Sunday, November 2, 2008

100 YEARS WITHOUT CHANGE: HOW TAMMANY HALL STILL CONTROLS THE NYC BOARD OF ELECTION "MESS"

By Gary Tilzer

"If the New York City Board of Elections were a patient racing from one highly recommended doctor to another without ever getting better, someone might finally say, ''Hey, wait a minute. Maybe the diagnosis is wrong here.''

But, the prevailing diagnosis of what ails the Board of Elections (BOE) is the system. Its structure is corrupt and its controllers are unaccountable. But merely attacking the management of the board is meaningless. You have to first understand who is pulling the strings and why.

The BOE is closely guarded by the incumbent protection society, because it serves as a gatekeeper to deliberately make it very hard and costly for anyone independent of the insiders from winning party positions or elected office. Since Robert Wagner in the 1960s, New York City mayors have tried to reform the BOE, but they have been mostly rebuffed by its arrogant leadership. In each instance, the mayor usually settles for threatening to withhold funding from the Board, until it makes minor changes.

Mayor Bloomberg once said the structure of the BOE is a remnant of the days when Tammany Hall ruled New York. He did not make this comment during his current battle with the BOE, in which he is demanding reforms, before he will turn over additional city funds to deal with the humongous anticipated turnout this year; but four years ago, immediately after the 2004 presidential election, which was he said was ineptly managed, causing long lines and confusion at the polls. Bloomberg, pushing back at what the press has called an arrogant BOE leadership, told the BOE to spend the unused $20 million in reserves the Board has in its budget.

But where is that money? According to press reports, most of those funds, or at least part of them, have already been promised to the lobbying firm Burson-Marsteller, whose CEO Mark Penn is best known as Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist. Burson-Marsteller has been contracted to promote a brand new voting machine system that does not even exist yet.

Immediately after the 2004 election meltdown, City Councilmembers sent a letter to Bloomberg demanding why the $27 million in capital money that was budgeted to improve the election system was not used to hire more workers or make improvements. Last week, our City Councilmembers voted themselves another term in office, claiming they understood how best to help with the City’s economy. Let’s hope they understand investment banking better than the BOE, because if they think throwing money at the BOE will fix it, they are clueless. Even Mayor Giuliani, who took down the five organized crime families, was limited to bargaining before the 1998 presidential election that he would give the BOE $18 million in funding if they agreed to accelerate its schedule for counting paper ballots. It is interesting that most of the clashes between the BOE and the City’s mayors happen occur before a presidential election or just after an election mess.

Mayor Koch set up a task force to transfer the management of the BOE to the mayor’s office. He said the BOE operated in the 17th century after it became clear that the Board would not be able to process new registrations before the 1984 presidential election. Well before he was mayor, Koch vowed to fight for a nonpartisan BOE with civil service employees after the machine-controlled BOE tried to steal away his 41-vote victory over the leader of Tammany’s machine Carmine De Sapio in 1963. He failed to reform the
BOE and so has everyone else. Why?

A half century after Tammany has disappeared, everything has changed about New York City politics and government, except for the BOE. We no longer have the Tammany Hall machine or a two-party city. We don’t even have a party. All we have is an incumbent protection mob. The Republican and Democratic leaders who control the operations of the BOE work together on judges and have a non-aggression pack against each other’s candidates (the takeover of the State Senate and Congress by the Democrats breaking that agreement for the first time).

All the BOE cares about is getting good press to suppress public pressure from mounting to reform it. That way, the City’s mayors keep having no additional ammunition on their side to clean up the BEO.

5 Mayors Lack the Juice for Change

The reason that every mayor since Wagner has failed to reform the operations of the BOE is that it operates independent of City Hall, overseen by commissioners chosen by the Democratic and Republican parties. There are ten commissioners: one Democrat and one Republican from each of the five boroughs. The state constitution requires a bi-partisan BOE. Employees of the board are hired after being recommended by the leader of the county political organizations of both parties. Mayor Bloomberg called the hiring procedures a “recipe for ineptitude”. But, in truth, it is really part of a recipe to keep incumbents and friends of the county leaders in office.

County leaders use their control over the BOE in conjunction with the complicated petitioning system and the Supreme Court Judges they handpick at their phony judicial conventions to keep incumbents’ opponents off the ballot. Even if they can’t knock the incumbents’ opponents off the ballot, the county leaders use the system to wrap up the opponents’ valuable campaign resources and time in almost endless obstacles. More than half of the legal challenges against candidates in the entire country are in New York!

Russian forced to join the county machine to win office

In Brighton Beach, Russian-American candidate Alec Brook-Krasny was knocked off the ballot the fist time he tired to run for Assembly against incumbent Adele Cohen in a district where the majority of the people were newly registered Russian-American citizens. His friend Tony Eisenberg tried to run a few years later for City Council against incumbent Dominic Recchia and was also knocked off the ballot. A few years later Brook-Krasny running again for assembly after Cohen retired, the dumped the reformers who helped him in the past. Joined up with the corrupt Brooklyn machine, made the ballot and won. The BOE plays an important role in keeping in keeping reformers who would fight for change in City Hall and Albany out of elective office.

Those who stopped computer voting machines in New York, including the editorial boards of the newspapers, for fear they could be rigged to steal elections have overlooked the undemocratic way our state have run elections. If this week’s general election is a mess only Mayor Bloomberg can lead the press beyond their limited focus on the reasons for the BOE ineptitude and start the battle against the county leaders and Albany, which will bring real reform to New York’s undemocratic incumbent election conspiracy. A good fight to end the final remnant of Tammany Hall-ruled New York would go a long way to restore not only fairness in New York City, but, more importantly, the people’s faith in our City’s government.


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