If you built a laboratory solely to concoct the most inept, opaque and self-dealing election board imaginable, you would have a hard time outdoing the real-life specimen currently functioning — or more often malfunctioning — in New York City. From massive and illegal voter purges to broken-down voting machines and misaddressed ballots, the fiascoes of the city’s 10-member Board of Elections, which serves an electorate larger than that of most states, have been the stuff of national disgrace for decades.
The latest debacle, still raw in voters’ minds, came on Primary Day in June, when the board mistakenly included about 135,000 test ballots in its first full tally of mayoral votes. The error was caught and corrected, but only after hours of confusion and chaos that reminded New Yorkers once again just how decrepit and unreliable their electoral system is.
City investigations going back more than 80 years have repeatedly found the agency rife with waste, neglect and incompetence. But the complaints don’t come only from the outside. As one former staffer described it, working for the elections board is like “working in an insane asylum.”
If the board somehow survives the Nov. 2 general election without any major screw-ups, it will be thanks to the fact that the outcome in the mayor’s race is all but preordained, and so any errors are likely to be of little consequence.
Alas, just as predictable as the board’s chronic incompetence is the refusal of elected officials to do anything about it. Why would they? Many of them are complicit in protecting the city’s twisted political machine that values insiders over voters and incumbency over democracy.
The result is an election board that operates like a mafia without the guns. It is staffed with the friends, family members and other unqualified cronies of party bosses. It flouts city laws and actively resists serving the needs of voters in favor of a handful of political power brokers. Worst of all, it operates in an accountability-free zone where even the biggest bungles carry no consequences.
Most other large cities and jurisdictions don’t have these problems. As detailed in a new report by the Brennan Center for Justice, they take elections seriously by hiring professionals who know what they’re doing and training those who don’t. Their boards are much smaller and their commissioners can be removed by the same people who appointed them. They provide sufficient funds to run elections smoothly, and they make voting data easily available to the public. All of this is good government 101.
It’s not like New York doesn’t know how to do these things. Many of the city’s largest and most important agencies — from education to law enforcement — conduct national searches for their leaders. By contrast, elections commissioners are appointed with virtually no public notice or process. This may please back-room politicians, but it makes New York City a national laughingstock.
Maddeningly, the city can’t truly reform this system without state action. Good, then, that New York State has at long last started to drag itself out of the electoral Dark Ages. In 2019, the state adopted an early voting period more than a week long, as well as other measures to encourage turnout and make voting easier. This year, the voters can get in on the action themselves by approving two ballot measures, Proposals 3 and 4, that would allow the state to implement two popular voter-friendly reforms: same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee balloting.
When it comes to the city election board itself, the good news is that most of the board’s dysfunction can be fixed right now, through state law, and without having to resort to the cumbersome process of amending New York’s Constitution.
Topping the list of reforms is the need for professionalism and accountability: The commissioners should have résumés that show real experience in administering elections, and they should be appointed, and removable, by local officials who directly answer to the voters. There’s nothing like the threat of real consequences to encourage the hiring of competent people.
Reducing the size of the board would help too, by investing more responsibility in each individual commissioner. Dumping the requirement that Democrats and Republicans be equally represented at nearly every level of the agency, not just among commissioners, would allow for staff hires based on actual ability rather than partisan bean counting.
Why hasn’t all this happened already? Ask New York State lawmakers, many of whom have long been happy to maintain a status quo that works great for them and their friends, even as it disenfranchises everyone else. But that is starting to change. State Senator Zellnor Myrie, who heads the Elections Committee, has spent months touring the state holding public hearings on election administration reform; he hopes to propose legislation before the end of the year. The Assembly and Gov. Kathy Hochul need to get on board with these efforts and enact major reforms without delay. New Yorkers have waited long enough for functional elections.
The bottom line is that the elections board, entrenched in a perpetual culture of self-dealing, cannot fix itself. And while its incompetence has been part of the New York political landscape for generations, this year’s primary calamity should be the final straw. At a moment when the legitimacy of the democratic process is under assault across the country, the nation’s biggest city — home to more than 5.5 million registered voters — must be leading the charge by modeling how an election should be run. At the very least, it should not be bringing up the rear.
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