The NYC Board of Elections

Can the BOE handle the general election?
Can the BOE handle the general election?
Alex Law/City & State
Can the BOE handle the general election?

The NYC Board of Elections

A quick review of New York City’s Board of Elections, disenfranchisement and concerns over the upcoming general election.
October 30, 2020

Excelsior is a weekly City & State newsletter that gets sent out every Wednesday at noon. If you like what you see, you can sign up to have Excelsior sent directly to you by clicking here!

Can the BOE handle the general election?

You may have heard about the major mix-up that happened in early September when roughly 100,000 New York City residents received the wrong absentee ballot envelopes in the mail. Or maybe you heard about the huge number of city voters whose ballots weren’t counted in the June primary. Oh, and then there were those voting mishaps last year, when the city Board of Elections graced us with malfunctioning voting machines, staffing shortages, absent language translators at poll sites, and sites that were inaccessible to disabled voters. 

While the New York City Board of Elections has been accused of mismanagingelections for years, the COVID-19 pandemic and an unprecedented number of absentee ballot requests means the board has been especially overwhelmed this year. Concerns about the upcoming general election are growing as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has indicated that the state does not have enough funds to help with extra election costs. On Oct. 22, two days before early voting began, it was also reported that many temporary poll workers still didn’t know which poll sites they were assigned to. And in early October, a report revealed that two-thirds of poll workers had yet to be trained, and that the board was scrambling to make necessary election preparations, which is … not great.

By the numbers

Costs and ballot rejections

  • 21% of absentee ballots were initially rejected during the June primary.
  • 193,915 individuals voted in person during the first weekend of the city’s early voting period, which began on Oct. 24 and ends on Nov. 1.
  • 200,000: the number of voters that were illegally purged from the city’s voter registry in 2016.
  • $50 million: the amount of money the BOE says it needed to procure additional staff and equipment ahead of November’s general election.

You have one job!

How the NYC Board of Elections works (and doesn’t work) 

The Board of Elections is a city agency of sorts, which is funded by the city even though it falls under state law. This presents a unique set of challenges, considering the state has given nearly every one of its counties’ boards autonomy to operate as they please.

The city’s board is made up of 10 commissioners, selected by New York City Council members for a four-year term. They select one Democrat and one Republican from each borough – even though Republican lawmakers are virtually nonexistent in most of New York City. The board’s executive director is selected by those commissioners

However, many council members are close to their party’s county leaders, who can influence the decisions when it comes to selecting commissioners. The commissioners oversee a bipartisan staff – there are about 350 permanent staff members – who are responsible for assisting the board with its duties that include everything from voter registration and training Election Day officers to voter education and creating campaign finance disclosures. The board has discretion over who it hires and fires and is unaccountable to the city, which has resulted in the hiring of some individuals who are completely unfamiliar with how elections are run. 

As Neal Rosenstein, New York Public Interest Research Group’s government reform coordinator, told me, “I think the average New Yorker – even the New Yorkers who are somewhat (politically) engaged – would be appalled to learn that their elections are run by, in essence, patronage employees of the two political parties that have often times rejected any meaningful oversight by the City Council and act independently with an arrogance which is just stunning, and has led to problems for voters year after year after year.”

The board is responsible for conducting fair elections, allowing all eligible New Yorkers to register to vote and vote at their discretion, saving voting records and educating voters. It also certifies canvases and petitions, and can decide who will and will not be allowed on voting ballots. 

Does the board need a “complete overhaul”?

Chaos at the BOE

On the day of the primary elections back in June, a huge number of New Yorkers reported that they hadn’t received their absentee ballots in time to vote. The Board of Elections revealed that 767,000 ballots had been mailed out to voters but it only received 403,000 ballots by primary day. And it took over a month for the board to count all of the ballots and finalize the city’s election results.

Worse still, it was initially reported that thousands of ballots received in that election would be discarded due to postmarking errors (in other words, screw-ups by the Post Office, not by voters), which could have meant tossing 1 out of every 5 absentee ballots. Luckily, a federal judge ordered all the ballots to be counted. The Board of Elections vowed to fight the ruling, saying it would be too hard to count all those pesky ballots, but in the end backed down.

While this year has presented the board with some unique challenges, the board has previously expelled hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers from its voter registration, sent voters to the wrong polling sites and made voters use jammed ballot scanners, among other issues. In 2017, city Comptroller Scott Stringer – don’t worry, we’ll explain what a comptroller does in another newsletter – found that the board jeopardized people’s right to vote by using dysfunctional machines and untrained poll workers. Another audit by Stringer this year also found the board guilty of “widespread mismanagement.”

NYPIRG, a big advocate for voter’s rights in the state, says the city’s current election system needs a complete overhaul, since it currently only serves the two political parties manning it. “The idea was to set up a system that has parties looking over each other's shoulders, to make sure that they count the votes right,” Rosenstein said. “But looking over each other's shoulders is now scratching each other's backs.”

The New York City Board of Elections did not respond to a request for comment on this newsletter.

What’s next?

Plans for improvement

While the BOE sent replacement ballots to most of the 100,000 city dwellers who received ballots with the incorrect name and address, this misstep may still lead to disenfranchisement for voters who aren’t savvy enough to read emails like this one.

NYPIRG’s Rosenstein says the city’s Board of Elections needs to be transparent about its past mistakes and what it needs to run more smoothly. He also feels that the board needs to open itself up to a civil service-style reform to keep its commissioners accountable and establish a municipal poll worker training program. However, any wide-scale reforms will have to wait until after the November election.

On the bright side, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a large election reform package at the end of August that allows absentee ballots to begin being counted upon their receipt, allows residents the ability to vote with an absentee ballot if they fear they are sick, and allows absentee ballots received by the board to be counted even if they are postmarked a day after the election. Other reforms currently on the table are aimed at enabling ballots to be tracked, allowing later voter registration and hiring more personnel to sort through the expected surge in mail-in ballots.Many New Yorkers are wondering if the board will avoid making the mistakes it made in June and September – or if that’s even possible – in time for the general election.

Amanda Luz Henning Santiago
Amanda Luz Henning Santiago
is City & State's web reporter and social media editor.
20201204