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Revamp the NYC Board of Elections Now

Immediate reforms to the Board will create public accountability, improve leadership, and implement the satisfactory practices in election administration.

This piece origin­ally appeared in the Daily News

Wednes­day in Brook­lyn, the state Senate will hold the first in a series of hear­ings about the exper­i­ences and chal­lenges faced by New York voters. No doubt the witnesses will testify to the notori­ous dysfunc­tion at the city’s Board of Elec­tions, which has disen­fran­chised thou­sands of New York­ers and demor­al­ized many more. For years, city and state lead­ers have channeled the public’s deep frus­tra­tion with the agency, initi­at­ing invest­ig­a­tions, lawsuits and partial reforms.

Yet the pattern of fias­cos contin­ues. Last month, the agency failed to exclude approx­im­ately 135,000 test ballots before announ­cing an early vote count for the mayoral primary. It’s time to stop this prob­lem where it starts: the board’s very struc­ture, which makes it resist­ant to public account­ab­il­ity, even for its most seri­ous fail­ures.

Some suggest that bold struc­tural change can’t happen without alter­ing the state Consti­tu­tion, a process that requires passage by two consec­ut­ive legis­latures and a ballot refer­en­dum. But state legis­lat­ors have other options. As a forth­com­ing Bren­nan Center report will detail, the Legis­lature can make import­ant changes to the Board to create public account­ab­il­ity, improve lead­er­ship, and mandate best prac­tices in elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion. A consti­tu­tional change may still be in order, but these more imme­di­ate reforms would go a long way toward curing what ails this agency.

First, the Assembly and Senate should reduce the number of commis­sion­ers from 10 to four. The board’s lead­er­ship compos­i­tion is larger and more diffuse than that of any other major multimem­ber metro­pol­itan elec­tions agency in the coun­try, which typic­ally have three to six people in compar­able roles. The number 10 comes from having two commis­sion­ers, one from each major party, from each of the city’s five counties.

None of the nation’s 15 largest elec­tions juris­dic­tions with multimem­ber boards outside of New York use geographic subdi­vi­sions to select members, and New York City does­n’t need to, either. Having 10 commis­sion­ers encour­ages inef­fi­ciency, obscures account­ab­il­ity in a system domin­ated by party insiders, and masks excess­ive party influ­ence in oper­a­tions meant to serve all New York­ers. Decreas­ing the number of commis­sion­ers would promote more equit­able voter service city­wide.

In addi­tion to redu­cing the number of commis­sion­ers, the Legis­lature should strengthen the process for select­ing them. Many assume that the Consti­tu­tion gives county party insiders control over the selec­tion of commis­sion­ers, but the selec­tion process is primar­ily dictated by state stat­ute. In fact, the Consti­tu­tion provides only that elec­tion “boards and officers” be selec­ted on the nomin­a­tion of “such repres­ent­at­ives of [the two major] parties respect­ively, as the Legis­lature may direct.” Indeed, the City Coun­cil today has the final say over commis­sioner appoint­ments. But they typic­ally rubber-stamp nomin­ees by county party lead­ers, perpetu­at­ing cronyism.

The City Coun­cil’s selec­tion process should be merit-based and trans­par­ent. The Consti­tu­tion does­n’t prevent requir­ing commis­sion­ers to have exper­i­ence in elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion or voting rights, impos­ing term limits, or conduct­ing the selec­tion process in public — all elements state lawmakers can and should estab­lish.

Along with apply­ing more robust stand­ards for choos­ing commis­sion­ers, Albany should give the mayor and City Coun­cil the power to remove commis­sion­ers, with review by the courts for just cause. As it works now, the Coun­cil appoints commis­sion­ers, but the governor has the sole author­ity to remove them. No governor has ever exer­cised this power, despite the agency’s extens­ive record of poor lead­er­ship. Mean­while, the commis­sion­ers dodge account­ab­il­ity to city voters. Nearly all of the coun­try’s largest elec­tion juris­dic­tions with multimem­ber boards give removal power to the same entity that appoints the board’s members. 

The Legis­lature should also mandate that the board publicly advert­ise its vacan­cies and conduct national searches to hire top exec­ut­ive staff. Currently the board advert­ises only a hand­ful of tech­nical posi­tions. Commis­sion­ers select nearly all hires from names sugges­ted by their networks and current staffers. Other elec­tions agen­cies serving large and diverse popu­la­tions conduct national searches for the best qual­i­fied exec­ut­ive staff.

Finally, the Legis­lature should strike the require­ment in current state law that the two major polit­ical parties be equally reflec­ted in the makeup of the agency’s staff. That provi­sion unne­ces­sar­ily extends the state consti­tu­tional require­ment of bipar­tisan repres­ent­a­tion in “boards or officers charged with the duty of qual­i­fy­ing voters, or of distrib­ut­ing ballots to voters, or of receiv­ing, record­ing or count­ing votes at elec­tions” to cover all board employ­ees. This require­ment has enabled the inef­fi­cient duplic­a­tion of almost every role at the agency and has exacer­bated patron­age hiring.

These recom­mend­a­tions and others are just a start. But they would help bring the city’s Board of Elec­tions in line with other major juris­dic­tions around the coun­try. And they could happen tomor­row, if the Legis­lature musters the will.