State lawmakers have the power to overhaul the New York City Board of Elections, improve the experience for city voters, and align the problem-plagued agency with national standards—and a report released Thursday says they don’t need a time-consuming state constitutional amendment to get it done.
According to a new report from The Brennan Center for Justice, which compared 16 of the largest election jurisdictions across the country, the city’s BOE is among the worst in the nation despite recent efforts to update how it administers elections.
While a growing number of states are enacting more restrictive voting laws, particularly among Republican-controlled states in the South, lawmakers in New York have worked since 2019 to expand access to the ballot, instituting early voting, and expanding access to voting by mail, among a host of changes.
Despite those efforts, experts say more needs to be done to address the NYC BOE’s poor performance, citing its latest screw-up in which officials inadvertently included 135,000 test ballots in their first unofficial tally of ranked-choice results for the June primary, among other examples.
An author of the report, Chisun Lee, said the persistent problems, from long lines at poll sites to illegal voter purges, made it increasingly urgent to shine a spotlight on what was happening at the NYC BOE so lawmakers could propose solutions and prevent a further undermining of elections in New York City and beyond.
“These problems were becoming more fuel for a national narrative that has built since 2020 especially, trying to get voters to think that there is something doubtful in how their elections were run,” said Lee, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Election Reform Program.
One of the most glaring flaws cited in the report, “How to Fix the New York City Board of Elections: Solutions to the Structural Flaws That Cause the Agency’s Exceptional Dysfunction,” is the structure of the NYC BOE, starting with its 10-commissioner board: one Democrat and one Republican from each of the five boroughs picked by the county party leaders. The overtly political nature of the selection process is coupled with a lack of accountability to voters because of its size.
Of the largest 15 election jurisdictions with a bipartisan board, researchers found none had as many members as New York City’s board. Bergen County, NJ has six; most others have three to five. The report recommends the state legislature decrease the number of commissioners on the NYC BOE from 10 to four, and cut the connection between commissioners and specific boroughs.
Doug Kellner, the Democratic co-chair for the New York State Board of Elections, and a former city commissioner who was interviewed for the report, said the state legislature could absolutely make this change without running afoul of the state constitution which requires bipartisan administration of voter registration, ballot distribution, and the canvass of election returns.
“Anything else in election administration is subject to statute and does not constitutionally require bipartisan administration,” Kellner said.
At a State Senate hearing later this month, he is planning to recommend lawmakers go one step further by reducing the number of commissioners to two full-time commissioners as is the practice in most other localities across New York State. He also urges state lawmakers to eliminate the positions of the executive director and deputy executive director, two of the most senior staff posts within the NYC BOE’s current structure.
“It will increase accountability. It will give the two full-time commissioners greater flexibility when it comes to hiring staff that will meet higher standards of competence. It will make it clear that those senior staff need to report to the two commissioners and that their principal loyalty needs to be the agency and not to outside county leaders who have recommended them,” Kellner told Gothamist / WNYC.
The push for election reforms in New York likely will gain momentum this fall. Lawmakers led by Democrats in the State Senate have made changing how the state runs its elections a centerpiece of their legislative agenda since 2019, instituting early voting and passing automatic voter registration, while also securing two ballot questions in November that would allow for no-excuse absentee ballots and same-day voter registration.
State Senator Zellnor Myrie, chair of the Elections Committee, conducted a series of hearings this summer to gather input from voters about their experiences following the well-publicized problems with the primary elections across the state.
“New Yorkers are tired of embarrassing headlines, year after year, about election problems that never seem to get solved. Instead, New York should be leading the way and setting a national standard for competent, fair, and voter-friendly election laws,” Myrie said in a statement.
His elections committee will hold a final hearing, including expert testimony, on September 21st. Later in the fall, Myrie’s office is expected to issue its own report based on these hearings.
A spokesperson for the NYC BOE did not respond to a request for comment.