Sunday, October 13, 2013

What's the Matter with the Board of Elections?

The mechanical voting machines, rescued from storage.
The New York Times recently devoted an editorial - "Mismanaging the Vote" to the shortcomings of the "slow, often loony" Board of Elections in New York City.

The Times says the Board seems to operate on the basis of who you know rather than what you know.

Here are three highlights of what is wrong with the Board of Elections.

Shocker #1: Return of the zombie voting machines (see photo). These huge monsters from the Jurassic era were brought back out of storage for the Mayoral Primary because the Board of Elections could not figure out how to enable in time the optical paper-ballot system authorized in 2010, even though we had a run-through in 2012.

Shocker #2: A $13 million runoff election for a $2.3 million office. The runoff was for one NYC-wide office, Public Advocate, with an annual budget of a little over $2 million. The cost of the runoff was reported as $13 million, or about $100 per actual voter since only a tiny percentage of NYC residents bothered to vote. But the true cost of the runoff was much higher, when we include: (1) The cost in time and productivity to all the people who turned out for a needless election, (2) The cost of the extended campaign. (3) The systemic cost to the future of democracy of wearying the huge electorate with an runoff for a tiny office.

ballot-general-2013
Board of Elections proposed
paper ballot for Nov. 5 NYC
election.
Shocker #3: The Board of Elections typeface tempest. Chester Soria reported in the Gotham Gazette Friday that the Board of Elections is at sea over problems with increasing the size of the typeface on the November ballot from an illegible 6 points to an illegible 8 points (see photo). ("Normal" type faces are 10-12 points.) The typeface trauma took over most of the most recent Board of Elections meeting. The board’s ballot coordinator told the Board of Elections of the dilemma: (1) The ballots had to be ready by October 2 to meet election law deadlines. (2) But approval awaited Corporation Counsel consent because treating voters in different districts differently might be illegal. The crisis is a symptom of a disease -- creeping growth of both multiple languages being added to ballots and additional choices offered to voters. These developments have stressed the optical scanning system purchased from Election Systems & Software, a Nebraska-based company. Ballots shown during the meeting were for 60 Queens polling sites with English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and (new) Bengali translations on the same ballot. A solution proposed at the meeting was... multiple ballot pages! The commissioners decided on a conference call Thursday and put off a decision. The board will reveal its deliberations at the earliest at its next public hearing on Oct. 15. (Update - the six-point typeface will be used on November 5 - so much for legibility.)

This is indeed madness, with no method in it. Guiding principles are conspicuously missing. Here are some ideas, none of them brand new, and some of which may require a Charter Revision Commission to implement:

1. Short, Simple Ballots, Please. KISS.  These complicated, illegible ballots are out of control. (a) There is a tradeoff in legibility for the goal of putting multiple languages on the ballot. The Board of Elections could issue translations into multiple languages for local newspapers and bloggers and post them and mail them. (Why just five languages on the ballot? NYC is home to 800 languages.) The ballot itself should operate on the principle - keep it simple, stupid. (b) The "short ballot" movement, which had a strong representation in New York City in the first half of the 20th Century in the form of the National Municipal League, argued for a ballot offering candidates for a single office at each level of government and against slates of committees, which are impossible for the ordinary citizen to evaluate properly.

Sample Instant Runoff Ballot.
2. Use Instant-Runoff Ballots. There is an easy solution to wasteful runoff elections: an instant runoff. Voters rank candidates by order of preference. If no candidate passes the minimum threshold (in NYC, 40%) to win an election, the votes of the last-place finisher are redistributed according to preferences on the ballots. This step is repeated until a candidate crosses the threshold.  Instant runoff voting is already used in local elections in London, England; Wellington, New Zealand; Minneapolis and St. Paul,Minn.; San Francisco, Oakland and San Leandro, Calif.; and Cambridge, Mass. After the general election next month, the City Council should have hearings on this idea and the Board of Elections should come up with a plan.

3. Make the Board of Elections Accountable. The Board of Elections must be redesigned and made more professional. It could be headed someone appointed jointly by the Mayor, Comptroller, City Council Speaker and one of the Borough Presidents selected from them as their spokesperson, in a procedure similar to the selection of the head of the Independent Budget Office.

4. End Party-Based Primaries for Local Elections. End party-based primaries and party identification on the ballot. Primary elections should be non-partisan, although political clubs and party organizations can continue to endorse, petition for, and campaign for candidates. Nonpartisan primaries would encourage more New Yorkers to vote and would ensure that a maximum number of people decide who will be the top officials. A 2003 proposal recommended that the top two vote-getters in a Primary be the candidates for Mayor in the general election.

5. Eliminate the Public Advocate Starting in 2018 or 2022. New Yorkers are lucky that Bill de Blasio is a more promising mayoral candidate than we have any right to expect, coming from the Public Advocate's office, with a budget whittled down so much over the years that it does not provide sufficiently relevant experience for being Mayor. The Public Advocate has a big incentive to run for Mayor or Comptroller because the Public Advocate's office requires few decisions that create opposition. Make plans to scrub the office... or give it something real to do. If there is a vacancy in the Mayoralty, the Council Speaker or the Comptroller could become interim Mayor until a special election.