Following last month's problem-riddled presidential primary, during which more than 120,000 New Yorkers had to vote via affidavit ballot, Mayor de Blasio made the Board of Elections an offer: $20 million, in exchange for a commitment from the board to make a number of "common-sense reforms." At a City Council hearing yesterday focused on the mayor's executive budget, of which that $20 million is a part, BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan fielded a number of questions about what happened both during and ahead of the primary, when 126,000 Brooklyn Democrats were purged from the rolls, but Ryan would not commit to accepting the mayor's offer in exchange for the requested reforms.
Ryan did, however, acknowledge that the BOE was at fault for the Brooklyn voter purge: he said that "the Board recognizes that the actions taken in Kings County should not have occurred...[and] that these actions contributed to reducing public confidence in the election process."
Days after the April 19th primary, the BOE suspended Diane Haslett-Rudiano, the Republican head of its Brooklyn branch, without pay, pending an internal investigation into her handling of the voter rolls. Not long after, Brooklyn deputy clerk Betty Ann Canizio was similarly suspended. At yesterday's hearing, City Council Finance Committee Chair Julissa Ferreras demanded to know how the purge occurred in the first place—how, "if you're the executive director and you have oversight, how does Brooklyn, Kings County, make that decision without letting you know that this is a step that they're going to take before an election?"
Ryan's response? The BOE's Brooklyn office simply left him out of the loop, and blindly removed anyone who it believed hadn't voted since 2008, rather than checking to make sure they had indeed been marked inactive.
"Other than to say that they made the decision on their own without input from executive management and/or the commissioners, there is no explanation," he said. "They did it on their own. And they did it on their own with a misinterpretation of the procedures which are posted on our website and widely known."
But Ryan maintained that no one was intentionally disenfranchised, despite what a group of New Yorkers suggested when they sued the state the night before the primary after discovering that their names had been removed from the voter rolls. He argued, as he has in the past, that the Brooklyn office's apparent mishandling of the voter rolls was being conflated with a broader sense of discontent with New York's closed primary system.
"There was an otherwise political narrative out there, and that fire was already stoked," Ryan told reporters following yesterday's hearing. "We added gasoline to that fire and we contributed to the lack of confidence on our own. That is regrettable. It will not happen again on my watch."
Still, most of the people that Gothamist spoke to about their voter registration problems were not resentful independents trying to fight the closed primary, but rather people who were absolutely certain that they'd registered with the proper party ahead of the new voter registration deadline. Earlier this week, we learned that the BOE discounted about 90,000 of the 121,000 affidavit ballots it received during the primary, and now the group that sued the BOE is encouraging affidavit voters to contact the BOE directly to see whether their votes were among those counted.
In his offer of $20 million for the BOE—an attempt to upstage the audit that Comptroller Scott Stringer announced following the primary day debacle—de Blasio asked the BOE to hire a consultant to "identify and rectify systemic challenges within the organization" and to enlist "a blue-ribbon commission to identify failings." The funds would also cover money to increase poll worker pay and update poll worker training, to hire professional record keepers, and to create email and text-message notifications for voters.
But Ryan hasn't committed to those reforms, saying that "with respect to our relationship with the City Council...that deals with budgetary matters only.”