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Expert Brief

How to Improve the New York City Board of Elections Right Away

State lawmakers can take steps now to make the dysfunctional board more efficient and accountable.

Published: July 27, 2021

A state senate hear­ing about New York­ers’ recur­rent voting prob­lems set for July 28, in Brook­lyn, no doubt will elicit testi­mony about the New York City Board of Elec­tions’ notori­ous dysfunc­tion. Most recently, the agency wrongly included approx­im­ately 135,000 test ballots in an early vote count for the mayoral primary. That mistake was just one in a history of often more seri­ous fail­ures — from illeg­ally canceled voter regis­tra­tions to hours-long lines to malfunc­tion­ing machines — that have disen­fran­chised thou­sands of New York­ers and demor­al­ized many more.

Why do these prob­lems keep happen­ing? Next month, the Bren­nan Center will release a report that finds many of these fail­ures stem from the agency’s excep­tional insu­lar­ity, which breeds inef­fi­ciency, blocks account­ab­il­ity, and hampers profes­sion­al­ism and innov­a­tion. Some of that insu­lar­ity can be attrib­uted to the state consti­tu­tion, which gives the two major parties a direct role in nomin­at­ing the board’s commis­sion­ers. But the state legis­lature, whose laws govern the city’s Board of Elec­tions, need not wait to improve the agency’s perform­ance until the consti­tu­tion is amended — a process that takes two legis­lat­ive sessions and a ballot refer­en­dum.

To the contrary, we find there are major changes that state lawmakers can and should enact now to create public account­ab­il­ity, improve lead­er­ship, and mandate best prac­tices that have been widely adop­ted by large juris­dic­tions around the coun­try. The follow­ing prelim­in­ary recom­mend­a­tions from the Bren­nan Center will bring urgently needed advances to the city agency, which serves 5.5 million voters, more than in most states.

Reduce the number of commis­sion­ers from 10 to 4. The New York City Board of Elec­tions’ lead­er­ship is far larger and more diffuse than that of any other major metro­pol­itan elec­tions agency in the coun­try, caus­ing inef­fi­ciency and obscur­ing account­ab­il­ity in a system already domin­ated by party insiders. The 10-member board comprises two commis­sion­ers, a Demo­crat and a Repub­lican, from each of the city’s five counties. Of the nation’s 15 largest elec­tions juris­dic­tions with multimem­ber boards outside of New York, all except one have three to five members (none have more than six), and they are not selec­ted based on geographic subdi­vi­sions.

The diffi­culty of reach­ing a six-vote major­ity in an insti­tu­tion in which commis­sion­ers micro­man­age oper­a­tions, includ­ing hires, encour­ages inef­fi­ciency. The multi­pli­city of seats of power both enables and obscures excess­ive county party influ­ence in oper­a­tions meant to serve all New York­ers. Decreas­ing the number of commis­sion­ers would increase effi­ciency and account­ab­il­ity, and make voter service more equit­able city­wide. (The board should retain its local borough branches to serve voters.)

Require the local appoint­ing author­ity, the New York City Coun­cil, to conduct a trans­par­ent, merit-based process for select­ing commis­sion­ers. Many mistakenly assume that the state consti­tu­tion gives unac­count­able county party insiders control over the selec­tion of commis­sion­ers. Instead, the current process — in which county party lead­ers nomin­ate commis­sion­ers, who are inev­it­ably rubber­stamped by the City Coun­cil — is primar­ily the product of state law, which can be changed. Even without a change in state law, the City Coun­cil can and should begin hold­ing public confirm­a­tion hear­ings of nomin­ees, some­thing it did only for the first time in 2014 and has rarely done since.

The consti­tu­tion states 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.” Nowhere does it mandate that control by local party lead­ers is neces­sary to meet that require­ment. In other states where local parties nomin­ate candid­ates for elec­tion boards, like Virginia, they suggest multiple candid­ates from which the appoint­ing author­ity chooses. Nor does New York’s consti­tu­tion prevent the City Coun­cil from requir­ing nomin­ated candid­ates to demon­strate exper­i­ence in elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion or voting rights, impos­ing term limits for commis­sion­ers, or conduct­ing the selec­tion process in public — all condi­tions that state lawmakers can and should estab­lish.

Give locally account­able elec­ted offi­cials the power to remove commis­sion­ers, with review by the courts for just cause. While the City Coun­cil appoints commis­sion­ers, state law gives the governor the sole author­ity to remove them, a discon­nect that is a major flaw in the account­ab­il­ity struc­ture that governs the city’s Board of Elec­tions. No governor has ever exer­cised this power, in spite of the agency’s extens­ive track record of poor lead­er­ship. Mean­while the agency can dodge account­ab­il­ity to the city’s voters because their most direct repres­ent­at­ives — the mayor and City Coun­cil members — lack mean­ing­ful over­sight author­ity. This struc­ture makes New York City an outlier among the largest juris­dic­tions with appoin­ted boards, nearly all of which give appoint­ment and removal power to the same entity. In addi­tion to the governor, the mayor and city coun­cil­mem­bers should also have removal author­ity, subject to approval by the courts to ensure just cause.

Require the board to publicly advert­ise vacan­cies and conduct national searches to hire top exec­ut­ive staff. Other elec­tions agen­cies serving large popu­la­tions, includ­ing those in Los Angeles and Mari­copa County, Arizona, conduct national searches in order to recruit the best qual­i­fied exec­ut­ive staff. As far back as 1988, edit­or­ial boards, governors, and mayors have urged this common­sense approach to find­ing top talent to lead New York City’s agency, but to no avail. Currently the board advert­ises only a hand­ful of tech­nical posi­tions, making no inform­a­tion about the criteria or hiring record for other jobs read­ily avail­able. Commis­sion­ers select nearly all hires from names sugges­ted by their networks or by current staffers, a prac­tice that seems inef­fi­cient for routine cler­ical func­tions and too insu­lar for lead­er­ship roles.

Require that commis­sion­ers and exec­ut­ive staff complete elec­tion law and admin­is­tra­tion train­ing. Other states where local boards admin­is­ter elec­tions, includ­ing OhioNorth Caro­lina, and Virginia, legis­lat­ively require board members to receive state train­ing shortly after appoint­ment and to peri­od­ic­ally update their train­ing. While New York law currently sets some train­ing stand­ards for poll work­ers and lower-ranked agency staffers, it does not require any for commis­sion­ers. Senator Liz Krueger and Assembly­mem­ber Nily Rozic have intro­duced a bill that would stand­ard­ize train­ing require­ments for commis­sion­ers, exec­ut­ive lead­er­ship, and agency employ­ees.

Strike the require­ment in state law that all agency staff reflect equal repres­ent­a­tion of the two major polit­ical parties. Current law unne­ces­sar­ily extends the state consti­tu­tional require­ment of equal 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 of Elec­tions staff. This require­ment has enabled the board to insist on inef­fi­cient duplic­a­tion of most every nonman­age­ment role at the agency — such that most func­tions, no matter how routine, have two staffers — and has exacer­bated patron­age hiring.

Require the agency to track and publicly report key voting and elec­tions admin­is­tra­tion data in an access­ible, frequently updated form. Adequate data track­ing and public report­ing are import­ant to keep elec­tion agen­cies account­able to voters, inform effi­cient and respons­ive admin­is­tra­tion, and enable outside experts to eval­u­ate perform­ance and recom­mend improve­ments. Currently the board publishes little detailed data, without frequent updates and most typic­ally in a diffi­cult-to-use PDF format. Other large elec­tion juris­dic­tions, such as Cook County, Illinois, and Orange County, Cali­for­nia, release more compre­hens­ive, inter­act­ive data through publicly access­ible, user-friendly data­bases that allow even novice research­ers to gain a better under­stand­ing of elec­tions in their community. State Senator Zellnor Myrie and Assembly­mem­ber Latrice Walker have intro­duced a bill that, among other reforms, would create a public statewide data­base to track voting popu­la­tion and demo­graph­ics by elec­tion district, voter regis­tra­tion lists and history files, poll site loca­tions, and other metrics — a prom­ising basis for modern­iz­ing elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion.

These reforms would vastly improve the New York City Board of Elec­tions’ account­ab­il­ity and service to voters, but they do not preclude deeper struc­tural changes that may be needed — in New York City and else­where in the state — to funda­ment­ally trans­form a state elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion system that has failed voters repeatedly. For instance, a shift to inde­pend­ent elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion, rather than a system controlled by the two major parties, would require amend­ing the state consti­tu­tion. But imple­ment­ing these recom­mend­a­tions, and the nation­wide best prac­tices that inform them, would signi­fic­antly improve elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion, both under the current consti­tu­tion and after an amend­ment process.