Testimony of Amy Loprest, Executive Director of the New York City Campaign Finance Board to New York State Senate Elections Committee

21/09/2021

Thank you Chair Myrie, and members of the New York State Senate Standing Committee on Elections for the opportunity to provide testimony today on election administration and voting rights in New York State.

The past 18 months have put a tremendous strain on our election systems. The Board of Elections (BOE) was forced to rethink election operations entirely as a result of the pandemic to ensure the safety of its staff, voters, and poll workers who were asked to staff poll sites throughout the pandemic. Given the gravity of the situation and the rapidity at which events occurred, the BOE should be applauded for their work in the six elections held over the pandemic, which included New York’s first citywide Ranked Choice Voting election.

After the New York City BOE sent out incorrect absentee ballots in the 2020 general election to voters in Brooklyn, and initially published incorrect results in their June 29th unofficial Ranked Choice Voting round-by-round elimination report, there were calls to reform the City BOE. In both isolated instances BOE staff were able to identify the source of the problem quickly and find a solution. Neither of these problems represent scenarios that can or should be solved by passing legislation.

Systemic issues caused by the way election administration is structured by the State Constitution create impediments to success for all County Boards across New York State. A better approach would be to seize this opportunity to review and reform how elections are run throughout the State.

The Campaign Finance Board is often discussed as a model for how the BOE can be structured. While we have no specific proposal regarding the structure of the BOE, we can speak to our own independent, nonpartisan structure that has been effective for over 30 years. Like the BOE, we are an agency that deals directly with candidates, elected officials, and voters. This gives us an appreciation for the difficulties and sensitivities of the BOE’s work and also makes us further appreciate the way our own agency was structured at its creation.

There are various models across the country for structuring the agencies that administer elections. Each have their benefits and drawbacks. Some are governed by partisan appointments to ensure political balance, like the NYS Board of Elections. In other states, elections are administered by an elected official, which can provide greater accountability. We are naturally most familiar with our own nonpartisan structure, and can explain how and why it has been effective for us.

Like the Board of Elections, the CFB is not beholden to any one elected official. We are not a mayoral agency; the agency is led by an appointed board. The NYC Campaign Finance Board comprises five members, each of whom is appointed to staggered five-year terms. The Mayor and Speaker of the City Council each appoint two members, who may not be enrolled in the same political party. The Chair is chosen by the Mayor, in consultation with the Speaker. The distribution of appointment power and staggered members terms ensures that no one elected official can solely influence the board makeup.

Additional protections have been added to the Board’s structure in the years since it was created. A Charter amendment proposed by the 1998 Charter Revision Commission granted the Board near-independent budget authority. Each year, the Board presents its budget request to the Mayor, who is required to include our request without revision in the Executive Budget he submits to the City Council.

Taken together, these protections insulate the agency from the dictates of political actors in and out of city government.

While the structure is designed to ensure the Board is both nonpartisan and independent, personnel choices are equally important. From the Board’s inception in 1988, the appointing authorities took care to choose exceptional Board members who helped the norms of independence and nonpartisanship to take root.

The Board’s first Chair, Father Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J., lent experience and authority to the Board in its formative years, establishing a strong nonpartisan, non-political culture to the agency’s oversight work that persists to the current day. Among the first round of appointees to the Board was Sonia Sotomayor, now a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Insulating the Board from the political pressures of the moment allows the agency to build a nonpartisan staff of professionals, hired for their qualifications and expertise in the agency’s work. Our hiring standards and practices do not take party affiliation into account. Staff are expected to perform their duties without regard to their own political preferences and are held accountable for doing so.

The Board’s structure and our professional staff keeps the agency’s focus on serving the public and expanding access to the democratic process for all New Yorkers regardless of previous political activity or political affiliation.

Beyond the governance structure, we have some specific election policy and legislative recommendations. As New Yorkers continue to use absentee ballots, and with the possibility of no-excuse absentee ballots becoming a permanent fixture in election law this November, the Legislature should consider additional changes to the absentee ballot process.

First, allowing the BOE to begin processing ballots earlier is essential to the timely release of election results. S1027A/A7931, which has passed both the Assembly and the Senate, would allow the BOE to begin processing absentee ballots up to 40 days ahead of an election. This bill would also give the BOE more time to identify which ballots are ultimately cure eligible. We strongly encourage the Governor to sign this bill to give local BOE’s more time to process absentee ballots and speed up the counting process.

We applaud the legislature for advancing ballot questions that would strike language from the State Constitution that currently prohibits same day voter registration and no excuse absentee ballots. If voters approve these two ballot measures this November, we encourage the legislature to swiftly pass laws to make absentee ballots and same day voter registration a reality as soon as 2023.

It is clear that now is the appropriate time to review the structural makeup of the Board of Elections in its entirety. As noted earlier, any review or recommendation should include all Boards of Elections, not just the New York City BOE. There are also opportunities to continue to improve elections administration on a process level for the BOE by allowing absentee ballots to be counted earlier as well as on a customer service level for voters by allowing no excuse absentee voting and same day voter registration.

Our independent, nonpartisan structure has been effective for over 30 years, but we recognize our model is not the only solution available for you to consider. We urge the members of the Committee and your colleagues in the Legislature to think boldly and creatively as you consider ways to help our election administrators