Opinion Editorial on Elections

Utica Observer-Dispatch

Our view: Election board system needs to be reformed

Editorial
Sunday, October 23, 2011

Quick. Name a position where the only qualification for employment is that you belong to a particular political party; once hired, your employer has absolutely no say in how you do your job or whether you even keep it.

Bzzt! Time’s up. Answer: county election commissioner. Job candidates require no qualifications other than to be politically connected. Commissioners — there must be one Republican and one Democrat — are appointed by county legislators, usually just a rank-and-file rubber stamp after deals are made by party leaders behind closed doors. Once appointed, it’s a job a job for life — only the governor can remove election commissioners — making them virtually accountable to no one, even the ones who hired them.

This is the epitome of public insult. And after more than a century, it’s time the system is changed.

A system truly designed to serve the public would require that applicants be chosen based on qualifications, not connections. In addition, there would be local oversight to ensure accountability. Finally, restricting party affiliation to Republican and Democrat would need re-adjustment because it discounts other political parties and pretty much skews what should be a democratic system.

Changing the system would require a constitutional amendment, since rules governing the process are part of the state constitution and have been on the books since 1894. The system was originally designed to keep elections fair and clean, but through the years it has helped keep the two parties in power and, as SUNY New Paltz Professor Gerald Benjamin says, has opened the door to patronage jobs that virtually lock out independent and third-party voters.

And, while county governments pay for much of the operations, they can’t control what the election boards do.

So who’s in charge? That’s the problem. Nobody, really.

Lack of accountability became quite clear following the last two elections in Oneida County. After the November 2010 fiasco, when no results were available for hours after the polls closed due to an ineffective reporting system, County Executive Anthony Picente asked for an investigation into what went wrong. He never got one. More recently, Picente asked for a plan on how the commissioners would conduct the September 2011 primary. That request was shamefully ignored.

Why? Because election commissioners don’t answer to the county executive. Nor do the commissioners or the election board answer to the county legislators who appointed them.

Anyone who believes that the governor is going to wade into this local pond is living in Fantasyland.

Legislators had an opportunity late last year to try to make things better, but instead they rubber-stamped the ineptness by appointing the same team that botched the 2010 election. Norman Leach, R-Camden; David Wilcox, R-Holland Patent, and Brian Miller, R-New Hartford, were absent, but 22 legislators voted in favor.

To their credit, Richard Flisnik, R-Marcy; George Joseph, R-Clinton; Fred Sadallah, R-New Hartford, and Edward Welsh, R-Utica, opposed.

Reforming the system is overdue, and state leaders need to figure it out, perhaps with input from good government groups like Common Cause, the |League of Women Voters and the |New York Public Interest Research Group.

One idea might be to abolish the two highly paid political positions and find one qualified person skilled in logistics that has the ability to plan, direct and carry out an election.

One thing is sure: until election commissioners and boards are held accountable, a fair and reliable system of elections will elude us, and democracy at its very roots — the ballot box — will remain on wobbly ground.

Press Clip Relevance

Changing the system would require a constitutional amendment, since rules governing the process are part of the state constitution and have been on the books since 1894. The system was originally designed to keep elections fair and clean, but through the years it has helped keep the two parties in power and, as SUNY New Paltz Professor Gerald Benjamin says, has opened the door to patronage jobs that virtually lock out independent and third-party voters.

 

 

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