, the compliance unit’s leadership has aired complaints that it receives little to no information from the enforcement unit.

“The BOE is its own strange animal,” said Camarda, of that structure. He added, “It’s the same problem we’re discussing as a good government group writ large but they can’t even find out within their own agency. And [Sugarman] argues that that’s an imposition on her work and the confidentiality of her work. It seems to me in the law and in the rules that the enforcement counsel is required to provide some transparency around the complaints that are received and how they’re handled.”

Reinvent Albany opposed the new restrictions on Sugarman’s subpoena authority but was supportive of the expanded disclosure on investigations and complaints. But, the reports -- with significant detail of complaints, investigations, and dispositions -- are only required to be sent to the BOE commissioners and co-executive directors. Reinvent Albany has pushed the Board to make the reports more broadly available to the public.

The numbers on the BOE’s 2017 annual report, the latest one available, bear out some of the critiques. The report notes that the division received 463 emailed questions and complaints from the public in the 2017 calendar year, but it does not mention how many complaints were received through telephone, snail mail, or other means.

Violations of state campaign finance law appear rampant but the BOE seems unable to properly uphold its mandate. In 2017, the enforcement division received 3,984 referrals from the compliance unit for non-filing of disclosures. By the end of the year, 2,880 still owed reports to the BOE. Additionally, 597 referrals were made for deficient filers who failed to comply after being informed that their disclosures were deficient. Between 2014 and 2017, the report noted, 2,101 referrals of deficient filers were made to the enforcement division; 329 were amended to fix deficiencies; one was deleted and 1,066 remained unresolved.

In total, the division opened 52 formal investigations and received authorization to issue subpoenas in four cases. Sugarman referred one case for further investigation and potential prosecution. And the division filed only six matters to go through a civil enforcement administrative hearing process.

In an email, BOE’s Sugarman declined to comment for this story.  

State Inspector General
The State Inspector General, a gubernatorial appointee, is charged with oversight of the state executive branch including every agency, department, division, commission, board, public authority, and public benefit corporation.

The IG’s office investigates allegations of criminal activity, corruption, and fraud and regularly makes referrals for criminal prosecution. According to the law, the office informs heads of agencies about investigative proceedings and releases public reports “as appropriate and to the extent permitted by law, subject to redaction to protect the confidentiality of witnesses.” The office often recommends reforms at state agencies and oversees their implementation.

Two other offices under the IG perform investigative roles dedicated to specific agencies and their services and purviews -- the Office of the Welfare Inspector General (OWIG), which oversees the provision of social services at the state and local level; and the Office of the Workers' Compensation Fraud Inspector General (WCFIG), which investigates violations of workers’ compensation laws (it also monitors the implementation of the state’s paid family leave program). Both these offices release annual reports detailing enforcement activity.

Until recently, Cuomo appointee Catherine Leahy Scott was in charge of all three offices. In January, Cuomo replaced her in the IG’s office with Letizia Tagliafierro, a longtime aide and former executive director of JCOPE. Leahy Scott continues to serve as acting welfare inspector general.

Among the three offices, the Inspector General alone does not release an annual report or make public the number of complaints received and investigated in a year.

In 2017, according to the latest annual report, the OWIG processed 650 complaints related to public assistance fraud, up from 562 complaints in 2016, about a 16 percent increase. The office’s investigations found more than $1.3 million in fraud and improper social service benefits payments. Twenty individuals were criminally prosecuted.

The WCFIG, in 2017, received 2,369 complaints, a more than 50 percent increase from 2016 (because of a new partnership with the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which made a large number of referrals in one go). Investigations found more than $1,043,000 in fraud, resulting in  23 arrests and 38 criminal cases.

Though the IG’s office itself puts out public releases about the conclusions of investigations resulting in criminal charges, the office does not publish an annual report summarizing its enforcement activity. A spokesperson for the IG’s office noted that the office publishes information as required by statute and that each complaint is thoroughly reviewed.

New York City Department of Investigation (DOI)
The DOI is the independent watchdog that monitors city agencies and has broad authority to conduct criminal investigations and make arrests and prosecution referrals. The agency, whose head is nominated by the mayor and approved by the City Council, conducts background checks of city employees, investigates fraud and corruption, monitors firms that receive large city contracts, and conducts investigations for the Conflicts of Interest Board. DOI also examines systemic issues at agencies and recommends reforms to reduce inefficiency and the risk of corruption.

As with other enforcement agencies, DOI has strict confidentiality rules and does not disclose directly whether it is conducting an investigation based on a complaint. But the agency does annually report, in the aggregate, on the number of complaints received, investigated and closed.

Those numbers are published in the Mayor’s Management Report, tracking enforcement activity by the fiscal year, as well as in an end-of-calendar-year statistics report. In fiscal year 2018, for instance, DOI received 13,073 complaints, made 2,540 policy change recommendations, and conducted 389 lectures on corruption prevention and whistleblowers. The agency made 762 referrals for civil and administrative action, 860 referrals for criminal prosecution, and its investigations led to 661 arrests.

The Department also issues detailed public reports on investigations that are concluded.

“Complaints made to the New York City Department of Investigation are kept confidential to safeguard the integrity of DOI investigations and protect the individuals filing those complaints,” said a DOI spokesperson, in an email. “DOI is committed to a transparent, accountable government, frequently proactively publishing findings of closed investigations through its public reports, and adhering to the Freedom of Information Law, taking requests for documents seriously and following the law in responding to them.”

New York City Conflicts of Interest Board
As the investigation into Mayor de Blasio showed, the COIB can be an opaque agency at times. De Blasio’s fundraising for an outside nonprofit from individuals who had business with the city triggered investigations at the city, state, and federal level. The state and federal cases closed without any criminal charges. Recently, THE CITY revealed that DOI concluded the mayor had violated COIB guidance and run afoul of conflicts of interest and ethics laws.

But COIB could not say whether it took any action and could not publicly disclose either the status of the investigation or the conclusion reached by DOI. Last week, the Board formally created a rule addressing the type of fundraising activity the mayor was found to have engaged in, releasing a statement to clarify its position. The City Charter, which governs the COIB, places strict confidentiality requirements on the agency, so much so that it cannot even confirm nor deny if a complaint has been filed or investigated.  

“It was good that they put out that statement because ultimately it did clear things up,” said Camarda of the recent developments involving de Blasio, “but it points to the problem, which is, we could not actually tell as a good government group that follows these things, why they did not assess penalties against de Blasio.”

On the other hand, COIB does release aggregate data on enforcement action taken each year in its annual report. In 2018, for instance, the agency opened 392 cases, closed 404 cases, imposed fines in 92 matters, issued 6 public warning letter and 22 private warning letters, made 76 referrals to DOI and received 150 reports from DOI. The agency also discloses summaries in the annual report of the types of enforcement actions taken each year, and publicly releases the full details of the disposition of a matter, including individuals' names and the actions taken by them. 

[Read: De Blasio Fundraising Exposed Grey Area for Ethics Board]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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

Note - This article has been updated to clarify that COIB does publicly disclose names of individuals and the full details of a disposition of a matter. 

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'So Completely Compromised': New York Watchdog Agencies Have a Credibility Problem Tue, 28 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
More Sites, Better Democracy: Board of Elections Must Get Early Voting Right https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8551-more-sites-better-democracy-board-of-elections-must-get-early-voting-right https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8551-more-sites-better-democracy-board-of-elections-must-get-early-voting-right de Blasio early voting new york city

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Early voting has finally come to our state, but it won’t work in our city unless the City Board of Elections ensures there are enough voting sites. That needs to happen, and it needs to happen now for our 3 million immigrants, our communities of color and every New Yorker who has a hard time voting on Election Day.

Later today, the BOE is due to announce how many early voting poll sites New York City will have for the November election – the first time New Yorkers will have the right to vote early.

The preliminary list the BOE released last month, which included just 38 sites, was not enough and seemed designed to undermine the idea of early voting itself. Let’s think about how preposterous just 38 voting sites would be in a city that stretches out over 300 square miles, and how far out of the way New Yorkers may need to travel to get to the nearest early voting site assigned to them. For example, if you live in upper Manhattan but want to vote early near your job downtown, or even if you want to vote close to home but the nearest of just 38 sites is too far, you won’t be able to under BOE's plan. This is restrictive and counter intuitive to the spirit and letter of the law, which is supposed to make voting as convenient as possible. New Yorkers deserve more time to participate in our democracy, not just on Election Day.

Early voting gives New Yorkers nine days before Election Day to cast their ballot – including two weekends. That isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity for millions of citizens whose schedules are filled to the brim with work, school and/or family commitments. The fact that until now New York State has restricted voting to a single day has contributed to two awful realities: voter turnout has been at historic lows and Election Day is plagued with long lines for those who do show up to exercise their right. This is on top of arcane, confusing rules that are near impossible to comprehend, particularly for limited-English-proficient New Yorkers and immigrant citizens.

The last November General Election was a prime example of many of the challenges New Yorkers faced when they went out to the polls, making lines even longer than usual. At one point, ballot scanners that had been malfunctioning all day at M.S. 80 in the Bronx all broke down, bringing voting to a dead stop. This same problem at St. Cecilia's in Greenpoint led to hundreds of voters waiting up to four hours to cast their ballot. At other sites like Christ Church in Bay Ridge, the size of the new ballots caused a myriad of scanning problems that led to similar, massive delays.

The problem will only get worse as the BOE continues to ignore calls for reform and as New Yorkers get more energized for upcoming elections.

We have a chance to make things right. This year, the New York Legislature did its job and passed a package of election reforms, including early voting. But the BOE – which is funded by New York City and yet independent of City control – isn’t living up to its responsibility.

Under the current proposal, more than a third, or 21 out of a total of 51 City Council districts, wouldn’t have a single early voting site. In the borough of Queens alone, there are almost 1.2 million voters and more than 1 million immigrants. Yet, the BOE’s initial plan sited just seven early voting locations in the whole borough. With xenophobia and racism rearing their heads at the highest levels of government, the BOE has effectively excluded immigrant neighborhoods and communities of color from proximity to early voting sites, suppressing the voices of minorities in our elections. The BOE can and must do better.

Today we’re waiting to see whether the BOE takes up the City’s offer and expands its original 38 sites to 100. With the 2020 elections fast approaching, it’s vitally important that we maximize opportunities for our city’s five million registered voters. Their voices guide the City in all that it does.

This is a moment that should anger anyone who believes in democracy, anyone who believes in the empowerment of our City’s immigrants, and the rights of all eligible voters to make their voices heard.

New York City has provided $75 million for a robust early voting program, and now the BOE needs to step up to the plate and do its job by making early voting available to every registered voter, in every borough. Otherwise, the promise of early voting and of this democracy will be betrayed.

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Bill de Blasio is Mayor of New York City. Steve Choi is Executive Director of the New York Immigration Coalition. On Twitter @NYCMayor & @SteveChoiNY.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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More Sites, Better Democracy: Board of Elections Must Get Early Voting Right Mon, 27 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Examines Board of Elections' Readiness to Implement Early Voting, Poll-Site Interpretation https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8491-city-council-examines-board-of-elections-readiness-to-implement-early-voting https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8491-city-council-examines-board-of-elections-readiness-to-implement-early-voting voting gen elect

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


The New York City Board of Elections, a state entity funded by the city, has a less-than-stellar reputation for running elections and has long been resistant to going beyond the letter of state law in improving voter access and participation. And this year, the city BOE must contend with a new state mandate to create an early voting program for potentially millions of voters, as well as a push by the city to provide broader poll site interpretation services in immigrant communities.

At a Tuesday hearing of the New York City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, officials from the BOE testified to the complexities of implementing the new early voting mandate by the November election.

The state Legislature recently approved the program, which requires nine consecutive days of early voting before Election Day and, according to the provisions of the law, a minimum of 34 poll sites across the city. The state also passed legislation to allow the use of electronic poll books at poll sites. The state BOE approved regulations for early voting on Monday and the city BOE faces a deadline to declare its chosen sites on Wednesday, May 1.

While Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday called for the BOE to offer 100 early voting sites across the city, offering the board $75 million to do so, the BOE does not appear ready to meet the mayor’s request. Not long after BOE executives testified before the Council, the board's commissioners voted to approve 38 early voting polling sites for November, inviting criticism from the mayor and others.

There will be 10 sites in Brooklyn and seven each in the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan, and Staten Island. The board also determined early voting hours, which will vary based on date leading up to the November 5 Election Day. Voters will receive their early voting poll site assignment from the BOE. 

The City Council committee hearing also delved into a new bill proposed by Brooklyn Council Member Mark Treyger that would require the Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, a nonpartisan entity housed under the New York City Campaign Finance Board, to provide interpretation services at poll sites in several languages beyond what is currently required by state and federal law.

The bill would help facilitate the work of the city’s newly created Civic Engagement Commission, approved by voters in a ballot referendum last year, that is charged with, among other things, developing a poll site interpretation services program. Still, the city BOE has repeatedly argued that it is not under the jurisdiction of city laws, but of state laws, complicating matters.

Early Voting Poses Challenges
New York has long been a laggard in voter turnout and election reform, and it became the 38th state to approve early voting this year. But the program is a monumental lift, particularly for the five boroughs of New York City, home to 8.5 million residents.

The recently approved legislation to create the program requires one early voting site for every 50,000 registered voters in a county and no more than seven sites, though local counties have the discretion to add more. The 2020 state budget includes $10 million in funding for early voting and $14.1 million for electronic poll books for the entire state, distributed according to a formula that the state BOE must create.  

On Monday, Mayor de Blasio offered the city BOE $75 million to establish 100 polling sites for early voting (he included an additional $21 million for the purchase of electronic poll books in his executive budget proposal last week).

“We have to get early voting right, and we're saying very clearly to the Board of Elections, we'll put our money where our mouth is,” de Blasio said.

At the Tuesday Council hearing, New York City’s new and first chief democracy officer, Ayirini Fonseca-Sabune, emphasized the importance of instituting a robust early voting program. “If a significant percentage of New York City voters vote during the early voting period, we may be able to reduce some of the strain that we see on our Election Day systems that has led to breakdowns at polling places,” she said. “Lines will be shorter, poll sites will be less crowded.”

She noted that early voting also correlates with higher participation, and stressed that seven sites in each county are “not sufficient to accommodate the needs of voters in New York City.” She pointed out, for instance, that Brooklyn would essentially have the same number of sites as upstate counties one-fifth the registered voters.

BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan, a few hours before the board's commissioners make their early voting decisions, repeatedly emphasized that early voting is a complicated endeavor and that the city must take a cautious approach in order to establish a strong foundation for the program that will allow it to grow and improve over time.

When the program was approved, the city did not have the infrastructure in place to implement it, he said, and is in the process of creating it, including providing a system of ballots on demand to voters. Among the issues is that the board must approve a new vendor to provide electronic poll books, which will happen in June, and then has to train poll workers in the new systems.  

Ryan stressed that the board is willing to work with the de Blasio administration and the City Council to ensure they create an efficient program, but he insisted that in soliciting input from other jurisdictions that have long had early voting programs, the BOE has been warned of the many variables and challenges they face. “The worst thing that we could do is get overly ambitious and not have it work and undermine...voter confidence,” he said, emphasizing the need to phase in a program over time.

“There will be obstacles. Nothing will be perfect...There’s gonna be many lessons learned,” said Dawn Sandow, the BOE’s deputy executive director. As usual, none of the board’s commissioners, political appointees from the local Democratic and Republican parties who are confirmed through the Council, testified before the Council. Those commissioners make many essential decisions to BOE operations, which are carried out by Ryan, Sandow, and their employees.

Voting reform advocates celebrated the passage of early voting and praised the mayor for offering a massive boost in funding. But even they cautioned at the hearing that the BOE must be careful in implementing a new system that could cause confusion among both voters who must use it and the poll workers who must administer it. Some also raised concerns about cyber security and urged the BOE to ensure adequate firewalls and redundancies to protect election systems and the integrity of individual votes.

Interpreting State Law and City Mandates
As a creature of state law, the BOE has consistently opposed the mayoral administration and City Council’s efforts to impose new mandates on its operations. Since 2017, it has refused to abide by a local law requiring the postage of signs when a poll site is moved. More recently, the city again ran up against the BOE when it attempted to provide language interpretation services in poll site buildings.

By state and federal law, the BOE is only required to provide interpretation services in five languages -- Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, and Bangla -- which city officials and advocates say is insufficient for New York City’s population, which speaks hundreds of languages.

The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs had additionally sought to provide services in Russian, Haitian Creole, Yiddish, and Polish within poll site buildings during the February 26 special election for public advocate. But the BOE sued the city, arguing that since the interpreters were not hired and trained by the board, they would be engaging in a form of electioneering and therefore must remain at a distance of at least 100 feet from a polling site.

A state judge rejected the BOE’s argument and did not issue an injunction against the city, allowing interpreters into poll sites. But the BOE has appealed and that ongoing litigation could determine whether the city can continue to provide those services for future elections.

Both Tregyer’s bill and the new Civic Engagement Commission would create a much more expansive interpretation services program. “Language access is not electioneering,” Treyger said, accusing the BOE of essentially taking actions that are “nothing short of voter suppression.”

But the BOE’s Ryan said the city should rather await the legislative process playing out at the state level. At the hearing, he pointed to bills introduced in February in the state Senate and Assembly that would preempt the city’s efforts if they pass.

“There really is no daylight, Councilman Treyger, between your position and the board’s position,” Ryan said. He noted that if the BOE were to provide interpretation services for any  particular linguistic group without being legally required to do so, it could give other groups the potential to sue under the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution. “What we’re simply asking for is a structure, a legal structure, some authority to tell us legally ‘This is what you need to do,’” he said.

The de Blasio administration seemed to hedge its bets on Treyger’s proposal. MOIA Commissioner Bitta Mostofi said the administration supports the intent of the bill but did not express direct support for it. She said the CEC, rather than the VAAC, should be tasked with implementing it and that the bill was just one of the elements of implementing a program. “There should other factors that are taken into consideration when establishing where the services should be and what those services should be,” she said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Examines Board of Elections' Readiness to Implement Early Voting, Poll-Site Interpretation Tue, 30 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Say No to Faulty Voting Machines and the Conflicts of Interest That Come with Them https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8470-say-no-to-faulty-voting-machines-and-the-conflicts-of-interest-that-come-with-them https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8470-say-no-to-faulty-voting-machines-and-the-conflicts-of-interest-that-come-with-them boe mahcines gg

(photo: Gotham Gazette)


In the coming days, the Board of Elections will select a vendor to provide voting machines to serve nearly 5 million New York City voters as part of the early voting launch this year. Unfortunately, the entire process has become tainted by corruption and ought to raise deep concerns to anyone who cares about the integrity of our elections.

Over the past decade, New York City has paid $43 million to Elections Systems & Software (ES&S) for its poor quality ballot scanners and other voting machines. This is the same company that showered Board of Elections Executive Director Michael Ryan with perks including luxury travel and dining expenses in Las Vegas and other destinations.

Although Ryan was forced to step down from his advisory role at ES&S after his conflict of interest was exposed by NY1, he still brazenly lobbied the state for fast-track approval of the company’s touch screen voting machine – ExpressVote XL – that is less secure and twice as expensive as systems that print paper ballots. It is vulnerable to hacking, interference, and other glitches. Put simply, this may be one of the worst voting machines in the country.

Fortunately, the State Board of Elections rejected the City BOE’s request to bypass the certification process, but it did not close the door on approving this garbage machine for future elections. In the meantime, however, the City must select a new voting system for 2019 and beyond.

Ryan’s conduct illustrates that the Board of Elections cannot be trusted to make a decision that’s in the best interest of the public. There is no question that the mutual back scratching between election machine vendors and the agency is out of control.

But with a decision coming soon, what can we do to protect democracy?

For starters, Michael Ryan must be replaced. His mishandling of last year’s midterm elections, which were marred by endless lines, long waits, and machine malfunctions, is grounds for removal alone. Short of that, he must be recused from any decisions related to voting machine contracts. Any other members with ties to voting machine companies must be held accountable, and all commissioners should be disqualified from the Board if they do not approve voting technology that is secure and provides a paper record.

In the longer term, comprehensive Board of Elections reforms are needed, including a wholesale revamp of the oversight structure by lawmakers in Albany. At the absolute minimum, companies with business before the Board of Elections should be barred from lavishing perks on decision-makers, and local party bosses should not be handpicking the Board members.

This is an odd moment. Albany is finally taking action to improve access to the ballot box, while the New York City Board of Elections is moving deeper into the era of smoke filled rooms. While pay-to-play politics is nothing new in this state, we can’t become numb to corruption that undermines New Yorkers’ fundamental right to vote. There is still time to get this right. Through public pressure and support from reform-minded officials, we can force the city and state to protect voting rights, not shady voting machine companies.

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Jonathan Westin is the executive director of New York Communities for Change. On Twitter @jwestin2 & @nycchange.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Say No to Faulty Voting Machines and the Conflicts of Interest That Come with Them Tue, 23 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
After Reform Commitments, City Council Democrats Appoint Three New Commissioners to Board of Elections https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8318-after-reform-commitments-city-council-democrats-appoint-three-new-commissioners-to-board-of-elections https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8318-after-reform-commitments-city-council-democrats-appoint-three-new-commissioners-to-board-of-elections city council sp co jo

Speaker Johnson (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)


The New York City Council’s Democratic conference held on Thursday what officials said was its first ever public vote to appoint three new commissioners to the New York City Board of Elections.

The BOE is a quasi-city agency, funded in the city budget but governed by state law. It has ten commissioners -- two from every borough, with one each recommended by the Democratic and Republican parties and appointed by the City Council for four-year terms. The board’s executive director is chosen by the commissioners.

The three commissioners appointed on Thursday are all women of color -- Patricia Anne Taylor, former president of the Staten Island Women’s Bar Association was appointed as Richmond County Democratic commissioner; Miguelina Camilo, who sits on the board of directors of the Dominican Bar Association, was appointed from the Bronx; and Tiffany Townsend, a Democratic district leader and former senior advisor to Council Speaker Corey Johnson, was appointed from Manhattan.

Both Taylor and Townsend will replace commissioners whose terms have already expired and who have been serving as holdovers for more than two years. Townsend will replace Commissioner Alan Schulkin, who was once caught on a hidden camera suggesting that New York City’s municipal identification program would exacerbate what he claimed was a problem of rampant voter fraud, of which there is no documented or even anecdotal evidence. When former Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito attempted to confirm her preferred candidate for Schulkin’s seat in 2017, the Council was sued by the Manhattan County Democratic Party, which had nominated a different candidate. The Party dropped the lawsuit after Johnson became speaker and both the candidates previously sought were sidelined for Townsend.

The three appointments on Thursday were the first made by Johnson under his speakership and the Democratic conference used the opportunity to push the appointees on several reforms in elections processes and the BOE’s internal culture. The BOE has had a checkered history of administrative failures, most visible during several mismanaged elections in the last few years. Critics have often blamed the board’s patronage hiring process for some of those mistakes while others blame the state’s arcane and immensely complex elections and voting laws.

The central point of tension with the City Council has been the Board’s refusal to abide by local legislation, claiming that the Council does not have the jurisdiction to mandate any changes to election administration and that only the state Legislature can force its hand. That tension has played out in various ways in recent years. The Council passed bills allowing online voter registration, mandating the creation of a voter information portal, and a more simple bill that would require the BOE to post signs when a poll site has been moved. The BOE has declined to implement all of them.

To push those reforms ahead, the Council Democrats asked the three commissioner candidates to fill out questionnaires pledging support for those changes and also asking them to make merit hires rather than patronage ones. They also asked the commissioners to agree to allow the BOE executive director to unilaterally hire and fire employees rather than having to obtain permission from the commissioners. All three candidates agreed to the pledge, according to Speaker Johnson and other Council members.  

There was some pushback from Camilo, the Bronx candidate, over the language of the questionnaire, Bronx Council Member Andy Cohen conceded when asked by Gotham Gazette. (Camilo’s appointment was not included on the agenda on the Council’s legislative calendar on Thursday morning that mentioned the other two appointments. It was added before the vote took place sometime before noon.)

But Cohen emphasized that Camilo agreed with the concept of the reforms but could not answer in a way that would contravene her duties as mandated by state law. “There are many, many frustrations as a City Council member of where the state has local control that I think is unnecessary, intrusive,” Cohen said in the Council chambers after the vote. “I think that if the city had control of its own Board of Elections, there’s no doubt in my mind we could do a better job.”

Manhattan Council Member Ben Kallos, who has long advocated for reforms at the BOE, said the Council’s public vote was “a good step in the right direction.” Kallos was the author of some of the reform bills that formed the basis for the questionnaire to the appointees. “For a long time I’ve been asking the Board of Elections to voluntarily do the right thing and it doesn’t matter if the law says they can get away with patronage, we need to live in a post-patronage world where people are hired based on what they know, not who they know.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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After Reform Commitments, City Council Democrats Appoint Three New Commissioners to Board of Elections Thu, 28 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000