Brigid Bergin is the City Hall reporter for WNYC. She covers city politics including the 2013 mayoral race and transition.
The New York City Board of Elections defended its performance in the June 26 federal primary election on Wednesday at a five-hour hearing of the City Council Governmental Operations committee.
It was the Council’s first opportunity to ask the NYC BOE about problems that arose during the primary election, including dozens of election districts that reported no results — an issue that took on increased significance in the closely fought 13th Congressional District's Democratic primary, where incumbent Congressman Charles Rangel edged out State Senator Adriano Espaillat by only 1,032 votes.
While the problems with the June 26 primary have been well-documented, and were the main driver behind the NYC BOE’s decision to adopt new election night closing procedures for the upcoming September 13 state legislative primary, NYC BOE Deputy Executive Director Dawn Sandow stood by her team’s performance.
“The Board of Elections will have its critics, but after reviewing our overall performance for the June 26 federal primary, I have no difficulty stating that the board performed well for the voters of the City of New York,” Sandow testified. "Was there an issue with the election night reporting? No one, at least I or anyone here, would say that that has not been an issue for years."
Several council members, including Speaker Christine Quinn, had difficulty accepting that position. “So the comfort to us is that you did well, except for the results, which are a big deal in an election, but we should feel better because you’ve never done those well?” Quinn said to Sandow.
Sandow responded by saying it was not performance, but process. She argued that changes need to be made to New York State’s election law to suit the new election machines.
At a meeting last month, the NYC BOE adopted a new set of closing procedures that will allow the board to use the portable memory devices or PMDs in the new election machines to report results to the press and the public. As a back up, the NYC BOE will also continue its manual tally of unofficial election night returns.
Councilwoman Jessica Lappin complained that even the new method sounds complicated and confusing.
Senator Espaillat, whose primary race was one of the main reasons the hearing was called, testified towards the end of the hearing. In addition to talking about the problems with the June election, Espaillat said he plans to propose legislation that would remove political party leaders from the process of selecting board commissioners — making an analogy to a pitcher picking the home plate umpire in a baseball game.
“For all we know the umpire may call the balls and strikes fairly, but we don't want to allow the pitchers to pick the home plate umpire because the integrity of the game would be shattered,” Espaillat said.
In one of the hearing's most dramatic moments, BOE Commissioner J.C. Polanco challenged an allegation of voter suppression made by Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, who had claimed that a member of his staff, Carmen Delarosa, had been turned away from the polls during the primary.
Polanco and the board staff held up a piece of paper with the signature of one Carmen Delarosa. However, Rodriguez insisted that was the signature of her mother, who also lived at the same address. The voter book shows only one Carmen Delarosa at that address.
On the same day as that contentious hearing, a federal judge said the city Board of Elections violated the Americans with Disabilities law because polling places often have impassable ramps and other barriers that make it difficult for handicapped people to reach voting machines.
Judge Deborah Batts ruled Wednesday in favor of two groups, the United Spinal Association and Disabled In Action, which sued the city BOE two years ago.
The judge said the plaintiffs proved their case by showing locked handicapped access doors or steps that made it difficult for people in wheelchairs to reach polling stations. The court will decide a remedy later.