Missing Ballots, No-Show Poll Workers: Lawmakers Get An Earful At Election Reform Hearing

New York lawmakers flipped the script at a hearing on election reform and voting rights on Wednesday, shining the light on voters and Election Day workers, to be followed by an interrogation of elections officials in September. The message at the first of a series of State Senate hearings was clear: Board of Elections officials are going to have a lot to answer for.

Members of the Elections Committee heard from more than two dozen people who shared stories of absent poll workers, confusing information from Board of Elections staff, and a sense that voters generally have lost confidence in the current system after a cascade of errors year after year.

State Senator Zellnor Myrie, committee chair, said there were too many examples of localities across the state failing to provide voters with a fully functioning democracy, citing voter purges, scanner breakdowns, missent absentee ballots, long lines at poll sites, lack of language interpreters, and most recently, incorrect preliminary primary results in the New York City mayor’s race.

The journey from “worst to first,” he said, may require changes to the structure of the Boards of Elections, and to the state laws that govern how elections are conducted.

“All of that is on the table,” Myrie said.

One theme of the testimony came from Election Day workers who described not getting adequate support from the New York City Board of Elections. For Jan Combopiano, who worked as a poll-site coordinator at the Dodge YMCA on Atlantic Avenue in June, that meant being left hanging when only nine of the 26 poll workers assigned to her site showed up.

She testified that she reached out to the Board of Elections for back-up poll workers repeatedly and was told no one was available and that the problem was happening across the borough.

“Because I couldn’t get any help from the BOE, I had to ask the community,” said Combopiano.

On a stage at Medgar Evers College, State Senators wear masks and listen to testimony

State Senators, including Zellnor Myrie, the hearing on July 28, 2021 Brigid Bergin / WNYC

To help fill the gap, she contacted her local district leader, Jesse Pierce, who in turn reached out to Gowanus Mutual Aid, a volunteer organization that tries to support community needs in the Park Slope, South Slope and Gowanus neighborhoods. The group managed to find about half a dozen volunteers, some of whom were former poll workers, and others who had to be trained on site.

“So when you went out to recruit people to help you because we have an election going on and we need bodies, did those people get paid later?” asked State Senator Liz Krueger.

“They did, because I made sure,” Combopiano confirmed.

That anecdote prompted a conversation about allowing poll workers, who are supposed to start at 5 a.m. and often work until after 10 p.m., to work split shifts.

“For years, people have pointed out that a 17-hour day is by most standards inhuman, [let alone] the norm for election workers. And for years, we talked about bills to allow half-day schedules,” Krueger said, adding that local elections officials opposed the idea out of fear that workers wouldn’t show up for their shifts.

Voters lining up around the Brooklyn Museum

At the Brooklyn Museum for early voting on October 24, 2020 Scott Lynch / Gothamist

But since people are already not showing up, Krueger asked if it was time to explore that again, an idea Combopiano enthusiastically supported, noting that split shifts would help alleviate the burdens on workers who have to juggle day jobs and family obligations.

Another troubling anecdote involved confusion and misinformation from city BOE staff about absentee ballots. Bonnie Nelson, another Brooklyn voter, said she dropped off an absentee ballot at an early-voting site in Brooklyn for her 97-year-old mother-in-law, who lives in Manhattan. Nelson, who also volunteers with the Brooklyn Voters Alliance, said she went to the BOE’s absentee-ballot portal online and saw the ballot was not received.

When Nelson called the board’s Manhattan office to check the status of the ballot, she was told that she should have dropped it off in Manhattan, which is wrong. Absentee ballots can be dropped off at any early-voting location, a point that is stressed in the poll-worker training, according to BOE spokesperson Valerie Vasquez-Diaz.

“I never found out what happened to the ballot, so I don’t know whether there’s a box of ballots that was never picked up and delivered, or whether ballots that were delivered in one borough never made it to another borough,” said Nelson, calling the whole event frustrating especially since it seemed the BOE staff who were supposed to assist her did not know the rules themselves.

“I never told my mother-in-law that her ballot wasn’t delivered,” Nelson added. “I just didn’t have the heart to do it.”

Beyond anecdotes, some voters offered suggestions for how to overhaul the agency itself, including removing the partisan patronage.

“Clearly, the way the Board is structured now is untenable,” said Martin Ascher, an attorney living in Brooklyn who wrote an article while a student at New York University Law School, proposing to remove the party leaders from the appointment process and require staff to meet certain professional standards.

Asked by lawmakers how a system that grants appointment power to other elected officials, like the mayor and city council speaker, might raise other concerns about political fairness, especially (as in this past primary) when one of those individuals appeared as a candidate on the ballot, Ascher acknowledged that no system would be perfectly devoid of politics.

But he also noted, “It can’t be worse.”

Additional hearings will be held next Wednesday in Syracuse, Thursday in Rochester and the following week in Westchester.