December 7, 2004


There is good news. An objective comparison of election administration in New York City between 2004 and 2000 shows that there have been substantial improvements on a number of fronts.  We have better poll workers.  Our voting machines, although 40 years old, worked better this time than four years ago. Electronic ballot scanning of the absentee, affidavit and emergency ballots has become second nature.  While the Board of Elections has come a long way, we could still do an even better job.

·      Poll worker training still needs improvement. Even more significantly, we need to implement systems to provide feedback and additional training to poll workers who need it.

·      While shortages of persons who are willing to serve as poll workers have virtually disappeared, the Board needs to be more selective of those who are appointed, particularly those who are not nominated by political leaders.

·      NYC must replace its lever voting machines for the 2006 elections.  Every day that passes without the necessary authorizing legislation from Albany jeopardizes our ability to implement the transition properly.

·      VAC could play a greater role in fulfilling its mandate to promote registration at City agencies.  

·      Campaign spending disclosure filed with the NYC Board of Elections should be available on line.

·      Voters should be able to determine their poll sites and confirm their registration status on line.

Poll Workers

The public interacts with the election administration through the 30,000 poll workers who staff more than 1,300 poll sites. These 30,000 poll workers, who only work one or two days a year, must be recruited, trained and supervised by the permanent staff of the Board of Elections.  As the Election Law has become increasing complex, the duties assigned to the inspectors have increased substantially, adding substantial importance to the training of the poll workers.  

The Board’s training programs have improved significantly over the last decade, but more needs to be done. Most important, the Board needs to develop a mechanism to screen out less qualified poll workers.  In my view, there is no effective system in place now.

There has been a great deal of discussion about the bi-partisan process of recruiting poll workers. Election Law §§ 3-400 et seq. provide that poll workers are appointed on the nomination of the county chairs of the two largest political parties.  Although I have not been able to obtain the exact statistics, it is my impression that, in fact, only about half of the poll workers are actually selected by the political parties.  The other half are recruited by the Board of Elections directly from the public and are assigned from what is effectively a non-partisan list. Even more significant is my sincere observation that the poll workers assigned by the political parties are generally far superior to those assigned by the Board staff.

Where there are active district leaders and local clubs that take their role in election administration seriously, local poll sites are far more efficient and effective.  This is because of the huge cadre of volunteer resources that go into recruiting and supervising the local poll workers. They make sure that every poll site opens on time. When lines get long because inspectors are not well organized, the district leader or other activists from the club will make sure that the personnel are reorganized or instructed to process voters more efficiently. On the other hand, in neighborhoods where there is no active political club, or the club does not view efficient operation of the polls as a priority, the local poll sites clearly suffer.  

Mayor Bloomberg’s observation that the structure of the Board of Elections is a remnant of the days when Tammany Hall ruled New York is not entirely true. In fact, the concept of bi-partisan administration of the election process was a major anti-Tammany reform added to the State Constitution in 1894.  But bi-partisan administration does not mean that there should be a spoils system.  Election administration is an important function of city government.  What we must do is insure that the election officials, whether they be poll workers or senior staff at the Board of Elections are qualified to perform their jobs.

One of the problems is that “Tammany Hall” is only a vestige of its former self.  In many areas, the clubs are weak, non-existent or uninterested in election administration.  As a consequence, the responsibility for staffing and supervising the local poll sites in those areas has fallen to the Board of Elections.  The Board needs to address this shift and to set up a far better system to fill this lacuna. This will cost the City significantly more than it is now spending to recruit, train, evaluate and supervise poll workers.

Four years ago, the compensation of poll workers was so low that it was impossible to fill all of the positions.  Literally, the only qualification to be a poll worker was the ability to appear at the poll site on election day. Even still there were thousands of vacant positions. Mayor Giuliani responded by significantly increasing poll worker stipends to $200 for the 16-hour day. That has had a dramatic effect on the number of people willing to serve. Although the Board could be more selective, it has not geared up a system of evaluating poll workers so that only those who are qualified are assigned.  There are still a substantial number of poll workers who do not attend training classes.  I am also troubled by that fact that when I travel to poll sites I observe poll workers who appear to be unqualified even though they have attained passing scores on the “test” that is given after training.

I have spent a great deal of time examining poll worker assignments in Manhattan. Over and over again, I have found that the local clubs who care about the process generally do an excellent job making poll worker assignments.  But when the Board makes assignments to fill the vacant positions not assigned by party leaders, we do a terrible job. Part of the problem is the low level staffing of the poll worker department in the borough office. In Manhattan we have six persons (two administrative assistants paid approximately $30,000 per year and four clerks paid $22,000 per year) responsible for the recruitment, assignment and training of 8,000 workers.  I am also concerned that the 4,000 or so appointments that we make without recommendations of local district leaders are done randomly, with virtually no consideration of the individuals’ qualifications for the assignment.  

There are at least a half-dozen other operational issues that I could address to improve our poll worker pool, including better communication between the borough offices’ poll worker departments and the poll workers regarding assignments (poll workers are often unable to reach board staff to confirm assignments), more efficient operation of election day standby worker pools, split shifts for poll workers, addressing the shortage of Chinese and Korean interpreters, and adjustments to the Poll Registration books to shorten the time needed to process each voter.

To improve poll worker performance we need to upgrade the evaluation process for potential poll workers and to develop a system where both the district leaders and the Board are assigning only the best qualified persons for each position. We also need to develop a meaningful system for evaluating job performance on election day so we can avoid reappointing underperforming workers. Few of these projects can be accomplished without the commitment of additional resources.


We must improve the process of evaluating our performance in running elections. We should make some effort to track the amount of time it takes to vote.  We should do more to identify election day problems. Even more significantly, we need to do much more to act on those problems that are identified to make sure that we learn from our mistakes.

The Board of Elections has already made substantial improvements in its system for identifying and tracking election day problems.  Unfortunately, there are too few Board staff members who are assigned to the task of evaluating problems and making sure that they do not recur.  

A huge problem is giving constructive feedback to the poll workers.  After all, it is the 30,000 poll workers who are responsible for running our poll sites.  But right now, it is difficult to communicate with the poll workers in a meaningful way to prevent many problems from re-occurring.  Because of the temporary and transitional nature of poll worker assignments, it is difficult to let those poll workers know about problems that have been observed at their poll sites.  For example, there are several good government organizations that do election day surveys to evaluate poll site performance.  The permanent staff at the Board do read those reports, but often have no effective means of communicating the contents of the reports to the poll workers who are in the best position to correct the problem.  We should build into our poll worker training programs for reviewing with coordinators and inspectors the problems that have been identified.  The most common problems, such as inadequate or improper posting of signs, location of door clerks, processing of affidavit ballots, displaying voter materials, properly completing the canvass sheets and other materials used in closing the polls could be easily corrected if there were a system in place to give appropriate feedback to the individuals who are in the best position to solve those problems.

Again, this would require additional staff and additional compensation for the increased time commitments imposed on the poll workers.

New Voting Machines

The federal Help America Vote Act, 42 USC §§15301 et seq., will require substantial changes in election administration for the 2006 elections. In particular, 42 USC § 15481, sets minimum standards for voting machines.  Our lever machines satisfy all but one of those standards, that there be at least one machine at each poll site that is “accessible for individuals with disabilities, including non-visual accessibility for the blind and visually impaired, in a manner that provides the same opportunity for access and participation (including privacy and independence) as for other voters.” 42 USC § 15481(a)(3). Although Connecticut has already determined that it will keep its lever machines and simply obtain one electronic device for the disabled to be used at each poll site, there appears to be a consensus that New York State should replace its lever machines with a different system. The Legislature has not yet decided what that system should be, or who will make that decision, and who will actually be responsible for purchasing the new system.

The conventional wisdom is that federal HAVA funds will pay most of the costs of a new system. I served on the Governor’s HAVA Implementation Task Force and I also co-chair the HAVA Implementation Task Force of the New York State Democratic Committee.  I have also been in constant contact with legislative leaders over the progress of legislation in Albany.  It is hardly clear to me that there will be sufficient federal funds to pay even most of the cost of procuring a new voting system and it is clear that there is virtually no federal money that will cover the costs of maintaining and operating a more complex electronic system.  One of the issues between the Assembly and the Senate has been the formula for distributing the available federal funds.  If New York State were to prescribe use of one of the more expensive electronic systems, such as a full-face touch screen machine with a voter verifiable paper audit trail, there will not be sufficient federal funds to cover the cost, particularly if we factor in the need for more machines because of the longer time it takes each voter to use the machine. In addition, there would be substantially increased operating and maintenance expenses.  The City of New York should more carefully follow the fiscal impact of this pending legislation.  

As an aside, I note that I have been advocating that New York acquire a much less expensive system using on-site ballot scanning rather than touch screen electronic machines. (Approximately 25% of jurisdictions across the country use this system.) The acquisition, operation and maintenance costs are significantly less than a touch-screen electronic system.  So far, because of the public conventional wisdom that we should go electronic, legislators are concerned about the potential backlash of using a paper-based system. One solution they have discussed is to delegate the issue of selecting a voting system to the State Board of Elections, but that could further delay the overdue decision.

I certainly agree with John Ravitz that every day that passes without the Legislature making these important decisions seriously jeopardizes our ability to procure and introduce a new system properly. The system for procurement deserves particular attention.  We need to make sure that we are not locked into a particular vendor for the operation and maintenance of whatever system we ultimately purchase.

We also need to recognize that new technology will not necessarily mirror the way we have historically run elections.  It generally takes longer to vote on an electronic machine than it takes to vote on a lever machine.  Therefore, we need to re-evaluate the number of machines assigned to each poll site.  We also need to recognize that with new technology, there is no longer a need to assign a single ballot face so that all of the voters in an election district vote in the same congressional, state senate, assembly, council and civil court district. Abolishing this requirement would give the Board of Elections much greater flexibility in managing poll sites and could make the operation of the poll site far more efficient.

Other Modernization Upgrades

The Board has already made substantial use of its internet web site.  But there is still much more that can be done to use this new means of communication with the public.  We need to have a system where any voter can identify his or her poll site on the internet.  Indeed, many election jurisdictions allow a voter to check his or her registration status.

Campaign finance disclosure filed with the State Board of Elections and with the NYC Campaign Finance Board is available on the internet.  We should also provide for electronic filing of those reports required to be filed with the NYC Board of Elections.

Agency Assisted Voter Registration

A key mandate of the Voter Assistance Commission is to coordinate voter registration activities at city agencies.  In view of the very limited resources provided, VAC has made an excellent start in this direction.

The largest gaps in voter registration are among young people, particularly those who are 18-25 years old. The City could do a much better job in targeting young people in voter registration efforts.  In particular, I have suggested that the Department of Education make voter registration a formal part of the curriculum at the end of 12th Grade.  (I note that several Council members have done registration drives among 12th graders in their districts). It is also essential that CUNY comply fully with its legal obligations under both state and city law to provide voter registration opportunities for each of its students.

I have also been a strong proponent of same day voter registration, which requires an amendment of the State Constitution. There is no legitimate need to require voters to register in advance of an election.

I have also been pressing the commissioners of the NYC Board of Elections to follow the lead of most other counties in the state by including a voter registration form on the affidavit ballot envelope.  The Republican commissioners have been consistently blocking this reform in New York City.  As a consequence, if an unregistered voter casts an affidavit ballot, the voter still remains unregistered unless the voter sends in a voter registration form.

I am also concerned that there is insufficient monitoring to insure that agencies are complying with their legal obligations to forward completed voter registration forms to the Board of Elections in a timely manner.   This year, we documented cases of voters who had completed voter registration forms at the Department of Motor Vehicles, but were still not found on the Board’s voter registration data base.  Although I have been calling for thorough investigations by both the City and State boards of elections to attempt to identify how this could happen, so far there have been no meaningful answers.


These are just some of the numerous issues where the Voter Assistance Commission could have a positive effect in improving election administration in New York City.  


Commissioner, New York County