Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Throwback: The Board of Elections Is Still Terrible
Blame Andrew Cuomo. Blame the State Legislature.
In light of the news Tuesday night that the NYC Board of Elections failed to remove about 135,000 test ballots from the system before conducting the ranked-choice tabulation, nullfying the preliminary results that were just released, it is important to remember politicians could have fixed this problem a long time ago. The BOE is, without question, the last bastion of the old patronage system. Qualified civil servants do not work there. Instead, Democratic and Republican leaders get to choose many of the employees.
Can this change? Yes. Since all the local BOE’s throughout the state are technically state agencies, it will take an act of the legislature and the governor to overhaul their operations. Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Democratic leaders of the State Senate and Assembly have failed here. Our democracy is at stake.
Last year, I wrote about the problems at the BOE, and I’ve reproduced that piece below. In 2018, I offered an overhaul plan for the BOE. I stand by that. New York’s election administration machinery is among the very worst in America. Democrats should be embarrassed.
Today, we will get new results from RCV. Let’s hope they aren’t compromised.
It has been written many times in many New York publications that the Board of Elections is the last bastion of Tammany Hall-style political patronage. Each year, it seems, these words need to be written again after the BOE screws up yet another election. There is horror and pearl-clutching. Some, like me, pitch reforms that never end up happening. Others demand investigations into the matter. The BOE promises to do better. The cycle ends, only to repeat itself at another time, in another year.
Remember when the BOE illegally purged 200,000 voters from the rolls in 2016? When it very nearly bungled a highly competitive House primary in 2012? When names again disappeared from primary voting rolls in 2018? You probably remember when the BOE mailed out nearly 100,000 absentee ballots to the wrong people, which happened just a few weeks ago. Sometimes, a politician calls for the executive director to resign. Always, nothing changes.
On Monday, the New York Timessplashed an investigation of the BOE’s self-dealing and incompetence on its front page. The story was a nice summary of years of prior reporting and did the work of amplifying a pivotal issue so close to one of the most important Election Days ever. The problem with the BOE, as I and others have written about before, is its structure. It is, unlike other city and state agencies, blatantly partisan, its antiquated rules frozen into the state constitution. The party chairs of the local Democratic and Republican parties choose the BOE’s 10 commissioners: two for each borough, one Democrat and one Republican. Virtually all staff positions at the BOE are political appointments, with politicians, party bosses, and well-connected operatives choosing allies for vacant posts. By the BOE’s rules, all jobs must be duplicated, one Democrat and one Republican performing the same functions. The best and brightest don’t get these positions; nepotism is the only determining factor. “Some staffers read or watch Netflix at the office, the employees said. Others regularly fail to show up for work, with no fear of discipline. Several employees said some staffers punch in and then leave to go shopping or to the gym,” the Times reported.
The story, unfortunately, didn’t dedicate enough space to what comes next. The reporters took a pox on all houses posture, blaming various city and state actors for failing to fix the BOE years ago.
“Still, state lawmakers have never seriously pushed to amend the state Constitution to create a professional structure. And the City Council has not used its power over approving commissioners to force change,” the Times wrote. “Elected officials are often quick to criticize the board but deflect responsibility. Representatives for Mr. de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson noted the state controls the board’s structure. On Sunday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has not lobbied state lawmakers to reform the board, said he believes the city should take the lead and bring a proposal to the state.”
While the Times has gotten gutsier about ditching the false balance approach to national stories—lies are now called lies, racists are now called racists—the same can’t be said for how it covers New York, where it joins in league with the other newspapers and various outlets in making it less clear who or what should shoulder the blame for a fiasco, even when the answer is obvious. State government almost entirely controls the city’s BOE, as well as boards across the state. Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council, beyond rubberstamping commissioners, have no legislative ability to alter the structure of the BOE. They can allocate money and hope for the best. The Council could use its leverage to shoot down certain party picks for commissioner, hoping the BOE takes the cue and tries to fix itself, but that would be an ad hoc approach at reform that would, in the long run, produce little in the way of concrete change.
The BOE should be a nonpartisan agency subject to civil service law. In other states, there are no retrograde requirements that party bosses on each side of the aisle handpick staffers. A new governing body could easily be created to administer elections in New York City, with the mayor having the ability to appoint a commissioner, as is the case with other city agencies. An elected or appointed secretary of state can do the same statewide. None of this stuff is complicated. Most states, excepting a few who had dangerously partisan governors in the last decade (Wisconsin and Georgia come to mind), administer elections far more efficiently and ethically than New York does.
But why? The Times will not state outright that it is mostly Governor Andrew Cuomo’s fault, with state legislators complicit in failing to offer their own plans for a BOE overhaul. Cuomo has been the governor of New York for a decade. He has never advanced a reform proposal for the BOE or backed a constitutional amendment to strike down the requirement that Republicans and Democrats staff the agency. Cuomo actively fought, behind the scenes, for a Republican-controlled State Senate in New York, ensuring the state legislature could never even begin to advance any kind of election reforms until 2019, when Democrats finally took control of the Senate. Republicans were never going to care about fixing the BOE. Cuomo certainly wasn’t going to push them. Since 2019, Senate and Assembly Democrats have mostly ignored the issue as well, and should not be absolved of blame. The legislature could convene tomorrow, pass a constitutional amendment, and pass it again next year before sending it to voters for a statewide referendum. (This is how the constitution gets amended in New York.) This hasn’t happened. Blame Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. They are too timid.
At the center of it all, however, is Cuomo. It is his Board of Elections, just as it is his MTA, his public school system, and everything else that inevitably falls under the dominion of New York State government. The governor who rammed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage through a Republican-controlled Senate surely could have fixed the agency overseeing our democracy six or seven or eight years ago. He could have put the weight of his office behind legislation or demanded change. What has he done with all his time in power? How many years must pass with elections engulfed in chaos? There is no great conspiracy here, no sinister Republican suppressing votes or venal machine boss lighting ballots on fire to save the skin of an incumbent. It is something, though, just as bad—incompetence and neglect. Cuomo doesn’t care. He is the most powerful governor of New York since Nelson Rockefeller and the rotten Board of Elections is not a major priority. It’s not even a minor priority. Instead, it festers, ruining Election Days as bored staffers watch Netflix and mail off the wrong ballots. None of this is funny. Not the confusion, the snaking lines, the growing doubt in the very institutions that make our country function. New York is an excuse for Donald Trump to whine about voter fraud. He is disingenuous, venal, and idiotic. He does not know what he is talking about. But he is free to point at a Democrat-run state and see how badly their elections are being conducted. Trump may soon be gone, but Cuomo will be with us for a while yet. It will be up to him to prove these doubters wrong. So far, he hasn’t.