When the Board of Election in the Bronx Goes Wrong: A Quick Look at How Our Constitutional Right May be at Issue:

Introduction:

This past election, I volunteered to work with election protection as part of a requirement for my election law school class.  For most of the semester, we discussed many cases which dealt with the issue of whether or not voting was a constitutional right.   There were arguments made for both sides, but I sided with those who argued that voting is a constitutional right read into the U.S. Constitution. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court noted   that the  casting  of a vote  “is of the most fundamental significance under our constitutional structure.” See Burdick v. Takushi , 504 U.S. 428, 433 (1992).   Regardless, I think every Bronxinite should be a stakeholder in our elections, because tax payers’ money is used to operate our elections.  If an election goes wrong, civic engagement should be on the rise and, therefore, people should voice their opinions to better democracy.   This blog is an attempt to voice my opinion.

A.    My Assignment

My role as an election protection volunteer was somewhat of a new experience for me.  Although I have done political consulting in the past for local candidates - working as a campaign staffer in statewide and presidential races and working with Grassroots Initiative, the nation’s only non-profit organization that helps non-traditional candidates run for public office - working the polls as an election protection volunteer was not only a new experience for me, but it was also a unique experience in that I was able to see election law in action. That experience was, for the most part, quite depressing. I was placed to be  a poll watcher at Joseph Wade, JHS, and 117 1865 Morris Avenue, Bronx County, NY 10453. The poll location was in  the JHS I attended when I was in grade school. My role was mainly to see if the people in the poll location were in compliance with the New York Board of Election manual. In short, my role was to “police” the polling location.

The Issues I Found Were the Following:

A.    Lack of Preparation:

There was an issue of lack of preparation in operating the polling site.  I arrived at the poll site around 5:40 am.  The staff was just getting ready to put all the machines together.  Because the polling place was supposed to be open by 6:00 am, I asked the site coordinator why they were not ready yet.  She explained to me that there had been a miscommunication with the maintenance crew with respect to opening the polling site, so the Board of Election (“BOE”) staff arrived to the site late. Because of this, they were behind schedule. Around 6:10 am, voters were swarming the polling site.  The voting machines were not ready yet, so the site coordinator announced that they were going to give emergency ballots to the voters.  When I asked her why, she said that the computers were malfunctioning, and they had run out of printing paper. I was shocked to learn that they did not have adequate resources to operate the scan voting machines. 

Most of the voters were reluctant to vote via emergency ballots and, therefore, some voters left the polling site without casting their ballots.  Finally, around 6:40 am, the site coordinator was able to get the printing paper from the BOE office in the Bronx, and was then able to get the voting machines to operate.  The voters who were inside the voting booth at that time were able to vote using the scanning machine. The first vote was cast around 6:45 am, which was unfortunate because many voters that had arrived earlier were not able to wait around that long to vote.  Those who left were urged to return to cast their vote later in the evening.

       

B.     Electioneering in & Out of the Poll Site:

          

There were also issues regarding electioneering. A number of political campaign workers came inside the polling location and dropped off campaign literature. I found myself

throwing piles of campaign literature in the garbage throughout the day.  At one point, I had to tell one of the political campaign staffers that she could not come in and out of the polling site and drop literature by the voting tables, because electioneering is prohibited at the polling location.  Outside of the polling location building, lots of campaign literature was dropped on the floor so that voters would view it as they were walking inside the polling location to vote.  On a few occasions, I found myself picking the illegal materials up from the floor and throwing them in the garbage.

Furthermore, a BOE staff member was electioneering. I am not sure if her intent was to do so, or if she didn’t realize she was engaging in prohibited behavior.  Each time a voter walked up to this BOE employee’s table, and the employee happened to know the voter personally, the employee would greet the voter and say something like, “Hey, good to see you. You are voting for X candidate, right?”  I felt like this practice could potentially influence voters on how they should vote.  As a result, I approached the BOE employee and I told her that she was not supposed to tell or explain to voters who to vote for, as that was considered electioneering, and as a BOE employee, she was prohibited to engage in electioneering. 

C.    Lack of Privacy:

 

Lack of privacy was in issue at the polling site.  The voting booths were very small.  Voters who were side by side could glance over and see the ballot of the other voter. Furthermore, out of the nearly 18 voting booths that were placed in the polling location, at least half were facing away from the wall. I remember asking the site coordinator around 8:30 am why not all of the voting booths had been turned toward the wall, and she explained that they just had “not gotten to them.”  In other words, the staff was so busy that no one could take a minute to quickly turn the voting booths to face the wall, as is the proper privacy measure.  Even worse, there were many voters who did know how to scan their ballot through the scanning machine and therefore the staff had to assist them. The staff would take the ballot to show the voters how to correctly scan it through the scanning machine, and in the process the staff could see who the voter was voting for.   This action was simply illegal, as it violated the voters’ privacy.   

D.    Lack of Spanish Speaking Staff:

 

Furthermore, I was shocked to see the lack of Spanish-speaking staff working the poll site. There were only three Spanish speakers on staff, out of nearly twenty people.  This was surprising because the polling site was located in a predominately Spanish-speaking community. My assumption was that the staff was hired less on the basis of being fit for the job, but rather because of patronage, which is a common practice in Bronx politics.

E.     The Staff Were Unprofessional & Unreasonable: 

 

There was an issue with the staff being unprofessional and unreasonable. One would expect that the staff at the BOE would be excited and motivated to be there advancing democracy, but this was far from the truth. Many of the BOE staff was plain lazy and almost seemed bothered if someone asked too many questions. Any issue that required a staffer to get out of their seats was simply neglected.  For example, one voter asked a BOE staffer if she was supposed to scan her ballot on a specific scanning machine with regard to the district the in which she lived. The staffer did not know, nor did the staffer take an extra step to find out that information for the voter, but simply shrugged and told voter he wasn’t sure. Because I overheard the conversation, I intervened and informed the voter that she could use any scanner to cast her ballot. In addition, I saw staffers arguing with one another a number of times, which was very unprofessional because voters were witnessing the disputes.  In fact, at one point I was trying to answer the question of a Spanish-speaking voter, and the site coordinator almost got into a dispute with me because I was speaking with the voter.  She began yelling at me, and I had to tell her to lower her voice. The police officer on site eventually intervened and asked us if there was a problem between us.  I explained that the only problem was that the BOE should have hired more Spanish-speaking staff in what was (and is) a predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhood.  I then walked away from the two for fear of being kicked out of the polling place on the accusation of interfering with voters casting their ballots.

 

Based on my experience, I thought that perhaps the BOE could improve its polling sites by adopting the following recommendations:

Recommendations for Reform :

A.    Arrive Early &Create a Check List Before Opening the Polling Location:

 

To improve efficiency and productivity, and to avoid discouraging voters who arrive at the poll site early, before it opens, the BOE should create a check list before voting day that covers the structure of the polling location and the resource that are needed to run the polling site efficiently. I know that, in operating a political campaign, one strives to obtain the number of votes necessary to win the election for the candidate in question. This means having a campaign office that is impeccably organized so that one can hustle supporters in and out of the office quickly, to canvass or phone bank and mobilize voters. This means organizing the day before: put together all the walking lists; ensuring that all phones are operating correctly; making sure that all computers have ink and that they are operating effectively, etc.  All of this preparation would be done by the main staffer running an office, and then the GOTV director (get out the vote strategist) may come to each campaign office the night before Election Day to see if the office is structured the way it should be.  If something is not organized, then the GOTV director would provide a check list to the staffer in charge of the campaign office naming what is still missing and what needs to be fixed in order to smoothly execute our get out the vote operation.  Similarly, the BOE can hire someone whose job is mainly to come to the polling location early, with fresh eyes, around 4:00 am or 5 am, and make a checklist regarding whether or not the polling location is structured according to BOE standards.  This idea may mean that the polling staff would be required to come into the building as early as 3:00 am to set up and perform a dry run before the polls open at 6:00 am.

B.     Hire Reasonable, Competent, and Spanish-Speaking Staff

 

To improve competency within the staff, the BOE should focus on recruiting proactive and reasonable staff to operate the polling place. Competent staff is the bloodline of any organization.  No one expects the BOE to hire PhDs, but I found it amazing that the staff at the polling locations were clueless as to what they were doing, or what they were supposed to be doing.  I am not saying that the staff was completely incompetent, nor do I have a problem with hiring people that are above middle-age and/or borderline citizens, but there is a problem when people are lazy and are not putting in the effort to understand the voting process.  Even worse, the staff customer service skills were really unacceptable. Unfortunately, the staff can get away with this behavior because their jobs are not at risk; most of them are certain and sure of the fact that they will be running the next election at the same polling place because of political favoritism.  This prediction is not far-fetched, as the reality is that the BOE is run by five Democrat and five Republican commissioners who are all appointed by the New York City Council, a very powerful political body.  As a result, accountability can be an issue, as the agency is not accountable to Albany or City Hall.  With all this being said, the BOE should train people to behave professionally and reasonably at all times, even when they are working under pressure.  This may mean hiring people selectively, based on competency and work ethic, rather than hiring people on the basis of favoritism. Finally, the BOE should hire more Spanish speaking staffers, because the community is predominantly Spanish-speaking.

 

C.    Create A Better Partnership with the Local Police:

 

Aside from opening the polls earlier and doing a dry run testing the voting machines, my next  suggestion is that the BOE should create a better partnership with the local police departments.  That way, police officer who is already patrolling the polling sites can enforce some of the obvious election rules. One rule that a police officer could enforce easily, and without much effort, is the ban on electioneering.  It is true that I was able to stop some of the electioneering that was going on the polling site by speaking to the individuals who were engaging in it.  But my role as a poll watcher was limited because at any point in time, a BOE staffer could claim that I was interfering with the voting process and kick me out.  As a result, assuming that I was kicked out of the polling place, it would have been easier for some people to engage in electioneering tactics. Also, I felt that at any given point when I was outside of the building and I addressed the campaign staffers of political candidates not to drop campaign literature around the polling site, they could have easily ignored me and continue to engage in electioneering. I did not feel possessed enough authority to thoroughly prevent this practice.  On top of that, people display more respect for and obedience toward a uniformed officer of the law than toward plain-clothed citizen. If the BOE created a partnership with the local police department requiring the police officer assigned to the polling place to become aware of the common electioneering tactics and actively work to prevent them, then the issue of electioneering would be greatly reduced.

D.    Improve Privacy Issues:

 

To improve upon the lack of privacy that many voters experienced at the polling location I was located in, one or two staff members can be hired to teach people how to scan their ballots and properly use the scanning machine.  Instead of using a voter’s personal ballot to illustrate the process, the staff workers can use a blank ballot and show the voters how to place it through the scanning machine. This will allow for anonymity and prevent the staff from knowing who the voter is casting his or her ballot for.

E.     The BOE Should Report All Progress and Issues It Encounters:

 

I am sure there were many polling locations that operated smoothly on Election Day.  But there were many polling locations that did not achieve optimal results in terms of functionality and efficiency.  The BOE should report these instances and issues on their websites, and discuss what steps they plan to take to solve these problems. This way, if they do not follow up with their plans, the public can hold them accountable. With the press release, they should not just make broad statements such as “we are handing all of the issues.”  Such blanket statements are plainly unacceptable.  The BOE needs to provide voters with detailed explanations of how, exactly, they plan to handle the issues.

The reality is that approximately $80,000,000 of taxpayer funds were paid to the BOE to implement the new voting machines and run our elections. It is only reasonable that  the BOE is held accountable by the public taxpayers and therefore the BOE should report its progress. People are fed up with irresponsible spending in these hard economic times, and I am one  of those who are fed up.