Thursday, November 1, 2001

Will Something Be Done About the Board of Elections?

Gotham Gazxette, by Elizabeth Daniel, November 2001

Maybe it wasn't the Board of Elections' fault that New York City's voters were left in a muddle for almost a week over who would be the Democratic nominee for mayor. Maybe, as the Board has argued, the fault rests with the Associated Press, the Police Department, and weary poll workers -- just about anybody involved with the unofficial reporting of the results but the board itself.

And, maybe it wasn't the board's fault in 1997 that a series of mishaps in tallying the election night returns showed Ruth Messinger and Al Sharpton heading for a run-off in the Democratic primary while the review 10 days later showed that Messinger had in fact received enough votes to avoid a run-off. Back then, the board was quick to point out, just as it has this year, that it is not responsible for the unofficial election night count.

In fact, it is the board's job to see that these mistakes don't happen -- just as it is the board's job to see that elections run competently, and that the city has confidence in the results. Yes, there is a significant distinction between the flaws in the hurried election night reporting of results and the kinds of mistakes we saw in 2000 -- broken machines, thousands of names missing from the registration lists -- that actually disenfranchise voters. And, yes, the city's votes are cast on lever machines that, at 60 years old, are prone to breakdowns. To give the board credit, it ran both the primary and the run-off with fewer mistakes than anyone predicted under difficult post-September 11 circumstances. But, year in and year out, the board drops the ball -- with serious consequences for the city's democratic process.

This year's reporting mistakes -- just as the mistakes made in 1997 -- undermined voters' confidence in whether the election was fair. These failures open the door to suspicions from historically disenfranchised voters that the system doesn't work for them even in the one place where everyone is supposed to be equal -- the voting booth. This year, the election night overcount significantly benefited Mark Green, who received the lion's share of the white vote, while it understated that of Fernando Ferrer, who took most of the black and Latino vote. This mistake left many black and Latino voters with a deep distrust of the board's scramble to come up with the official count -- just as the mistakes in 1997 left many of Al Sharpton's supporters with a sense that, once again, African Americans had been cheated. The uncertainty this year also created an unnecessary and somewhat surreal opportunity for the Ferrer camp to attack Green, while also challenging the fairness of the count -- all of which fueled a sense of heightening racial division. This year, at the end of the count, it was clear that Green had won the nomination, but this fumbling of the results supported a suspicion that Fernando Ferrer and his supporters were treated unjustly.

New York City doesn't need this. As everyone knows, the city is facing difficult times as we begin to rebuild from the attacks on September 11 and the severe economic fall-out that is following. A great many people will wonder whether the rebuilding process will go forward in a way that benefits the whole city. Running a good election may seem irrelevant when we are facing such a tremendous task, but an election that leaves black and Latino voters feeling undercounted or even cheated unfortunately highlights the city's longstanding racial divisions and contributes to cynicism about government. A smoothly run election process -- one that voters have confidence in -- can be a critical component in building confidence in how and for whom government works.

Two months ago, I wrote in this space that the problem with how elections are run in New York City goes back to the structure of the Board of Elections. Under state law, it is a patronage-based institution controlled by the party bosses and it is this structure that impedes the board's ability to run an election that inspires confidence. While a root-and-branch transformation of the board requires a state constitutional amendment, the new mayor and City Council will be in a strong position to move for some changes.

Neither Bloomberg nor Green has the burdensome ties with county party leaders that could stymie their courage here. So either man can take real leadership on this issue. Mayor Giuliani, although carping about the board throughout his administration and regularly slashing its budget, spent none of his political capital on real reform. The new mayor can use the bully pulpit of his office to focus attention on the board and its mismanagement. He could also take the extra step of appointing an oversight board as Mayor Koch did in the 1980s following a series of election debacles. He could pressure the party bosses to stop using the board as a patronage dumping ground. In short, there's a laundry list of things the new mayor could do -- if, once elected under this flawed system, he gives the issue of electoral reform the importance it deserves.

The almost all-new City Council can also become a leader on this issue. City Council has tremendous oversight authority, and a well-run Government Operations Committee could require a kind of accountability the Board of Elections has long avoided. Linked to its oversight, of course, is the Council's budget power, which the Council could use to impose some discipline on the Board.

The city's new government -- the mayor, the City Council, even the public advocate -- faces a staggering challenge in leading a post-September 11 New York, but these problems with the election process should not be pushed aside simply because they've been around for years. How the city runs its elections goes to the core of our democracy. The new government must show all New Yorkers that their voices will be heard, their votes will be counted.

Susan Reefer is a Republican pollster and media strategist. She is based in New York City.