Common Sense Steps to Better Elections in New York City
Fifteen Ideas the City and City Board of Elections Can Institute Without State Action
New Yorkers deserve better-run elections. It’s time for the City and Board of Elections to institute a series of common sense reforms to help enfranchise the electorate. It’s no good waiting for Albany to act - Here’s fifteen innovative and low-cost ideas within the City and Board’s authority that would improve conditions at the polls.
I. Increase the Number and Quality of Poll Workers by Offering Comp Time for City Employees Working the Polls. The old system of relying on political parties to provide poll workers simply doesn’t work anymore. Thousands of positions at the polls remain unfilled every election and the quality of many poll workers needs improvement. Since most city workers already get Election Day off, the city should provide comp time for non-essential employees on Primary Day in exchange for their working at the polls. While the patronage system can only be legally changed at the state level, granting comp time would provide a steady and talented pool of poll inspectors, translators and information clerks that the Board has not been able to recruit.
II. Increase Rewards for Poll Workers Who Attend Training. To reduce the number of unprepared and uninformed poll workers, a significant bonus should be added to the current small stipend for those workers who attend training sessions before each election. Currently, thousands of poll workers fail to attend training - that means more confusion at poll sites and disenfranchisement of voters.
III. Enforce a Policy that Those who Miss Training or Fail the Poll Worker Test Won’t Work the Polls. Each year thousands of poll workers fail to attend required training and hundreds who attend training, but fail the simple poll worker test, get to work at the polls. The Board shouldn’t hire them and the city should make it clear they won’t pay them. Offering increased stipends for poll workers attending training and instituting comp time for city employees as outlined in points I & II will ensure an adequate and qualified pool of workers on Election Day.
Enfranchising the Electorate
IV. Direct City Agencies to Live up to the Promise of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) and City’s Pro-Voter Law. The NVRA -- colloquially known as the “Motor Voter” law -- requires that social service agencies, DMVs and offices that primarily serve persons with disabilities provide voter registration services. Such services include the distribution of voter registration forms and assistance with their completion. The DMV has integrated the voter registration form into its own applications for licenses. Interested drivers simply fill out a few additional questions and the DMV then electronically forwards the information to Board of Elections. This extremely efficient method should be adopted by all city agencies under Motor Voter and the City’s Pro-Voter laws to help ensure that New York’s diverse non-driving population has the same access to registration opportunities and assistance as their suburban and rural counterparts. Agencies should also appoint voter registration coordinators, provide ongoing staff training and performance reviews on voter registration, and ensure accurate and timely data collection and reporting.
V. The Board Should Use Affidavit Ballots to Create & Update Voter Registration Records. Voters whose names are missing from voter lists are allowed to cast affidavit ballots, but because many of these voters’ original registration forms were lost or inputted incorrectly, they are not registered and their ballots are not counted. The information on affidavit ballots could easily be used to correct voter registration errors, update records and begin the process of new registrations. Many of the local Boards across the state use these procedures already, and New York City should as well.
Voter Information & Using Technology
VI. Put Sample Ballots on the BOE Web Site. The Board and City have made progress in updating their web site. Voters can now use the web to locate their polling site. It would be a further improvement if the website, through this tool, provided voters with a link to their sample ballot before they head to the polls like other jurisdictions. It would lead to better-informed voters and shorter lines on Election Day.
VII. Email Notifications of Election Dates, Deadlines and Ballots. The Board of Elections should offer voters the option of signing up to receive email notices with important election dates as well as voting rights and other information. Voters shouldn’t have to wait until Election Day to find out poll site hours, sample ballots and what to expect at the polls.
VIII. Better Mailings and Additional Poll Site Notices Before Election Day. State law only requires that poll site notices be sent to voters in the summer. One mailing before the primary is not helpful for most voters come November. Additional, clearer, and timelier mailings are needed so voters are not confused and useful information and materials are not overlooked. The city should fund mailings before each Election Day and consult with literacy experts and the civic community to make sure they’re eye catching and clear.
IX. Expand the Popular Voters Guide for State and Federal Elections. The City should expand the popular voter guide published for municipal elections to include statewide and federal races. A better-informed electorate helps strengthen our democracy.
Access to the Ballot
X. Commit to Fully Accessible Poll Sites. With the city on its the way to providing fully accessible voting systems, it is important that voters with disabilities can get to the polls and materials are accessible. The Board should develop a two-year plan to make all polling sites accessible and the city should fund any necessary improvements. Accessible sites are the law and New Yorkers need them. Additionally, all materials made available to the public or displayed at poll sites should be offered in formats accessible to people who are blind and sight-impaired, including Braille, large print, recorded tape and computer readable formats.
XI. Increase the Number of Accessible Voting Systems. The city intends to place a single accessible voting system at each poll site this year. In some sites where there may be as many as 12 Election District tables this policy could result in long lines to use these devices unless the Board ensures that the ratio of accessible voting systems to Election District tables is dramatically increased for this year and in the future.
XII. Translate Election Materials into Additional Languages. We live in an increasingly diverse city. The City and Board should translate voter information and poll site materials into additional languages and provide interpreters at poll sites with large numbers of limited English proficient voters, not just those required under the Voting Rights Act. Materials should be translated into languages spoken by the greatest numbers of voting-age citizens in NYC who have high rates of limited English proficiency, much like the standard used by the Board of Education. The Board should clearly adopt a position that bilingual registration forms printed in English and these additional languages will be accepted.
XIII. Track the Performance of the Board of Elections in the Annual Mayors Management Report. While the City and public pay for the operations of the Board of Elections, the Board’s performance is not subject to detailed public scrutiny. Board performance should be tracked and objective data compiled on an annual basis for statistics such as voting system breakdowns; reasons for and rejection rates for affidavit ballots; poll worker training statistics; and timely submission of candidate’s campaign finance reports. This reporting policy works for police, fire and city agencies and the Board should be included as well. Similarly, the Board should resume publication of a yearly report to the City Council as required by state law. Such a report should not only detail relevant statistics, but also lay out programs designed to enhance voter participation and plans for the future.
XIV. Webcast Meetings of the Board of Elections, Voter Assistance Commission and Campaign Finance Board. To improve public interest and confidence, election administration should be as open and transparent as possible. The State Board of Elections webcasts their meetings and posts archived transcripts on their site. Local election agencies should do the same for commissioner meetings, hearings, public demonstrations and events subject to the state’s Open Meetings Law.
XV. The City Should Move to Owning its Vote Tabulating System. The Board of Elections has begun the process of moving the city to accessible voting systems. Instead of privatizing elections by purchasing systems from private vendors to count ballots for millions, the city should fund development of its own system or systems so that we are not dependent on private vendors from programming, maintenance, training and, potentially, tallying of ballots.