Wait times of four hours to vote. Voters lined up before dawn, in the rain, to try to save an hour or two. Citizens unable to “fully trust” the option to vote by mail, after as many as 100,000 voters received flawed absentee ballots for the general election and officials rejected one in five absentee ballots returned in the primary.
If these problems were happening “in the deep south” or “in a swing state,” some critics have said, there would be national outrage over voter suppression. We’ve warned that election officials in those political hot spots use New York’s voting deficiencies to justify their own. When the city’s Board of Elections botched absentee ballots in September, New York became the poster child for President Donald Trump’s campaign mantra, “Big Fraud, Unfixable!” Maybe it’s finally time for New York to do something about this?
To be fair, the confluence of voting complications hitting New York this year might challenge the best of elections systems. The pandemic sparked unprecedented demand to vote by mail in a state where strict criteria previously kept those numbers low. And it’s the state’s first presidential election with early voting, which lawmakers finally approved in 2019, behind 37 other states and the District of Columbia. As of Nov. 1, more than 1 million New York City residents had shown up at the polls—possibly a shock where turnout historically has been among the nation’s lowest.
But New York City has far from the best of elections systems. Quite the contrary. The problem is far deeper and older than just the challenges of 2020. It’s both structural and cultural, to a degree found perhaps only in New York, a place haunted by the ghosts of Tammany Hall.
Consider that four years ago, the city’s Board of Elections illegally purged 200,000 New Yorkers from the voter rolls before the presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and it inexplicably changed the party affiliations of others so that they were unable to vote in the closed primary. In 2018, voters waited in long lines as scores of ballot scanning machines broke down and the city’s chief elections administrator blamed the weather.
Numerous probes by officials and watchdog groups over the years have exposed as problems endemic to the city’s election administration unqualified, unprofessional staffing, illegally inaccessible polling sites, and under-resourcing of polling locations with a disproportionately negative impact on communities of color. Among other problems. But, while one or two low-level staffers departed after scandals, and even though some problems were so bad as to warrant remediation plans in federal court, not much has changed in 2020.
That’s because of the New York City Board of Elections’ bizarre power structure, which enables those in charge to dodge responsibility. By statute, elected officials at the state and city levels share authority over it. But in practice, real influence has come to lie with unelected, unaccountable political party insiders, who pick elections personnel from commissioners to poll workers. That influence flows from an interpretation of a state constitutional mandate that elections administration be bipartisan—by no means requiring control by party bosses but serving to justify it.
The dispersal of legal authority between city and state makes it easy for elected officials, who are accountable to voters but often beholden to party insiders, to disclaim responsibility. (The New York City Board of Elections deflects responsibility even within itself, sometimes operating as a single force but at other times pointing the finger at one of its five county board offices where staff are appointed by local party bosses.) The patronage problem can affect other parts of the state, but wreaks particular havoc in a city of 5.3 million voters that spans five counties.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The governor, state legislators, and city officials have all called for reform of the city’s Board of Elections, but none has taken responsibility for making it happen. Yet, in spite of what has become acceptable political culture—to blame the parties or one another—each elected authority has the power to do a lot. The City Council appoints the board’s commissioners, with no legal requirement to approve party favorites. And the governor may remove them. The City Council holds the board’s operational purse strings, and state lawmakers set the commissioners’ salaries. With the political will, these powers and others could enable significant change.
Given the history of official inaction, though, that political will may have to come from a lot of outraged New Yorkers demanding, once and for all, a competent elections system that facilitates rather than encumbers their right to vote. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask.
At the very least, laws to modernize voting procedures can ease some of the problems. Gov. Andrew Cuomo should sign the automatic voter registration law legislators passed in July. That reform, which the Brennan Center has helped establish in 17 states and D.C., boosts registrations by streamlining clunky enrollment processes and maintaining updated electronic records. It might have helped New York City avoid the steep drop in registrations it saw this year. And the silver lining of the city’s recent frustrations with early voting was that the reform gave advocates and administrators time to find workarounds, including expansion of voting hours, before it was too late to vote.
Enough outrage could fuel change as deep as rewriting the state constitution, the part that serves to justify patronage in election administration. That would be no small feat. A state constitutional amendment needs approval by two consecutive legislatures, then by a majority of voters in a ballot referendum. Change on that scale would require a public insistence on voting rights like never before. Considering this year’s troubles, we may be getting there.
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