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Policy Solution

How to Fix Election Administration in New York State

Summary: Fundamental reforms are urgently needed to improve service and restore voters’ trust. The legislature must act now.

Woman casting a ballot in a New York election
Xinhua News Agency/Getty

Earlier this year, the Bren­nan Center published a report detail­ing how to improve elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion at the New York City Board of Elec­tions (NYC BOE), which serves more than 5.5 million voters. foot­note1_szkjr8p 1 Joanna Zdanys et al., How to Fix the New York City Board of Elec­tions, Bren­nan Center for Justice, Septem­ber 9, 2021, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/policy-solu­tions/how-fix-newyork-city-board-elec­tions. While the city board’s fail­ures often garner the most public atten­tion, this study finds that they are not unique. Major flaws across the state’s other 57 local boards of elec­tions (BOEs) too often hamper voting for 7.8 million more New York­ers. foot­note2_iducu4y 2 New York State Board of Elec­tions, Albany, NY (here­in­after NYS BOE), “Enroll­ment by County,” last modi­fied Novem­ber 1, 2021, https://www.elec­tions.ny.gov/Enroll­ment­County.html.

In the past two years alone, voters across the state waited in early voting lines for as long as two hours — four times the legal limit. foot­note3_ze2axee 3 Jon Camp­bell et al., “New York Early Voting: The Long Lines Just Won’t Let Up. Here’s Why,” Journal News (White Plains, NY), Octo­ber 29, 2020, https://www.lohud.com/story/news/2020/10/29/new-york-early-voting-long-lines/6054444002/; Brianna Hamblin and Spec­trum News Staff, “Rochester Voters Wait in Line During First Day of Early Voting in New York,” Spec­trum News Rochester, Octo­ber 24, 2020, https://spec­trum­loc­al­news.com/nys/rochester/2020-elec­tions/2020/10/24/rochester-voters-wait-in-line-during-first-day-of-early-voting-in-new-york; and N.Y. Elec. Law § 3–400(9) (McKin­ney 2021). The Rens­selaer County BOE ignored state law and voters’ demands until a court ordered local elec­tion offi­cials to estab­lish an early voting site that was access­ible for low-income voters who rely on public trans­port­a­tion. foot­note4_wbqijkj 4 In re the People of the State of New York v. Schofield, 73 Misc.3d 1209(A) (N.Y. App. Div. 2021). A high-profile court dispute over chal­lenged ballots in the 22nd Congres­sional District revealed incon­sist­ent prac­tices across eight local BOEs, includ­ing the Oneida County BOE’s fail­ure to register 2,400 voters who had applied in time to vote in the 2020 general elec­tion. The judge observed that it was impossible to know how many of these voters left their poll sites without cast­ing a ballot. foot­note5_zzg6b9m 5 Patrick Lohmann, “Claudia Tenney to Be Certi­fied as Winner of New York’s 22nd Race, Judge Rules,” Post-Stand­ard (Syra­cuse, NY), Febru­ary 5, 2021, https://www.syra­cuse.com/polit­ics/cny/2021/02/claudia-tenney-to-be-certi­fied-as-winner-of-new-yorks-22nd-race.html; and Tenney v. Oswego County Board of Elec­tions, 71 Misc.3d 421, 425 (Sup. Ct. Oswego Cnty. 2021).

In our first report, we recom­men­ded solu­tions that the state legis­lature — whose laws estab­lish and govern local elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion through­out New York — should enact imme­di­ately to fix the NYC BOE’s notori­ous dysfunc­tion. Our research beyond the five boroughs shows the need for many of the same solu­tions statewide, includ­ing greater account­ab­il­ity for commis­sion­ers, compet­it­ive hiring prac­tices, improved train­ing, and more inform­a­tion trans­par­ency.

Exam­in­a­tion of local BOEs statewide reveals still other signi­fic­ant flaws that demand addi­tional solu­tions. Chief among them: Though the New York State Board of Elec­tions (NYS BOE) serves as the state’s cent­ral elec­tions agency, it does not provide the compre­hens­ive, cent­ral­ized legal guid­ance and over­sight needed for a voting system run by 124 local commis­sion­ers, some part-time, with no required exper­i­ence or train­ing. Current state law leaves local elec­tion offi­cials to figure out most proced­ures on their own, often to the detri­ment of voters and some­times in conflict with state and federal law. Many local BOEs also lack suffi­cient expert­ise, resources, and staff to meet modern elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion stand­ards. And they typic­ally make decisions behind closed doors, with no public forum for voters and advoc­ates to commu­nic­ate needs and ideas.

Fixing these systemic flaws is crit­ical for our state’s demo­cracy. As State Senate Elec­tions Commit­tee Chair Zellnor Myrie put it in his Novem­ber 2021 report, “Admin­is­ter­ing elec­tions is a govern­ment func­tion unlike any other; it is demo­cracy’s oper­at­ing system. Yet New York’s system of elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion offers less over­sight, account­ab­il­ity, and trans­par­ency to elec­ted offi­cials and the public than the agen­cies that regu­late park­ing meters and play­grounds.” foot­note6_6cz1f2f 6 Report and Find­ings of the New York State Senate Elec­tions Commit­tee, New York State Senate Elec­tions Commit­tee, Novem­ber 15, 2021, 18, https://www.nysen­ate.gov/sites/default/files/press-release/attach­ment/elex1115_vfinal.pdf.

Our research, incor­por­at­ing lessons from other states and insights from local stake­hold­ers and advoc­ates, informs the follow­ing recom­mend­a­tions for funda­mental reforms that state lawmakers must enact imme­di­ately. foot­note7_ny2qk0i 7 The find­ings in this report — of the nature and consequences of these systemic flaws and of the poten­tial for progress in fixing them — derive not merely from study of law, policy, invest­ig­at­ive reports, and court decisions. They also reflect the perspect­ives and lessons gleaned from inter­views with five current local elec­tion offi­cials and the co-chairs of the NYS BOE. We also inter­viewed advoc­ates devoted to improv­ing voter service in New York, many of whom are members of the Let NY Vote coali­tion.

Require compre­hens­ive over­sight of local elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion by the New York State Board of Elec­tions.

Issue: New York’s cent­ral elec­tions agency, the NYS BOE, provides only limited guid­ance to and over­sight of local BOEs, result­ing in dimin­ished and unequal voter service and fail­ures to follow state and federal law.

Solu­tions:

  • Add a fifth NYS BOE commis­sioner — one who is not registered with any party — to facil­it­ate timely action and avoid grid­lock.
  • Hire a single exec­ut­ive director — rather than bipar­tisan codir­ect­ors — to carry out and stream­line the NYS BOE’s oper­a­tions.
  • Require the NYS BOE to set uniform stand­ards and best prac­tices for carry­ing out elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion duties.
  • Require all local commis­sion­ers and deputy commis­sion­ers to complete train­ing conduc­ted by the NYS BOE and improve rank-and-file train­ing.
  • Empower the NYS BOE to request removal of fail­ing local elec­tion offi­cials.

 

Modern­ize local BOE commis­sioner selec­tion and staff hiring prac­tices.

Issue: The current process for select­ing local commis­sion­ers and hiring staff prior­it­izes polit­ical ties over exper­i­ence relev­ant to serving voters. Commis­sion­ers who work only part-time and obstacles to hiring poll work­ers also hamstring local BOEs, contrib­ut­ing to inad­equate service that modern­ized lead­er­ship and staff­ing can remedy.

Solu­tions:

  • Require county legis­latures to conduct trans­par­ent, merit-based processes for appoint­ing commis­sion­ers.
  • Strike the require­ment from state stat­ute that need­lessly extends the consti­tu­tion’s limited bipar­tis­an­ship require­ment to all rank-and-file staff of local BOEs.
  • Require public, detailed, and broadly dissem­in­ated job post­ings for all local BOE posi­tions to ensure selec­tion from broad pools of qual­i­fied candid­ates.
  • Require full-time commis­sion­ers with staggered terms or full-time exec­ut­ive direct­ors to ensure continu­ity of insti­tu­tional know­ledge.
  • Estab­lish shared staff­ing programs between local BOEs and county govern­ments during busy voting peri­ods.
  • Invest in robust recruit­ment and train­ing programs for student poll work­ers, who tend to be tech­no­lo­gic­ally savvy and linguist­ic­ally diverse.
  • Encour­age local BOEs to allow split-day shifts for poll work­ers, enabling more people to serve.

 

Increase and scale resources for local BOEs.

Issue: Many local BOEs lack the staff capa­city, fund­ing, and infra­struc­ture to meet the increas­ing demands of elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion. These short­ages limit voting oppor­tun­it­ies and leave local BOEs vulner­able to tech­nical fail­ures that make it more diffi­cult for voters to cast a ballot and have their vote coun­ted.

Solu­tions:

  • Provide long-term, sustain­able fund­ing to ensure that every local board has the resources it needs to run elec­tions.
  • Cent­ral­ize and scale certain elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion needs, shift­ing those costs from indi­vidual counties to the state.
  • Create regional elec­tion staff for certain special­ized func­tions to assist multiple local BOEs.
  • Estab­lish an advis­ory group of elec­tion offi­cials and voting advoc­ates to help plan and provide feed­back on local boards’ imple­ment­a­tion of legis­la­tion.

 

Make local BOEs trans­par­ent and account­able to the public.

Issue: Local BOEs too often fail to commu­nic­ate essen­tial inform­a­tion to voters and do not share data in a manner that allows members of the public to under­stand their voting options, or advoc­ates to determ­ine what changes BOEs could make to improve voter service. Even when these fail­ures cost people oppor­tun­it­ies to vote, local commis­sion­ers face little account­ab­il­ity.

Solu­tions:

  • Require local BOEs to share neces­sary elec­tion inform­a­tion with voters in a timely and access­ible manner.
  • Require local BOEs to report — and the state to collect and publish in an access­ible format — key data for assess­ing and improv­ing elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion and the imple­ment­a­tion of new state laws, such as pre-regis­tra­tion for 16– and 17-year-olds.
  • Give locally account­able elec­ted offi­cials the power to remove commis­sion­ers for just cause, with review by the courts.

 

Consol­id­ate local elec­tion dates and admin­is­tra­tion.

Issue: Numer­ous off-cycle elec­tions, such as school board and village contests, which are often run by entit­ies other than BOEs, see low turnout and elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion prob­lems.

Solu­tions:

  • Consol­id­ate elec­tion dates to increase voter turnout and allow more time for admin­is­trat­ive improve­ments between elec­tions.
  • Require local BOEs to admin­is­ter village and school district elec­tions, cutting down on duplic­a­tion of services and making it easier for both the NYS BOE and inde­pend­ent actors to monitor elec­tions and identify any noncom­pli­ance with state or federal law.

 

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As with our last report, this study recom­mends reforms that the state legis­lature can and should adopt imme­di­ately to funda­ment­ally improve elec­tions for all New York­ers. Other changes, such as remov­ing the bipar­tisan require­ment from BOEs alto­gether, would require a multi­year process to amend the state consti­tu­tion. While these ideas and others may be worth further study, they should not delay trans­form­at­ive reforms that are possible now.

End Notes