10:00 am Jul. 10, 2012
Almost 40 minutes after the start of last Tuesday's meeting of the New York City Board of Elections, Juan Carlos Polanco, one of the board's ten commissioners, decided to address what he called the “elephant in the room.”
The elephant was Charlie Rangel's temporarily disputed victory over State Senator Adriano Espaillat in a congressional primary. Espaillat's campaign had challenged the result, suing and accusing the board of mismanagement and possible complicity in voter suppression.
Acknowledging the media and public members who filled every seat in the room, Polanco asked the board’s general counsel, Steven Richman what accounted for the early reporting errors.
“The fact is, is that in the heat of the conduct of the canvass on election night, sometimes our poll workers make errors in filling out their terms of canvas,” Richman said, referring to the reported undercounts in Spanish-speaking districts.
Richman added he was sure police officers, who enter the data into N.Y.P.D. computers, also made mistakes in data entry and transmission.
The board, meanwhile, had come under intense criticism, not just from the losing campaigns but from the media, including a flat denunciation by the New York Times editorial board.
So far, the city board has passed responsibility to the state law and the results-hungry news media.
Referring to efforts to log the memory cards that were supposed to make vote-counting easier after the city's old mechanical voting machines were replaced, Richman said, “I think the reason this happened is, we’ve seen it again, people want instantaneous and perfect results, you can’t get them both.”
Polanco, a Republican board appointee from the Bronx, said part of the problem is a lack of clarity about whether state law prevents the board from taking results directly from memory sticks, rather than engaging in the manual logging process that led to the initial misreports about the night's totals.
On Thursday night, Polanco told Errol Louis on NY1's "Inside City Hall" that the board wouldn't be able to change that system without action by the state elections board and the legislature in Albany.
"When we allow the editorials in New York City to tell our story, when we allow for columnists and other indiviuals and elected officals who honestly are doing a disservice to the community by not understanding election law, and going out there and blasting the hardworking men and women at the New York Board of Elections, we think it's appalling," he said.
(A bill proposed by Republican state senator Marty Golden and Democratic assemblyman Brian Kavanagh would clarify the rules, allowing the more accurate digital results to be used in the early tally.)
Jerry Skurnik, a political blogger and elections expert, said he found the board's assertions confusing.
"I'm not a lawyer, but frankly their argument doesn't make a lot of sense to me," he said.
At the same time, he said he was unsure who to blame for the mess.
"There should be a better way," he said. "I mean Westchester, Rockland and Suffolk County, they actually post their unofficial returns on election night by using the memory sticks. So I think somebody deserves criticism for the fact that the board doesn't do that. The board says it's the state legislature, the state board of elections says it is the city board. I don't know who it is."
He noted that other models for elections boards have proven problematic, too: an elected elections commissioner (“That’s what happened in Florida; a lot of people think that didn’t work out so great in 2000”); a mayoral appointee (“I could see some problems with that when the mayor runs for re-election”); nonpartisan bureaucrats, as in parts of California (“Then you get people who are not really responsive”).
“There’s no ideal solution and so the editorials comparing the board of elections against, you know, some government agency that will never make a mistake or work perfectly--I’m not sure there are any like that,” he said.
Skurnik said that the board’s yearly mailings will go out in August, before the next vote, informing people about their polling stations, and alleviating some of the confusion.
But he said that unless the law is clarified by September, the problems could repeat themselves.
He cited an election in Tonawanda, near Buffalo, in which a councilman won in a handcount by two votes, though the electronic results put the challenger ahead by one vote.
“There’ll be some election where they’re gonna be off by, you know, a few hundred votes at least between the unofficial results and the official results,” he said.
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