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Competence Is Missing From New York City’s Elections Board

Running New York City elections is not easy, but the panel that oversees them performs poorly.

April 26, 2016

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Another election day in New York City. Polls late to open. Machines broken. Voters inexplicably not on the rolls. Others summarily stricken. Confusing ballot design. And a chorus of angry voters screaming fraud, incompetence, or corruption.

“Chaos,” blared the local TV news as it reported on last week’s New York primary. This time the outrage has provoked investigations by both City Comptroller and the state attorney general. Meanwhile, the chief elections clerk in Brooklyn has been suspended pending an investigation into voter purges. Both Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council have vowed to get to the bottom of the mess.

Thank God. It’s about time to improve the Board of Elections in “the greatest city in the world, the greatest city in the world” (© Lin-Manuel Miranda).

Many people hate the Board, and hate is not too strong a word. I’m no fan. But I am to about to defend it – sort of.

The Board faces two intractable structural problems that would be daunting for anyone.  What makes the Board special is it then compounds those problems with breathtaking ineptitude and sometimes worse. But let’s start with the fundamental concerns.

First, the Board runs an organization that only operates at full capacity five times a year. Imagine, for example, that you ran Starbucks in New York City. But you could sell coffee only five times a year, had to set up your equipment in someone else’s venues, and could only hire staff to work those five days (plus an hour or two of training). Moreover, it’s nearly impossible to predict how many customers will show up at a particular location – or when. The Starbucks experience might be pretty dreadful under those circumstances.

The Board operates under these restrictions, and the results are what one might expect.

But to fully understand the challenge, one has to appreciate its scope. On Election Day 2012, which is the most recent data available, the Board:

  • Opened 1,206 polling sites (By contrast, there are about 310 Starbucks in New York City.)
  • Deployed 3,689 scanners
  • Set up 15,484 privacy booths and 32,184 chairs

Those poll workers you love to hate? The Board employs nearly 34,000 of them, but about 11 percent don’t show up for work. Think you could do a better job? Then get ready to work an 18-hour day for little more than $11 an hour.  

Then there’s structural problem number two: New York state’s archaic and baroque election laws. The most egregious is the state Constitutional requirement that all election board members and officers are elected or appointed in a manner to “secure equal representation” of the two major political parties. In New York City, the practice is that the city’s Democratic and Republican parties pick the Board members, based on political calculus more than anything else. These nominees are then routinely rubber stamped by the City Council. Nothing in the Constitution requires the City Council or parties to act this way, and they are both invariably shocked, shocked when they learn of the Board’s poor performance.

These two structural impediments are bad. But they could be handled by a well-run organization. Money and competence can go a long way. This is New York. There’s lots of money and competence.

In fact, it turns out New York City spends quite a bit on elections. For fiscal year 2016, the Board’s funding has been increased more than 30 percent, bringing it  to $142 million in authorized spending. The bump is temporary, but even in non-presidential election years the Board’s budget exceeds $100 million.

Although the Board often complains about underfunding, New York’s spending per voter is higher than that of other cities. An unscientific survey of election authorities in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Maricopa County (ie Phoenix) shows that New York’s spends the most per voter.

So what’s the problem? According to a 2013 report by the city’s Department of Investigations (DOI), one of them is the Board shameful hiring practices. “The level of nepotism and the level of politics in hiring [at the BOE] is greater [than] anything reported in recent memory,” a DOI Commissioner told the City Council. Politics in hiring is only part of the problem. The DOI found numerous poor administrative practices.

The DOI report led to a war of words with the Board. The DOI called the Board “hostile” to reform, and the Board’s executive director insisted that DOI just didn’t understand. And on it went.

Not surprisingly, reform has come slowly in the wake of the DOI probe. Actually, the board’s most notable effort in this regard may well have been its hamfisted attempt to clean-up the voter rolls, which led to last week’s  swell of complaints.

This week, DiBlasio, promised a special $20 million infusion if the embattled Board reforms itself. But one of the root causes of its troubles—its party-run structure—is baked into the New York constitution. The next opportunity to change that arrives on Election Day November 2017 when voters will decide whether to convene a constitutional convention in an election overseen by, you guessed it, the Board of Elections.

(Photo: Getty)

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