BOE Woe: City Election Officials Have History of Mess-Ups

A throwback to the days when political parties had total control of New York City’s government, the BOE has again and again dropped the ball at exactly the wrong time, writes THE CITY's Greg Smith.

BOE Woe: City Election Officials Have History of Mess-Ups

By Greg B. Smith, THE CITY

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This article was originally published by THE CITY

When the city Board of Elections first revealed a “discrepancy” in the election results it had just made public earlier Tuesday evening, the agency asked all parties concerned — New Yorkers, elected officials, the candidates — “to have patience.”

It’s a frustratingly familiar refrain.

Notoriously inept and consistently opaque, the Board of Elections has long been a source of municipal embarrassment. A throwback to the days when political parties had total control of New York City’s government, the board has again and again dropped the ball at exactly the wrong time.

Under state law, the two major parties each get to appoint five people to the 10-member board, who in turn hire what they deem to be a “bipartisan” staff  — half Democrat, half Republican.

In the last decade, the BOE has been cited for everything from rampant nepotism to allowing ineligible voters to cast ballots to mailing out absentee ballots with the wrong names on return envelopes.

One of the more alarming revelations of BOE antics emerged after the city Department of Investigation (DOI) got then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg to fund a separate unit to look at the board. Probers detailed their findings in a December 2013 report.

Investigators discovered dozens of ineligible voters  — including felons, people who had moved outside the city and the deceased — still on the rolls, some for as long as four years. DOI staffers then posed as some of these voters — and in 61 out of 63 cases were able to cast votes without being challenged.

The DOI also documented the BOE’s function as a patronage mill for county political organizations, whose leaders would regularly recommend party members for hire.

Investigators also looked into allegations of systemic nepotism, finding 69 employees who appeared to have relatives at the board, including two commissioners.

Finally, the DOI found breakdowns at poll sites, where some New Yorkers’ privacy was compromised while they tried to vote — and some poll workers at times gave misinformation about how to vote. Broken voting machines during the 2013 elections caused severe delays, including one site in Queens that had no working lever machine for seven hours.

Voters Purged

All told, the DOI made more than 40 recommendations for improvement. Nevertheless, the BOE’s poor track record continued.

After the 2016 New York presidential primary, media reports revealed that BOE had purged 117,000 eligible voters from the system in an effort to “clean up” the rolls in Brooklyn. BOE officials admitted that the voters  — many of whom were Asian and Latino — had been targeted solely because they hadn’t cast ballots in a long time.

The government-accountability nonprofit Common Cause filed a lawsuit alleging that the purge had violated federal law. The Brooklyn U.S. Attorney joined the suit, and in 2017 announced a settlement in which the BOE agreed to restore the purged voters to the rolls and create a system of voter registration maintenance to ensure it wouldn’t happen again.

The BOE found itself again under fire last year over problems with absentee ballots sent out to voters who were reluctant to visit poll sites in the heat of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Across Brooklyn, hundreds of voters reported receiving ballots with other voters’ names on the return envelope. If the envelope was scanned, it would have invalidated the vote.

An absentee ballot sent to a Brooklyn voter ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

After the error surfaced in THE CITY and other media outlets, BOE officials revealed that a vendor it had hired on a no-bid basis to print the absentee ballots had no prior experience distributing them. The vendor claimed there was a software issue that affected 100,000 ballots sent across Brooklyn.

In the end, all the ballots had to be reprinted and resent to voters across the borough. At the time, BOE Director Mike Ryan offered words of encouragement to assuage fears that the voting process lacked integrity.

“It is essential that confidence be established in this process and we make certain that all of the voters that potentially have a problem have a full and fair ability to remedy the problem,” he promised.

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