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On elections, Nassau is a ‘problem’ county

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“The easier it is to vote,” North Shore State Assemblyman Chuck Lavine said, “the better it is for democracy.”

Lavine, who sits on the Assembly’s Voting Rights Committee, and others have been calling for election reforms in the run-up to this year’s high-stakes midterm elections on Nov. 6.

Asked what part of state election law needs the most tweaking, Su-san Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a not-for-profit that focuses on voting rights, said, “It’s hard to pick just one.”

Lerner told the Herald Gazette that the Nassau County Board of Elections is particularly troublesome. “Nassau is one of the problem counties,” she said.

Lerner described the county board as “patronage driven,” referring to almost 20 positions on it that are filled by people — Republicans and Democrats — whose relatives hold powerful positions in the county and the various municipalities under its umbrella.

According to Lerner, board members aren’t chosen for their ability to run an election. “They’re chosen,” she said, “because they are reliable foot soldiers for their party.”

Bonnie Gar-one, counsel to David Gugerty, the Democratic Board of Elections commissioner, said that this is a strength, not a weakness. “It’s the duty of each of those political parties to choose people that they know will be loyal to their party,” Garone said, adding, “By law, they’re chosen for that reason.” Democrats on the board advocate for their party’s interests, and Republicans for theirs. “I think it works very well,” Garone said.

The board, which is required by state law to be run jointly and co-equally by designees of the two major parties, is one of the few political domains of local government that is not subject to changes in the county executive’s political loyalties. Whereas most departments are restaffed after the election of a county executive of a different party, the Board of Elections is more insulated from such changes.

Garone also said that what some call patronage isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Sometimes, many members of the same family dedicate their lives to public service,” she said. “It doesn’t equal nepotism.” In fact, she said, it can be “honorable.”

County issues

A system based on party loyalty instead of the ability to run an election is more prone to gaps in “basic competence,” Lerner said, “from the voters’ points of view.” She noted several inefficiencies that her organization has documented statewide.

“Nine times out of 10, it’s a mess,” she said of a typical Election Day in New York. “The lines are set up in ways that cross each other,” confusing voters. Sometimes, she added, “The poll workers give contradictory instructions.”

“I believe that the people who run our elections are highly qualified,” Garone countered, “and the proof is in how smoothly our elections run.”

An election worker — who, citing fears of retribution, spoke to the Herald Gazette on condition of anonymity — called the county’s election process “totally inefficient.” The worker referred to “a bunch of locations” where, during the Sept. 13 primary, “we ended up running out of ballots on election night.”

Garone explained that, on Election Day, the board has “rover teams” on the road, ready to restock any polling places that might run low on ballots. Of the recent primary, she said, “I’m not aware of any place that ran out” of ballots.

Statewide issues

Nassau County is not alone in its handling of elections. “We are an exceptional state,” Lerner said of New York, “but when it comes to elections, we are exceptionally behind.”

The state’s primary elections — in which party members select the candidates for the various races — are a particular source of concern for Lerner. For example, congressional primaries are held separately from state and local primaries. “No other state has two primary dates,” she said.

In order to vote in a primary, New Yorkers must be registered with a political party no less than 13 months before the vote. Lavine said, “There is some rationale for imposing a considerable period of time” between the registration deadline and the primary. “What would stop droves of Democrats from registering for the [Republican] primary?” he asked, adding that doing so would enable them to nominate the weaker of the two choices and increase the chances of a Democratic victory in the general election. “But 13 months, which is our New York version, is far too long.”

The laws governing New York’s elections are based, Lerner said, on a framework from the 1890s. The registration deadlines, for example, were defined “at a time when paper [registrations] had to be carried from place to place and then copied.” Nowadays, she said, there’s no reason why digitized voter rolls can’t be used to allow same-day registration.

“If we had electronic poll books,” Lavine said, “then it would be much easier to have early voting, and much easier to vote in general.” Early voting, he said, is imperative in fair elections: “Many people work two or three jobs, limiting their ability to set aside time to vote on Election Day.” He added that in rural parts of New York, some people have to travel considerable distances to their polling places.