The New York State Constitution is exceptional in that it establishes the proceedure for elections administration. Under the current system of elections administration, 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 (i.e. the Democrats and Republicans). The potential for abuse of this system is seen with every election, and the process of elections administration affects the outcomes of elections.
From Florida to Yonkers, we’ve seen what happens when election workers try to influence the outcome of an election by any means necessary. Uncounted votes, voter suppression and even fraud are all possible.
And with oversight evenly split, with no one person in charge, enforcement of election laws is almost non-existent because either party can block a legal action to protect their candidates, no matter what the facts.
Our current system leaves many voters dependent on election workers who are appointed by and answerable only to the major party bosses.
In 2006, Democratic State Senate candidate Andrea Stewart-Cousins came within 18 votes of defeating the Republican incumbent, Nick Spano. Why? Under the noses of the partisan election workers, many voters were sent to the wrong polling place; refused correct polling place information; or allowed to fill out invalid ballots. That undermines Democracy and disenfranchises voters.
On September 13, 2011 there was a special election in the 54th Assembly district in Brooklyn. In a special election the party leadership gets to designate the party nominee without a primary. With no opportunity for a primary in this overwhelmingly Democratic district, three Democrats ran, one on the Democratic Party line, Working Families Party line and one on the “Community First” party line.
But on Election Day, only the Democratic party leadership had workers inside the polls administering the elections. There was no one from the Working Families Party, no one from the Community First Party. There was however a Republican poll worker despite the absence of a Republican candidate on the ballot.
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.
Bi-partisan registration and election boards
All laws creating, regulating or affecting boards or officers charged with the duty of qualifying voters, or of distributing ballots to voters, or of receiving, recording or counting votes at elections, shall secure equal representation of the two political parties which, at the general election next preceding that for which such boards or officers are to serve, cast the highest and the next highest number of votes. All such boards and officers shall be appointed or elected in such manner, and upon the nomination of such representatives of said parties respectively, as the legislature may direct.
Only eight other states specify elections administration in their constitution. They 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. 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. The rest of the states deal with election administration in their statutes.
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.
8 states specify elections administration in their constitution: AR, CA, LA, MI, TX, VA, VT, WV
6 states give the duty of election administration to an elected Secretary of State: AR, CA, LA, MI, VA, VT, WV