Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who covers criminal justice, terrorism and the courts for WNYC. She found her way into public radio after practicing law for five years, and can definitely say that walking the streets of New York City with a microphone is a lot more fun than being holed up in the office writing letters to opposing counsel.
City Board of Elections: Don't Make Us the Scapegoats for Primary Day Mishaps
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Everybody's ganging up on the New York City Board of Elections -- and it's just not fair. That's what Executive Director George Gonzalez and Board commissioners say.
At the Board's first public meeting since widespread problems were reported at polling places across the city on Primary Day, Gonzalez vented about how many of the voting mishaps last Tuesday were simply out of his control. The commissioners seated around him nodded and murmured, reassuring each other at various points during the hearing that they are not bad people nor political hacks.
The Board was widely criticized by public officials, election watchdogs and voters for poor planning, sloppy organization and inadequate training of poll workers before new voting machines and new ballots were introduced to New York City on Primary Day.
But Gonzalez said the problems reported that day were "blown out of proportion," and that he didn't "think it was fair for staff to be abused in that manner."
He acknowledged some polling places opened hours late. But this "was not an across-the-board problem." And there were good explanations -- police officers didn't arrive on time with keys to unlock doors; school officials didn't make polling places available before Tuesday to allow for timely delivery of voting machines; and there were so many street closures on September 11th, transporting voting machines in Lower Manhattan before Primary Day was a real headache.
"It makes it difficult for us to do our job when we have all these other sources who are making it that much more difficult for us," Gonzalez said, "and then we have to sit here and take all these hits."
Yes, there were ballots jamming in the machines, Gonzalez said, but this wasn’t a major issue. And it's true that many poll workers didn’t show up to work, but he said the Board had back-up workers ready to go. Gonzalez never said whether there were enough back-up workers, or whether voters who needed assistance before those back-up workers arrived had a chance to cast their ballots properly.
Election watchdog groups also reported that voters were turned away after machines malfunctioned and poll workers didn't respect voter privacy when handling ballots or positioning voting booths.
But Gonzalez complimented his overworked staff, whom he said put in hours of overtime to get ready.
"The staff, overall, I think, in my opinion, they did a good job in making sure that this election went off without a hitch," said Gonzalez.
At least one commissioner stepped up to say she was accountable for last week's problems.
"I take full responsibility for everything that went well or didn't go as planned," said Julie Dent, the Board president. "But I do ask that we, collectively, come together and address all the concerns which will enable us to do a better job on Election Day, November 2, 2010."
Other commissioners, however, said they were being unfairly blamed for voting mishaps. Commissioner Michael Ryan, a Democrat from Staten Island thought that a lot of the public officials who spoke out against the Board of Elections were just playing politics.
"We’ve had some individuals that made statements – very serious statements – for their own political purposes," says Ryan. "And if there’s one person in this room that believes that those statements were not prepared before Election Day, I would question them and have them get examined."
Ryan said that last week's mistakes were "ordinary, routine Election Day problems" that were being exaggerated, and he said critics should be "ashamed of themselves" for undermining voter confidence and taking pot shots.
Mayor Bloomberg had called Primary Day a "royal screw-up" and said the board was a "remnant of the days when Tammany Hall ran New York." Commissioner Frederic Umane, a Republican from Manhattan, said he found the reference insulting, and took a moment to remind his colleagues that their predecessors created the Board about century ago precisely to remove corruption and unaccountability from election.
"The idea was to have the two top parties -- the Republicans and the Democrats for most of this hundred-year period -- sort of keep their eye on each other," said Umane, "and for the most part, that's worked."
One commissioner asked Gonzalez, if he had a plan for fixing voting problems by the general election in November.
"We are working on a plan to resolve many of these issues,” replied Gonzalez, who promised he'd have that plan in "a couple weeks or so."
In the meantime, Gonzalez said he was finishing up a report summarizing the Primary Day problems and would have it available to the public a couple weeks before the November election.