Inside decades of nepotism and bungling at the NYC elections board

  • >> Brian M Rosenthal and Michael Rothfeld, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-10-27 11:08:09 BdST

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A voter inserts their ballot into a ballot drop box at the polling place at Barclays Center in New York, on Saturday, Oct 24, 2020. The New York Times.

The official who oversees voter registration in New York City is the 80-year-old mother of a former congressman. The director of Election Day operations is a close friend of Manhattan’s Republican chair. The head of ballot management is the son of a former Brooklyn Democratic district leader. And the administrative manager is the wife of a City Council member.

As the workings of American democracy have become more complex — with sophisticated technology, early voting and the threat of foreign interference — New York has clung to a century-old system of local election administration that is one of the last vestiges of pure patronage in government, a relic from the era of powerful political clubhouses and Tammany Hall.

Already this year, the New York City Board of Elections failed to mail out many absentee ballots until the day before the primary, disenfranchising voters, and sent erroneous general election ballot packages to many other residents, spreading confusion.

Now, the agency is facing perhaps its biggest challenge yet: a heated general election, during a pandemic, under a president who has fomented distrust in the legitimacy of the vote — including by pointing to the problems in New York as evidence of widespread fraud, an unfounded claim.

It is also the first presidential election in New York with early voting, which began Saturday with tens of thousands of residents flooding polling places.

“I expect the BOE to pull this off — there’s no other option. It’s the most important election of our lifetime,” said Scott Stringer, the city comptroller. “But we shouldn’t have to hold our breath because of their gross incompetence.”

New York is the only state in the country with local election boards whose staffers are chosen almost entirely by Democratic and Republican party bosses, and the board in New York City illustrates the pitfalls. In recent years, the board has made increasingly high-profile blunders, from mistakenly purging 200,000 people from rolls before the 2016 election to forcing some voters to wait in four-hour lines in 2018.

“It is really hard to have co-workers who are incapable of performing what they need to do,” said Charles Stimson, a trainer assistant who has worked at the board on and off since 1992.

Stimson was one of more than a dozen current and former employees who told The New York Times that the agency has a culture where ineptitude is common and accountability is rare. Some staffers read or watch Netflix at the office, the employees said. Others regularly fail to show up for work, with no fear of discipline. Several employees said some staffers punch in and then leave to go shopping or to the gym.

Under board rules, almost every job must be duplicated, with a Republican and Democrat each performing the same function.

“The agency is chronically dysfunctional,” said Stimson, who said he has complained internally and to a city watchdog.

Betty Ann Canizio, a former clerk who was pushed out after the voter purge, said she caught workers smoking marijuana at the Brooklyn voting machine warehouse on an election night. She said she told two commissioners and the board’s executive director, none of whom took action.

As the June primary approached this year, the board — despite assuring the state it could handle a surge in residents seeking to vote by mail — grew so overwhelmed that it called two upstate companies for help printing absentee ballots on the weekend before the election, officials acknowledged.

It did not send the companies the names of voters who still needed ballots until late afternoon that Sunday, less than two days before the vote.

The companies worked through the night. But in all, 34,000 ballot packages were not mailed to voters until the day before the primary, and many likely did not arrive in time to be returned and counted. Ultimately, about one-fifth of primary ballots were thrown out for arriving late or other defects; in other states, the rate was 5% or less.

Last month, one of the printing companies sent general election packages to voters that had return envelopes with the wrong names. The mistake, which the company blamed on a mechanical error, affected a print run of 100,000 packages, although the company said fewer than 1,000 voters received flawed packages.

Donald Trump quickly seized on the problem. “Big Fraud, Unfixable!” he tweeted on Sept 30.

The Board of Elections blamed the vendor, but others called it a failure of oversight.

The ballots were already causing confusion because they were labeled “absentee military,” missing the slash that would indicate they could be used for either purpose.

Valerie Vazquez-Diaz, a board spokesperson, acknowledged it had not checked the work of the vendor, Phoenix Graphics Inc of Rochester, New York, which had been given a no-bid contract. Phoenix said it had printed millions of ballots without mistakes.

Vazquez-Diaz said the board struggled in the primary because of a 10-fold increase in requests for absentee ballots and because under state law, it had to honour requests postmarked up to a week before the election.

She added that the board has improved its processes since the primary, including by creating a system so voters can track their ballots online.

“The work we have accomplished is unprecedented and was performed under extraordinary circumstances,” she said in a statement. “Criticisms of boards of elections are readily made while the hard work and dedication of such boards are widely ignored.”

The structure of the city Board of Elections is enshrined in the state Constitution, and it has its defenders. Some believe that partisan appointees watching each other works better than concentrating control in one elected official, as many states do.

Government watchdogs say the board has a difficult mission and has made improvements over the years, such as digitising voter registration records that had long been kept on millions of notebook-bound cards. A spokesperson for the state Board of Elections said every local agency has struggled during the pandemic.

But the New York City board has come under consistent criticism for decades.

In 1940, a city investigation found it was plagued by “illegality, inefficiency, laxity and waste.” In 1971, a New York Times editorial derided it as “at best a semi-functioning anachronism.” And in 1985, another city inquiry said it had an “almost embarrassing lack of understanding” of its job.

Mayor Bill de Blasio once offered the agency $20 million to hire a consultant and reform; commissioners declined.

Still, state lawmakers have never seriously pushed to amend the state Constitution to create a professional structure. And the City Council has not used its power over approving commissioners to force change.

Elected officials are often quick to criticise the board but deflect responsibility. Representatives for de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson noted the state controls the board’s structure. On Sunday, Gov Andrew Cuomo, who has not lobbied state lawmakers to reform the board, said he believes the city should take the lead and bring a proposal to the state.

“They run it. They appoint the people. They set the rules,” Cuomo said.

Reform seemed inevitable after the city Department of Investigation released a scathing report in 2013. Investigators found “illegalities, misconduct, and antiquated operations,” including that nearly 10% of employees were related to another staffer.

Seven years later, little has changed, according to the current and former employees.

A core group of the political appointees are highly capable and keep the board running, but many others are unqualified, the employees said.

Frank Seddio, the former Brooklyn Democratic chair who remains a district leader, acknowledged some who land jobs at the board have not had prior permanent employment.

“It’s nice to know that we’ve sometimes changed the lives of people,” he said.

The county party chairs choose the board’s 10 commissioners — one Democrat and one Republican from each borough — and most other board employees. Tradition dictates that when staffers leave, they are replaced by someone from the same party and borough.

Employees include Beth Fossella, the head of voter registration and mother of a former Republican congressman from Staten Island, Vito J Fossella; Thomas Sattie, director of ballot management and son of the former Brooklyn Democratic district leader Maryrose Sattie; Pamela Perkins, administrative manager and wife of Democratic City Councilman Bill Perkins; Raphael Savino, deputy general counsel and brother of Joseph Savino, the former Bronx Republican leader; and Daniel Ortiz, deputy clerk in Brooklyn and son of Assemblyman Felix W Ortiz, a Democrat.

The list of relatives stretches even to the agency’s computer programmers, including Rubén Díaz III, a Democrat who is the son of the Bronx borough president and grandson of a City Council member.

Others have different connections. Debra Leible, head of Election Day operations, for example, is a longtime friend of Andrea Catsimatidis, the head of the Manhattan Republican Party.

“It’s like being in line at a concert,” said Chicava Roslyn Tate, who got hired through a former City Council member and worked at the board until the spring. “People just get swept in.”

The employees did not respond to requests for comment.

It is difficult to find skilled workers, current and former employees said, because many jobs involve tedious work and require late hours. Employees are also expected to attend fundraising dinners and carry petitions for candidates favored by their parties. At the same time, it is hard to punish staffers, because commissioners control the disciplinary process and protect their own, employees said.

Mike Ryan, the executive director, was not disciplined by the agency after NY1 reported that he sat on the advisory board of a voting machine company that did business with the city and paid for his travel. (He was fined $2,500 by the Conflicts of Interest Board.) Jose Miguel Araujo, the Democratic commissioner from Queens, was reappointed in 2016 after he was fined $10,000 for giving his wife a job.

Problems at the board burst into public view during the voter purge in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Officials said they erred during a routine effort to remove people who had died or moved, but they later acknowledged violating the law.

Canizio, one of two clerks who were suspended for the purge and ultimately left, said she had no part in it and was scapegoated.

“My job was actually like babysitting,” said Canizio, who got the job after working for a member of the Assembly. “I felt like I was working in an insane asylum.”

In 2018, long lines followed the breakdown of scores of scanning machines. Ryan blamed the rainy weather, an explanation that drew ridicule.

The board’s recent miscues have renewed calls for reform. “Once we get through this election, I think we will have to have a very serious discussion,” said state Sen Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the Elections Committee.

Another state senator, Liz Krueger of Manhattan, said her own experience with the board 20 years ago makes her wary.

Krueger, a Democrat, narrowly lost a 2000 state Senate race to Roy Goodman, the incumbent and a Republican Party leader with sway over the elections board. Months later, according to three people familiar with the incident, workers found hundreds of ballots in a Board of Elections air conditioning duct. The ballots were from a part of the district that had favoured Krueger.

She said she learned of the ballots just before a special election to replace Goodman. She won, so she did not talk about the incident publicly, and it has not previously been reported. Goodman died in 2014.

“Now in close races,” Krueger said, “I personally call up each side and say, ‘Check the ceiling tiles every night.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company