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NYS Bar Association calls for reforms to state's election administration and oversight

Voting booths
Pat Bradley

The New York State Bar Association has released a report calling for reforms to how elections are administered in the state. The recommendations include a new election oversight role within the state inspector general’s office and an ethics code of conduct for election officials and staff.

The second part of the report focusing on voting reforms is expected to be released in the fall.

The recommendations come days after Governor Kathy Hochul signed a new package of voting rights protections named for the late civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis.

WAMC's Jim Levulis spoke with Association President Sherry Levin Wallach about the current recommendations and why the group thinks reforms are needed.

Wallach: Well, I think that countries whose governments have difficulty running professional, impartial and transparent elections have faced an increased risk of political violence. And that's a trend that's already becoming visible in other parts of the United States. So it's important that we, as New Yorkers, address it to prevent any kind of backlash such as that in New York state.

Levulis: The first two recommendations of the report involve professionalization among election officers and workers, including training. The report notes that New York's Constitution requires election board officers be nominated by representatives of the two major political parties. Do you see that as a strength or weakness of the state's election oversight and administration?

Wallach: I think that's a strength. I think we need to have bipartisan coverage of the election, polling places, as well as anything involving elections, for the fairness and to maintain the fairness of the process.

Levulis: Looking further into the report, another recommendation concerns ethics and says election officials and their staff should be bound by an ethics code of conduct. What might that code include?

Wallach: Well, for example, there are currently voting right bills that were pending in the United States Congress. And they also contain several ethics provisions. And those are some of the things that we think New York might want to adopt or not, depending on, you know, what the legislature feels is appropriate. But some of those provisions include barring election officials from sharing any information concerning official counts, recounts, or audits with one candidate or campaign without also disclosing the same information to the other candidates or campaigns. So again, adopting these types of ethical guidelines will help ensure the fairness of the process.

Levulis: The fourth recommendation in the report from the New York State Bar Association has to do with public information and calls for creating, if I understand it correctly, a standard website or template that all county boards of elections should use. Does that bring with it or could it bring with it an added risk of say cybersecurity issues, if every county is using the same system?

Wallach: I think that any kind of web-based or type of program that would be based on a website, or the like would have with it, protections included. And that would be part of the process in creating such a website. So I think there are always, no matter what there are always going to be cyber security issues when we're dealing with the web and other types of electronic communications and media. But we have to be conscientious and recognize that there are ways to combat those that we found. For example, lawyers are more and more uploading information to the cloud. And that information is confidential information that's protected. I feel confident that we'd be able to create that same type of protection for any type of program that was developed.

Levulis: And the benefit there, I'm assuming .of having sort of a standard looking website for all county boards of elections across New York State would be the navigation of the public, right, and the presentation of the voting information, where to find, say polling places, how results are displayed, that sort of thing.

Wallach: That's correct. The idea is that it would assist in getting people out to vote. And also allow them to understand the process where they are and how they can get out to vote. So that would be the purpose of it. It would also, I think, assist in people who may not have English as a first language, it would assist them in navigating the process, because hopefully, we'd be able to have many different languages accessible on that website.

Levulis: Another report recommendation calls for appointing an elections inspector general for state and county boards that would be under the auspices of the state inspector general. What would be the exact duties do you expect of that inspector general? And what oversight is there currently?

Wallach: So I think the idea of the appointment of an inspector general, would be to have them serve in a capacity to ascertain how the inevitable problems are arising. And the independence to make recommendations to cure such instances of deficient election administration.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org