At least one New York Republican is worried about high voter turnout in New York City this November. He also happens to be a commissioner on the city Board of Elections.
Manhattan GOP Commissioner Frederic Umane, who has served on the city BOE since 1995, questioned why the agency sent a mailer to all voters this month with basic information about the upcoming general election, including where and when to vote. He raised concerns about cost, why the ten bipartisan commissioners had not approved it and noted that the city BOE was going beyond what it was required to do under state election law.
But ultimately, he warned the mailer risked driving up voter turnout in the five boroughs, which could be bad for his party, since Democrats outnumber Republicans in New York City by more than six-to-one.
“If we're only informing voters in a particular part of the state that has a particular registration type of situation, and it's not done statewide, it's a form of getting out the vote in an area,” said Umane at the weekly commissioner’s meeting last week.
His comments came a day before Republican and Conservative Party leaders went back to court in Saratoga County, just north of Albany, seeking to alter the state’s absentee ballot procedures, a move that Democratic defendants have described as an effort to “wreak havoc” just ahead of the election.
Similarly, Democrats and voting rights advocates said Umane’s comments fit into a larger pattern of Republicans seeking to undermine confidence in the fairness of election administration in New York.
“It wasn't a dog whistle,” said Jarret Berg, co-founder of Vote Early NY, a nonpartisan nonprofit that provides voter education information. “He essentially said, ‘We don't want high turnout here.’”
Voter turnout has been a persistent problem in New York City, with numbers traditionally taking a nose-dive in non-presidential election years.
Looking out for voters
At the meeting, BOE executive director Michael Ryan explained to Umane that the agency made the decision to send the notice to all registered voters “in the interest of voter education.”
Ryan said the move was also made to help mitigate confusion for people whose election district and poll site may have changed as a result of the state’s decennial redistricting process. He explained that an earlier mailer that the BOE sent out ahead of the June primary did not reflect the “numerous changes.”
At that point, Umane suggested that no voters were affected by poll site changes. But BOE president, Brooklyn Democratic Commissioner Rodney Pepe-Souvenir, quickly noted that was incorrect.
As The City previously reported, upwards of 86,000 voters saw their poll sites change this year.
Pepe-Souvenir also reminded Umane that their job was to look out for the best interest of voters in the city.
“We’re commissioners for the city and not the state,” she said.
Not a one-off comment: “The good, the bad, the ugly and the uglier.”
This was not the first time in this election cycle Umane made public comments that seemed to put the concerns of his party ahead of New York City voters. A week earlier, he delivered a webinar for Reclaim New York, which describes itself as a nonpartisan nonprofit group that seeks to “empower freedom-minded citizens.”
The group promoted Umane’s appearance on its site in his capacity as a city BOE commissioner where he would talk about the opportunity for people to apply for paid positions as poll workers. Umane also described the unpaid position of poll watchers.
During that presentation, he explained how the BOE operates in a bipartisan manner and assured the viewers that everything was being done in a fair, honest and open manner. He also acknowledged past mistakes by the city BOE, but said nothing was ever done to harm an election.
Then his comments took a more overtly partisan turn, addressing what he called, “the good, the bad, the ugly and the uglier.”
The good, from his view, was the court’s decision earlier this year related to redistricting. A judge threw out Democrat-drawn lines for state Senate and congressional districts and ordered a special master to redraw the maps, a decision that was upheld by the state’s highest court.
The “bad” was his critique of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, which he said had become, “a shadow Board of Elections.”
“They now do certain registration forms, mailings and proposals, and they’ve really gone beyond their original scope and have become a get-out-the-vote agency for the Democrats controlling City Hall and the City Council,” said Umane.
Matt Sollars, a spokesperson for the CFB, said in a statement that the agency is “mandated to boost participation in city elections.” He noted the CFB’s role is nonpartisan and helps “voters if they are registered to a political party, or to no party at all.”
The “ugly,” Umane said, was recent city legislation that would extend voting rights in local elections to people who are not citizens but are living and working legally in the city. That legislation is currently being challenged by Republicans in court.
When he described “the uglier,” Umane referenced the ongoing lawsuit over absentee ballots.
“The uglier is that now some upstate Board of Elections are sending out premarked absentee ballots,” said Umane. That statement is false: The lawsuit addresses absentee ballot applications, which a voter would need to sign and submit to receive a ballot.
The commissioner’s clarification
When asked by Gothamist about his comments both at the commissioners’ meeting and during the Reclaim New York webinar, Umane reiterated several of his concerns.
He said the city BOE staff should have sought permission from the commissioners before sending out the latest mailer.
“It’s expensive and the city is looking for money and I have the reputation on the Board as being someone who is mindful of the public dole,” he said in a phone interview Thursday.
He added, “There’s also a political ramification of that mailing.”
He said he did not want his comments to be interpreted as him suggesting he did not want voters to turn out.
“Essentially it could be thought of as a device to get out the vote in the city of New York, which is traditionally more Democratic than Republican,” he said. “And there was not a similar notice sent out in other areas of the state that might be more Republican than Democrat.”
Umane emphasized he did not want anything done to keep people away from the polls in the city. He also talked about his role as a Republican commissioner in the bipartisan structure of the BOE.
“The Republicans keep the Democrats honest and the Democrats keep the Republicans honest,” said Umane. “That’s the best way we’ve been able to do it.”
He then walked back comments he made during the webinar on the absentee ballot lawsuit. He said he did not mean “prefilled absentee ballots,” which are entirely different from the absentee ballot applications that are at issue in the lawsuit.
“If I was loose in my comments, it was not an error of commission, it was an error of omission,” said Umane.
Critics are unmoved
Brooklyn Assemblymember Robert Carroll condemned Umane’s comments at the BOE meeting in a tweet.
“You know the @BOENYC has been broken for a long time when Commissioner Umane objects to the BOE notifying voters of the upcoming election and voting options,” wrote Carroll. “Clearly Commissioner Umane doesn't understand democracy or the role of a functioning Board of Elections.”
Brooklyn state Sen. Zellnor Myrie, who chairs the Senate elections committee, described Umane’s comments at the meeting and at the webinar as “wholly unbecoming of the position.”
“We have an individual that is charged with making sure our elections are as open and fair as possible, and this individual is putting forth theories that suggest that he does not want people to exercise their constitutional right to vote, and that motivation has partisan roots,” said Myrie, who credited the city BOE for trying to do the right thing by city voters.
Myrie has been a proponent of overhauling how the state runs its elections. He conducted a series of hearings last year with voters and elections officials that culminated in a report that proposed changing the inherently political structure of the city BOE, which is controlled by the ten commissioners selected by the Democratic and Republican leaders in each of the five boroughs.
He said comments like those made by Umane plant doubts about the legitimacy of our elections.
“The fall of our democracy will not happen in one fell swoop,” Myrie said. “It will be small actions, small criticisms, questions against the legitimacy of the process that will eventually erode the entirety of our democracy.”
Update 10/18/2022 3:05 p.m: At the commissioners weekly meeting on Tuesday, Umane defended his concerns about the city’s mailing believing it might drive up turnout in a part of the state where there are more registered Democrats.
“The point I was trying to make was that this extra mailing was done in New York City only and not throughout the rest of the state,” he said.
He then called on the state BOE to send a similar mailer to voters statewide to ensure all voters are notified of when and where to vote.
One challenge to that request is that elections are run by the local county’s election board and paid for on a local basis. Also, the way each county runs certain aspects of their elections can differ.
For example, New York City is the only part of the state where a voter is assigned to a specific early voting site. In every other part of the state, voters can go to any early voting site in the county.
Spokespeople for the state BOE did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Umane’s request. However, state BOE Democratic co-chair Douglas Kellner offered qualified praise for Umane’s work over many years.
“In general, my experience with Commissioner Umane is that he has been a very reasonable person who is looking out for the voter’s interests,” said Kellner. “I wonder if the changes in the local Republican Party have made him more Trump-oriented, where he is making comments for the gallery as opposed to the most voter friendly way to address an issue.”