Friday, November 05, 2004

Warning for 2006 Is Seen in Failures at Polls in the City

The New York Times
November 5, 2004

Warning for 2006 Is Seen in Failures at Polls in the City

The New York City Board of Elections knew that Tuesday would be a big day, with 400,000 new voters who had been added to the rolls expected to flood polling places for the presidential election.

Yet when Election Day rolled around, the board was seriously unprepared. Its Web site and phone lines, where thousands went looking for information about where to vote, failed. Tens of thousands of voters stood for hours at polls, where they frequently found befuddled workers who could not locate basic paperwork and gave incomprehensible directives, including, in one case, telling voters to segregate themselves by party affiliation. Antiquated mechanical voting machines at times broke down, and there were not enough mechanics on hand to fix them.

These failures came as no surprise to critics of the board and even some of its own members, who cite its aging systems and a tradition of hiring workers whose main qualifications are their loyalty to political party operatives, making it one of the last citadels of political patronage in local government.

Further, this week's problems presage possible mass confusion in 2006, when the state is expected to begin using electronic voting machines.

"The two aspects of their technology that were overwhelmed this year - their phone system and Web site - are simple compared to what they will need to deal with in order to successfully implement and operate electronic voting technologies,'' said Gino P. Menchini, the head of the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications.

The board's structure makes it an anomaly in government. It is financed by taxpayer dollars, but under state law, the Republican and Democratic Parties in each borough choose its 10 members. Recent members have included the associates or even relatives of various lawmakers, among them the father of former State Senator Guy J. Velella, who left the board two years after his indictment in a corruption scandal involving his son.

The members, in turn, pick the executive director and his two top subordinates. The board's staff members are also usually connected to elected and party officials, and often lack skills for the complex tasks they are assigned, board members and other officials say. "There are people who work at the Board of Elections who are not properly qualified for the positions they have and are protected politically," said Douglas A. Kellner, one of the board members.

Just before the election, when a technician charged with setting up voting machines in Queens was found by the board to be performing poorly, State Senator Serphin R. Maltese, a Republican, intervened to make sure he was accommodated elsewhere in the system. Why? "Because he was a Republican," Mr. Maltese said in an interview.

Poll workers also flow from political machines, and are often undertrained and sometimes do not bother to show up, even on Election Day. A report by the city's Independent Budget Office in 2001 found that "on average, only 70 to 80 percent of those who work on Election Day have completed training."

The director of the board and others fear that getting these workers trained for electronic voting will be a Sisyphean task. "The board has so many problems with election administration," Mr. Kellner said. "Our biggest problem is recruitment and training and having an adequate supply of poll workers. You have 30,000 workers and they work one or two times a year administering an increasingly complex set of rules."

Alarmed by the board's problems directing voters to the polls, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said on Election Day that the board "better get their act together by next year." But the board is subjected to almost no significant oversight by the mayor, and the chairman of the City Council committee charged with monitoring the Board of Elections is married to the board's administrative manager.

The board's executive director, John Ravitz, who is viewed by many as working hard to professionalize the agency, defends his board as working as hard as it can with a shoestring budget and says that much of his staff is dedicated. But that view is shared only in part by most election experts.

"To me, it is not so much that unqualified people are at the board, it is the lack of accountability," said Gene Russianoff, a lawyer for the New York Public Interest Group, which monitors elections. "They really are dedicated to their mission, and I think Ravitz is a credible guy. They are poorly paid, underresourced and they have a fleet of jalopies to deal with. But that doesn't excuse 5 percent of machines breaking on Election Day."

In an interview, Mr. Ravitz said high voter turnout caused the board's problems on Tuesday. In the 1984 presidential election, polling sites erupted in chaos when the antiquated voting machines malfunctioned around the city.

Mr. Ravitz said the board was able to attract better poll workers after Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani increased their pay to $200 a day, but he said more money was needed. "We have gone on record now for two budget cycles saying we need to improve our systems," Mr. Ravitz said.

Board members insist that money is also needed to train workers on the electronic voting machines, and to improve things like their phone systems, which did not have enough operators to handle the calls on Monday from people seeking the locations of polling sites. "The problems with the phones have been well known for a long time," Mr. Kellner said. "And there is no commitment on the part of the city government to spend the money necessary to gear up for peak usage."

Mayor Bloomberg's press secretary, Edward Skyler, said, "With a $3 billion budget deficit, we can't afford to start handing out raises in the hopes it will improve this archaic system." The board's operating budget has increased by more than 50 percent since the 2000 election, according to city budget documents.

The board is further hampered by the State Legislature's inability to figure out what it wants to do with federal money aimed at improving voting systems and how to institute electronic voting.

"One of the reasons I was interested in this job is moving New York into a new era of voting," Mr. Ravitz said, adding that he had hoped to try electronic voting in the election just ended in at least one borough and in two more in 2005. "But 2004 came and went and I don't see us doing anything in 2005," he said, faulting a lack of action by the state.

But critics say the political hiring practices at the board stand out as a problem. Until recently, Vincent J. Velella remained on the board after narrowly escaping prosecution with his son, Guy. Victor Tosi, a Bronx Republican who once worked for Mr. Velella, was the board's personnel director and is now deputy chief clerk for the board in the Bronx.

The third in command, Pamela Green Perkins, is the wife of City Councilman Bill Perkins, who oversees the committee that monitors the board. Another board member, Beth Fossella, is the mother of Representative Vito Fossella.

The board members' ties to political parties have sometimes prompted accusations that there is a conflict of interest between their duties to the board and to their parties. Some board members were infuriated after Mr. Maltese used his influence when the Queens poll machine worker was given a job in the board's main office. Others said the worker should be strictly disciplined and demoted. But Republican officials defended their handling of the matter.

"He has been a model employee since he came to the general office," said Stephen Weiner, the Republican Queens representative on the board. "Senator Maltese wanted one month probation and I advised him that that was not possible," he said, adding that the worker got three months' probation instead. "I am sure I mentioned Senator Maltese" during the board's discussions of the incident, he said.

Mr. Ravitz sounded disgusted when asked about the incident, and said he had "no tolerance for things like that," but offered no recipe for ending that system.

Mr. Weiner conceded that the board's public image has suffered under such a politicized system. But, he said: "Just like democracy is the worst form of government except for the alternatives, the Board of Elections is the worst way to run the system except for the alternatives. It is clear that people come out of the political world, but it is clear you can tell where they come from. Under another structure, the politics would be concealed."