Council to Board of Elections: Poll yourselves together

When New York City voters run into problems at the polls, they let their elected officials hear about it.

Those officials don’t always have much recourse, since the Board of Elections’ commissioners are appointed by political parties. But once or twice a year, the Board’s representatives have to sit through oversight hearings with the City Council’s government operations committee, where members can air their grievances.

Photo: David Poe/Flickr

At a packed hearing Monday in advance of November’s general election, the Council’s criticism was more measured than at its contentious August session, when one councilwoman told the Board’s representatives flatly that they had “screwed up” the city’s June primary election, and were offering “excuses.”

But the hearing still seized on plenty of complaints about the Board’s performance in the latest primary, on Sept. 13, from mailers that gave voters inaccurate information about their polling sites, to ballots that were printed in seven-point font.

“To its credit, the Board has already taken steps to address these issues,” said Gale Brewer, the committee’s chair. “But goodness knows, more needs to be done.”

Monday’s criticism largely centered on poll sites. Many voters found that their polling places had been relocated after a once-every-10-years redistricting process. To make matters worse, the Board of Elections issued mailers directing citizens to the wrong polling places.

Erik Dilan, a Brooklyn council member from Queens, said the errors hit senior citizens especially hard. When some learned that their previous polling places had been closed, Dilan said, they chose not to vote. Others, he said, “chose to walk.”

“Some of them that we knew were voting for us, we got them a ride,” he added.

Board of Elections staff acknowledged that they had made errors in the wake of redistricting, but responded that nearly 150 poll sites had been moved since the September election, to make them more accessible.

In addition to scrutinizing the September primary, the committee was also considering a slate of seven bills designed to improve the city’s election system. The proposals range from one measure that would allow campaign contributions by text message, to another, sponsored by Council Member Brad Lander, that would force the Board of Elections to submit performance data for inclusion in an annual mayoral oversight report.

Currently, the Board compiles data in its annual report but includes minimal information about year-over-year trends or targets, which council members and good government groups said would improve accountability.

“There is a lot of data, but a lot of data outside of context is difficult to use for a management tool,” Lander said.

In testimony, the Board of Elections’ enforcement counsel, Raphael Savino, dismissed Lander’s measure, saying that it would be preempted by New York State Election Law.

While the hearing was largely polite, with council members praising the Board for some improvements between the June and September elections — like the development of a mobile app to help voters find their poll sites — it was still far from warm.

The board, in its own testimony, not only criticized some of the proposed Council measures for imposing unfunded mandates; it also offered corrections on syntax and language.

Though the back-and-forth seemed tense at times, such exchanges actually are constructive, said Michael Ryan, a Democratic former Board of Elections commissioner from Staten Island.

The hearings, he said, give council members an opportunity to hold the Board’s public employees accountable.

“To the extent that we have a government by the people and for the people, you owe an explanation to the people, through their representatives,” Ryan said in an interview.

“It’s the discussion that leads to bettering the system,” he added. “If you don’t want to answer to the people, don’t take a government job that requires you to answer to the people.”

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