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NYC Board of Elections Riddled With Problems, Dept. of Investigation Finds

By Jess Wisloski | December 30, 2013 5:37pm
 Empty voting booths at P.S. 321 in Brooklyn.
Empty voting booths at P.S. 321 in Brooklyn.
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DNAinfo/Jesse Lent

NEW YORK CITY — Nepotism, political cronyism, violations of voter privacy and untrained workers run rampant inside the city's beleaguered Board of Elections, according to a 70-page report released Monday by the Department of Investigation after a six-month probe.

DOI officials released a list of 40 recommended organizational changes to the body charged with ensuring the rights of voters to participate in the political process on Monday, just a day before avowed BOE critic Mayor Michael Bloomberg was set to hand over the reins to Bill de Blasio.

Investigators who visited several polling sites during the 2013 primary and general elections found poll workers who routinely gave incorrect instructions to voters, including workers at several sites who were taught to tell voters to "vote down the line," according to the report.

Investigators — who conducted their work both undercover and openly — also recorded more than a dozen different types of violation of voter privacy, including poll workers looking at and sometimes even commenting on a voter’s choices when they handed over the cards for scanning, the report says.

In 61 instances, investigators posing as ineligible voters — which includes the deceased, convicted felons, and those who don't live in the city — were allowed to cast a vote without being challenged or questioned by city poll workers, the report found.

In only two cases were undercover investigators turned away, the report stated.

In addition, the investigation found 69 board employees who appeared to have a relative working within the BOE, with the likelihood of many more, the report noted.

"DOI found significant areas that require a steadfast resolve to strengthen and improve operations if BOE is to raise its level of performance to one in which our city can take pride, and to which we are all entitled,” DOI Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn wrote in a statement. "The City’s Board of Elections performs one of the most important missions in government, enabling our citizens to exercise their right and civic responsibility to vote in free and fair elections."

Bloomberg's longstanding derision of the BOE reached a boiling point this year, as he lobbed a series of scalding criticisms during the board's manual ballot count of the Democratic mayoral primary, which left in question whether de Blasio had the votes to avoid a runoff with candidate Bill Thompson.

The BOE was also red-faced after a DNAinfo New York report found the board had set aside an entire polling station for a single voter who never showed up.

The report came out on the same day that Bloomberg appointed Gill Hearn to become the chairwoman of the Campaign Finance Board, which is in charge of monitoring campaign contributions to candidates.

Michael J. Ryan, who has been executive director at the BOE since August, said Monday of the report's findings that "none of it is a surprise."

"There isn’t one observation that the DOI has made that we are not already looking at or have a plan to address," Ryan said.

Ryan would not comment on any specific personnel violations or investigations. He said the suggested policy changes will be considered at the next meeting of the Board of Commissioners of the BOE, which meets Jan. 7.

The DOI met with more than 40 BOE commissioners, managers and employees from across the five boroughs, and reviewed records at the Board of Elections to complete the investigation. Investigators, some of whom secured jobs as poll workers, visited 1,200 polling sites, and documented violations at 437 of them, the report stated. No votes were cast by any investigators in the probe, the DOI noted. 

Other DOI concerns include:

► 596 of 1,438 voters complained ballots were confusing in quality-assurance surveys conducted at polling sites.

6-point font used on ballots in 2013 (which 145 voters out of 698 surveyed said was too small or hard to see) was an issue the BOE was made aware of more than a year earlier, but left unresolved. "We’re not happy with the 6-point font either," Ryan said, blaming "a crowded ballot" and an inability to add a second page.

► Delays in fixing broken machines were pervasive; at a Queens site there were no operating lever machines for seven hours. In Brooklyn, 21 sites had no scanning machines for five hours.

Ryan said that complaints about poll-worker training were already being addressed in trainings, and that voting machine efficiency improvements were on the way.

The next BOE meeting of commissioners is Jan. 7, and every Tuesday thereafter, at 32-42 Broadway in Manhattan at 1:30 p.m.  Meetings are open to public, and are on the 6th floor.