As Professor Gerald Benjamin wrote, “One leading scholar has concluded that: “[e]mployees of election boards are closely tied to and dependent upon dominant politicians and political parties. These boards of elections are in fact,” he continues, “vestiges of the state’s fabled political machines… [L]ike the corpus of election law they are mandated to implement, …[they]…essentially function as an extension of the party system.” (Elections and Election Management in New York, Gerald Benjamin (ed)).
Unlike most states, which use elected officials or professionals to oversee elections, New York has a constitutional mandate to let the major political parties run our Boards of Elections.
Since the 1894 amendment, the New York State Constitution has required that state and local elections be administrated by boards on which the two political parties receiving the most and next most votes in the immediately preceding election (i.e., the Democrats and Republicans).
In accord with the statute implementing this constitutional requirement, the New York Board of Elections has four members appointed by the governor, one each designated by the state party chairs of each of the major parties and one each nominated together by the leaders in both legislative houses of the two major parties. By law, the nominees of the legislative leaders must serve as co-chairs of the Board.
At the county level, the law provides for the appointment of two commissioners, one from each of the major parties. In New York City, there are ten commissioners, one of each major party from each county within the city. Appointments are by the county legislative body, or in NYC by the City Council, on the recommendation of each party’s county committee.
So state, city and counties are all locked in a two party solution for New York State. Third parties or insurgent candidates of any stripe automatically will face a hostile Board of Elections.
Worse yet, the parties appoint equal numbers of Commissioners to run the state and local Boards of Elections, but all the boards must act by majority rule. If an issue arises on which a Board must decide, it immediately defaults to a 2/2 split between Republicans and Democrats, and so nothing gets done. For instance, the State Board of Elections has only decided 5 cases in the last 27 years.
In fact, research has shown that local party leaders are often themselves chosen for leadership positions on county election boards. From this vantage they oversee primary election to the party leadership posts they hold, an inherent conflict of interest. Moreover, the unanimity requirement for board action allows each commissioner to block any official inquiry of the board into actions within the other.
These partisan Board of Elections commissioners then get to hand out all of the paid jobs to staff the polls and run elections across the state. We pay for these patronage jobs with our tax dollars, but party officials hire all the people who fill them.