Tuesday, November 30, 2010

City Board of Elections to Post Sample Ballots Online

Our friends at Citizens Union have informed us that the New York City Board of Elections unanimously passed a motion today that will ensure that sample ballots are posted on their website prior to an election.

This a victory for all voters in New York. For years, the Brennan Center and other groups have urged the City Board to post sample ballots on their website, allowing voters to familiarize themselves with the new paper ballots prior to casting their vote. As we have written before, this will make for more confident voters, shorter lines at the polls, and avoid many of the problems encountered on Election Day.

We are pleased that the City Board will be joining 26 other counties in New York State in posting sample ballots online. We hope that this decision is a sign of more reforms to follow.

Now that this issue has been resolved, let’s move on to designing a better and less confusing ballot that the City Board can proudly post on their website in time for the next election.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Silver Bullet: The Executive Order That Would Save Lots of Money, and Improve Efficiency and Performance Too

What if I told you the Governor, with a stroke of a pen, could help a major section of the government save money, and improve efficiency and performance? And what if I told you that all of this is related to elections and would also result in the registration of tens of thousands of more citizens?

It's not too good to be true. A report I co-authored detailing what the Governor-elect can do unilaterally (i.e., without the legislature) to improve the efficiency of state government and administration received some press today. Much of the media focus has been on matters related to the budget and openness, but I'd like to focus a really big change that the Governor can make to the way we run elections. It really would save the state and localities millions of dollars, while at the same time dramatically increase the numbers of registered New Yorkers.

What is this silver bullet? Automation of the State's registration programs.

New York's registration system is a mess. It's costly, inefficient, and year after year, New York leads the country in complaints from people who try to vote, but for some reason don't show up on the voter rolls. Many people know that New York ranked dead last among states this past election in voter participation -- that is, the percentage of eligible citizens who voted was lower than anywhere else. A big part of the reason this number was so low is that a very low percentage of eligible citizens are even registered. In fact, New York ranks 45th of 50 States in this category.

Automating the state's registration programs -- which exist by law in places like the DMV, City and State Universities, social service agencies, etc. -- would be a major step toward addressing all of these issues. Every time a citizen interacted with one of these agencies -- to get a new driver's lisence, register for classes, apply for benefits -- voters would be asked if they wanted their information to be used for registration. If they said yes, their information in the statewide voter registration database would be automatically updated.

There is a wave of states that have automated their registration programs in the last couple of years, and all of them report very big savings (hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, annually), more accurate rolls, and many more registered voters. Don't believe it? Read our many extensive studies on the subject here.

As we explain in the Executive Order report, the Governor can make this happen through executive order. It should be a no-brainer.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

City Board's Next Leader?

After his recent loss for New York State Senate, former New York City Councilman Anthony Como has reentered his bid for Executive Director of the New York City Board of Elections — a position which became available after George Gonzalez was fired.

In light of all the recent problems with the City Board of Elections – the bungled ballot instructions, the late opening of poll sites on primary day, and lack of proper poll worker training to name a few — the Board of Elections must move beyond its archaic partisan system for selecting its next executive. The current process, whereby the Democratic and Republican commissioners from each borough make the selection, will result in another behind the scenes selection of a political insider.

The City Board must expand its applicant pool and begin an open and transparent nationwide search to ensure that the position is filled with the best qualified candidate, not the best connected. The New York Times, New York City Councilmembers Gale Brewer and Christine Quinn, and even Commissioner J.C. Polanco from within the City Board of Elections itself have supported this position. While it may be true that, as Commissioner Greg Soumas said, “the best and the brightest talent in all fields could be found in New York City,” the best and brightest will not be found within either of the political party’s inner circles. If the City Board of Elections is going to learn any lesson from the past, it must be that hiring the best professionals to do the job should be their first, second, and third priorities.

Monday, November 08, 2010

New York's Practices for New Machines Create More Uncertainty in Undecided Races

As the several outcomes of races across New York State remain unclear, one thing that that is certain is that they way New York chose to setup its new machines -- failing voters with adequate notification of when the machines cannot read their votes -- will create more uncertainty in the days and recounts ahead.

The State Board of Elections made the decision that optical scanners would not provide voters with any notification when they read an undervote (when it believes a voter skipped a contest-- say because the voter circled the name of a candidate rather than filling in the oval). The problem with the scanners, as one election lawyer is quoted, “sometimes they hit, and sometimes they don't.” The result in many instances will be attorneys arguing over the ballots that the scanners did not register. These ballots may be instances of voters marking outside the oval, circling the candidate’s name, or not having completely filled in the oval.

Moreover, if a voter "overvotes" -- say accidentally selecting Bishop when he meant to select Altshuler, crossing out Bishop when her realized his mistake and then selecting Alshuler -- the machine will not count the vote for anyone and will fail to give the voter clear notice that his vote will not count. In a hand recount, how this voter's vote should be counted may very well be subject to dispute.

Until the State adopts an appropriate notification for when the machines cannot read their ballots, more and more of New York’s races will be decided in the courtroom rather than the privacy booth.