[Image courtesy of ourvoicesscnewsletter]
Over the last few years, one of my favorite running storylines has been the the fierce, often incredulous coverage of the New York City Board of Elections by the New York Daily News. Time and time again, the Daily News has hammered the Board for alleged mismanagement and called for sweeping changes both in the way in which the Board is chosen and how it does its work.
Beneath the outrage, however, there is an obvious interest in improving the City's voting process - which is why it wasn't surprising to see an oped last Friday by two key members of the New York Public Interest Research Group laying out several changes that the new mayor should consider.
The piece by NYPIRG's Neal Rosenstein and Gene Russianoff is a thoughtful and wide-ranging examination of how the City can work to get its voting process back on track:
Over the years, many New Yorkers have suffered problem-plagued elections, with broken machines, long lines, chaotic poll sites and inadequately trained polling inspectors who unintentionally disenfranchise voters.
Even though the city Board of Elections argues that it is not subject to mayoral control, the next mayor can do a lot more to turn around elections than cry out in disbelief and anger.
In fact, the city decides the agency's annual budget and the City Council has the power to confirm Elections Board members, who are nominated by the Democratic and Republican county leader in each borough. Mayor Ed Koch used the power of the purse, for example, to get the board to move from heavy ledgers filled with voter registration forms to slim, computer-generated voter records.
We need the state's help to win big-ticket items like early voting or changing the patronage structure of the board. But meaningful reforms are within the power of the incoming mayor and Council:
Increase the pool of good poll workers. The Board of Elections faces a chronic shortage of thousands of poll worker positions, including interpreters that are mandated by law. Voters suffer as a result. Our new mayor should push for municipal employees to be permitted time off on Primary Day to work the polls.
Provide better training to poll workers. Horror stories abound of board-training sessions with dozing poll workers. The board is simply not up to the job. It's time to move to outside trainers who will be held accountable for their performance instead of using in-house and patronage appointees.
Get rid of "voter cards" at poll site sign-in tables. The system of filling out a voter card for each voter is completely unnecessary, especially when optical scan voting machines are in use (as they will be going forward). The cards once served as an informal audit of vote totals at an election district. Optical scan ballots have numbered stubs to record how many ballots were distributed. No New York county outside of the city still uses that system. [The Daily News did have this "you can't make this up" story about one poll worker's unique difficulty with the system -ed.]
Continually update records. To tackle one frequent source of confusion, the new mayor should implement a system that proactively updates the addresses of eligible citizens who interact with city agencies. City law requires giving registration forms to people who use city services -- but agency workers are barred from helping people complete the forms.
Make the Board of Elections more transparent and accountable. For starters, the board should work with the city to establish sensible and consistent performance measures, such as types of machine breakdowns and repair times. It should also post Election Day complaints the agency receives along with efforts to resolve those problems in real time.
Reassess the runoff system. The city will spend more than $20 million on a citywide runoff, this time maybe only for the public advocate's race. Instead, we should explore Instant Runoff Voting, where voters rank candidates in preferred order, like they use in San Francisco and Minneapolis.
This is obviously a big reform menu, and so it's unlikely the new mayor will have the ability to accomplish all of this ... but given the challenges facing the City's elections it's pretty clear that the process needs attention. As the authors note -
Elections workers and officials need the help of the next mayor and Council. And there's one other group counting on the next mayor to make things right -- the voters.
If nothing else, you can be very sure that the Daily News will be watching!
REMINDER: Check out the Election Academy's new online course on voter eligibility here!