Can the New York City Board of Elections be reformed?

Each election year, the city Board of Elections fails in a new, previously unimaginable way.
Each election year, the city Board of Elections fails in a new, previously unimaginable way.
Janet Julie Vanatko/Shutterstock
Each election year, the city Board of Elections fails in a new, previously unimaginable way.

Can the New York City Board of Elections be reformed?

The absentee ballot mixup in Brooklyn has renewed perennial calls to overhaul the BOE.
September 30, 2020

After the New York City Board of Elections admitted that a vendor error left up to 100,000 people with the wrong absentee ballot envelopes, renewed calls have emerged to reexamine and reform the agency to make it more transparent and effective. But talk of reforming the city’s famously dysfunctional election agency isn’t new. What has always been lacking is the political will from lawmakers to see it through. But, now that Democrats control both chambers of the state Legislature, it may actually be possible. 

It seems with each election year, the city Board of Elections fails in a new, previously unimaginable way. In 2016, the board illegally purged 200,000 voters from the rolls ahead of the Democratic presidential primary. In 2018, ballot scanners all over the city broke in the middle of Election Day, leading to long lines as people waited and overwhelmed poll workers. In June of this year, thousands of people didn’t get their absentee ballots in time to vote in the primary, while thousands of other ballots were initially tossed because of a postal error before a judge ruled that some of them should be counted. Each time, good government advocates called to reform the city Board of Elections, as well as for the resignation of its Executive Director Michael Ryan, a man who himself has faced scrutiny for conflicts of interest. Yet no major reforms passed, and Ryan still has the job.

Good government advocates have recommended implementing a nonpartisan, rather than bipartisan, Board of Elections for years, overhauling both the city and state boards to make them operate like normal professional agencies such as, for example, the city and state departments of transportation. “New York should enter the 20th century, not to mention the 21st century, and professionalize the Board of Elections,” one elections expert, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the board, told City & State. “We have a lot of well-meaning, good people who work at the board, who unfortunately get the brunt when the leadership acts in less-than-competent ways.”

City Council Member Carlina Rivera was one the people who called to replace Ryan following the June primary. “Every election, we continue to be disappointed, so there has to be a reckoning at the top,” Rivera told City & State. In a July op-ed, she laid out several short-term reforms to help the general election run more smoothly than the primary. Most were policies specifically aimed at the upcoming election such as sending absentee ballot applications to all voters and doubling the number of early polling places. Some needed state approval, like creating drop boxes for absentee ballots. Others, like properly vetting all vendor contracts after distribution errors in the primary, did not. 

On contractors, Rivera noted that the board evidently ignored her recommendation, since a mistake by the vendor printing and mailing the ballots resulted in nearly 100,000 Brooklynites receiving incorrect materials. “Vendors need to be held to account today, as does the board’s executive director for this error,” Rivera said. “The buck stops must stop with the leadership.”

In this case, the city board awarded the company Phoenix Graphics a $4.6 million no-bid contract in May, meaning the upstate firm didn’t have to compete with other bidders. It was the first contract the company had with the Board of Elections, but the city Department of Citywide Administrative Services contracted with the firm to print general election ballots between 2010 and 2014.

Rivera also advocates for a total overhaul of the board, but the city Board of Elections is governed by the state, so any changes must happen in the state Legislature. 

Election reform advocates have long said an overhaul is necessary, but there has been little movement in Albany. Currently, the city Board of Elections is a bipartisan agency, with party leaders from each borough choosing commissioners – five Democrats and five Republicans – and rubber stamped by the City Council. An inherently political operation, it’s one of the last vestiges of old-school machine operations, journalist Ross Barkan wrote in City & State in 2018 after Election Day mayhem that year. Unlike most other workers in city agencies, board employees do not need to take civil service exams and they are often hired thanks to connections to party leaders. Poll workers are often hired the same way, through recommendations from party leaders or lawmakers, Barkan wrote.

“There’s a systemic problem,” Council Member Antonio Reynoso told City & State for this story. He recently delayed the appointment of the Brooklyn Democratic commissioner whom the county party tried to rush through, after an extended vacancy, to better vet the nominee. Reynoso said the first thing he asked her was if she would make political hires based on party leader recommendations, or hire truly qualified people. He said she committed not to make political hires, which he said was important to him, but that this alone doesn’t change the structural problems. 

For structural change to occur, the state Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo would have to make revamping the Board of Elections a priority in the next legislative session. State Sen. Zellnor Myrie, chair of the Senate Elections Committee, told City & State that he plans to address some of the issues raised in June and again this month. But he didn’t offer too many specifics just yet. “I am concerned about the contracting process, about the structure of the board of elections, about the sort of nebulous, accountability authority,” Myrie said. “I think all of those things merit very serious discussion.” He added that he agrees the board’s structure should be revisited, but that the state should carefully consider other potential options before moving forward.

Myrie said that the Legislature has not been shy about passing election and voting reforms – updating the state’s voting laws was one of the first things the new Democratic majority did when it took over in 2019. So he said that a hearing on this year’s elections administration and bigger election reforms is likely, even if the timing and final subject matter of such a hearing are still in the air.

But rebuilding the state and New York City BOEs from the ground up would require a state constitutional amendment. A proposed amendment must pass two consecutive Legislatures before going to the voters as a ballot referendum. The process would take a minimum of three years if lawmakers passed something in 2021. 

The process also might be slowed down by reticence from the governor. While Cuomo is not against reforming the Board of Elections, it doesn’t seem like he’ll be putting his political muscle behind the effort and make it a personal priority. When asked about criticisms about how the city Board of Elections is run and the possibility of the state passing reforms, he seemed to lay responsibility on the City Council. “It's very common that the New York City Council will pass a law that requires state approval, but pass the law and then give us the law,” Cuomo said at a Tuesday press conference. “We can't pass your law if we don't have it, right?”

But Reynoso, at least, predicts that Cuomo and other state leaders will take the initiative soon. “Give it a couple of months,” Reynoso said. “After this election, Gov. Cuomo, everybody is going to come out: ‘We need to reform the BOE!’ … We’re ready.”

With additional reporting by Jeff Coltin.

Rebecca C. Lewis
is deputy state politics reporter at City & State.