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Blair Horner: NY Needs To Overhaul Its Elections

Last week, more than three months after the November 2020 election, a winner was finally chosen in the nation’s only undecided Congressional race.  In Central New York’s Congressional District 22, Claudia Tenney was declared the winner with a razor thin margin of victory over incumbent Representative Anthony Brindisi.  In addition to a new Representative, the race brought disturbing news to New Yorkers: The close scrutiny of the ballots identified serious flaws in the way the state runs its elections.

Originally, the tightness of the election results triggered a legal review.  The declaration of a victor last week came after a state judge ruled that Tenney won the race for the sprawling 22nd Congressional District – which includes all or part of eight counties – by 109 votes.

The judge’s ruling came after three months of ballot challenges and the revelation of a series of problems with elections administration, voter registration and vote counting.  The vote counts ping-ponged almost daily from one candidate to the other as county election officials found counting irregularities across the Congressional district.  Here are some of the reported problems:

• Oneida County failed to count votes cast by New Yorkers who had registered through the Department of Motor Vehicles. BOE staff used sticky notes to keep track of the reasons why Brindisi and Tenney disputed dozens of ballots. When the judge asked to review those ballots in his court, the election commissioners admitted that some of the sticky notes had fallen off ballots. Oneida County election commissioners admitted they did not follow New York Election Law when they rejected about 1,500 affidavit ballots.

  • Oswego County election officials admitted that they failed to follow state Election Law with disputed absentee ballots.
  • Herkimer County election officials admitted that they had miscalculated the vote tally for CD-22. Chenango County discovered 55 uncounted ballots and found 12 ballots stuffed in a drawer.
  • Madison County lost track of disputed ballots.
  • Cortland County did not tell the candidates about rejected ballots.
  • Broome County used a numbering system that did not work. A Broome County deputy elections commissioner testified about several violations of the Election Law related to the counting of absentee and affidavit ballots.

While there is no way to know for sure, at least some of these actions resulted in voters not being able to cast their ballots, or if they did those votes were not counted.
It would be comical if it wasn’t so serious.  Why did this happen?  Since New York has voted consistently in support of the Democratic Party in statewide elections, none of the Presidential races have turned on the state’s outcome.  But the fundamental problems in the way that New York runs its elections has been a long festering problem.  It starts with who is in charge.

New York’s elections are run by the two major political parties through the State Board of Elections.  Democrats and Republicans run two essentially separate agencies at the state level and in each county that conduct and monitor elections.  This organizational structure was created so that both political parties would have equal ability to monitor the other and thus ensure fairly-run elections.  

Over the years, that system has fostered political patronage, collusion between the parties at the expense of the public, scandals, and incompetence.  Make no mistake: These failures came from the top, not from the civic minded poll workers who work long shifts on Election Day to greet and sign in voters.  If nothing else, the election of 2020 shows that the public is fed up with the long lines, disenfranchisement, lost ballots, and partisan arrogance.  They want reform.

The elections failures identified in the judicial review of the race for Representative of CD-22 cover multiple counties and not only resulted in a three-month delay in the result, but more importantly disenfranchised voters.  Moreover, these findings come on the heels of other voting problems in other parts of the state during the primary and general elections.

It’s clear that New York’s archaic system of patronage-controlled Boards of Elections has once again failed voters.  Given the number of counties involved and the sloppiness and incompetence of elections administrators in several jurisdictions, New Yorkers deserve a thorough review and the knowledge that the state’s leaders are taking these problems seriously. 

New York lawmakers are now considering the funding level of New York’s elections administration, as well as a host of reforms to improve voting.  Now is the time to take decisive action to both investigate the failures of the 2020 election and to begin to shift away from political party control over New York’s elections.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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