How to reform New York City’s Board of Elections (for real this time)
October 28, 2020 Rachel Holliday Smith, THE CITY
A Board of Elections worker speaks to New Yorkers in long lines outside the Barclays Center on the first day of early voting, Oct. 24, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
This story was originally published on Oct. 26 by THE CITY. Sign up here to get the latest stories from THE CITY delivered to you each morning.
Like clockwork, with every election in New York City comes a common refrain: Can’t we do something about the city’s Board of Elections?
The notorious BOE has bungled so much over the years, even good-government watchdog groups struggle to keep it all straight.
In one of the board’s most recent missteps, a vendor hired by the BOE via a $4.6 million no-bid contract botched absentee ballots for 100,000 voters in Brooklyn as many New Yorkers planned to vote by mail due to the pandemic.
“There’s been so much of it that you actually start to forget at some point,” said Tom Speaker, policy analyst at the transparency advocacy group Reinvent Albany. “It’s just this deluge of disasters.”
As New Yorkers hit the polls for early voting in the 2020 presidential election, all eyes are on the BOE, again. On Monday, The New York Times published an investigation documenting the ingrained culture of nepotism and ineptitude at the BOE.
And after a weekend of long lines at early voting sites as Election Day approaches, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday took turns dunking on the agency.
“I would be open to an entire redesign of the entire New York City Board of Elections system,” Cuomo said. But a short time later, the governor claimed “the state has no role” in how the board is run, even though he has the power to fire commissioners.
Can the board ever change? THE CITY spoke with experts, advocates and reformers who have ideas on how it can be fixed — and believe the moment has finally arrived to make that happen.
What is the Board of Elections, and how did we get here?
The BOE is partisan by design.
Ten commissioners make up the board, which oversees staffing and operations. The Democratic and Republican parties from each of New York City’s five counties — in other words, the five boroughs — appoint one member apiece.
The board’s structure is dictated by Article 2, Part 8 of the state constitution and was born from an attempt during the hyper-partisan Tammany Hall era of the late 1800s to avoid corruption.
The idea of a two-party-run board, according to State Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn), chair of the Senate Elections Committee, came from a “genuine desire for us to have checks and balances” — for each party to check up on the other.
To Susan Lerner, executive director at Common Cause New York, the concept is outdated. “This is a 19th century approach towards ensuring the integrity of elections,” she said.
Instead of creating a fair election system, she said, the BOE became a bastion of political favoritism. The leaders of the county political parties hold enormous sway over who gets jobs and board appointments, Lerner said.
Often, party loyalists, friends and families are appointed to plum positions.
In 2013, the city Department of Investigation found that about one in 10 members of the BOE’s workforce were related. Current employees include the wives, siblings and mothers, friends and children of current and former local politicians and borough party bosses, the Times found.
“I have literally had a county chair say to me that I failed to recognize that an important purpose of the Board of Elections was to employ people who would not be able to get positions elsewhere — to which I said, ‘Thank you for your candor,’” Lerner said. “It’s about patronage.”