Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/581 Mon, 26 Aug 2019 10:36:07 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) '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
City Council Pushes Board of Elections on Another Round of Issues at the Polls https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8093-city-council-pushes-board-of-elections-on-another-round-of-issues-at-the-polls https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8093-city-council-pushes-board-of-elections-on-another-round-of-issues-at-the-polls citycouncil jcommhearing

BOE ED Michael Ryan (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


Embattled City Board of Elections Executive Director Michael Ryan testified before the City Council's Committees on Oversight and Government Operations on Tuesday, explaining that a perforated two-page ballot, never before used anywhere in the United States, was primarily to blame for the issues at polling sites across the city on Election Day.

In a combative hearing initially presided over by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Ryan apologized, after being asked to do so, for the poor administration of the general election but defended the BOE by noting it was forced to work under tight timelines and restrictive administrative law, which required the center perforation on the two-page ballot and did not allow ballot questions, of which there were three this year proposed by the mayor’s Charter Revision Commission, to appear on the same side as candidates.

“The board has been advised that an initial analysis points to the perforated ballot requirement as the major cause of the increased ballot jams,” Ryan said in prepared testimony to the joint committees. “Such a ballot configuration has not been attempted in any jurisdiction in the United States for use with a poll site scanner. The perforated two page ballot presented a series of problems never before experienced by the Board or anywhere in the country.”

These problems included malfunctioning scanners without adequate tech support to fix them and lines so long that some voters simply went home without casting a ballot.

The timing of the submission of the ballot questions proposed by the Charter Revision Commission caused the ballot to not be finalized until October 9, and the hundreds of different "ballot styles" across various different overlapping jurisdictions for different offices, prevented adequate testing and the ability to upload different styles on the same machine, Ryan said.

In Manhattan alone, there were 924 different ballot styles, Ryan testified, owing to the various different combinations of overlapping districts for different offices such as Senate, Assembly, and Judgeships, among others.

Staten Island was the lone borough with a single sheet ballot, and did not experience the poll site issues that the other four boroughs did on Election Day.

Though still only about 38 percent, voter turnout in New York City for the general election was substantially higher than in recent non-presidential elections. Ryan said that state law dictates that there must be one scanner for every 4,000 voters, while BOE protocol stipulates one scanner for every 1,400 voters.

Because of both the abnormally high turnout and the two-page ballot, which when separated doubled the amount of paper that machines needed to process, “ballot bins” in the voting machines filled up much quicker than normally. In fact, most of the issues were related to simple overcapacity of ballots in the bins, rather than technical malfunction, Ryan said.

Ryan noted that about 4,000 scanners were in use on Election Day, while about 1,000 were left in the warehouse; they could not be brought out to poll sites due to transportation issues and the fact that individual ballot styles take an hour to upload onto the machine’s ballot reading software.

Ryan said that a two-page ballot was considered a possibility in 2016, but was ultimately not used. Nonetheless, Ryan was criticized for not testing a "generic" perforated ballot in that two-year span.

“There’s nothing that prevents you from testing the machines for a generic two-page perforated ballot,” said City Council Member Ritchie Torres, chair of the Oversight Committee. “For about two years, you’ve had the opportunity to test your equipment for a two-page perforated ballot, and it sounds like over the course of those two years, you’ve failed to do so.”

In fact, Ryan said that the Board did not test for potential malfunctions at all, citing a lack of adequate time between the ballot finalization and Election Day and the inability to predict voter behavior.

“We had just enough time to test the DS200 scanners for functionality,” he said, referring to the scanners that the state has used since switching from lever voting in 2010. “We did not have any time to do any kind of random testing to try to replicate the voter experience.”

Speaker Johnson, who called on Ryan to resign during the Election Day fiasco, expressed displeasure and distrust in Ryan but also condemned the election process in New York generally.

“I am embarrassed as a New Yorker about what happened on Election Day,” Johnson said. “I feel like this happens over and over and over again. I can’t remember an election where people said ‘you know what, it was done in a thoughtful, calm, professional, easy manner.’ New Yorkers deserve that. I don’t have confidence that that is gonna happen.” Johnson noted that he is not confident that the Board can competently administer the upcoming special election for Public Advocate, likely to occur in February.

Johnson was just one of several Council members to detail his own experience voting, noting that his polling place had only a single functioning scanner by 11 a.m., resulting in a significant line that stretched outside into the rain, which was another factor in the day’s issues.

"I expect to hear a plan forthcoming from the city and the state to rectify the issues of this election, and to improve tenfold the election operations for the next election, and the one after that, and the one after that," Johnson said.

Another problem beyond ballot design and machine capacity was staffing, which failed on multiple levels on Election Day, ranging from poll workers unable to handle the influx of voters or scanner malfunctions or a greatly deficient number of tech support workers to fix the mounting issues with the machines. The BOE supplied tech staff commensurate with the number staffed in the 2016 presidential election, which Ryan called a bad idea in retrospect.

"There was an avalanche early in the morning and we just could never catch up,” he said.

Ryan disclosed that the BOE had received nearly 10,000 calls on Election Day, with most related to technical issues, a number he said was much higher than previous elections.

The problem was most significant in Brooklyn, where the Board fielded 3,362 calls and wait times for a technician averaged an hour and 15 minutes. The average wait time citywide was 52 minutes.

Ryan, who is hired by the city BOE to run operations and be non-political, did not take an explicit position on some of the more talked-about election reform proposals for the state, such as early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, or automatic voter registration. However, he urged Council members on multiple occasions to work with the Board to establish a municipal poll-worker program modeled on a similar program in Los Angeles, where municipal workers at city agencies would get a bonus or a day off to work the polls. This could include techs from the city’s technology department, DoITT, or other agencies, who could supplement the existing tech support workers.

In the meantime, however, Ryan wants to staff poll sites in future elections with workers trained to fix malfunctions, rather than relying on a finite number of outside techs.

Brooklyn Council Member Kalman Yeger questioned why the existing poll workers themselves couldn’t be trained to clear ballot jams, comparing the issue to a printer malfunction.

"You make a straightforward and reasonable suggestion. The reluctance going back to 2010 was that we were losing poll workers because of their fear of the new machines,” Ryan said. “So a decision was made in that moment, which carried through to this election, have the poll workers do less with the machines, not more. This election, in a very hard way, taught us a difficult lesson."

Other testifiers, such as Douglas Kellner of the State Board of Elections, agreed with the municipal poll worker suggestion, while also suggesting that staffing in general needed to be improved to comply with the “30-minute rule,” a federal rule which stipulates that no voter should wait more than 30 minutes to vote.

“New York City has not complied with this regulation in its presidential general elections since the regulation was adopted in 2007,” Kellner said. “And I see no meaningful efforts by New York City to come into compliance in 2020.”

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Pushes Board of Elections on Another Round of Issues at the Polls Tue, 20 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Assembly Committee Examines Election Administration, Eyes Voting Reforms in 2019 https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8075-assembly-committee-examines-election-administration-eyes-voting-reforms-in-2019 https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8075-assembly-committee-examines-election-administration-eyes-voting-reforms-in-2019 voting booths

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Come January, Democrats will control both houses of the New York state Legislature and the governor’s office, and they have declared that after years of being stymied by state Senate Republicans, voting reform will be at the top of the 2019 agenda. But even before that new governing reality comes to fruition, Assembly Democrats, already in the majority by a wide margin, examined both voting administration and the broader laws at play during a hearing on Thursday in Manhattan.

Though with looming new political dynamics as a backdrop, the Assembly Election Law Committee and Election Day & Voter Disenfranchisement Subcommittee held what is a typical post-election hearing to discuss how to improve voting in New York, where for years the state has had some of the most regressive laws in the nation. The legislators present and those testifying focused specifically on early voting and no-excuse absentee voting as key reforms on the table, but often deviated towards criticism of the state’s entire election structure, with accompanying calls for comprehensive reform.

New York is one of only a small number of states that does not have early voting or no-excuse absentee voting, and has the strictest party registration deadline in the country. There appears to be unanimity among Democrats about moving ahead with early voting. And while research on whether it improves turnout is mixed, it would likely foster a more diverse group of voters, who would not have to take off work to vote, and would allow election administrators to diagnose and correct problems, such as the two-page ballots that led to problems at the polls in New York City last week, at an early stage in the process.

“People working multiple jobs, people in the gig economy or with unsteady work, are often forced to choose between selecting their representatives in government and making a living,” said Ethan Geringer-Sameth, of government reform group Citizens Union, in testimony to the committee. “For many New Yorkers, early voting and no-excuse absentee ballots would provide the first real opportunities to vote.”

New York’s voting laws once again came to the forefront on Election Day, when issues at the polls led to long lines and numerous people leaving before voting. The fiasco renewed calls for reforms, particularly early voting, which some argue could have made a significant impact, as well as better election administration through professionalizing the city Board of Elections.

“Early voting would have also mitigated the impact of broken scanners and its cascading effect of long lines, overcrowded poll sites, and compromised ballot security and privacy,” said Alex Camarda of Reinvent Albany, another good government group. “By holding voting on days other than Election Day, voters are distributed across many days and volume is reduced on Election Day. The Board can troubleshoot problems in advance before Election Day.”

The Assembly has on numerous occasions passed voting reforms such as one week of early voting, and Governor Andrew Cuomo included a two-week early voting period in his budget proposal last year, but efforts have annually been stopped by the Republican-controlled State Senate.

With control of the Senate turning over to Democrats based on last week’s election results, early voting appears poised to become reality in the state. Committee Chair Charles Lavine said, given the new dynamics of state government, the Legislature has a “unique opportunity to enact meaningful reforms,” including early voting and no-excuse absentee voting.

Two commissioners and two executive directors of the State Board of Elections testified on Thursday, and all adopted a reformist tone, though the Board is not known as particularly progressive with regard to pushing changes to make voting easier in New York.

Robert Brehm, one of two executive directors, said that New York’s unusually high turnout this year put a strain on the voting system, and that early voting would mitigate the stresses of high turnout and other factors such as inclement weather and a complex ballot.

“Where many other states were using some series of days leading up to election, to allow early voting, we all had to accomplish it in one day,” Brahm said. “Certainly, we could’ve provided a better customer service process if we were able to stretch it out over a period of time.”

Brehm and the commissioners noted several elements of early voting and absentee voting that need to be addressed for them to work, including making sure that voting rooms are adequately staffed and have enough equipment, and that the use of snail mail for absentee votes doesn’t prevent votes from being counted, as it has in the past. On the mail front, Brehm endorsed a bill in the Assembly that would allow voters to apply for absentee ballots online.

Andrew Spano, one commissioner, signaled support for early voting while also casting aspersions on the entire system writ large.

“Our system is basically a de facto voter suppression system, because we have all these hurdles that we have to get through,” said Spano, who served as Westchester county executive for 12 years. “There’s no motivation for the voter in some of these elections to come out. Midterm elections, village elections, school elections. They’re all decided by a fraction of the voter population.”

The commissioners noted that early voting was not a “panacea” solution to the problems afflicting New York elections, but that as part of a package, it could help improve the situation. Other proposals included electronic poll books and the abolition of election districts, to be replaced by poll sites as an administrative unit with books organized alphabetically instead of geographically. They also signaled support for automatic voter registration, despite possible issues with implementation regarding individuals who relocate.

The hearing was also an opportunity for Assembly members to unload on Michael Ryan, the embattled executive director of the New York City Board of Elections who has shouldered much of the blame for the administrative failures on this past election day and others.

Assemblymember Robert Carroll of Brooklyn told of his experience on Election Day. At his polling place, 350 people were stuck in line for several hours after each machine at the site broke, he said. After Carroll contacted the board, a tech was sent to fix the problem, but the machines continually broke throughout the day, leading to scores of people leaving poll sites without voting.

“I am very hopeful that New York State and New York City have early voting, have electronic poll books, voting on demand,” Carroll said. “But why should we, as elected officials, think that the New York City Board of Elections will be able to administer any election, and especially an updated election process in the future after such a terrible track record in the last year?”

Ryan argued that the issues this year were a result of both unusually high turnout (though it was still under 40 percent in the city) and other aggravating factors, including inclement weather, and a perforated two-page ballot that led to jams when voters didn’t submit them correctly. He noted education efforts were designed on short notice and inadequate, and endorsed ideas for improving the process such as having workers from municipal agencies act as poll workers or better storage for emergency ballot procedures, as well as early voting.

Carroll was not convinced.

“Yeah I get it: there’s a lot of people in New York City. Guess what? That’s always been true,” Carroll said. “We need to actually make sure that we can run an election. So how are we gonna change that?”

[Read: Voter Turnout Booms in New York]

[Read: 3 Big Reasons Elections in New York City are So Poorly Run]

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Assembly Committee Examines Election Administration, Eyes Voting Reforms in 2019 Thu, 15 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
The 3 Big Reasons Why Elections in New York City are So Poorly Run https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8053-the-3-big-reasons-why-elections-in-new-york-city-are-so-poorly-run https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8053-the-3-big-reasons-why-elections-in-new-york-city-are-so-poorly-run and cuomo nov2

Gov. Cuomo votes (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)


Election Day in New York City was, as City Council Speaker Corey Johnson wrote on Twitter, “like Groundhog Day,” where yet again, voters were forced to wait in long lines as ballot scanners across the city broke down, a sign of the abysmal election administration that New Yorkers have come to expect every time they visit the polls.

The past few elections -- city, state, and federal -- conducted in New York City have repeatedly shown instances of failure on the part of the New York City Board of Elections, an entity whose name belies the fact that it is a state-created agency charged with administering several elections each year. City BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan -- who is hired by the board’s ten commissioners and reports to them -- suggested on Tuesday, in a brief video posted to Twitter by NY1 reporter Lindsey Christ, that the cause of the latest debacle was a combination of higher turnout, an unwieldy two-page ballot (owing to three ballot questions on the back) and wet ballots because of voters coming in from rainy weather.

The BOE’s problems, long recognized by government reformers, some elected officials, and of course voters, came urgently to the forefront after the 2016 presidential primary, in which more than 117,000 voters were improperly purged from the rolls in Brooklyn, the city’s most populated borough. The purge, originally reported by WNYC, led to a federal lawsuit against the BOE, which later opted for a settlement in which it admitted that it broke the law. But while the settlement prompted improvements to voter roll management, the BOE’s inability to smoothly run elections has stretched far beyond that one area or even the last few years.

“I think there’s many different problems at many different levels that lead to a day like this,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a government reform group.

In a statement, Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz, who serves on the Rules, Judiciary, Health and Election Law committees, said, “Today’s problems should have been prevented. Rainy weather and high voter turnout should not be impediments to a functional election system.”

So why is the New York City Board of Elections so dysfunctional? What is standing in the way of New Yorkers and easy voting experiences?

A Structural Problem
Part of the reason for the BOE’s continued failures is the agency’s structure itself. Though the agency is funded by the city, and the City Council conducts regular oversight of its function after each election, it is a creation of the state. Its commissioners are chosen by county party committees according to state law -- by the top two vote-getting political parties in the five boroughs, which, for all intents and purposes, means Democrats and Republicans. Each party selects one commissioner from each borough who is then confirmed by the City Council to make up the ten-member board, which decides on everything from election management procedures to candidates’ inclusion on the ballot.

The entire process is rife with patronage, with not only the commissioners, but most of the BOE’s staff employees appointed by county chairs along party lines. The board has been resistant to efforts by the city to professionalize its ranks, pushing back against City Council legislation that would require appointments akin to civil service jobs. Broadly speaking, criticism of the board boils down to the belief that it is more concerned about keeping the county party leaders happy than it is about delivering good service to voters, and that it is not necessarily well-prepared to deliver top-notch service even if that was the main focus.

Immediately following the 2016 election snafu, Mayor Bill de Blasio even offered the BOE an additional $20 million to implement reforms including hiring an outside consultant and creating a blue ribbon panel to conduct a top-to-bottom review of systemic issues, providing more transparency in hiring, and new methods of communication with voters. The BOE, however, refused the offer.  

Speaker Johnson, who called for Ryan’s resignation on Tuesday, said in a phone interview that there is a dire need for reforms at the state level. But, he insisted, “Until that happens, we need competent leadership at the staff level from the Board of Elections.”

Johnson said the reasons Ryan gave in the video on Twitter, including the rainy weather and higher turnout, were “predictable” factors. “Those aren’t valid reasons to have hundreds of machines breaking down...That did not give me confidence in him understanding the depth of anger that New Yorkers felt at the polls,” he said.  

Voting and electoral laws
New York employs what good government groups call “passive voter suppression” with election and voting laws that tend to discourage turnout. The state is one of 13 that does not have early voting, which means that the nearly 13 million registered voters across the state must cast their ballots in a 15-hour period on the day of the general election (During the September primary, poll sites were only open for nine hours in 49 out of 62 counties). Besides depressing turnout, the lack of early voting also forces the BOE to resolve issues as they arise at the ballot box on election day rather than be able to preempt them.

“On the one hand, the problem today seems to be with the scanners, the hardware and software,” Camarda said. “But obviously if reforms had been passed like early voting, that would’ve provided a dry run to prevent these kinds of issues from occurring.”

The state has also failed to pass common-sense voting reforms such as no-excuse absentee ballots, mail-in ballots, electronic poll books or consolidating primary election dates. Case in point, New York held two primaries this year, one in June for congressional seats and the second in September for state candidates. In terms of voting, the state also does not allow same-day voter registration and has one of the longest deadlines for switching party registration.

The Democrat-led State Assembly has repeatedly passed many of those reforms and Democratic leaders, including Governor Andrew Cuomo, have blamed Republicans who control the State Senate for blocking them in turn. Though Cuomo has often said he supports that broad reform platform, he has put little capital behind it and has been promising this year to advance them if the Democrats flip control of the Senate, which they did on Election Day. Senate Democratic leaders have listed voting and election reform as a top priority for early 2019.

Overworked, Underpaid and Untrained Poll Workers
Though there have been efforts in the Assembly to provide raises to poll workers, who are volunteers, and reduce the long shifts that they are required to serve, most workers continue to be underpaid and overworked. Poll worker training is also seen is inadequate and often causes some of the issues seen on election day, contributing to long lines, confusion, and frustration.

The mayor’s funding offer would have required the BOE to provide a plan to improve both poll worker pay and training, including bonuses for those who volunteered at multiple elections in a year. Electronic poll books may also aid efforts to run elections more quickly and smoothly, they are on the list of potential reforms.

Many of the less-controversial reforms are long overdue. An audit released by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer in November last year found that in three elections since 2016, out of 156 polling sites, 90 percent showed significant breakdowns ranging from mishandling of affidavit ballots and inadequate staffing to a lack of assistance for voters with disabilities. “After a thorough review of the agency, it’s clear the voter purge is a reflection of larger, systemic, day-to-day breakdowns,” Stringer said in a statement at the time. “Elections matter, and every vote must be counted in every election. That’s why the BOE needs to fundamentally change its operations.”

Camarda’s group has for years advocated for a municipal poll worker program. “The executive director of the Board of Elections has a very difficult job because you’re managing a temporary workforce of roughly 35,000 people across some 1,300 poll sites,” he said. “If you want to have qualified people to do these jobs, you’ve got to pay them.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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The 3 Big Reasons Why Elections in New York City are So Poorly Run Wed, 07 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Nearly 160,000 New Democratic Voters in 7 Months; 22,000 New Republicans https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8039-nearly-160-000-new-democratic-voters-in-6-months-22-000-new-republicans https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8039-nearly-160-000-new-democratic-voters-in-6-months-22-000-new-republicans 30833380106 11c5de4882 h

New Yorkers line up to vote (photo: Edwin Torres/Mayor's office)


Close to 160,000 New Yorkers registered with the Democratic Party in the last seven months, according to the latest enrollment numbers released by the State Board of Elections on Thursday, compared with just over 22,000 voters who joined the Republican Party and close to 113,000 who registered but did not pick a party affiliation. In total, there were 12.7 million registered voters across the state, an increase of about 300,000 since April.

The numbers were released, as they typically are on November 1, just a few days before New Yorkers head to the polls on Tuesday to cast ballots for governor and other statewide positions, as well as members of the state Legislature and U.S. House of Representatives, among other seats. Democrats are hoping to keep control of all the statewide positions on the ballot as well as the state Assembly, while flipping control of the state Senate and enough House seats to contribute to a takeover of that chamber nationally.

Democrats have long maintained an overwhelming registration advantage in the state and that has only been growing in recent years, likely in part in response to the Trump presidency and the Republican-led Congress. Prior to going to the polls in November 2016, there were 6.18 million registered Democratic voters statewide. They have grown to 6.36 million, of which 5.78 million are active registered voters and 579,000 inactive voters.

Republicans have not fared as well. There were 2.84 million voters registered with the party in November 2016, increasing by only about 6,000 more voters in the latest numbers. Of those, 2.63 million were active voters while 212,000 were inactive. Unaffiliated voters, commonly referred to as “independents,” numbered 2.72 million two years ago and have increased to 2.75 million, with 2.48 million active voters and 270,000 inactive ones.

Most of the minor parties did not see drastic change over the last four years. The Independence Party did add about 10,000 new voters to its base, reaching total of just above 491,000, and notably the Green Party added nearly 6,000 new members to its small base, reaching slightly over the 31,000 mark.

Voter turnout also surged in primary elections this year -- there was a congressional primary in June and the state primary in September -- with several competitive Democratic races but few Republican ones. New York has more often than not seen low turnout at the polls, a trend that most expect will change this year particularly as Democrats are turning out in increasing numbers amid a nationwide “blue wave,” the electoral impact of which is yet to be seen in full, with November 6 set to show its actual impact.

In the four years since the last statewide election, voter enrollment increased by almost 900,000, including nearly 520,000 new Democrats, about 73,000 new Republicans and more than 280,000 new unaffiliated voters.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Nearly 160,000 New Democratic Voters in 7 Months; 22,000 New Republicans Thu, 01 Nov 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Klein, Filing Late Post-Primary, Shows Over $3 Million in Senate Campaign Spending https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7973-klein-filing-late-post-primary-shows-over-3-million-in-senate-campaign-spending https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7973-klein-filing-late-post-primary-shows-over-3-million-in-senate-campaign-spending shakinghands

Sen. Jeff Klein meets voters (Photo: jeffkleinny.com)


Already spending at what is likely a record pace, with two weeks until the September 13 primary, New York State Senator Jeff Klein kept spending his campaign cash at a rapid clip to try to beat back a Democratic primary challenge from Alessandra Biaggi, a lawyer and first-time candidate, Klein’s late post-primary campaign finance filing shows. In sum, Klein spent nearly ten times more than Biaggi, but was still unsuccessful as Biaggi claimed the nomination, likely unseating one of the state’s major powerbrokers of the past decade, in the district that covers parts of the Bronx and Westchester.

Klein spent nearly $700,000 in September, out of more than $3 million -- an astronomical sum for a state legislative race -- that he depleted in trying to retain his seat in this two-year election cycle. He also raised another $246,000 in those final weeks of the primary -- he has brought in $1.8 million since January 2017 -- including $103,000 from the Senate Independence Campaign Committee, which he and partners originally set up jointly between the Independence Party and the erstwhile Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of eight senators led by Klein that formed a power-sharing agreement with Republicans in the Senate. The SICC was ruled by a state supreme court judge to be illegal, though it apparently moved into compliance thereafter, and the state BOE had ordered that IDC members refund its contributions, but they refused. In total, the SICC directed $403,000 to Klein’s reelection coffers.

The SICC also moved hundreds of thousands of dollars, largely from major donors in real estate and education reform, to other members of the IDC, with Klein and five other former IDC members losing their primaries.

In the days leading up to September 13, Klein received $90,500 in donations from limited liability companies and from political action committees, including some associated with law enforcement unions and the nursing and beverage industries. Klein has benefited greatly from the largesse of corporations, PACs and LLCs, the last of which are not required to name their owners and can therefore circumvent contribution limits. In total, those types of contributors gave him about $1.16 million for his reelection.

There were a few notable individual donations in the most recent filing as well. On primary day itself, Carl Icahn, the billionaire investor with close ties to President Donald Trump, gave Klein $11,000; two days before that, hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones gave him $15,000; and in the week before, Larry Robbins, also a billionaire and of the KIPP charter school network, donated $10,000.

Of the latest spending spree, about $390,000 went to the Hamilton Campaign Network, a Democratic campaign consulting firm, which organized campaign mailers, phone and text banking efforts, and produced videos for Klein’s campaign.

After all his spending, Klein still had $510,000 sitting in his campaign account as of this filing, which was sent to the Board of Elections a week late. He could retain that cash or potentially transfer it to another campaign account, should he decide to run in any upcoming elections, or he can donate to other candidates running in the general. He may decide to use it for his own continued campaign, given that he has the Independence Party ballot line to run on in November after losing the Democratic nomination, and Klein has not formally conceded his race or endorsed Biaggi.

In the Democratic primary, Klein received 14,754 votes, about 44.5 percent, losing to Biaggi’s 17,618 votes, or 53.1 percent. All told, Klein spent roughly $207 for each vote while Biaggi only disbursed $18.90 per vote.

Independent expenditure groups also showed their support for Klein. Those include Laborers Building a Better New York, a group associated with the Construction and General Building Laborers Local 79 union, which spent $109,360 to favor several candidates, including Klein. New Yorkers for Quality Healthcare, affiliated with the Greater New York Hospital Association, spent a whopping $447,450 on digital ads, direct mailers, web design, and tv production to support Klein and State Senator David Valesky, another former IDC member who lost to his own primary challenger, Rachel May. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association’s independent expenditure committee also spent $65,338 on direct mailers boosting Klein.

In total, Biaggi spent $332,000 on her campaign and raised about $534,000. While Klein was attempting a well-funded last ditch effort to sway voters, Biaggi only dropped about $160,000 in that final three week period, raising only $62,500 in the same time. She has another $133,000 as she heads into the general election, where she would be unopposed unless Klein continues to run.

A spokesperson for Klein’s campaign did not return a request for comment for this article. He has not appeared in public since primary day, and did not address supporters on primary night.

Biaggi also received outside help in the primary. The Empire State 32BJ SEIU PAC spent $97,285 to support her election, through mailers, canvassing efforts and social media ads. They also spent $11,540 on a mailer opposing Klein. The union, 32BJ, dedicated significant resources, including financial and human, to Biaggi’s successful bid.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Klein, Filing Late Post-Primary, Shows Over $3 Million in Senate Campaign Spending Wed, 03 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000