Is Citizen Oversight of Election Administration a Possibility?
In New York State two private, read restricted membership, organizations have been given exclusive responsibility for election administration. Both the state and local Boards of Elections are staffed with representatives of the two major partisan groups, the Republican and Democratic parties. These two organizations sometimes behave quite undemocratically and their continual combat to control ballot access is responsible for our extremely complex election law.
Perhaps the original drafters of New York’s Election Law were expecting the two major partisan organizations to represent all the citizens, however, the Boards of Elections, staffed only by loyal members of these two groups, do not, indeed can not, effectively represent the whole of their constituencies:
- More than one quarter of eligible citizens are not registered to vote and therefore have no official partisan affiliation but they do have a stake in the effective administration of elections.
- More than one-fifth of registered voters do not specify a party affiliation but they too have a stake in our elections.
- A majority of registered voters who report a party affiliation do not strongly identify with that partisan group and are not active in partisan affairs but they do care how our elections are managed.
- And, most significantly, voters reporting a minor party affiliation are not represented by the Democratic and Republican staff of the Boards of Elections but you can be sure they are intensely interested in how elections are administered.
Exacerbating this problem is the fact that these two major partisan organizations do not exist to make democracy happen: they are more about power and control than sharing. We have often enough read or heard of ugly partisanship resulting in disenfranchisement of some voters or litigation to block ballot access. We must acknowledge that our quasi-governmental election administration system actually delivers control of the election administration chicken coop to the partisan foxes.
New York’s Election Law assigns authority to administer elections to the state and local Boards of Elections. Consequently, the partisan Election Commissioners believe they are autonomous and they generally are not responsive to legislative bodies or the public. Boards of Elections, while theoretically under the fiscal oversight of a legislative body, are actually far beyond effective control because of the lawmakers’ political dependence upon or deference to the partisan leaders. So it seems quite unreasonable to expect lawmakers to provide true oversight or to effectively represent citizens with respect to election administration.
I believe we can agree that oversight of our elections is properly a function of government, however, the existing Board of Elections system fails to serve government or our democracy. New York must reform its election administration system and that reform would best be accomplished by comprehensive study followed by the necessary legislation.
For those of us not comfortable waiting for a complete revamp of the Election Law there are democracy enhancing initiatives which could be put in place now. Legislative bodies could choose to exercise control over election administration by asserting their budgetary prerogatives. And, lawmakers might even flex their oversight muscles some while attempting to fulfill their fiscal responsibilities.
One possible initiative which could serve to enhance legislators’ oversight efforts while at the same time helping to fulfill democracy’s need for transparency is the creation of Citizen Advisory Boards for Election Administration. A cursory search (Google) turns up 28,000 Citizen Advisory Boards in .56 seconds. The examples I perused were government agencies or community-government cooperative projects. Obviously, a Citizen Advisory Board is not some wild way-out-there idea, it‘s been done again and again.
Such a board, composed of volunteers appointed by the legislative body, could serve the lawmakers by complementing their oversight duties. A Citizen Advisory Board could also somewhat insulate lawmakers from partisan pressure while at the same time assisting the Board of Elections with a variety of outreach services or training.
Citizen Advisory Boards could probably be implemented under the existing system without amending election law as long as care is taken to avoid usurping Board of Elections or legislative authority. It is important for enabling resolutions to clearly state to all affected that the service and findings of the Citizen Advisory Board should be respected and adhered to whenever possible.
Citizen Advisory Boards have the potential to bring elections back under the control of citizens. If care is taken to appoint only individuals who are truly representative of the community, and the board works diligently to maintain communication with the community, a Citizen Advisory Board will enjoy the respect of lawmakers, election officials and citizens alike.
The long term goal needs to be the complete reform of election administration but Citizen Advisory Boards would be a good start in our reform efforts.
Partisan organizations serve an important organizational purpose for citizens who want to be involved in supporting candidates, however, partisan groups and their operatives should not be administering our elections. With respect to our elections these groups and their individual operatives need to be restricted to candidate or observer status and nothing more.