Op-Ed | BOE needs to reform to give New Yorkers confidence in future elections

New York City voters utilized ranked-choice voting in the June 22 primary for mayor.
Photo by Dean Moses

The New York City Board of Elections has, once again, undermined New Yorkers’ faith in our elections. New Yorkers deserve election administrators that can effectively get the job done. Instead, we have an outdated partisan structure that allows for crucial positions to be filled through patronage, resulting in mistakes being made over and over and over again. Last week’s inclusion of 130,000 dummy votes in the initial ranked choice tally must be the last straw.

It feels like Groundhog Day every election cycle.

We just want to be clear: this is not ranked choice voting’s fault. The same politicians blaming ranked choice voting for the BOE’s failure are protecting the status quo because it benefits them. Adopted overwhelmingly by NYC voters as a fairer way to decide crowded primary races, ranked choice voting operates successfully in many regions of the country. But the NYC BOE has produced a series of failures that started long before ranked choice voting came to NYC. As recently as 2020, the Board disenfranchised thousands of voters by misprinting absentee ballots. Does that mean people shouldn’t be allowed to vote absentee? Of course not.

This is not to disparage the BOE staff who work long hours in difficult conditions. It’s the partisan BOE leadership — 10 commissioners picked by party leaders in each borough — who have failed workers and voters by neglecting to provide essential resources or hire professionals who know how to effectively administer elections. Political squabbles between state and local election officials have prevented the BOE from allocating the time and resources necessary to properly administer elections, and political appointees are rarely held accountable for the BOE’s repeated failures.

In its current structure, the BOE is set up to fail. It’s time for our elected officials to turn it around. Instead of pointing fingers with no real action, the state legislature must take responsibility and pass legislation to restructure the BOE.

Luckily, we have a plan to fix it.

First, we must amend the New York State Constitution to make state and county Boards of Elections nonpartisan, rather than bipartisan, and include safeguards against nepotism and political patronage at all levels. Amending the Constitution is no easy task — two consecutive state legislatures must pass it before a measure is brought to voters. So let’s start now. And while we wait, county parties should nominate BOE commissioners through a competitive, transparent process that includes a vote of the entire County Committee and not just party leaders.

Instead of the current system of political patronage and nepotism, the BOE’s professional staff should be hired based on merit, through a competitive process, without consideration of their political party membership, political activities, or personal relationships. This is how other government agencies do it, so why not the BOE? Poll workers should also be hired without consideration of their political party membership, and poll worker training should be improved.

In addition, the New York State Legislature should adequately fund election administration. And the New York City Council should use its appointment authority to ensure potential BOE Commissioners are committed to reform, and hold the BOE accountable for its failures. Stop rubber stamping unqualified nominees.

New Yorkers deserve a BOE that can manage elections competently and fairly. New Kings Democrats, Common Cause/NY, and other organizations have proposed these solutions for years, and the legislature has dithered while the problem got worse. New York State legislators must act now to restructure this dysfunctional institution — before the next election cycle brings another catastrophic failure from the BOE.

City Council Member Antonio Reynoso is leading in the Democratic primary to become the next Brooklyn Borough president and Mariana Alexander is President of New Kings Democrats (NKD), a political club dedicated to reforming the Brooklyn Democratic Party.

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