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Why Is New York City's Election Board A Disaster?

Why Is New York City's Election Board A Disaster?

On Tuesday, the rest of the world saw what New York City residents already knew: the city's Board of Elections is broken.

Local election authorities in New York are required by the state Constitution to be run by political appointees from both major political parties.

That is, the county-level Democratic and Republican parties appoint an equal number of people to lead and manage local election authorities in each county in the state.

Almost every other state in the country has its elections run by independent, nonpartisan technocrats.

The result has been chronic mismanagement and a series of embarrassing scandals in New York state in general, and New York City in particular, culminating in Tuesday's revelation of incorrect results. The NYC Board of Elections accidentally published preliminary ranked-choice voting results for the Democratic mayoral primary, rescinded them, and posted new o

“Having partisan boards of elections is a fundamental problem,” said Jerry Goldfeder, a Democratic elections attorney. “An independent, professional operation would serve the people of New York far better.”

Errors and political shenanigans by the Board of Elections are not new.

In 2012, for example, the board messed up the results of an upper Manhattan congressional primary by initially omitting votes from precincts more favorable to the eventual winner, Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D). And, ahead of the 2016 presidential primary, the board admitted to illegally purging some 200,000 registered Democrats from the voter rolls, a sin it promised to correct but never fully explained.

In addition, due to a lack of preparation for the unprecedented influx of mail-in ballots, the board disqualified more than 84,000 mail-in ballots in the Democratic presidential and congressional primaries in June 2020 on technical grounds, such as the lack of a postmark from the post office.

According to a New York Times investigation, staffers at the NYC Board of Elections routinely clock in and leave for the gym, smoke marijuana on the job, or use their working hours to watch Netflix.

Mike Ryan, the current executive director of the board, went on medical leave months ago, and entrusted the agency's management to Dawn Sandow, a Bronx Republican appointee who lacks experience overseeing elections and has been described as a "disaster" as interim leader by a New York Post source.

The stakes are especially high this year, because the June mayoral primary was New York City's first major election to use ranked-choice voting, making it the country's largest laboratory for the reformers' preferred instant-runoff method.

And the national Republican Party is more eager than ever to bolster allegations of election fraud and undercut federal efforts to protect voting rights.

Republican skeptics are already pointing to Tuesday's chaos as proof that their concerns about election integrity, fueled by former President Donald Trump's evidence-free insistence that he won reelection, are well founded.

The Republican National Committee's Tommy Pigott described New York City's elections as a "preview" of what Democratic voting reform bill H.R. 1 would do to the country's elections, including strengthening federal oversight of state governments that seek to restrict voting rights with the stated goal of ensuring greater election integrity.

“New York demonstrates that we should be enacting measures that improve election integrity rather than tearing it down,” Pigott wrote in an email to reporters.

Voting should be made much simpler to increase trust in democracy.

Democrats' strategist Duncan Bryer

Proponents of ranked-choice voting are concerned that the error will reflect poorly on a system that had nothing to do with the vote-counting delay, let alone the board's error.


Rob Richie, president of FairVote, an organization that promotes ranked-choice voting (RCV), admitted that it "is a challenge when things are associated with an RCV election."

Furthermore, in August 2020, New York state expanded absentee ballot access by allowing ballots sent out by Election Day to remain eligible as long as they arrive at local election authorities within a week of the election. However, state law still prohibits localities from counting absentee ballots until after Election Day, rather than as they come in, causing additional delays in the system.

Even if the error had not occurred, Richie believes that the Board of Elections’ as-yet-unexplained decision to release incomplete results rather than comprehensive results was the “worst of both worlds.” The move, he claims, ensured that results would not be available quickly, nor would they clarify the final outcome when they did arrive.

Nonetheless, Richie expressed confidence that voters, who turned out in greater numbers than in any mayoral primary since 1989, would see through the shambles. The board itself stated in an apology statement on Wednesday that “RCV was not the problem, rather a human error that could have been avoided.”

Critics of ranked-choice voting argue that, whether or not RCV is to blame, and despite the fact that it works flawlessly in places like Maine and San Francisco, it may not be the right experiment for New York City, due to the city's notorious election board.

“When you combine that with other things like waiting a week for absentee ballots and the Board of Elections bureaucracy, you’re adding layers to a system and complicating it,” said Duncan Bryer, a former adviser to New York state Sen. Julia Salazar (D).

New York City Councilman Daneek Miller, a Queens Democrat opposed to RCV and a supporter of Eric Adams' mayoral bid, wants to give voters another chance to accept or reject the RCV system, proposing a ballot referendum in November.

“We want to do it now, while it’s still fresh in people’s minds, rather than in 2022,” he told CBS News.

Regardless of their views on RCV, reform-minded Democrats generally agree that amending the New York state Constitution to depoliticize boards of elections should be a top priority. Goldfeder even proposed that, as a temporary measure, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) use his executive powers to place the city's board of elections under trusteeship and use that authority to overhaul the agency.

However, Cuomo, who has already had more than a decade in power to address New York's election woes, does not appear to be interested in reforms that would deprive him of his own power to distribute patronage jobs through county parties.

Cuomo deferred the decision to cancel New York's presidential primary in April 2020 to Democratic appointees on the state Board of Elections, which has a similar structure to the city board.

Despite the fact that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had formally withdrawn from the race earlier that month, he and his supporters wanted the opportunity to garner enough national convention delegates to shape the party platform and nominating rules, so the state board canceled the presidential primary, only to have the election reinstated by federal judges in May 2020.

A spokesperson for the governor did not respond to a request for comment on whether the state's Constitution should be amended to allow for technocratic voting agencies.


However, Jay Jacobs, a Cuomo ally who was appointed by the governor to lead the New York State Democratic Party in 2019, told Stardia that the current organizational structure is ideal.

He believes that bipartisan boards are the best.

The state legislature's two Democratic leaders, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, both expressed concern about Tuesday's error.

Stewart-Cousins, on the other hand, called the incident a "national embarrassment" that "must be dealt with promptly and properly."

She promised that the state Senate would hold hearings on the error by the New York City Board of Elections.

State Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D), a progressive Brooklynite who would preside over those hearings as chairman of the elections committee, tweeted that he is open to a number of proposed reforms.

“Stay tuned for a hearing date, and bring all of your energy, concerns, and ideas for change,” he said.

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