The state legislature is the only body with the power to change the inherently dysfunctional structure of New York City's Board of Elections, but that isn't stopping Mayor Bill de Blasio and Comptroller Scott Stringer from giving the appearance of trying.
This morning, de Blasio tried to upstage the audit Stringer announced last week with an offer of $19.6 million in funding to the BOE, contingent on a number of "common-sense reforms." The money includes $1.5 million to hire a consultant to "identify and rectify systemic challenges within the organization" and to "[empanel] a blue-ribbon commission to identify failures." Also on the table are $10 million to increase poll worker pay and update poll worker training, and $8.1 million to hire professional record keepers and create email and text-message notifications for voters.
The mayor said in a statement:
The Board of Elections is an outdated organization in dire need of modernization—and we need to make these changes now. We cannot allow a single voter to be disenfranchised because of the Board of Elections’ outdated operations. These common-sense reforms will bring much-needed transparency, modernize practices, and help ensure we do not experience an Election Day like last week’s again.
Stringer, meanwhile, has said, "We've got to take a sledgehammer to this," referring to the New York voting system. Stringer is undertaking a "top-to-bottom" audit of the BOE, but, seemingly conscious of the limitations of his office, refers as much to the difficulties posed by New York's restrictive voting laws as to the BOE itself.
To recap, 126,000 people were stricken from the list of active registered Democrats in Brooklyn ahead of last week's presidential primary. Voters there and across the city reported finding themselves unlisted at their local polling places on Primary Day, despite being regular voters or having registered with a party ahead of the relevant deadlines. These particularly egregious problems came along with a smattering of threats, missing ballots and voter lists, misleading mail, and late-opening polling places typical of a New York City election.
So far, one official, at the BOE's Brooklyn office, has been reprimanded in connection with the Primary Day problems, suspended temporarily pending an internal review.
Why aren't more people getting fired, or at least providing a public accounting of what went wrong and what's going to be done to fix it? And why isn't de Blasio demanding that, instead of throwing money at consultants and email newsletter software?
Because the BOE is a political patronage mill that the city has almost no control over. Inside the agency's 32 Broadway office, who you know is much more important than your qualifications to administer large datasets, and even a past criminal conviction while working for the city isn't necessarily a barrier to employment. The problem can be traced back to state laws [pdf] delineating the structure of the boards of elections for New York City's counties, and counties across the state. Each county board is overseen by commissioners who are appointed by the local Democratic and Republican party establishment. In New York City, the two commissioners for each borough are approved by the City Council, members of which depend on the backing of their parties for reelection. The state board, which loosely manages the 62 county boards, is likewise run by commissioners appointed by state leaders of each party and signed off on by the governor.
It was a leaked report from the governor-controlled state Board of Elections that called out de Blasio for alleged campaign-finance violations, an odd but not surprising turn of events given the governor's own history of questionable fundraising.
The Mayor's Office did indicate that de Blasio would support state legislation transferring the responsibility for managing the city Board of Elections from commissioners to the board's hired management. However, given that the commissioners vet the agency's director and clerks, it's not clear what the advantage would be of this. Still, de Blasio has the backing of some of the same good-government advocates who criticized his use of nonprofits to subvert campaign finance laws, which is now under federal scrutiny, for at least raising the need for BOE reform.
"The Board of Elections is a patronage driven entity, funded by public dollars, that willfully flouts its responsibility to taxpayers," said Common Cause NY director Susan Lerner said in a statement. "Common Cause NY applauds the Mayor for introducing these significant reforms to deliver an efficient system of elections that works for all New Yorkers."
In a statement, Stringer said that state lawmakers need to professionalize the election boards, but in the meantime proposals like those de Blasio is making are a good idea.
"What we need is state legislation to reform the Board of Elections and install a professional, non-partisan board of directors," Stringer said. "But the BOE could start tomorrow to improve operations by providing better training for poll workers, and instituting new hiring policies that are transparent, consistent, and fair."
The BOE did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the mayor's proposals.