New York needs to build a better electoral system

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The upcoming elections in November are a sad reminder that New York still has an election monitoring problem: state laws prioritize the preservation of a political duopoly over efficiency, fairness and the rights of citizens.

The problem starts with the election commissioners, the 124 people who oversee the vote. Commissioners are not selected on the basis of their expertise or their commitment to voting rights. They are appointed by county political committees, one per party, and therefore have an incentive to create an electoral advantage for their patrons rather than facilitating political participation.

Voters across the state have been disenfranchised for years. In 2016, an election purge in New York led to the disenfranchisement of 200,000 voters in that year’s primaries. In 2020, Oneida County failed to register 2,400 voters who submitted their forms by the deadline, obscuring the outcome of an ultra-competitive congressional race. In 2020, Rensselaer County Commissioners declined to make an early voting site accessible to low-income voters who rely on public transportation.

The actions of Erik Haight, who serves as both Dutchess County Election Commissioner and Republican Caucus Chairman for the New York State Election Commissioners Association, illustrate systemic failures. For the past decade, Haight has ignored federal and state election and disability laws and targeted young voters. He flouted a rare unanimous state Board of Elections advisory opinion on voter addresses, resulting in a costly federal settlement and consent decree. He ignored gross violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and thwarted his Democratic counterpart’s efforts to address them. His low point may have been the 2020 federal election, at the height of the COVID pandemic, when he tried to force voters to use a small church that his own elders deemed unsafe, until a state Supreme Court judge determines that he had misled her about the possibility of opening a much larger polling place elsewhere in the district. He lost several lawsuits that cost county taxpayers nearly $130,000. Despite this, Haight leads statewide election commissioner formations.

The problem is that there is no accountability. The state Board of Elections, evenly divided along party lines, rarely takes action, and when it does, commissioners like Haight can simply ignore them. Liability is largely left to citizens, whose primary recourse for violations of their rights is costly litigation under the Article 78 process. Even then, the level playing field is uneven as legal costs commissioners are paid by taxpayers, while private citizens are generally left to fend for themselves.

What are some of the solutions to the problem? A package of bills that have already passed the state Senate — backed by suffrage advocates including the Brennan Center — urgently need to be signed into law in the next legislative session. The starting point is that the mission of electoral councils should explicitly be to facilitate political participation, not to act as gatekeepers for party bosses. There should be a process for selecting commissioners that is transparent and open to the public. All commissioners must hold full-time positions and have electoral administration experience and/or other appropriate management or administrative experience. County party leaders should not be allowed to serve concurrently as commissioners or deputy commissioners, and all commissioners should be required to undergo annual training, conducted by the state board. The practices of county councils, which vary considerably, should be harmonized with regard to the training of inspectors, registration and the counting of ballot papers.

Enforcement action needs to be taken beyond the current Senate legislation. The council of state should be expanded to five out of four members, with the fifth chosen in a non-partisan way, for example by a majority of other council members, and given more enforcement powers to sanction commissioners who ignore advisory opinions. Finally, election law rules should make it clear that citizen-complainants can be awarded reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs when election commissioners take actions that violate election law and deprive them of their rights.

These measures will not solve all problems with voting in New York State, but they will bring accountability and empower citizens to defend this most sacred democratic right.

Jonathan Becker is executive vice president, vice president of academic affairs and professor of political studies at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson.

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