Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1870 Mon, 28 Sep 2020 23:21:44 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Can New York Officials Deliver November Election Results in a Timely Fashion? https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9682-new-york-city-election-officials-deliver-timely-2020-november-results https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9682-new-york-city-election-officials-deliver-timely-2020-november-results 3 how election official

"Every Vote Counts" (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography)


While New Yorkers have come to expect challenges in the voting process, they’ve also come to expect "unofficial election night results" rolling in in the hours after polls close -- a tradition that sometimes entails staying up late to find out the winner of a close race, or waking up the next day to a new leader-elect who had been only a hopeful when voters went to the polls.

But with the unprecedented volume of mail-in ballots for the June primary this year, some races took up to six weeks for clear winners to become apparent, during which time uncertainty about the results and fears of what the delay portends for the already-fraught general election reverberated across New York City. With the promise of skyrocketing turnout less than 80 days away, and Governor Andrew Cuomo and the State Legislature indicating New York will again greatly expand absentee voting, few of the challenges to the timely counting of ballots have been resolved and representatives of the New York City and New York State boards of elections have said little about what they are doing to improve the process.

In the June primaries, the New York City Board of Elections (BOE) sent 775,000 absentee ballots to voters -- twelve times the number mailed in 2016 -- and received over 400,000 back. In the fall general election, with races for President, Congress, the State Legislature, Queens Borough President, and other offices, the State Board of Elections is expecting as many as 5 million absentee ballots to be cast statewide -- a four-fold increase from the 1.2 million received in the primaries, which strained election infrastructure across the state. With the Electoral College set to formally select the president on December 14, the New York City Board will again have to certify the election results within six weeks of election day, this time contending with vastly more ballots. Even if they can meet the statutory requirements, as some administrators appear confident of, many want to see a tighter timeline.

Lawmakers have passed or proposed a series of bills that would again expand absentee eligibility for Covid concerns as well as others that aim to address problems that arose in the primaries. On August 11, the State Senate and Assembly held a joint oversight hearing where officials raised concerns about preparedness for the fall and mishaps with absentee requests, delivery, and counting in the primaries, which in New York City resulted in 80,000 mail-in ballots being rejected.

The New York City Board of Elections is taking some steps to scale up its absentee counting operations, like purchasing new technology and encouraging people to take advantage of in-person early voting, a nine-day period from October 24 through November 1. Election Day is November 3. But very little is public about what other measures are being taken to prepare for the onslaught of mailed ballots or what resources are available to the board.

To count all the ballots requires personnel, space, and machinery, and to do it quickly means more of everything. That all requires money and a pool of workers, both of which have become hard to come by in a pandemic.

Funding
A typical general election costs anywhere from $20 to 25 million, according to the State Board of Elections. For the 2020 general election, administrators expect they will need twice that.

"To do everything, we need $50 million, conservatively," State Board of Elections Co-Chair Douglas Kellner told state lawmakers at the August 11 oversight hearing.

In March, New York State received $20.5 million in federal CARES Act funding to cover election-related expenses that rose due to the pandemic, and counties received an additional $4.1 million in state funds. The State Board of Elections established a grant reimbursement program to distribute the federal funding to local boards, which have spent roughly half of it, according to testimony provided to the State Legislature. It is unclear how much of that has gone to New York City and how much the NYCBOE has spent. Neither the New York City nor State board of elections provided comment or information requested for this story, including about how much money is available to New York City for ballot-canvassing in the general election.

In Fiscal Year 2020, which ended at the end of June (after the primaries), the New York City Board of Elections was allocated $246 million in city funds and saved $31 million by only running one election between March and June, instead of two as had been planned but changed due to the pandemic, according to a spokesperson for the Mayor's Office of Management and Budget (OMB). That budget was nearly twice what was available in FY19, largely due to start-up costs associated with early voting.

In the current fiscal year's budget, which went into effect July 1 and was negotiated during the pandemic, the city allocated $136 million to the BOE. That money is meant to cover the general election this fall and the primaries for city offices set for next June.

"We are monitoring the BOE’s needs, and will make sure that they are properly funded for this year's elections," a spokesperson for OMB wrote to Gotham Gazette.

The extent of the city's canvassing needs are obscure, in part because of uncertainties about potential changes to election rules, either via state legislation or gubernatorial order, and the state of the coronavirus outbreak -- and in part because of a lack of information coming from the city BOE.

One week after the August 11 oversight hearing, the board still has not submitted its written testimony to the Legislature’s elections and governmental operations committees (or to Gotham Gazette after multiple inquiries). In his oral testimony and in response to questions from lawmakers, NYCBOE Executive Director Michael Ryan focused more on obstacles to mailing ballots to voters and the 80,000 ballots that were disqualified than on changes that could improve the ballot count and deliver speedier results.

Asked whether the BOE would be able to certify the election by the deadline for electors to choose the president, Ryan said "yes," without indicating whether any effort would be made to expedite the process.

"The City Board of Elections, long before I got here and since I've been here, has met many challenges and we have always found a way to get the job done, ultimately, despite what some others may think," he said.

Representatives for the State Board of Elections, a regulatory body, have not responded to requests for the information they have on the city board's canvassing efforts and challenges.

Earlier this month, the New York City Board of Elections approved the purchase of mail-sorting machines -- one for each county (borough) -- at a cost of $1.5 million. The machines are capable of opening, sorting, time- and date-stamping, and digitally scanning up to 15,000 ballots an hour, according to Sherwin Suss, the agency's chief contracting officer, in a presentation to commissioners on August 4.

Ryan said the agency was exploring whether it will need back-up machines from the supplier, Neopost USA.

"We will pursue those other avenues of process with the chiefs and deputies and with the vendor to determine what additional pieces of equipment we will need," Ryan said, referring to the leaders of the board's borough offices and Neopost. "We will treat this five as a floor."

The machines, which are set to arrive in October, will undoubtedly ease the BOE's logistical burdens, and their ability to scan ballots alone could save an immense amount of physical labor. In the primaries, "our borough offices copied over 443,000 individual absentee ballot envelopes, which required two pages, so that was almost a million pieces of paper that had to be photocopied for challenges and court cases," Ryan said at the oversight hearing.

Personnel
Even with the technological upgrades, personnel for the actual counting of ballots, which by law must be done by hand, is still an issue.

"Recruiting personnel to actually physically count ballots is probably the hardest part of our recruiting personnel," said Dustin Czarny, an elections commissioner in Onondaga County and chair of the Democratic Caucus of the New York State Elections Commissioners Association, in an interview. "They need more training and more expertise than, say, a normal election inspector that is at the polls."

"This is not something that can be trained easily -- you learn by doing," he added. There are a number of technical and statutory "quirks" to canvassing ballots, which require training and care, Czarny said. Canvassers have to know how to open and count ballots making sure each vote is properly reviewed, that anonymity is maintained, and that votes are not being disqualified without cause.

"A lot of that has to come through the experience of dealing with absentee ballots, which we've never dealt with on a scale like we have now," he said.

The pool of experienced canvassers is small -- a perennial challenge for administrators -- and shrinking.

Boards of elections often rely on retirees to make up the poll-worker and -inspector pool. With seniors among the most vulnerable to COVID-19, administrators around the state are scrambling to fill vacancies. Czarny hopes that the fact that canvassers generally don't interact with the public will make that specific recruitment easier: "the risk will be less, but whether we can convey that" is another story, he said.

Another obstacle is related to the BOE's bipartisan structure, a vestige of anti-corruption sentiments at the turn of the last century.

In New York State, for every ballot cast there must be a designated Democrat and Republican canvassing each vote. That means boards will need to hire two times the number of ballot canvassers than is physically necessary to tally up the votes, even with the historic surge in turnout expected in the presidential election.

More personnel also means more tables to sort and count ballots, and more space to house them. With the coronavirus pandemic requiring social distancing, the BOE's space needs are growing exponentially.

An executive order signed by Governor Cuomo on August 24 requires local election boards to submit staffing plans, including personnel needs, to the State Board of Elections by September 20, providing an opportunity for the state board to assist if possible.

Statutory Hurdles
Even without resource challenges, there are certain waiting periods built into state election law that, in conjunction with growing absentee voting, will likely delay general election results.

The statutory deadline for boards of elections to accept absentee ballots is seven days after an election, so the actual tally cannot begin until after that time (November 10 this year).

"That's sort of baked into the process," said Sarah Goff, deputy director of the good government group Common Cause New York.

Normally, with a few thousand absentee ballots cast statewide their impact on the final results is trivial, allowing local boards to publish "unofficial" results shortly after the polls close. But with potentially 40 percent of voters voting absentee statewide, the deadline poses a significant obstacle to getting the final outcome with any of the expediency New Yorkers are used to.

Once the seven-day period is up, administrators still can't simply start counting ballots. New York State law permits a voter to vote in-person even if they have cast an absentee ballot, with the in-person vote usurping the mailed ballot. Ensuring the right ballots are being counted takes time.

"Once they hit that seven-day cutoff point in terms of ballots received, they then have to go through this time-consuming, but obviously necessary, process in which they cross-check absentee ballots against folks who voted in person," Goff said, adding that New York is one of the few states that allows in-person voting to override an absentee ballot. "And then they will finally start to count the ballots."

The process could take days, meaning the actual canvassing of ballots may not begin until 10 to 14 days after Election Day, according to Goff.

"Obviously, looking ahead to November, they will be better prepared given that they've gone through this already once, they know what to expect in turns of increased volume, and can sort of roughly project the volume that they are going to see," she said. But the coronavirus pandemic is unpredictable and an uptick in cases could drive up the number of absentee ballots beyond the current estimates.

Cuomo's August 24 executive order will help boards expedite the counting by allowing them to start processing, though not necessarily opening, received ballots before Election Day. The change will speed up the process of settling contested ballots, but won't impact the seven-day post-Election Day period to receive mailed ballots.

Early voting "in the middle of a pandemic"
One thing advocates want to see is a better use of alternatives to absentee voting, particularly early voting, which first rolled out in 2019.

"Early Voting sites were not properly promoted, they promoted absentee ballots," said Sarah Steiner, a New York City-based elections lawyer, of the city's and state's approaches during the primaries. But doing so "would be the biggest thing that I think they should do," followed by establishing additional early voting locations, she said.

In his oral testimony to the State Legislature, Ryan said the BOE would be undertaking a public education campaign around early voting "through social media and other outlets." For the primaries, the Board of Elections expanded the number of early voting sites from 61 to 79 in New York City.

"The board increased -- increased -- the number of early voting sites by 30 percent in the middle of a pandemic," Ryan told lawmakers.

Nevertheless, only about 52,000 took advantage of the option, just 6 percent of the city's total turnout in the Democratic primaries.

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

Read more by this writer.

Note: this story has been updated with two pieces of information about Governor Cuomo's August 24 executive order, issued after this story originally published.

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Can New York Officials Deliver November Election Results in a Timely Fashion? Tue, 18 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Key Details Emerge for How Ranked-Choice Voting Will Work in New York City https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9148-key-details-for-how-ranked-choice-voting-will-work-continue-to-emerge https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9148-key-details-for-how-ranked-choice-voting-will-work-continue-to-emerge primary voting chi bdb

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Though a new system for holding many city elections was overwhelmingly approved by voters last fall, new details about how ranked-choice voting will actually work continue to emerge.

Ranked-choice voting, which will apply to only special and primary elections for New York City government positions, allows voters to rank up to five candidates in order of preference. If no candidate hits a majority of votes, a system of vote redistribution based on second and possibly subsequent choices is executed, with ballots initially cast for the last-place candidate assigned to each of those voters’ second choices, and so on until a winner is crowned.

While several potential benefits, including the end to costly, low turnout run-off elections, helped lead to the passage of ranked-choice voting, concerns have been raised about educating voters on the new, complex system before its 2021 implementation.

Under ranked-choice voting, how the results are tabulated, when vote tallies are reported, and when unofficial winners are declared have implications for the way New Yorkers understand election results.

Newly evident details about the methodology for tabulating and reporting ranked-choice voting results in New York City are now surfacing, including areas in which the New York City Board of Elections has discretion. They come amid concerns over the recent debacle at the Iowa Democratic presidential primary caucuses and a nationwide call to remove chaos and misinformation from elections -- while New York City contests have seen their share of controversy and uncertainty.

Supporters of ranked-choice voting say it will encourage more civility in campaigning and require candidates to reach a larger base of support, with candidates hoping to be named either first or second choice on as many ballots as possible, while also eliminating the need for party primary run-offs. The 2019 Charter Revision Commission, created through City Council legislation, proposed amending the City Charter to establish ranked-choice voting (among over a dozen other proposals). Voters approved the amendment including ranked-choice voting with 73.6 percent support, while all the other proposals on a wide variety of topics also passed with similar degrees of support.

Jurisdictions using ranked-choice voting allow voters to rank candidates as ‘first choice,’ ‘second choice,’ ‘third choice,’ and sometimes more (the city will allow up to five, though voters can still just select their top choice for a position and leave it at that). If no candidate wins a majority of first choice votes upon the initial counting, the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated and their votes are reassigned to the second choice candidate listed on each of those ballots. That process is then repeated as needed until a winner is declared.

Gotham Gazette has learned that, if no candidate hits a majority of votes and candidate elimination is triggered, under the law a winner will not be announced until all but two candidates have been eliminated and all ballots with other candidates listed first are redistributed among those top two finishers.

This differs from the way most jurisdictions using ranked-choice voting in the United States tabulate votes. According to the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, of the 15 jurisdictions that use ranked-choice voting to elect a single winner, all but two stop the counting and declare a victor as soon as any candidate reaches more than 50 percent of the vote.

“A close reading of the Charter shows that the 2019 Charter Revision Commission selected a far less common version of Ranked Choice Voting for New York City, and very few New Yorkers, including many legislators and advocates, realize that,” wrote Rachel Bloom, policy director at Citizens Union, a good government group, in an email to Gotham Gazette.

While falling into the minority of ranked-choice voting methods, experts say the city’s so-called “down to two” approach provides a fuller picture of the electorate’s position. They say it adds to the value of ranked-choice voting by showing a wider breadth of support for the winner in a crowded special or primary election.

“Running the count down to the final two gives you a better sense of a candidate's mandate and what coalitions they may have formed or have available to them as electeds,” wrote Christopher Hughes, the policy director and general counsel at the Resource Center, who has worked with governments and advocates throughout the country on adopting and implementing ranked-choice voting, in an email to Gotham Gazette.

A City Council source said that running the tabulation down to two is a transparency measure and will not affect which candidate ultimately wins.

But making vote tabulation more complicated, in any sense, could also have negative side effects in terms of informing voters.

At a press conference last week in Lower Manhattan and again Tuesday on WNYC radio, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a Democrat and likely 2021 mayoral contender, claimed election results will not be reported after polls close on the night of an election using ranked-choice voting. In almost all recent elections in New York City, unofficial results have been known and publicized the night of the election. Instead they may not be announced for days or may trickle-in in pieces, with the first round of counting published days before the final outcome is known -- or both.

“We are definitely not going to know on primary night in June of 2021 who the winner is. It’s going to take potentially days...You’re hearing it here, now, 17 months before the election,” Johnson said on WNYC.

He cited the length of time it will take to count votes, eliminate candidates if none reach a majority of highest rank votes on the initial count, and redistribute the votes as needed. 

But the true calculus is not as cut and dry and when results are announced depends on the discretion of election administrators, who have yet to publicly discuss how ranked-choice voting will be executed. Under New York State election law, the New York City Board of Elections, which administers elections in the five boroughs, must report unofficial election results on the final night of an election after polls close. But the City Charter amendment creating ranked-choice voting gives the city BOE discretion to decide whether to, on the night of a special or primary election, report just the first round of tabulation or the results of all rounds.

According to the City Council source, the BOE will ultimately have to make a rule about its approach to reporting. The board must issue a report in June on its plan for implementing RCV in 2021, but is not explicitly required to include a determination on the reporting method then.

A spokesperson for the city BOE said it was too early to say which approach the board would take and that staff would be meeting with voting technology vendors in March to discuss the options.

In a phone interview, Michael Ryan, the New York City Board of Elections executive director, said the nuances of ranked-choice voting mean a candidate elimination might not be triggered until after absentee and affidavit ballots are counted.

“The Speaker’s statement is correct. There are going to be contests, maybe not all of them, but there are going to be contests where the outcome will be an open question for a much longer period of time than we have become used to in the city of New York,” Ryan said.

“The Speaker’s prediction is based on the findings by the Charter Revision Commission,” wrote a Council spokesperson in an email. 

Unofficial election night results differ from the certified election results, which can come days or weeks after an election. In New York, election administrators have 13 days to declare official winners. To reach the official results, all votes including absentee and affidavit ballots have to be tabulated.

“In most RCV jurisdictions the election administrators have communicated to press/candidates/voters how and when results of the RCV count will be released,” Hughes wrote by email. “Most places tend to get unofficial round-by-round results out in the 24 hours after an election, but first-time implementations may take a bit longer as people work out the kinks in the process.”

The kinks, according to Hughes, are not necessarily a matter of technology. “The additional rounds of counting, if needed to determine who the final two candidates are [and] their vote shares, don't take much additional time because the software used to run the count is fairly efficient at this point,” he pointed out.

With the potential that first round tabulations can yield different vote leaders than the final “down to two” count, partial or piece-meal reporting could confuse voters and diminish confidence in the final results. “We definitely won’t know that night, we may not know the next day, and people should understand that that night candidates are going to...stand at a lectern and say, ‘ra! ra!’ but not be able to say who actually won or not,” Johnson said Tuesday of election results and the nights of special or primary elections (which now come after a period of early voting in New York for each election).

The 2021 election cycle, which will be the city’s first using ranked-choice voting, will be incredibly busy, especially for the June Democratic primaries, with hundreds of candidates expected across races for mayor, comptroller, public advocate, the five borough presidents, and all 51 City Council seats. Many of those contests will be for “open seats” with no incumbent running, traditionally leading to more candidates in the running and increasing the likelihood that ranked-choice voting will involve more triggered candidate elimination, vote redistribution processes.

Along with clarity and planning from the city Board of Elections, elected officials and advocates are calling for an education campaign so that voters know how ranked-choice voting works, both from voting and vote-counting standpoints. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, also a Democrat and likely mayoral candidate, has already pledged to start holding educational workshops.

“Clarity is needed so we can begin a comprehensive voter education program in advance of the 2021 primary where RCV will go into effect.  RCV education is not only about how to vote but also how results are calculated. The last thing we want is voters not understanding why a certain candidate won,” Bloom wrote.

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

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Key Details Emerge for How Ranked-Choice Voting Will Work in New York City Thu, 20 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
As Calls for New Board of Elections Head Resume, Council Member Ulrich Pursues Post https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8947-calls-for-new-board-of-elections-head-continue-council-member-ulrich-pursues https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8947-calls-for-new-board-of-elections-head-continue-council-member-ulrich-pursues cm eric ulrich epc

Council Member Eric Ulrich (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


With 2019 voting in the books and a major election year on the horizon, a behind-the-scenes effort is underway to replace the executive director of the New York City Board of Elections, a quasi-city agency with a reputation for mismanagement and political patronage. City Council Member Eric Ulrich, a Queens Republican, is expressing interest in the position and says he may soon have the support necessary to be appointed by the board’s commissioners.  

The BOE is essentially a state entity but is funded in the city budget. The board itself is composed of ten commissioners, two from each borough, with one Democrat and one Republican as nominated by the local party leaders. The commissioners then appoint an executive director to handle the day-to-day operations of the agency and its staff. Ryan, an attorney from Staten Island, has served in that position since 2013, but like his predecessors he has struggled to professionalize the agency and has faced calls for his resignation.

As this year’s election season, the first with early voting and other recent reforms in place, is wrapping up with final votes counted and results certified, legislative bodies at the city and state levels have been taking stock of the BOE’s performance. And while Ryan and the agency have received some praise for the inaugural early voting period, long-standing interest in him being replaced has led to a new flurry of activity, Gotham Gazette has learned. That activity includes Ulrich’s pursuit of the position, he said during a Friday interview.

While the City Council does have the power to confirm BOE nominees put forth by the borough leaders of the two political parties, the BOE’s structure under the law means that the Council can scrutinize the agency’s performance in oversight hearings, but cannot mandate any reforms. That has proven to be a constant source of frustration after repeated instances of failures by the BOE to conduct efficient elections.

For instance, after the 2016 presidential primary, it emerged that thousands of voters had been improperly purged from the voter rolls, prompting a $20-million offer from Mayor Bill de Blasio to make much needed improvements, which the board rejected. The board later conceded that it violated state and federal laws for the voter purge. During elections, long lines at the polls and broken-down voting machines are common sources of frustration. The board has also been criticized for failing to inform voters when their poll sites are moved, among other complaints.

Government reform groups and elected officials have sought to pressure the BOE to improve, criticizing its hiring, often based on political patronage, and contracting processes. The BOE, however, has been resistant to those external calls. Ryan, as the face of the board, has borne the brunt of the criticism and has been the cause of it as well.

Last year, just weeks after an abysmally managed Election Day, NY1 reported that Ryan had accepted paid trips from a voting machine manufacturer that supplies the city and stands to gain further from Ryan’s sway and insights. The mismanagement of the election and the subsequent conflict of interest allegation prompted wide calls for Ryan’s resignation, including from City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, and other elected officials and good government groups. 

Though the BOE did receive some praise for this most recent election, it will have its work cut out in 2020. There are three major election events next year – the presidential primary in April, state and congressional primary in June, and the general election in November. Turnout will also be much higher than in 2019, which saw few competitive races across the city. 

“We’ve seen long-standing issues with the executive director of the [BOE],” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a government reform advocacy group, specifically citing the conflict of interest issues, which led Ryan to announce changes to his behavior. “He has been leading the board in a direction which is very disquieting, where the business plan of the vendor seems to be taking precedence over the needs of the voter.”

Lerner emphasized the need to professionalize the ranks of the BOE and, to the extent possible short of state law change, move it in a nonpartisan direction. 

That’s a task that’s easier said than done. The nominations of BOE commissioners by the county party bosses are rarely contested, particularly considering that they are approved by their allies in the Council. Lerner said the process should be more public facing. “Voters and the public interest must be first and foremost as we go into the 2020 election,” she said. “Voters seem to have no role in our election and election administration process. It's just backwards. We have an antiquated 19th-century approach to election administration.”

She added, “If there's going to be a change, it should be made now, because there's a lot that needs to be done to gear up for 2020, including getting procedures in place, locations and procedures for early voting, we need more professional staff and quickly, and to run it all effectively.” 

Council Member Ulrich, who is term-limited from running for his current seat again in 2021, the next city election cycle, told Gotham Gazette he has had conversations in recent weeks with county leaders from both parties about the job. “I'm very interested in going into the Board of Elections and turning that place around,” he said in a phone interview. 

“The Board of Elections is in dire need of reform. It has been, for a very long time, a dysfunctional place and I would say most New Yorkers lost confidence in the board’s ability to conduct efficient elections a long time ago,” Ulrich said. “And the board hasn’t done a very good job of restoring the public trust or confidence in how the Board of Elections actually carries out the election.”

Ulrich, one of three Republicans in the 51-member City Council, is not a partisan hardliner and is far more moderate than most members of his own party, often finding common ground with Democrats on legislation. He regularly argues in support of campaign finance and voting reforms that are opposed by most Republicans, but he is also not closely aligned with any Democratic power-brokers.

“I don't have the same political constraints that someone else might have,” he said. “I would really be able to go in there and truly be independent and manage the agency more effectively than it is currently being managed.” Acknowledging the major task at hand with both reforming the operations of the BOE and implementing the elections of 2020 (and beyond), Ulrich said he would aggressively act to clean up the agency and that he has enough familiarity with its operations to be able to hit the ground running.

In order to be appointed executive director, Ulrich would need the votes of six commissioners on the board. He said he’s counting on affirmative votes from the four Republican commissioners – there is a vacancy for the Republican commissioner from the Bronx – and said that he has spoken with Democratic county leaders to court their support. He said, though that only certain Democratic leaders appear open to his candidacy.

Ulrich said that commissioners appointed by the more powerful Queens and Bronx Democratic county machines are “very much opposed” to him replacing Ryan. The Queens and Bronx Democrats helped elect Johnson as speaker of the Council. It’s unclear what role Johnson or those two county parties are playing in the process of possibly replacing Ryan in leading the BOE.

“There are some county leaders in the city of New York who like the status quo, who like the patronage jobs, and who don't want anything to change,” Ulrich said. “And that is to be expected. I don't expect to win over their support. But I think that there is definitely momentum for changing the leadership of the Board of Elections, and there's frustration on the part of some others who feel like the places is operating, not in the 21st century.”

“It doesn't take a political scientist or rocket scientist to know that the Board of Elections desperately needs...an extreme makeover,” he added.

Neither Johnson’s nor de Blasio’s office provided Gotham Gazette with comment for this article.

A source familiar with the backroom negotiations told Gotham Gazette that Ulrich is currently close to securing five votes, indicating that at least one Democratic commissioner is willing to back him as he pursues a sixth and decisive vote. Ryan is a Staten Island Democrat himself, adding complication to how the borough’s leadership may act; Brooklyn Democratic leadership has often acted in opposition to that of Queens and the Bronx, and Manhattan Democrats are the most open to various compromises.

Lerner, for one, said she would support Ulrich to be the next executive director. “To the extent that there's an ongoing desire to replace the executive director with someone who is reform-minded and has a good track record of working with people across the political spectrum, Eric would be a good choice," she said when asked about his candidacy. “Replacing Mike Ryan with another person whose primary focus is on keeping the political leadership happy would be a tragic misstep as we go into 2020.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

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As Calls for New Board of Elections Head Resume, Council Member Ulrich Pursues Post Sun, 24 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Legislature Evaluates Inaugural Early Voting Period in New York, Looks Ahead to Daunting 2020 Election Year https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8941-state-legislature-evaluates-inaugural-early-voting-period-in-new-york https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8941-state-legislature-evaluates-inaugural-early-voting-period-in-new-york senator mich giana

(photo: Senator Michael Gianaris)


At post-election oversight hearings in New York, where voting is perennially plagued by episodes of malfunction and inefficiency, it is not common to hear politicians praise election administrators. But praise for both the city and state boards of elections was one of the overriding themes of a Wednesday hearing held by state legislators, convened to examine the inaugural implementation of early voting in New York State.

As officials commended both bodies’ efforts to adjust to a slew of new voting reforms in a short 10-month window, they also looked ahead to the 2020 election cycle with some concerns. Among them are how elections administrators plan to run the new and far more complicated early voting system during a year when turnout is expected to be very high given the presidential election, as well as congressional and state legislative races. The hearing also highlighted findings made during the state’s first early voting period, which was largely seen as a test-run for future election cycles.

“The board has often been a punching bag for people upset about the administration of elections but in this case you deserve credit for doing it right and doing it well. This was a first time endeavor for a lot of folks,” said Senator Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat, speaking to New York City Board of Elections Executive Director Michael Ryan at Wednesday’s hearing in Manhattan, held jointly by the Senate and Assembly.

“That being said, we got through the pre-season...in one piece, but now next year is going to be the regular season, and we are going to have to anticipate a much larger turnout and a much larger demand,” he added. The presidential primary will be in April, followed by congressional and state primaries in June, and the general election in November.

The State Legislature passed early voting this January as part of a host of election reforms that advocates had long pushed for with scant results when Republicans controlled the Senate, a longtime reign that ended after the 2018 elections. With Democrats in control of both houses and the executive chamber this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bills into law on January 24, officially starting the clock to implement early voting by the November general election.

Going forward, the statute requires early voting to be offered for nine days leading up to election day in primary, general, and special elections, including weekends and evening hours. Counties are required to establish at least one in-person early voting site for every 50,000 registered voters. The sites must be accessible and secure, and must have the capacity to store sensitive voting material and machinery for the entire period they are being used, a big ask for many public facilities.

According to unofficial results tallied by the State Board of Elections, 2.98 million ballots were cast statewide in this fall’s elections, including 256,251 ballots cast during the early voting (many ballots including absentee and affidavits are still being counted).

In New York City, where five counties (the boroughs) fall under the city Board of Elections, total turnout was unofficially 737,918, of which just over 60,000 were cast early. The overall turnout was more than three times turnout in 2015, the last city election without a mayoral contest.

Ryan pointed out that over the nine day early voting period, poll sites were open a total of 74 hours, 14 more than was required by statute. A source of some controversy, city administrators selected 61 facilities to use as early voting sites, fewer than the number many advocates and elected officials wanted to see, but more than required. To staff them, 6,140 poll workers were hired and trained and an additional 31,238 were trained to work on Election Day.

To ensure early voting sites could accommodate a wider catchment of election districts and ballot layouts, and to help ensure that voters don’t vote multiple times in the same election, state lawmakers authorized counties to purchase electronic poll books that could track a voter’s ballot from an early voting site to an Election Day poll site.

New York City purchased 4,714 electronic poll book tablets from a St. Louis-based vendor whose technology was compatible with so-called “ballot-on-demand” printers, which could produce a voter’s unique ballot on the spot, rather than requiring early voting sites to stock a prohibitively large range of pre-printed ballots.

The printers produce ballots that do not have perforated edges, one of the factors blamed for the high volume of ballot scanner jams in what many described as a disastrous 2018 election. That year, the city saw unprecedented (for recent times) turnout of roughly 39 percent of registered voters, compared to 14 percent this year. Yet, for an off-off-year election with few high-profile races, the turnout this year was relatively high. In 2015, just 6 percent of registered voters went to the polls. There were additional races and ballot proposals that helped drive turnout this year, including a special election for public advocate and charter revision questions, but many also point to a continued Trump era boom in voter participation.

Despite the turnout, the city BOE recorded only 77 instances of jammed scanners over the entire early voting and Election Day period, Ryan proudly reported.

The positive results discussed Wednesday were couched by the daunting prospect of having to repeat the process at least three more times in a presidential election year. That number could be greater in some jurisdictions, like Queens where Borough President Melinda Katz’s election to district attorney will mean a special election is held in the first few months of the year.

Among the concerns raised by both elected officials and administrators is the fact that early voting sites will need to be open to the public for more than 30 days next year to meet the nine-day statutory requirement plus additional time to prepare a site. That can be a difficult task for schools, churches, and community centers, which the city used this fall to serve as centers where voters could cast ballots early.

At the same time, voting rights advocates and elected officials are pushing for more early voting sites to make the new system more accessible.

“The one site per 50,000 voters standard already permits counties to designate too few early voting sites to guarantee equitable access, but the provision that allows the state’s most populous counties to provide far fewer sites per voter is unworkable,” wrote Perry Grossman, a voting rights attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, in his testimony to the legislators.

“We did notice where there were more [early voting sites] there was an increased [voter turnout] percentage,” said Robert Brehm, co-executive director of the State Board of Elections, earlier in hearing.

Another desire of the advocates is to have early voting sites that any voter can use, rather than having to be assigned to one, as was the case this fall. Only four local boards, including New York City’s, had assigned early voting sites, but many of them, especially in rural counties, had only one site overall.

Educators and parents throughout the city raised a number of concerns this year about using schools as early voting sites including security and the length of time students would be without their gymnasium or cafeteria. Of the 61 early voting sites in New York City, 33 were in public schools, whereas only one other county in the state used a school for early voting, according to a recent report in Gothamist. The de Blasio administration is now urging the city BOE to designate sites other than schools, Gothamist reported.

But schools are an attractive choice for election administrators juggling a number of considerations including whether sites meet accessibility requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act and whether they would cost the city additional funding to use.

Brehm says renting space is not something that has been widely done before but it may be an option boards of elections will consider in the future to meet the demands of a growing culture of early voting.

“We need broader authority from the State Legislature to designate locations, and some structure of what compensation should look like for these locations,” Ryan, the city BOE executive director, told the lawmakers Wednesday.

Reacting to the idea after the hearing, Senator Gianaris told Gotham Gazette, “If we are going to do that we should not open it up to wide discretion, there should be set parameters for what the city is willing to pay so that you don’t get into some extraneous negotiation where all of the sudden you’re paying much more than is justified for this.”

“The State Board recognizes that of any topic, poll site designation, will be in the forefront of conversation for many election cycles,” reads the State Board of Elections report on early voting, which was presented Wednesday.

Funding was a general concern for Brehm and his colleague, Co-Executive Director Todd Valentine, who said counties were forced to deploy new resources to meet the demands of dozens of voting reforms passed in Albany this year, without additional money from the state. The funding could go towards communications, additional training, security, and a host of other needs still being evaluated in the post-election season.

Brem pointed out that using new technology, like electronic poll books, and the new early voting system in general has raised new questions about what communications and training local boards need to undertake.

One issue raised by a number of lawmakers was the scannable card mailed to voters, intended to streamline the check-in process at poll sites. The cards are not mandatory to vote but poll workers were instructed to ask for them, only as an option, to help move the lines. Many voters reported being confused by the question and believed they were being told the card was required in order to receive a ballot. Some voters believed they were being asked to show ID to vote.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Legislature Evaluates Inaugural Early Voting Period in New York, Looks Ahead to Daunting 2020 Election Year Wed, 20 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
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.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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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
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. Read part two: Partisanship, Patronage & Potential Fixes.

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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
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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Say No to Faulty Voting Machines and the Conflicts of Interest That Come with Them Tue, 23 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000