New York City’s latest election debacle is the natural result of the BOE’s systematic dysfunction

A voter walks through a New York City polling location
Voters mark their ballots at Frank McCourt High School, in New York, Tuesday, June 22, 2021.

  • NYC’s snafu in reporting ranked-choice results is the latest in a long line of election problems.
  • Critics say the incident wasn’t a one-off, but emblematic of a fundamentally broken system.
  • The embattled Board of Elections has long been a hotbed of nepotism and political cronyism.
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The rollout of ranked-choice voting devolved into chaos on Tuesday night in the highly-watched New York City Democratic mayoral primary, when the city’s Board of Elections announced that the results of the first rounds of ranked-choice votes included 135,000 test votes mistakenly left in the election management system.

The error, luckily, occurred during the release of incomplete, unofficial election results based only on in-person votes, not final tabulations that include a full accounting of absentee and provisional ballots. The Board plans to reupload election results and retally ranked-choice rounds.

Some politicians were quick to blame the ranked-choice system. But that explanation falls flat. Over 20 municipalities around the country have been successfully running ranked-choice elections for years with smooth tabulation and no hiccups on this scale. And, for those who have been following New York City elections for years, the failure was none too shocking.

“I, like most New Yorkers, I am pretty much aghast at another pretty big gaffe at the Board of Elections, the kind of gaffe that many of us have been calling out for a very, very long time” New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said on a Wednesday press call hosted by Common Cause New York. “And the notion that somehow if we didn’t have ranked-choice voting it would go smoother without is not one that I can agree with based on all the other issues we’ve had with the Board of Elections.”

The way the Board of Elections is structured in New York has proven to be non-conducive to competent and transparent elections, advocates argue. The latest stumble in reporting ranked-choice results is just the latest in a series of missteps and failures by the embattled city Board of Elections.

Voters mark their ballots at Frank McCourt High School, in New York, Tuesday, June 22, 2021
The New York City Board of Elections has long been criticized for long lines and other problems

New York City has long been plagued with election problems.

Hours-long lines at the polls have been a fixture of New York City elections for years. In 2016, around 100,000 voters in Brooklyn were wrongly removed from the voter rolls, leading to a major lawsuit. In 2018, the Board blamed issues with ballot scanners that compounded long lines on the rainy weather.

In the 2020 primaries, voters saw absentee ballots rejected at extraordinarily high rates with little recourse, and in the general, a mixup with the Board’s vendor resulted in tens of thousands of residents receiving absentee ballots meant for other voters.

Under the state constitution, boards of elections are required to be exactly bipartisan, with an even number of commissioners from both parties. In New York City, five commissioners from each party are nominated by political parties and approved by the city council, leaving voters with virtually no direct input as to who runs their elections.

While mandated bipartisanship may sound good in theory, the coupling of powerful county political party machines to the city’s Board of Elections has only incentivized leaders to turn it into a receptacle of nepotism and a revolving door of political cronyism, critics say.

“One wildly incompetent error occurred in a Board of Elections that many of us have been saying are rife with problems to begin with,” Williams, the New York City Public Advocate, said on the call Wednesday. “I believe, and we all know, right now, that the Board of Elections is a patronage mill. And it has to be broken up, and we have to change it.”

As The New York Times documented in an October 2020 report, an unusually high number of staffers with scant qualifications are the relatives of local politicians. Employees have also been known to shirk basic responsibilities and duties by watching Netflix and going to the gym on the job or just not coming into work at all.

Just hours before the vote-tabulation error came to light, the BOE’s Republican chairman Fred Umane said that the BOE may not be able to hold its weekly meeting next week – when RCV tabulations are set to continue – because too many staffers will be on vacation, WNYC’s Brigid Bergin reported.

People wait in line at an early voting site in New York, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.
People wait in line at an early voting site in New York, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.

The ranked-choice counting snafu could spur real reform.

The New York legislature passed reforms in 2019 and 2021 that expand voting options and modernized numerous antiquated aspects of New York’s voting and election systems.

But it remains to be seen if this latest episode will finally push the state legislature to fundamentally reform the structure of the Board of Elections, as State Senator Zellnor Myrie, the chair of the Senate Elections Committee is hoping to accomplish.

“What happened last night has nothing to do with ranked choice voting, but reflects long running problems with how we structure election administration in this state,” Myrie said in a Wednesday statement. “We’ve needed to reform the BOE since well before I was a Senator and I am committed to holding hearings ASAP to hear directly from voters and election officials with a focus on making significant changes at the BOE.”

Completely changing the structure would require an amendment to the state constitution, which would need to be approved by both chambers of the legislature and then put directly to the voters on the ballot.

But lawmakers could still keep the board’s structure while making big overhauls and reforms to professionalize the board and make it more accountable to city leaders, including with a bill proposed by State Sen. Liz Krueger that outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio put out a fresh call for the legislature to pass on Wednesday.

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Georgia governor signs sweeping election reform bill that will expand early voting and make IDs required for absentee ballots

Brian Kemp
Gov. Brian Kemp (R-Georgia).

  • Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a sweeping omnibus bill on voting elections, SB 202, on Thursday.
  • The bill expands early voting for most counties and requires identification to vote by mail.
  • More controversial provisions would change the structure of the State Elections Board.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed SB 202, a major, sweeping voting and election-administration-related bill that reforms many aspects of the state’s elections, into law on Thursday evening.

The at-times complicated and controversial 95-page bill changes when, where, and what is needed for Georgians to vote. It also changes the makeup for the board that oversees voting. Its impact may both expand some aspects of voting, complicate others, and even contract other forms of casting a ballot.

The state Senate agreed to slight changes to the Republican-backed bill by a vote of 34-20 in a Thursday session. The Georgia legislative session is set to end March 31, meaning this bill could the only major election-related legislation passed this session.

The big changes: When you can vote and who oversees the board

SB 202, titled “The Election Integrity Act of 2021,” expands in-person early voting dates and hours for most counties, according to Georgia Public Broadcasting, and gives counties more flexibility to adjust the number of polling places and machines per voting location in response to long wait times to vote.

The bill also restructures the makeup and authority of the State Election Board, including demoting the secretary of state from the chair of the board to an ex-offico member, with the legislature selecting the Board’s chair.

The law limits the board’s ability to enter into consent decrees and settlements, and, in a provision that Democratic lawmakers have raised significant concern over, gives the board the authority to temporarily suspend county-level election directors and election boards, pending formal reviews of their conduct.

When it comes to voting, the bill would require jurisdictions to hold three weeks of early voting starting the fourth Monday before the election, with voting hours for at least 8 hours, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, and up to 12 hours of voting, with polls allowed to open as early as 7 a.m. and as late as 7 p.m. during early voting.

The bill would require early voting on both Saturdays of the early voting period, also giving counties the option to hold voting on Sundays, too.

Previous versions of other proposed legislation in Georgia would have limited counties to only one day of Sunday voting during early voting. After an outcry from civil rights and racial justice groups, who accused the proposal of targeting Black voters and “Souls to the Polls” voter drives, provisions limiting Sunday voting were walked back.

A controversial provision that remains in the bill, however, bans volunteers from delivering items like food, water, or folding chairs to voters waiting in long lines, which were prevalent in Georgia during the state’s 2020 primary and in early voting for the presidential election.

The law also prohibits most uses of mobile voting buses, which were primarily deployed in Fulton County in the Atlanta area in 2020.

Georgia mail-in ballots election voting
Officials work on ballots at the Gwinnett County Voter Registration and Elections Headquarters, Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, in Lawrenceville, near Atlanta.

A controversial addition of identification

The bill did not eliminate no-excuse absentee voting, unlike another election omnibus bill presented this session, SB 241, would have done. But it does modify requirements for absentee voting.

The bill requires voters to provide an identifying number from a government-issued ID, such as the number on their drivers’ license or state ID card, to apply for an absentee ballot, and include one of those numbers, or the last four digits of their Social Security number, on their ballot envelope for their ballot to be accepted.

Currently, Georgia conducts signature verification to authenticate both absentee ballot applications and ballots themselves. While signature matching was successful in 2020, some top election officials say that requiring an ID number instead is a far more objective standard than having election officials determine if the voter’s signature matches.

“97% of Georgia voters have a DL# & 99.9% have the last 4 of their Social in the system. Moving to an objective identifier instills confidence & is easier for counties to execute and train. Anyone claiming voter suppression has as much credibility as those claiming voter fraud,” Gabriel Sterling, the state’s voting systems implementation manager, tweeted on February 25.

Georgia voting
A person with voter protection waits for voters to arrive during Georgia’s Senate runoff elections on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, in Atlanta.

The bill won’t eliminate no-excuse absentee voting but add new changes

The bill also shortens the window for voters to request absentee ballots, moving the deadline to request a ballot from four to 11 days before an election.

For years, election experts have warned that states allowing voters to request ballots within a week of the election, as Georgia currently does, does not realistically account for United States Postal Service delivery timelines and thus sets voters up for failure, increasing the risk of them not getting their ballot in time.

The law also bans election officials and government authorities from sending unsolicited absentee ballot applications to voters, as the secretary of state’s office did for all active registered Georgia voters for the June 2020 primary, and tightens regulations for mass mailings from third-party groups.

The omnibus bill further allows counties to permanently offer ballot drop boxes, which were adopted as an emergency measure in the COVID-19 pandemic, but limits counties to offer one drop box per 100,000 residents or one drop box per early voting location, whichever figure is smaller. Drop boxes would also only be available to use during the early voting period.

The legislation additionally cuts down the amount of time between general elections and runoff elections from nine to four weeks, and eliminates “jungle” special elections where all candidates run on the same ballot, as 21 candidates did in 2020, including former Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

Other provisions of the bill include: allowing people to serve as poll workers outside their county of residence, requiring officials to report election results and information by 10 pm on election night, requiring ballots to printed on special security paper, expanded public notice for polling place changes and pre-election voting equipment testing, and updating regulations for poll watchers and challenges to voters’ registrations.

Trump narrowly lost the presidential election in Georgia to President Joe Biden, a loss that was confirmed by a statewide risk-limiting audit that included a hand recount of the nearly 5 million ballots cast in the presidential race and a subsequent machine recount requested by the Trump campaign.

Even after Biden’s win in the state was certified and re-certified again, Trump and his allies continued to falsely insist that the election was fundamentally fraudulent and that Trump was the rightful winner.

Trump’s unprecedented efforts to subvert the results of the 2020 election in Georgia, including a January 2 call to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger where Trump pressured him to “find” enough votes to overturn the election results, are currently under a criminal investigation.

A grand jury was convened by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis in March 2021 to investigate potential crimes including solicitation to commit election fraud, making false statements, conspiracy, racketeering, and violations of his oath of office in events including in the Raffensperger call.

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