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Opinion: Voting Is Broken By Design

Low turnout makes it easier for incumbents and the well-connected to win elections in red, blue, and purple states.

Posted on November 13, 2018, at 4:25 p.m. ET

Voters read their ballot papers in Brooklyn on Election Day.
Wong Maye-E / AP

Voters read their ballot papers in Brooklyn on Election Day.

The worst thing about our ongoing elections mess is that part of it works this way by design.

And what a mess it is. As the president rants conspiratorially about rigged elections, the country is witnessing incompetent election administrators, the aftermath of botched votes, purposeful disenfranchisement in the shadow of the gutted Voting Rights Act, and the undermining of democracy in red, blue, and purple places.

None of this is new, but the Trump era has raised the stakes. Conspiracy theories of election fraud, rigged systems, and ballot stuffing now circulate at every level on the right. Those on the left, in their determination to repudiate Trumpism, have become committed to registering every voter, knocking every door, and inspecting every voter roll. Every ballot must be counted under bright lights inside integrity-infused chambers, Democrats say — at times leading them to discover that some in their own party are far from noble or competent in running elections.

And if voting rights and election integrity become a core plank of the progressive agenda, those pushing for change need to be prepared to battle not just Republican voter suppression, but also Democratic machine politics that at times make elections in blue strongholds a comedy of errors at best, and an undemocratic exercise in disenfranchisement at worst.

It’s not just in Trump country where election administration is so bad that it makes some reconsider voting at all. In Florida, the heavily Democratic Broward County may have designed its ballot so badly that it provoked a potentially decisive “undervote” in the Senate race, where Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson is narrowly trailing Republican Gov. Rick Scott. At the same time, Scott is alleging election fraud with no proof, and attempted a state takeover of voting machines that was denied by a judge. Both the Senate and governor’s races appear headed toward recounts, the validity of which are already taking hits, thanks in part to the incompetence of the Broward officials.

And while contested recounts are becoming something of a Florida state tradition, it’s far from the only place with a disastrous voting system. New York City’s notoriously inept and politically compromised Board of Elections was overwhelmed on Election Day by a whopping 38% turnout, perforated two-page ballots that needed to be torn in two before being fed into scanners, and light rain. Scanners broke down, backup boxes reached capacity, lines snarled, and more than a few voters gave up.

Part of the reason that a 38% turnout was high enough to have election officials stammering is that New York City is so heavily Democratic. A lack of competition depresses interest in voting, and where incompetent election administration and Democratic dominance converge is that the city’s Democratic political machines are happy to collude with their Republican counterparts to run the Board of Elections with preference for patronage and power over all else.

The fewer people who vote, the easier it is for incumbents and the well-connected to lean on the establishment — party officials, political clubs, and labor unions — and turn out the votes needed to win.

For those at the top, the system’s working just fine. Board commissioners, appointed by Democratic and Republican party leaders in each of the five boroughs, kick insurgent candidates off the ballot, give jobs to allies and relatives, and care so little for properly running elections they won’t even comply with a local law to post notice of poll site changes.

And even as they rail against voter suppression in other parts of the country, there’s been little sustained effort by Democratic leaders in New York to truly reform how elections are conducted in their own backyards.

While many of the problems come from state statutes — or the absence of them, in the case of the lack of early voting, for example — city officials have said virtually nothing about the local Board of Elections commissioners, who hire the people to run the elections. The board is a creature of state law, but its commissioners are confirmed by the City Council, which is currently home to 48 Democrats and three Republicans. At times, warring Democratic factions dispute an appointment, but the conflict is typically a matter of local power and job delivery, not a loftier argument about improving the system.

Many officials made a stink when the Brooklyn Board of Elections office illegally purged hundreds of thousands of voters from the rolls in 2016. Mayor Bill de Blasio, a friend to political machines everywhere, if they’ll have him, cried foul, and has in good faith pushed the city Board of Elections to make changes. He even offered it $20 million of strings-attached funding to improve. It declined.

The next year, de Blasio also promised a major, sustained push to alter voting laws in Albany. He did not follow through. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, another Democrat, has for years said he supports a voting reform agenda, but he’s done virtually nothing to move it through the Legislature, conveniently pointing to Republicans in the upper chamber for blocking it. The governor was just reelected based in part on the premise that he’s able to get things done, even with a split Legislature.

But last week’s elections also saw the New York state Legislature turn completely Democratic. Among the first issues they’ll tackle, many Democrats, including Cuomo, say, is election reform. They’re promising early voting, no-excuse absentee balloting, and more. One thing not on the list, however: nonpartisan boards of elections.


Ben Max is the executive editor of Gotham Gazette.

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