The past few weeks should have been a joyous, celebratory moment for all New York City voters. In a critical primary election – one in which we elected city leaders who will continue to guide us through a recovery from the COVID-19 crisis – voters showed up in record numbers, with over 25% turnout citywide, the highest rate in a primary in over 30 years. New Yorkers made their voices heard using a new system, ranked choice voting, which gave them more of a say than ever before in the outcome. It was local democracy at its best.
Yet since Election Day on June 22, we’ve seen nothing but local democracy at its worst. In their attempt to count the votes, the New York City Board of Elections – the state-run body that administers all of our elections – has turned the process into a chaotic local and national spectacle. During the initial public tabulation, the BOE erroneously included more than 130,000 “dummy” test votes in their count – confusing candidates and New Yorkers alike, and spoiling the public results. They waited for over six hours to explain the error. And then, as days turned into weeks, they refused to communicate transparently with the public about anything that was going on. When they did communicate to the public, information came largely through misleading tweets.
The process was inexcusable, embarrassing, and unfortunately, typical of BOE mistakes that have happened for far too long now. In the past few years, New Yorkers have seen the BOE illegally purge more than 200,000 voters from the rolls in 2016; deliver incorrect absentee ballots to hundreds of thousands of Brooklynites in the 2020 primary; and lead a November 2020 early voting period in which New Yorkers stood outside for four-plus hours trying to cast a ballot.
New York City is a beacon to the rest of the country – and the world – about what a free and fair democracy looks like. Incompetence is unacceptable. Every New Yorker deserves better, and they deserve urgent change to make sure something like this can never happen again. We must take steps in both the short- and long-term to make the Board of Elections more transparent, responsive, and accountable to all of us.
Immediately, the New York state Legislature should pass Senate Bill S6226A and Assembly Bill A5691B. These bills, sponsored by state Sen. Liz Krueger and Assembly Member Nily Rozic, would take the first significant steps towards professionalizing the BOE. They would require the BOE’s executive directors to be appointed by citywide elected officials, including the City Council speaker, public advocate, and mayor, creating a clear hierarchy and chain of responsibility. They would move critical early voting and Election Day decisions – polling hours, site selection, and site setup – away from the board, to the publicly appointed executive directors. And they would require commissioners and executive staff to have professional qualifications and training before assuming their duties – common-sense measures that should have been required long ago, all supported by a number of good government groups across our city. This bill will establish real accountability and transparency at the board, and fast.
The state Legislature can and should pass those bills immediately. But we also need to look at the structural causes for this dysfunction and address them over the longer-term. The biggest issue is the requirement, straight from the state constitution, requiring the BOE to have equal bipartisan representation when it comes to voter registration, distributing ballots, and counting votes. What sounds like an attempt at good, fair governance – trying to ensure checks and balances across parties – has resulted in anything but. Instead, the BOE has become a place of political favoritism where county political leaders, on both sides, wield incredible power over who receives BOE appointments and jobs. An amendment to the state constitution would permanently reshape our political infrastructure, and demand competence instead of patronage.
As the deputy mayor of New York City and a political scientist and professor at Fordham University, this mission is personal for us – and it should be for every New Yorker. We cannot allow incompetence to erode confidence for New Yorkers who wish to cast a ballot. Our history is littered with ugly examples of what happens when the ability to vote is not treated as the sacred right it is. We have taken extraordinary steps to drive awareness, encourage participation, and make it easier – not harder – to cast a ballot, especially in communities of color that have too often been silenced, in ways subtle and overt. New Yorkers have done their part, turning out in record numbers to make their voices heard. They deserve better. They deserve real BOE reform. We don’t have a day to waste.