Blair Horner: Reforming New York's Elections
Regardless of the election results, the verdict is in on New York State’s system of running elections: It fails and is in desperate need of overhaul.
There have been many changes to voting in New York prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Most notably, New Yorkers could vote by mail, thanks to changes to the absentee voting rules. And early voting approved in 2019 not only added the convenience of casting a ballot by machine vote before Election Day, but also helped reduce poll-site crowding on Election Day.
Yet, even the Mayor of the City of New York stood online for over three hours to vote – at an early polling site. Long lines were not unique to New York City; early voting polling locations across the state often saw New Yorkers waiting for hours – despite a state rule that voters should not have to wait more than 30 minutes.
Moreover, the performance of the Boards of Elections failed us too. One hundred thousand New York City voters got the wrong absentee ballot envelopes; tens of thousands of votes were tossed due to technical problems with postal deliveries and other issues during the primaries; early voting polling locations were often located away from population centers; and at least in one case, college students had to schlep to the polls far from campus, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Governor Cuomo’s steps to liberalize voting were advanced with no obvious plan for implementation and left the boards of election starved for funds. Absent adequate funding, even the best elections system cannot function – and New York’s system is far from the best.
Serious problems existed prior to the pandemic. New York State’s elections are run by the two major political parties. Making matters worse, local elections commissioners are often party leaders who, at best, face a conflict of interest in running elections fairly. At worst, the scandalous mismanagement of elections and lack of accountability have led to voter disenfranchisement.
These problems have long been festering and the political leadership of the state has been unwilling to change a system they have mastered.
Sadly, many of these problems are found throughout the country. It is obvious that the nation’s elections system has become a partisan weapon instead of the way for citizens to exercise a core constitutional right. But New York has been notable for its long track record of poor voter participation.
It’s time for New York to show the nation how to run elections properly and fairly from registration to ballot counting. Here are some ideas:
- Get rid of political party control. Elections are about a partisan fight over ideas and to get public support. Running those elections, on the other hand, are about the public interest. Elections should be administered by an independent board, one that is free from political pressure. This won’t be easy to do since political party control is enshrined in the state Constitution, but it has to change.
- Professionalize elections. Currently, the state and local boards of elections have two sets of staff – one Republican and one Democrat. Get rid of these patronage staff and replace them with those covered by civil service protections. There are no state constitutional protections here, patronage and party control must be replaced by independent professionals.
- Provide necessary resources. New York has never properly funded elections. Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy; it should be treated as such. As mentioned, voters should never have to wait more than 30 minutes to vote. That means more polling places, better trained and paid poll workers, and more voting machines. That costs money and the state has been running elections on the cheap for too long.
- Modernize the system. The Legislature has advanced constitutional changes that would allow would-be voters to register and vote on Election Day and eliminate the current absentee ballot requirement that the voter present an excuse to vote by mail. If New Yorkers want to vote by mail, they should be allowed to do so. Let’s make sure that mail-in ballots can be easily tracked by the voters, that ballots postmarked before or on the election date but delivered after are counted, and that the state requires polling places on college campuses.
When it comes to the most fundamental act in a representative democracy, New Yorkers deserve less of the blame game from elected officials and more improvements. Changes that embrace independence, competence, resources, and reform should be a priority before the next election cycle. Anything else is simply a defense of the failing status quo. It is long past time for action, for comprehensive changes that anchor our democracy and fix the state’s failing system.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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