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Analysis

How to Fix NYC’s Board of Elections

The Board’s most recent error makes the need for reforming the agency all the more urgent.

This origin­ally appeared in the New York Daily News.

New York’s voters have come to expect the city’s Board of Elec­tions to bungle some aspect of elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion every cycle. This week, the BOE lived up to that repu­ta­tion when the agency failed to exclude approx­im­ately 135,000 test ballots from Tues­day’s vote tabu­la­tion for the mayoral primary.

Voters can rest assured that the system’s paper ballots and other secur­ity meas­ures mean that there is a record of their choices and that the final vote count will be accur­ate. But this most recent error makes the need for reform­ing the agency all the more urgent.

Of course, former Pres­id­ent Trump and other purvey­ors of the Big Lie are spin­ning the incid­ent as evid­ence of their false claims about U.S. elec­tions. The truth is that the trouble at the BOE is a New York City prob­lem that state lawmakers can fix. The NYC BOE’s latest blun­der is not a reason to doubt the stabil­ity of U.S. elec­tion systems — but it is a reason for New York’s elec­ted lead­ers to start taking concrete steps, now, to promote greater account­ab­il­ity, trans­par­ency and profes­sion­al­ism.

Year after year, the NYC BOE has provided defi­cient voter service and built up a long track record of fail­ures, includ­ing the 2016 voter purgewide­spread machine melt­downs in 2018, and last year’s long lines and high absentee ballot rejec­tion rate. Each time, the agency picks itself up, dusts itself off and moves on without making mean­ing­ful changes.

The BOE’s fail­ure to serve voters can be traced back to its struc­ture and prac­tices. Its lead­er­ship struc­ture is convo­luted: 10 commis­sion­ers from five counties split across the two major parties. They are nomin­ated by county party oper­at­ives who are not account­able to the public. They are chosen based on polit­ical connec­tions, not qual­i­fic­a­tions, and are rubber-stamped by the City Coun­cil, despite recent efforts by indi­vidual coun­cil­mem­bers to have more trans­par­ent confirm­a­tions. An external account­ab­il­ity struc­ture spread across state and city offi­cials, whose respect­ive over­sight powers are under­u­til­ized, further enables the agency to dodge consequences for under­per­form­ance.

This lack of account­ab­il­ity trickles through the agency’s ranks. While there are certainly many hard­work­ing staffers at the BOE who want to run elec­tions well, these struc­tural issues under­mine their efforts. It is well-docu­mented that staff through­out the are hired for their polit­ical and personal connec­tions. Except for a small pool of tech­nical staffers, job open­ings are filled behind closed doors without public advert­ise­ment. In 2013, the city’s Depart­ment of Invest­ig­a­tion issued a report call­ing for greater trans­par­ency in the hiring process, appar­ently to no avail.

What’s more, the NYC BOE’s peren­nial mistakes reflect internal oper­a­tional fail­ures to anti­cip­ate elec­tion issues and prepare accord­ingly. Prevent­able prob­lems — like excess­ive wait timesinac­cess­ible poll sites and inad­equate language inter­pret­a­tion services — persist elec­tion to elec­tion. With the inform­a­tion the board presum­ably has access to about when, where and how voters vote, these issues that present hurdles to the ballot can and should be avoided.

Lawmakers and advoc­ates across the state urge that a seri­ous over­haul of the agency will be neces­sary to turn things around in New York City. Large-scale struc­tural change would require a state consti­tu­tional amend­ment. That process, which involves passage in two consec­ut­ive Legis­latures and the approval of voters in a ballot refer­en­dum, would take several years and great polit­ical will but merits seri­ous consid­er­a­tion.

In the nearer term, there are common-sense changes, includ­ing steps that other, more effect­ive elec­tions juris­dic­tions across the coun­try rely on, that would present import­ant strides forward in strength­en­ing admin­is­tra­tion at the NYC BOE. To name just a few: The hiring process should be brought out in the open, includ­ing public job post­ings for staff posi­tions and national searches for the most senior staff. Hands-on, prac­tical train­ings, includ­ing for poll work­ers, should be improved and respons­ive to commonly repor­ted prob­lems. Data trans­par­ency require­ments should be strengthened to both support the agency’s plan­ning efforts and facil­it­ate public analyses of its perform­ance.

In a city that serves more than 5.5 million registered voters — more registered voters than most U.S. states — we should be setting a national stand­ard. We are not. This is a tired pattern: The NYC BOE makes a major mistake. Lawmakers, voters and advoc­ates call for reform. Then noth­ing happens.

Let’s break that cycle.