By Gary Tilzer
Gay Talese in his insightful book about The NY Times “The Kingdom and the Power,” was originally subtitled “The Story of The Men Who Influence the Institution That Influences the World.” How can a paper that knows how to influences the world, allow the incompetent, corrupt Board of Elections (BOE) run by NYC’s Democratic and Republican Party Bosses to exist for decades?
Even now with the Queens Boss, Joe Crowley, losing to AOC, both the Brooklyn and Queens machines are weakened by losses to the left-wing and Republicans. Why is the paper of record that wacked the Trump Administration daily, keeping its power dry against a BOE? The City’s political party bosses no longer control who gets elected, they have been replaced in campaigns by lobbyists/political consultants like Berlin Rosen, Red Horse, the Advance Group, and dozens of others, some from out of town.
As early as January 11, 1967, the NY Times editorial demanded and often repeated the same plea since then, that the BOE be reformed:
Reform the Board of Elections -NY Times (1967): The rejection by the BOE of proposals for minor reforms in its procedures is a reminder that this agency is one of the most antiquated, irrational, and inequitable institutions of municipal government. It is an unadulterated anachronism that should long ago have been converted into an instructional museum piece of past political injustice. The board’s four members are picked by their party organizations and approved by the City Council. Two are named by the Democrats and two by the Republicans . . . This quaint arrangement was written into the NYS election law in 1909 giving the board vast powers. It passes on the validity of petitions, thereby qualifying or disqualifying candidates . . . Supervises elections and tabulates the count. Its extensive discretional powers can be used, in the complex maze of election law technicalities, to discriminate against reformers or insurgents. . . The state Legislature should revise the law to provide an election that will be representative and unbiased.
The BOE was designed by Tammany Hall over one-hundred years ago to keep party leaders in control of who gets elected. It operated as a gatekeeper on who can run for office. Challengers to the machine were often knocked off the ballot for insufficient signatures and incomplete addresses. Over time the City’s establishment has made peace with the bosses and joined their Star Chamber control of the City’s election process. The BOE is filled with a bunch of patronage appointments by the county leader. Friends, relatives, and political supporters who have demonstrated that they cannot count or run elections. The Daily News wrote: Commissioners appointed by county political party bosses “makes them simultaneously untouchable and dysfunctional, with muddled leadership.” The shame of NYC is that the BOE operates in an accountability-free zone where even the biggest bungles carry no consequences.
Note: Federal Court ordered petition reforms caused by John McCain Presidential Candidate lawsuit after getting knocked off the ballot and the recent reductions in the number of petitions required, has made it easier to get on the ballot.
Last month, a half of century after their 1967 “Reform the BOE” editorial, the NY Times wrote an editorial about the latest debacle from the BOE during the June Primary, when the board mistakenly included about 135,000 test ballots in its first full tally of mayoral votes causing confusion and chaos that reminded New Yorkers once again just how decrepit and unreliable their election system is. The Times charged that the “election board operates like a mafia without guns. It is staffed with the friends, family members and other unqualified cronies of party bosses, the board the stuff of a national disgrace.”
The Times Called the Counting of the 135,000 in the First Round of Rank Choice Voting the “Final Straw?” The List is Long of Final Straws:
Final Straw in 2016, it botched a purge of voter rolls before the Democratic presidential primary between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton & Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Final Straw in 2018, its ballot scanners jammed across the city because they weren’t designed to operate in high levels of humidity. News reports eventually exposed BOE chief Mike Ryan for taking junkets from the manufacturer, Election Systems & Software, which gave officials inaccurate information about their machines as they bid for the contract.
Final Straw in 2020, 84,000 absentee ballots in the primary were tossed over clerical issues that the Board of Elections eventually acknowledged were partially its fault.
How The Times Can Use Its Power to Reform the BOE
The Election Law requires the City Council to confirm commissioners’ positions at the BOE. By tradition Democratic and Republican party bosses from each borough pick one commissioner to run the board. Since we’re in the middle of a Council Speaker election, all the NY Times has to do is ask each speaker candidate if they will only nominate commissioners who are not nominated by County Party Bosses and support professionalizing the BOE.
The recent Times editorial wrote “the Assembly and Gov. Kathy Hochul need to get on board with major reforms to the BOE without delay.” What The Times needs to do is ask each of the candidates for Governor, the Assembly and State Senate, including those legislative body leaders, if they will pledge to reform the BOE. The public must know the names of the candidates who want to professionalize the board and those who want to keep the machines in power.
The Times can also start investigating the City’s political party machines that now-a-days get its patronage from three different pots: 1) BOE 2) The Courts 3) Its relationships with certain incumbents, although it can no longer deliver votes like they did in the old days.
Both the NY Times and the Daily News ran recent editorials that expressed little hope for BOE reforms proposed by Brooklyn Sen. Zellnor Myrie, which commends reducing the number of commissioners, increasing their competency requirements, and doing away with the county party nominations.
The NY Times wrote: “chronic incompetence is the refusal of elected officials to do anything about it. Why would they?” The Times charged elected officials are complicit in protecting the city’s twisted political machine that values insiders over voters and incumbency over democracy. But it is not only about protecting party machines, office holders know that one day they many need the board’s special help. In 2009 when de Blasio was running for Public Advocate, he was initially thrown off the ballot for the wrong number of volumes on his cover sheet. Days later somehow, he was put back on the ballot by the BOE commissioners.
Many elected officials and party district leaders require those that they get jobs for at the BOE or appoint election day inspector at the polls, to collect ballot access petitions for their reelections. Assemblywoman Latrice Walker (D-Brooklyn) chairs the body’s Election Law committee, is the state lawmaker tasked with oversight of the scandal-plagued city Board of Elections has at least four people close to her who are currently or were previously employed by the patronage-laden agency.
The Daily News wrote about the Senator Myrie proposed reforms of the BOE “Good luck getting his colleagues to agree.” The Times tried to tie NYC corrupt BOE with Trump’s attack on the 2020 election process: “the legitimacy of the democratic process is under assault across the country, the nation’s biggest city — must be leading the charge by modeling how an election should be run. At the very least, it should not be bringing up the rear.”
Some legal experts are encouraging a “Board of Estimate” one man one vote type of lawsuit against the BOE. There are over a million registered NYC voters, who do not belong to either of the two major parties, who are not represented at the BOE. It makes no sense to allow elected officials to pick the commissioners for the board as the State Senator’s suggest. Elected official if they are prevented from appointing party bosses will allow their lobbyists to run the board. Perhaps a grand jury style board made up of registered voters should pick experienced professionals to run the board, monitor those hired each month on their job performance and have the power to fire them if they are not doing a good job. Those writing the State Senator’s report who want the NYSBOE to supervise the state’s local boards, should review how NYSBOE Chief Enforcement Counsel Risa Sugarman lost her job after she went after high level campaign corruption.
Finally, The NY Times opposed the Constitutional Convention which could have imposed civil service control on the BOE. Efforts to interview the BOE leaders by the Jewish Voice went unanswered.