A week before this past November’s elections, the New York City Board of Elections voted, 6 to 4, to oust George Gonzalez, the agency’s executive director. Gonzalez, who had previously served as deputy executive director, had only been picked for the position in early August.
Gonzalez’s short tenure was marked by a litany of controversies. As The Daily Politics explained here and here, it was an impressively disastrous reign at an agency already considered the poster child for incompetency, ineptitude, and political patronage.
In little over two months, Gonzalez oversaw the September 2010 primary day election where the BOE was rolling out new voting machines. On that day, numerous polling places opened late due to a communication SNAFU with the Department of Education. On top of that, a host of poll workers were not fully trained in how to deal with the new machines and the introduction of paper ballots which led to long lines, as well concerns over voter privacy, and machines on the fritz. Gonzalez had already been on thin ice. In the run-up to a special election for a Council district in Queens, he had unilaterally altered the listing of names after being personally lobbied by one of the candidates’ lawyers. Let me put it this way, if Gonzalez were in the basketball business, James Dolan would have brought him to the Knicks in a heartbeat.
George Gonzalez was part and parcel of a far larger problem. His abrupt departure
from the Board of Elections did not solve their problems. The BOE issues are systemic. The entire board is a product of a system that rewards political insiders who are appointed by party leaders in each borough. Competence doesn’t seem to be a factor in the appointment process. This system is a disgrace. The process of voting and the ability to run for office are two of the bedrock acts in a democracy. For the agency that barely manages to oversee these inherently democratic actions to be run by political hacks is an affront to the city’s electoral process.
Now, as the calendar turns over to 2011, the Board of Elections has an opportunity to review what went wrong, and maybe, against all odds, right the ship. Yet, as January begins, they are still without an executive director.
But why rehash this now? It seems like old news now, right? Not really. Earlier this week, Andrew Cuomo became governor of New York. The state has got 99 problems. Many good government advocates have called on Cuomo to push for a public finance system for elections and independent re-districting. Both are good ideas and important steps along the way to cleaning up Albany. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this article from the Daily News and then look at this report from the New York City Campaign Finance Board about the positive impact the program had on municipal elections in 2009. (Full Disclosure: I was a policy analyst at the CFB when the report was published.) In the early days of the Cuomo administration, cleaning up government and ethics reform will be an important way for the new governor to show voters he is shaking up the way Albany and political insiders do business.
In terms of overhauling the Board of Elections, there is just one problem – it is a city agency. While the City Council grilled the Board of Elections after the primary election fiasco, Mayor Bloomberg did little more than criticize the agency. Maybe now that he is fully prohibited from running for another term and no longer needs the blessings of the Republican borough leaders to run on the GOP line, Bloomberg will go about fixing the BOE. If he doesn’t, Cuomo should cash in some political capital and use his bully pulpit and the full force of his office to force the Bloomberg administration to make some changes. In the mean time, how about you put aside a few minutes from your day to call your Councilman or the public advocate’s office and find out why the Board of Election still has no executive director as they review their dismal performance in the 2010 election. This link will ask you to enter your address and will direct to your Council member’s information and here is the contact info for the public advocate.
Another reason the shenanigans at the Board of Elections is particularly resonant today is that the Village Voice’s long-time political reporter Wayne Barrett announced, in a blog post this morning, that his time at the paper was ending. Later reports indicated he had been forced out and Tom Robbins, the paper’s other political reporter, had quit in protest. The Village Voice had always been a consistent voice in shining a light on the incompetence and political favors happening at the Board of Elections. As a press aide at the CFB during the 2009 municipal elections, I had the opportunity to speak to Robbins once or twice and saw him around town at various political events. Though I never talked directly to Barrett, there were numerous instances where his research assistants spoke to me in regards to data for an upcoming article. With their investigative articles, they did the city a great service and inspired this aspiring public servant to try and make wherever I live a better place. Both will continue to write and I look forward to reading their reporting in whatever publication they join.