Report: How To Fix The New York City Board of Elections

NYU Law published a report Thursday detailing the New York City Board of Elections’ string of failures
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The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law published a report Thursday detailing the New York City Board of Elections’ string of failures, how structure and practices that make it an extreme outlier among comparable election jurisdictions in the United States have caused these problems, and what the state legislature can do to solve them.

Published in collaboration with the Let NY Vote coalition, the report recommends best practices drawn from the experiences of other large, diverse election jurisdictions around the country. None of these proposals would require amending the state’s constitution.

“For decades, the Board of Elections has been responsible for failure after failure with enormous impacts on voters, yet nothing seems to change,” said Joanna Zdanys, one of the report’s authors and counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “The agency’s structure breeds deep dysfunction and a resistance to accountability. The legislature has the tools and the power to break this cycle. Albany must follow through so that the agency can serve New York City voters effectively.”

In How to Fix the New York City Board of Elections: Solutions to the Structural Flaws that Cause the Agency’s Exceptional Dysfunction, Zdanys and her coauthors outline the agency’s various disasters, such as its untraceable absentee ballots, widespread voting machine breakdowns, purges of eligible voters from the rolls, and more. The report points to ways that the New York State Legislature – whose laws govern all boards of elections in the state – and other stakeholders can make critical changes to the board.

The report identifies areas where the agency’s exceptional structure and practices have contributed to a uniquely poor track record in serving the City’s voters, including:

  • The composition of the board: The New York City Board of Elections is far larger and more diffuse than any other major metropolitan elections agency in the country, hindering efficient decision-making and contributing to an inequitable distribution of power and resources. Recommendation: The state legislature should reduce the number of commissioners from 10 to four.
  • How leadership is appointed and staff are hired: During the hiring process, political party interests supersede qualification-based standards, and the agency generally does not share job postings as in other jurisdictions. Recommendations: The New York City Council, which is the local appointing authority, should consistently employ a transparent and merit-based process for selecting commissioners. The legislature should strike the current requirement in state statute that employees throughout the agency reflect equal representation of the two major political parties. The legislature should also require commissioners to conduct a nationwide search for top executive staff, and have public, detailed, and broadly shared job postings for all positions.​​​
  • Removal authority for commissioners: Only the governor has the power to remove commissioners. The appointing authority – the New York City Council – doesn’t, which has allowed the agency to dodge accountability. Recommendation: State lawmakers should extend the power to remove commissioners to locally accountable elected officials like the city council and the mayor, with review by the courts for just cause.
  • Deficient information sharing: The lack of timely public data from the agency disenfranchises voters and makes it hard to improve voter education processes. Recommendations: The Board of Elections should improve communications with voters, and the agency’s absentee ballot tracker should be updated in a timely way so that it’s useful for voters. The legislature should require the board to track and publicly report key voting and election administration data in a format that’s accessible and frequently updated.

Authors conclude that state lawmakers have the power to fundamentally change the New York City Board of Elections by implementing these structures and practices that other large, diverse election jurisdictions have used to ensure accountability and better service to voters.

Please click here to read How to Fix the New York City Board of Elections.

The following comments are from member organizations in the Let NY Vote coalition.

“It’s time for the New York City BOE to become a voter-centric agency, staffed professionally, with transparent processes and data, and is truly accountable to the voters in this city. We have an opportunity to strengthen our democracy by creating systems that actually help people vote and there’s no time like now.” — Jan Combopiano, senior policy director and member of the Executive Committee, Brooklyn Voters Alliance

“For decades, the highly partisan structure of the Board of Elections has failed voters. Recent missteps have further demonstrated the need for a highly professionalized team of election administrators to replace the politically connected patronage hires we currently have overseeing our elections. State and City lawmakers must act now to give New Yorkers a Board of Elections that is accountable to voters, not political bosses.” — Betsy Gotbaum, executive director, Citizens Union

“We applaud this report for shedding light on structural problems at the NYC BOE that have historically disenfranchised New Yorkers. These issues have prevented recent key voting initiatives from being effectively implemented. It’s clear that we need change, and this is a great first step towards making the much needed reforms to how the NYC BOE functions.” — Melody Lopez, executive director, New York Civic Engagement Table

“This report not only makes clear the path forward for necessary reforms to the New York City Board of Elections — it also makes clear what's at stake if officials fail to restore integrity to our city's election system. Every New Yorker should be able to have confidence in the agency that administers New York City's elections. It's time for city and state officials to deliver an accountable, communicative & efficient board of elections that allows for exactly that.” — Stand Up America

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