VIP Letter to Supervisor Brandow, Chairman of Board of Supervisors, Rules & Legislation Committee
The Voting Integrity Project
A public interest initiative of The Peacemakers of Schoharie County, Po Box 214, Cobleskill, NY 12043
13 October 2008
Supervisor Donald Brandow, Chairman
Rules & Legislation Committee
Dear Supervisor Brandow,
We are communicating with you today because of the Rules & Legislation Committee’s responsibility for Board of Elections oversight.
Enclosed you will find a document, “ Democracy in New York State Election Administration,” which outlines what we have observed to be a basic organizational weakness of New York’s election administration system.
You will please note the suggestion that the creation of a Citizen Advisory Board for Election Administration (CABEA) could mitigate some of the problems identified.
The Voting Integrity Project would like the opportunity to discuss this concept with the Rules & Legislation Committee. Ideally, members of your committee would contribute to the development of a proposal for consideration by the entire Board of Supervisors.
If the Rules & Legislative Committee recognizes merit in the concept of a Citizen Advisory Board for Election Administration the next step would be consultation with Board of Elections staff to identify possibilities and parameters for cooperation.
We are looking forward to discussing this proposal with you and your committee in the not too distant future, perhaps in mid-November following Election Day.
For the Voting Integrity Project,
Wayne R. Stinson, Coordinator
I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 518-287-1463.
Cc: Rules & Legislation Committee members
The Argument for Citizen Advisory Boards for Election Administration
Democracy in New York State Election Administration?
12 October 2008 Wayne R. Stinson, Coordinator, Voting Integrity Project
In New York State two private 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 often behave quite undemocratically, and their continual combat to control ballot access is responsible for our extremely complex election law.
If the drafters of New York’s Election Law expected the two partisan organizations to represent all New York State citizens, they failed. 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 openness or sharing. We have often enough heard of ugly partisanship resulting in disenfranchisement of some voters or litigation to block ballot access. We must acknowledge that our present 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 issues.
I believe we can agree that administration 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 legislation necessary to produce truly non-partisan, independent and professional election administration.
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. Lawmakers might even flex their oversight muscles some while attempting to fulfill their fiscal responsibilities.
One initiative which could 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 internet search turns up 28,000 Citizen Advisory Boards. 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 local 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 such as recruitment and training of poll workers.
Citizen Advisory Boards could be implemented under New York's existing system without amending election law as long as care is taken to avoid usurping Board of Elections or legislative authority. If such advisory boards are to be effective, however, enabling resolutions must make clear to all affected that the service and findings of the Citizen Advisory Board should be respected and adhered to whenever possible. Ideally, for statewide uniformity and effectiveness, the establishment of such boards, membership composition, responsibilities and authority should be delineated by state law.
Citizen Advisory Boards have the potential to bring elections back under the watchful eye of the citizens who need to understand and trust election outcomes. 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 comprehensive reform of election administration but Citizen Advisory Boards can 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 continue 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.