Unlike most states, which use elected officials or professionals to oversee elections, New York has a constitutional mandate to let the major political parties run our Boards of Elections.
Our State Constitution lets the two political parties which get the most and second-most votes (i.e. the Democrats and Republicans) appoint equal numbers of Commissioners to run our elections. These partisan commissioners then get to hand out all of the paid jobs to staff the polls and run elections across the state. We pay for these patronage jobs with our tax dollars, but party officials hire all the people who fill them.
The idea is that the parties will keep a check on each other, but there’s no one to serve as a check on the two parties when they collude, leaving independent voters, “minor party” voters and party insurgents at their mercy.
Election administration in the NYS Constitution. The New York State Constitution has required, since 1894, with limited exceptions, that the administration of state and local elections be done by boards on which the two political parties receiving the most and next most votes in the immediately preceding previous general election are equally represented. It further provides that positions on these boards be filled “upon the nomination of such representatives of said parties respectively.” (Article II §8). Pursuant to this provision, the procedures for staffing these boards at the state and county levels are set out in New York’s election law. (Articles 3-100,200)
New York’s constitutional provision is exceptional. Election administration is not a matter addressed by most state constitutions. New York is one of nine states that constitutionally specifies a method for election administration. The others are Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Vermont, West Virginia and Virginia. Of these, Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Vermont and West Virginia give this duty to an elected Secretary of State; in Texas a Secretary of State appointed by the Governor (with no legislative advice and consent) is responsible.[i] Virginia’s constitution makes no provision for a state election board: it calls for three member city and county election boards, with representation assured for the two major parties.[ii] Thus only New York has a constitutional provision that specifies the use of a board at both the state and local levels to oversee election administration.
Even number of election board members is exceptional. In accord with the statute implementing this constitutional requirement, the New York the Board of Elections has four members appointed by the governor, one each designated by the state party chairs of each of the major parties and one each nominated together by the leaders in both legislative houses of the two major parties. By law, the nominees of the legislative leaders must serve as co-chairs of the Board. [iii]
At the county level the law provides for the appointment of two commissioners, one from each of the major parties, except that in New York City there are ten commissioners, one of each major party from each county within the city.[iv] Appointments are by the county legislative body, or in NYC by the City Council, on the recommendation of each party’s county committee.
Majority rule on even member boards. At both state and local levels, election boards must act by majority vote. The effect of this requirement at the state level is that at least one member of a second party join with two from the other for the board to act. Its effect in most counties is that both commissioners must agree (that is, the board must be unanimous) to take official action.[v]
Structural inefficiency. An additional effect of the New York State constitutional requirement and its implementing statutes is that every appointment from one party for a job in county election administration requires a parallel appointment from the other. This is a formula for inefficiency.
Boards as department heads. It is rare in American organizational practice for an agency with administrative responsibilities to be headed by a board; “unity in the executive” is preferred as the means for achieving decisive, directive authority. [vi] For the administration of elections, about three quarters of American states use a single headed agency. Boards are commonly employed in the United States for regulatory or quasi-judicial functions. In these circumstances it is almost always the case that these bodies have an odd number of members, as a guard against potential deadlock.
History and purpose of current design. New York’s constitutional provision was adopted during a period of frequent statutory redesign of election administration procedures as partisan control of state government changed hands in the later portion of the 19th century, to give one or the other major party an advantage at the polls. The idea was that honesty in election administration would be assured by the representative of each party in the process overseeing and checking the other.
Consequences: Party organization leaders administer elections, and conflicts of interest. In fact, research has shown that local party leaders are often themselves chosen for leadership positions on county election boards.[vii] From this vantage they oversee primary election to the party leadership posts they hold, an inherent conflict of interest. Moreover, the unanimity requirement for board action allows each commissioner to block any official inquiry of the board into actions within the other.
Alternatively, commissioners selected by elements in control of the party organization may join to resist insurgent movements, or to raise barriers to third party or independent candidacies. One leading scholar has concluded that: “[e]mployees of election boards are closely tied to and dependent upon dominant politicians and political parties. These boards of elections are in fact,” he continues, “vestiges of the state’s fabled political machines… [L]ike the corpus of election law they are mandated to implement, …[they]…essentially function as an extension of the party system.”[viii]
A national issue: Partisan election administration has been a concern in the United States even since the outcome of the 2000 presidential election was decided in the United States Supreme Court.[ix] This concern extends not only to elections run by individual partisan state and/or local elected officials, but also those run by individuals or boards appointed by partisan elected officials. Regarding bipartisan board, Kenneth R. Mayer of the University of Wisconsin wrote: “In addition to the inefficiencies of multimember boards compared to single administrators, bipartisanship is no guarantee of perceived fairness…. He continued that, “even if it were true that partisans do the best job of monitoring each other and preventing bias, the unique character of elections makes it extremely difficult to conduct effective monitoring. “[x]
The public thinks election administration is unfair and favors reform. There is some evidence that Americans are concerned about how elections are run, and would strongly favor reform of election administration. For example, Paul Gronke of Reed College reported that one finding of the 2008 Cooperative Congressional Election Study showed was that “Americans are almost routinely dismissing elections administrators as partisan, unfair, and think that American elections are replete with fraud and illegal voting.” In Gronke’s view “removing partisan influences from election administration” is an essential needed reform. [xi]
Non-partisan election administration. Scholars and reformers have advocated non-partisan, professional election administration in the United States with little success. [xii] Even in the wake of the controversy surrounding election administration in the 2000 presidential election and the passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), New York avoided serious consideration of structural change. The report of the 2002 New York State Task Force on Election Modernization discussed the need for professionalism and training, better performance measures, more effect recruitment and better pay for workers, and improved communication. But about the constitutional entrenchment of major party organizations, it said: "…the ramifications and advisability of changing the current bipartisan system requires in depth study and consideration that is beyond the mandate of this task force."[xiii]
A nonpartisan state election commission and independent election administrator: In New York a constitutional amendment is needed if reform is to be achieved. One model for an alternative approach has been proposed by the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University.[xiv] If adopted, it would create a nonpartisan state election commission and the post of independent chief state elections officer, acceptable to all parties but not representative of any one of them, to oversee and manage elections.[xv] Parallel changes at the local level might be taken in a constitutional amendment, or by statute after an amendment is passed.
After extensive study, the Citizens Union proposed a similar model specifically designed for New York. It called for a nonpartisan statewide election board comprised of nine members, with four appointed by the Governor, four by the legislative leaders, and one chosen by the eight to serve as Chair. This board would recommend five candidates to the Governor, who alone would appoint a new Chief Elections Officer (CEO) from among the five candidates. The CEO would be accountable to the Governor and serve a fixed term of five years, but would report to the board regarding all operations, including canvassing and procedures for county officials.[xvi]
[i] .Constitution of The State Of Arkansas Of 1874, Amend. 51 §5
California Constitution Art. 5, §11
Louisiana Constitution Article 4 §7
Mississippi Constitution Article V section 143
Texas Constitution, Art. IV, Vermont Constitution § 43
West Virginia Constitution Art. 7In Arkansas, in addition, statutory provision is made for a state board of elections over which the Secretary of State presides. Arkansas Code 7-4-101,03,05,07,09.
[ii] . A state board of elections constituted in a manner similar to the city and county boards, is provided for by statute. Virginia Code 24.2 – 102.
[iii] . New York State Election Law. 3.100-1,2.
[iv] . There may be four commissioners in counties with populations that exceed 125,000.
[v] . According to Section 3.212.5 of the election law, six of the ten commissioners in the city of New York, upon the may authorize a sub-group of commissioners to act for it, so long as the two major political parties are equally represented in this sub-group.
[vi] . See James Madison, Federalist #51.
[vii] . Gerald Benjamin. "The Board of Elections: Is It Time to Restructure? Unpublished Remarks Given at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York - November 18, 2002.
[viii] . “Elections and Election Management in New York” in Gerald Benjamin (ed). The Oxford Handbook of New York State Government and Politics (N.Y.: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).
[x] . Kenneth R. Mayer. “Comparative Election Administration: Can We Learn Anything From the Australian Electoral Commission?” (Unpublished Paper delivered at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association) http://works.bepress.com/mayer/17/
[xii]. See for example Daniel P. Tokaji. “the Future of Election Reform: From Rules to Institutions” Yale Law and Policy Review Vol. 28, pp. 125 -154( 2009) .
[xiii] . The task Force. Voting in New York in the 21st Century (2002) http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/scandoclinks/ocm50178001.htm
[xv] . Nonpartisan Election Administration: Model Legislation for the States (July, 2009) http://www.american.edu/spa/cdem/upload/NonpartisanModelLegislation08-2009.pdf
[xvi] Paraphrased from the Executive Summary of the Citizen Union. New York Needs Election Reform Now (2009) p. 7. http://www.citizensunion.org/www/cu/site/hosting/Reports/CUF_Election_ReformExSummaryandRecommdations0509.pdf