Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/2400 Sat, 28 Nov 2020 14:30:09 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Poll Workers on Their 2020 Training Experience in New York https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9871-poll-workers-2020-training-new-york-city-board-of-elections-2020 https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9871-poll-workers-2020-training-new-york-city-board-of-elections-2020 poll workers boenyc crop

Poll workers (photo: NYC Board of Elections)


Expecting high overall voter turnout and in preparation for the first early voting period in New York for a presidential election -- which itself just saw over 1.1 million voters cast ballots -- the New York City Board of Elections scrambled to train thousands of poll workers. The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated everything this year, including election administration and voting, with absentee ballot eligibility extended to all registered voters and new precautions needed at poll sites.

Historically, more than half of New York’s poll workers have been over 60 years old, according to the Board of Elections website. This year, because of older residents’ increased vulnerability to the coronavirus, there was a recruitment emphasis on younger people and many stepped up.

Gotham Gazette was in touch with several people who have been trained as poll workers this year about their experience training for the job and what they considered the most reassuring and most concerning parts of the election process.

Some poll workers felt motivated by the high stakes of the election. “With the current political climate, I was interested in trying to figure out how I could do something more,” said East Village resident Molly Morris, who has never been a poll worker before but hopes to make it a yearly tradition. 

“It was a three-hour training session,” said Katie from Queens, who did not want her last name to be shared. It was longer than she expected, but she thinks that’s a good thing, if not for her schedule then for democracy. “They have it down to a science,” she said. Some said their poll worker training sessions took four hours.

Morris was also impressed. “I think one of the things I was most surprised by was how intricate the process is and how many checks and balances there are,” she said. “Everything’s double- and triple-checked and then checked by a supervisor and then checked again.”

Morris hopes to utilize this insider knowledge to combat misinformation about voter fraud. “Now I feel like I can actually say, when people are like ‘oh, it’s so easy to vote twice’ or whatever, I’ll be like, ‘no it’s not. I went through the training, I have the handbook, you can’t do that,’” she said. She wondered if working the polls could become “something of a jury duty scenario where you had to go and just learn about it. I think everyone would benefit from that knowledge.”

By contrast, a Queens resident who wished not to be named said that he didn’t think the training went far enough to ensure that poll workers would be prepared for Election Day. “We were constantly told we did not need to memorize anything because we would have a training manual on election day,” he said in an email, and the training manual was used as an excuse not to go over everything in detail. He also said that “the multiple choice ‘quiz’ we had to pass was taken as a group” and that he thought some of the questions on the quiz were not difficult enough.

As of November 1, the Queens resident said he hadn’t received an assignment for Election Day, and assumed the Board of Elections had more poll workers than they actually needed. Other poll workers interviewed by Gotham Gazette in mid-October said that they indicated to the BOE well in advance that they would be available to work during early voting, but were still not sure whether they would be doing so.

“At the training they said you may have to do an additional training for that or it’s first-come, first-served,” said Morris. Katie, who indicated that she would be available during early voting but will only be working on Election Day, didn’t get her assignment until October 26. These last-minute decisions speak to a larger sense of disorganization at the Board of Elections.

Some poll workers also expressed concern that the training did not take enough precautions against COVID-19. While most interviewees said social distancing and mask-wearing were mostly observed during the indoor training sessions, no COVID-19 testing was required for the trainees but rather they were given questionnaires and in some cases had their temperatures checked. “It was all kind of on the honor system,” Morris said.

One Brooklyn resident who ultimately left the training because she did not feel safe said social distancing was not properly observed. “There were close to 30 people in the room, with two or three people assigned to what seemed like five-foot tables, in some cases separated by a sneeze guard,” said the Prospect Heights resident, who didn’t want to be named. “There was no air circulation in the room and the class was four hours long.”

Andrew Rabin, who took the poll worker training in Queens, said his biggest concern is potentially long lines on Election Day preventing him from getting back to his apartment at a reasonable hour. “I’m hopeful that it’s gonna go smoothly,” he said. “It’s really hard to know.”

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by Lauren Hakimi, Gotham Gazette
   

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Poll Workers on Their 2020 Training Experience in New York Sun, 01 Nov 2020 04:00:00 +0000
51,000 Workers at 1,200 Sites: Board of Elections Scrambles to Prepare for General Election https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9830-new-york-city-board-of-elections-scramble-prepare-general-election-2020-voting https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9830-new-york-city-board-of-elections-scramble-prepare-general-election-2020-voting press conf barclays

Council Member Laurie Cumbo at an election promotion event (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


An October 5 staffing report from the New York City Board of Elections (BOE) to state regulators shows a scramble to prepare for the general election less than a month before Election Day.

The BOE was over a month late to submit the plan, which was required by Governor Andrew Cuomo through executive order to ensure local election administrators had the necessary personnel to manage the expected surge in both in-person and absentee voting. The plan, which was obtained by Gotham Gazette, reveals continuing operational unknowns and tens of thousands of poll workers yet to be trained.

The board stated it was aiming to train over 51,000 employees to work the polls on Election Day, a 150% increase from the number who ended up working during the 2016 general election. Some of those positions are a response to the new reality of voting in a pandemic -- specifically dedicated to managing lines, ensuring social distancing, and receiving absentee ballot drop-offs.

The city Board of Elections is anticipating over a million absentee ballots, which voters may mail or hand deliver to poll sites, and as many as 5 million total votes.

The BOE is planning to open 88 early voting sites and 1,201 Election Day poll sites citywide to receive the flood of voters.

But two-thirds of Election Day poll workers, roughly 33,500 people, had not gone through the city board's training as of the October 5 release of the report. The New York City Board of Elections did not provide more up-to-date information when asked by Gotham Gazette.

"No comment. With 9 days left before early voting, we do not have the staff to look into this data request," wrote Valerie Vazquez-Diaz, a BOE spokesperson, by email. The BOE has been conducting a series of trainings for those who will work the polls.

John Kaehny, executive director of the good government group Reinvent Albany, criticized the BOE for an apparent lack of preparedness. "The NYC BOE's staffing report shows that once again, the Board is struggling to keep up: It has a month to train 33,000 poll workers. That's a big number, and it's inevitable that this last minute catch-up is going to cause problems," he wrote in an email to Gotham Gazette after reviewing the report.

He blamed the board's explicitly bi-partisan make-up for inefficiencies and mismanagement: "In the best of times, the NYC Board of Elections is behind and barely able to meet its responsibility to voters. This is because the Board is a political patronage mill controlled by county political bosses and much less competent than a non-partisan city agency staffed and run by civil servants."

On top of Election Day poll workers, who make up a bulk of the administrative staff, the board is hiring approximately 3,000 early voting workers to staff the 88 sites. The report says training for that cohort would take place from October 5 through 19. Early voting begins on October 24 and runs through November 1. Election Day is November 3.

Poll workers are needed to check voters in, verify their signatures, and provide their ballot. They must make sure lines move and voters know how to feed their ballots into the voting machines. This year they will have the additional task of accepting absentee ballots that have been dropped off on top of the anxiety of maintaining public safety protocols at poll sites amid a pandemic.

About 4,800 workers have been hired specifically for line management, to reduce waiting, and help maintain social distancing. Their training is taking place virtually, according to the report. The BOE said it was deploying additional supplies to poll sites to "optimize voter flow," but did not provide specifics in the report. In response to questions from the State Board of Elections about whether it had changed the spatial layout of poll sites to facilitate traffic, the BOE stated: "Yes (wherever possible)."

The BOE also predicted it would need 165 workers before Election Day to process absentee ballots, which includes receiving absentee applications, distributing requested ballots, and securing returned ones.

Training this year is a combination of in-person and virtual instruction. The BOE has secured some larger venues, on top of its traditional training locations, "to maintain social distancing and to simultaneously conduct multiple classes at individual facilities," according to the report.

"From what I understand, they do it in a relatively efficient way," said Sarah Steiner, an election lawyer and expert of New York election law and administration, by phone. "A lot of poll workers are not first-timers."

In 2016, between a fifth and a quarter of the poll workers in each borough were first-time employees. It is not clear how many of the roughly 18,000 additional positions the BOE is looking to fill with new personnel.

"I'm hoping that there are enough poll workers. Many of their poll workers are older people and even though I saw them working the polls in June, a lot of them weren't there too," Steiner said, referring to the heightened health risks seniors face in the pandemic.

"And you have to remember that when you send these people to training, you'll have a certain amount of attrition," she added.

The report says the election will take 21 days to canvass, or finish counting -- a high number correlated with the high volume of expected mailed-in ballots. State law requires each absentee ballot to be hand-tabulated by bi-partisan teams of two. The BOE estimated it needs 380 workers to canvass the ballots (of which 300 had been hired by October 5) and about 440 for the legally-mandated "recanvass" to confirm the count. The canvassing process must be completed before the official results are published.

The 21-day projection, despite being far longer than in a typical election, would land the BOE four days before the November 28 statutory deadline to certify results, and would be significantly shorter than the six weeks it took in the primaries. It is also two to three weeks shorter than the mid-December estimate BOE executive director Michael Ryan told lawmakers at a New York City Council oversight hearing last month.

Another new and mammoth task for the BOE has to do with a law passed by the State Legislature and signed by Cuomo after the chaotic June primaries, which requires election administrators to notify voters when their absentee ballot has a disqualifying error and give them an opportunity to "cure" the mistake. The provision tracks (to an extent) the due process rights afforded by affidavit ballots available at poll sites, but it also adds a voluminous administrative burden during pandemic voting.

One of the deficiencies that triggers the curing process is a missing or mismatched signature on the ballot's outer envelope. Already, vendor errors that resulted in close to 100,000 voters in Brooklyn receiving someone else's outer envelope could lead to tens of thousands of incorrectly signed votes being sent in, all of which by law are entitled to a review by the voter. The BOE has contacted the impacted voters and provided them new envelopes and ballots. It is unclear how administrators will interpret the new law's impact on any erroneous signatures caused by administrative blunders.

According to its report to the State Board, the BOE does not yet have a grasp on how the new mechanism will impact its operations, but infrastructure must be established and the city BOE's report hints that it is a daunting requirement.

"Given the anticipated volume of individual cures and to ensure the timely processing of same, the final stages of automation to assist in processing is being completed. Upon completion, the Board will finalize the number of staff assigned to this task. The Board will update this information no later than October 9, 2020," the city BOE report reads.

On Wednesday, Douglas Kellner, the Democratic co-chair of the State Board of Elections, told Gotham Gazette the city BOE had still not provided the promised update.

The Governor's Office did not respond to requests for comment about the content of the report or the BOE's preparedness to implement the curing provision. Mayor de Blasio this week has reiterated his calls for a total overhaul of the Board of Elections to make it a nonpartisan, fully professionalized entity.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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51,000 Workers at 1,200 Sites: Board of Elections Scrambles to Prepare for General Election Thu, 15 Oct 2020 04:00:00 +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
Many Election Poll Workers are Placed by Party Machines, Some May Influence Votes https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7374-many-election-poll-workers-are-placed-by-party-machines-some-may-influence-votes https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7374-many-election-poll-workers-are-placed-by-party-machines-some-may-influence-votes poll site samar photo

photo by Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette


With a 16-hour workday, compensation at $200, and the monotony of sitting in what is often a stifling, public-school gymnasium, New York City’s tens of thousands of election poll workers have a largely thankless job.

Mobilized only a few days most years, they are often retired or semi-retired. While unheralded, they are the frontline for the New York City Board of Elections (BOE), which, as governed by state law, is responsible for registering voters, maintaining voter records, and operating poll site locations throughout the five boroughs.

Many, motivated by civic duty, extra income, or both, apply directly via mail or through the city BOE website. However, a substantial portion of poll workers receive their positions through recommendations from local Democratic and Republican leaders, chosen before the BOE dips into the general application pool. The parties also nominate the commissioners to the city Board of Elections, one Democrat and one Republican per borough, and each borough has a satellite operation for election administration.

The injection of political partisanship into the cogs of the electoral process, especially in the wake of a critical audit of the BOE by the city’s Comptroller’s office, has come under increased scrutiny in 2016 and 2017, both years seeing a bevy of election activity in New York.

Some City Council candidates and campaign staffers allege that the influence of local party leaders in hiring and placing poll workers can advantage those backed by county leadership. Benefits range from having sympathetic eyes in polling sites to—at boldest—an extra set of hands to electioneer on election days, influencing votes as they are cast.

The current system is “a cocktail of corruption that’s impossible for these people to not get drunk on,” concluded an experienced Democratic political operative who has worked on high-profile issues and campaigns and wished to remain anonymous for fear of impacting his political career.

“To my knowledge, I know there is a history of local poll workers affiliated with campaigns being placed in specific polling sites,” said Brian Cunningham, a City Council candidate in Brooklyn’s District 40 who is currently pursuing legal action after reports of irregularities at polling sites across his district, where incumbent Mathieu Eugene won a third term in November and is alleged to have illegally been in several polling places on Election Day.

While a few dozen corrupted votes would not typically change the outcome of an election, they would cast a pall over the voting process and can impact contests decided by small margins. For example, Elizabeth Crowley, a Democratic incumbent in Queens District 30, lost her City Council seat to Republican Robert F. Holden in the November general election by just 137 votes.

Despite concern from several experienced political operatives and recent City Council candidates, Democratic Party officials from Manhattan and Brooklyn argue that widespread allegations of poll workers influencing elections are overblown.

Meanwhile, some candidates have reported no knowledge of what others allege is common practice. “[This] is not a claim that I can neither confirm nor deny," said Deidre Olivera, an unsuccessful 2017 Democratic City Council candidate in District 41, in an email to Gotham Gazette.

Although sources did not provide hard evidence of candidate campaigns or local party leaders deliberately influencing elections through the recommendation of partisan poll workers, the spectre of compromised poll sites adds further fuel to the fire for reformers calling for a wholesale revamp of state election law, including the structure and practices of the state and city BOE.

A Partisan Hiring Process
The BOE is crafted along partisan lines in order to guarantee impartiality, or at least opposing partialities. In New York City, this partisan structure extends from executive leadership through mid-level staff, spreading its roots into how poll workers are found and hired.

According to conversations with Michael Ryan, the executive director of the city BOE, and political insiders, poll workers are either recruited based on applications sent directly to the BOE or they are selected by the local Democratic or Republican parties. Party-selected poll workers are chosen by district leaders, or local party officials from state Assembly districts.

Poll workers nominated by district leaders are always chosen before workers culled from the general application pool. The BOE, according to state law, cannot question the credentials of workers forwarded to them by district leaders, explained Ryan, the executive director. “It’s up to the local party’s discretion who they want to designate and it’s not for us to question,” he added. Ryan’s position is an administrative hire made by the BOE board, meant to be a nonpartisan leader for BOE operations.  

The district leaders also have sway over which poll workers are placed where. “From having seen this from the very most ground level, the district leaders have the most influence in recommending where to assign a poll worker the BOE has already hired,” said Barry Weinberg, executive director for the Manhattan Democratic Party.

Adding to the control Democratic party officials have over the assignment of poll workers is a quirk of staffing process called, per Ryan, “cross-designation.” The vast majority of poll sites need an equal number of Republicans and Democratic poll workers manning them. When poll sites are lacking enough Democrats or Republicans, the BOE asks “individuals who might be registered in a different political party to take an oath as a poll worker or inspector for the party with a shortfall,” said Ryan.

Ryan confirmed that, given the outsized number of Democrats compared to Republicans in New York City, usually Democrats “cross-designate” as Republicans.

“Aren’t at Least the Optics Bad?”
The poll-worker and election-administration processes seem flawed to many political candidates, including Randy Abreu, a 2017 Democratic City Council candidate in District 14 in the Bronx.

After the September primaries, Abreu cried foul after receiving multiple tips from friends, supporters, and voters of problems in the polls across his district, reported The Riverdale Press.

These included rumors that poll workers were electioneering for his opponent, incumbent Fernando Cabrera. In comments given to The Riverdale Press, Abreu said, “The incumbent’s campaign workers are picking the poll site workers. Aren’t at least the optics bad?”

In an interview with Gotham Gazette, he elaborated. “My male district leader was my opponent’s campaign manager. The district leaders, if they have a relationship [with a candidate], it’s human nature they’re going to appoint friendly people on election day in the poll sites,” Abreu said.

Another former City Council candidate in the Bronx—who asked to remain anonymous for fear of negative repercussions to their political career—not only echoed Abreu’s suspicions, but stated that the process is common knowledge among political insiders. "A lot of folks know that if you're with county [party] support that your major polls will be covered because you have supporters working them," the candidate said by phone to Gotham Gazette. “On the campaign trail, folks would warn me they have folks that point out who to vote for and keep an eye on the polling sites.”

Whispers were not limited to the Bronx. In Manhattan, Ronnie Cho and Jasmin Sanchez, two Democratic City Council candidates in District 2, were also surprised by the appearance of other candidates’ supporters in the polls during primary day. The party establishment’s favored candidate was Carlina Rivera, an aide to the outgoing, term-limited Council Member, Rosie Mendez, who won the primary and general elections by wide margins.

When asked in an interview whether he was aware of campaigns placing their supporters within poll sites, Cho responded that this “is a common practice that many campaigns employ.”

Sanchez observed that most people working the polls in her district were affiliated with political clubs and organizations, which endorse candidates. “Everyone I know that has worked the poll sites are connected to political organizations and nonprofits,” she said.

“The appearance can seem a little bit awkward,” said Cho, in regards to the supposed impartiality of polling sites.

Polling the Campaign Staffers
Although multiple City Council candidates were aware of these concerns, none could provide detailed accounts of poll site manipulation.

Campaign staffers who spoke with Gotham Gazette similarly provided no specific accusations. However, they either thought the allegations were credible or directly confirmed the existence of the phenomenon. All requested anonymity for fear of causing damage to their careers or receiving political retribution.

“In my experience uptown in Manhattan, we frequently found that the county party selected poll workers for our Spanish speaking community that had no ability to translate, compounded with the BOE not providing translators at many busy poll sites,” said a former City Council aide who has also worked on a number of campaigns for candidates opposing the party establishment. “I can't speak with certainty to poll site workers openly supporting candidates, but it certainly felt like [it].”

Others directly attested that campaigns backed by the party enjoyed the benefits of supporters working the polls.

“The short answer is yes, yes, yes, yes,” said a political staffer who has also worked on multiple uptown campaigns in an email to Gotham Gazette.

A different, experienced Democratic political operative who has worked on high-profile issues and campaigns confirmed poll site manipulation with similar enthusiasm: “Yes, and Santa Claus is not real. This is something I’ve witnessed firsthand,” the operative said.

“I mean, look, it’s a political process. Generally speaking, in your average election it doesn’t impact the final outcome,” the same operative said in a phone interview. “It only matters for campaigns that are explicitly and intensely supported by the party boss.”

For most campaigns, having poll sites manned by supporters is understood to be an implicit advantage, he explained. In fact, he said the practice has benefitted his own career, but that the relevant campaigns “never explicitly” coordinated with the local Democratic Party.

Another experienced campaign staffer in Queens explicitly corroborated these allegations, expressing surprise that he was being questioned about this issue, as he thought it was common knowledge. “In Queens County, this is par for the course,” the campaign staffer said over the phone. “It would be ideal for a campaign to situate affiliated people within the poll sites.”

“I’ve been on insurgent campaigns and I’ve had many supporters apply to be poll workers. The incumbent’s team would have had all their spots taken up,” the Queens campaign staffer continued. “The incumbents are the ones that can get it done.”

He added that inserted poll workers were often asked to electioneer. “If you want a true representative democracy, this is totally a cluster****,” he declared. “If democracy works well, people like me wouldn’t have a job.”

“Definitely Overblown”
Despite concerns from candidates and staffers that party-backed campaigns are rejiggering the cogs of the electoral system in their favor, other political insiders—including previous candidates, observers, and party officials—have either never caught wind of this phenomenon or believe the rumors to be nothing more than hot air.

Kim Moscaritolo, the female district leader for the 76th Assembly District and a longtime political activist, said that she couldn’t confirm or deny these allegations.

Others think these claims, while hypothetically possible, are unlikely. “In theory, that might be true. In my years, I’ve seen very little evidence. I’m skeptical about most allegations of election fraud,” said Jerry Skurnik, partner at consultancy Prime NY, which specializes in election data, and a longtime political aide and observer in New York.

And Democratic party officials in Manhattan and Brooklyn adamantly deny that anything more nefarious than the occasional poll site mishap may occur during city elections. Weinberg, of the Manhattan Democratic Committee, said that at least in Manhattan, these allegations of poll worker bias and electioneering are “definitely overblown.” He also expressed faith in the current system. “The laws are written with mistrust. The system is almost designed to be adversarial,” he added.

Officials in Brooklyn agreed with Weinberg’s skepticism. In a statement, Bob Liff, spokesman for the Kings County Democratic Party, said, “Some [poll workers] are recommended by political organizations, but a larger percentage come from direct application to the Board of Elections. The bigger problem is finding enough qualified people to staff every election district willing to register with the Board and go through training and work the long hours for the low pay.”

According to the BOE, approximately 60% of poll workers are found through general applications and 40% are selected by district leaders. The number of party-designated poll workers forwarded to the BOE has been steadily trending down the past few years, said Ryan, the executive director.

“I think that the system is set up as a bipartisan system to prevent abuse. It really is both sides watching each other to make sure that elections are conducted as fairly and squarely as they can be,” stressed Ryan. “While it would be inaccurate to say we never hear of poll workers doing things they’re not supposed to be doing, it would also be inaccurate to say that poll worker misconduct is rampant.”

Ryan added that party-backed candidates enjoy widespread advantages not through the manipulation of poll sites, but through the money and campaign experience that party support provides. “The folks that are running and don’t have the party backing, what they’re lacking is the experience of running a campaign, and they’re also lacking access to individuals who have experience running a campaign,” he explained. “That I see is a bigger hurdle for candidates to overcome, more so than what an individual poll worker is doing at a poll site.”

Calls to “Professionalize” the BOE
The allegations of partisan poll workers influencing local elections touch on larger efforts to reform the BOE and prevent the Democratic and Republican parties from engaging in what some describe as a system of “patronage.”

Last year, the BOE purged approximately 125,000 Democratic voters from the voting rolls in Brooklyn without explanation, And after the September 2017 primaries the BOE changed more than 20% of its polling sites since 2016, regularly breaking city law by not posting notices of the changes.

"I think the Board of Elections' time has come and gone,” Mayor de Blasio said after the 2017 primaries, as reported by The Daily News. “I think it's time for fundamental change. This model doesn't work, period.”

And this past November, city Comptroller Scott Stringer released a damning audit of the BOE, reporting that 90% of the 156 poll sites observed during three elections since April 2016 had significant problems—including severe infractions of election law, most notably instances of electioneering by poll workers.

Government watchdog groups like Common Cause/NY argue that many of the BOE’s problems stem from employees hired because of party loyalty, not professional competency. “The people who were chosen because they were good treasurers for their local political party may not bring the right skills to the job,” said Susan Lerner, executive director for Common Cause/NY, in an interview. “I have had political operatives, party officials say to me that one of the purposes of the Board of Elections is to provide employment for people who wouldn’t be able to get jobs otherwise.”

She argues that the BOE should be “professionalized,” meaning the board’s posts should be filled not through political appointees, but publicly advertised job postings. “We believe that the Board of Elections should be a nonpartisan, professional operation,” said Lerner.

When asked if she believes allegations of party-backed candidates inserting their supporters into the polls, she responded, “Yes, absolutely.”

Tweak the BOE or Revamp It?
For Michael Ryan and party elites, the BOE needs help, but not wholesale reform. Ryan said that one of the BOE’s biggest challenges right now is finding poll workers willing to work the long hours for low pay. However, these problems are not unique to New York City. He referenced a report released in January 2014 by the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration that detailed widespread shortages of poll workers across the country.

Weinberg, of the Manhattan Democrats, agreed that finding more poll workers was the most pressing obstacle to well-run elections, suggesting that paying them more money would incentivize more people to apply.

However, when asked if the BOE should do away with the current system of district leaders nominating a substantial portion of poll workers, he said no, “they actually need the local, on-the-ground knowledge from District Leaders.”

For reformers like Ben Kallos, City Council member for Manhattan’s District 5 and chair of the Council’s government operations committee, the problem is simple. “I don’t believe people should get jobs in government because of who they know,” he said in a phone interview.

He urged anyone with allegations of campaigns inserting supporters into poll sites to speak up, including through the city Department of Investigations. “We’re calling upon them to do their civic duty,” he exhorted.

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by Ben Weiss, Gotham Gazette

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Many Election Poll Workers are Placed by Party Machines, Some May Influence Votes Mon, 18 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000