A top official at the long-embattled New York City Board of Elections defended the hiring of political cronies over a merit-based selection system during a state Senate hearing Tuesday in Albany.
“Patronage, if that’s what you want to call it — I don’t think you’ll have civil servants working 12 hours a day, seven days a week,” NYCBOE Deputy Director Dawn Sandow — a product of the system as a longtime Bronx Republican appointee — told lawmakers on the state Senate Committee on Elections, raising eyebrows, as the comments came unprompted.
Sandow testified at the hearing along with BOE executive director Michael Ryan, who had been absent since March due to a stage 4 cancer diagnosis, and during testimony she often stepped in, interrupting him to state her views on what transpired over the past year as she headed the agency in his place.
Sandow offered the Gordon Gekko-like “patronage is good” mantra while defending the BOE workforce’s efforts during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the agency had to administer primary elections during the worst, inaugural phase of the COVID-19 outbreak in June 2020, prepping for first-ever administration of early voting in the presidential election.
Five employees died from the deadly virus and countless others became sick with the disease during the pandemic, according to a BOE spokeswoman.
Sandow also blasted former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, complaining that he rebuffed a request to categorize election employees as “essential” workers during the pandemic, which would have required more of them to show up to work.
But the board then came under fire for bungling the first citywide attempt at ranked-choice voting during the Democratic mayoral primary on June 22, botching the results and requiring an embarrassing recount.
Officials later admitted they accidentally included “test” results in the final vote tally, adding an extra 135,000 ballots to the rolls.
It was also revealed Monday in a report released by Princeton University and Stevens Institute of Technology that the troubled board compromised voter privacy data, unveiling voting records of at least 378 voters — including the vote cast by outgoing Bill de Blasio’s son, Dante de Blasio.
A top state BOE official — Commissioner Doug Kellner — said the city’s board structure needs to be overhauled.
“It’s time to abolish 10 commissioners,” he said, noting the panel’s structure deviates from virtually all other local and county board of elections statewide which are headed by two commissioners — a Republican and Democrat.
“There are issues that are endemic to the board that predate of COVID-19 and ones that I think need to be addressed,” echoed powerful state Sen. Elections Chair Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn).
“I think there is sort of an elephant in the room — or maybe actually say, a donkey and an elephant — in the perception of whether you consider it fairly or unfairly, that the political parties exercise too much control over the Board of Elections.”
“The notion of accountability, and who the average board of employee, or [who] the commissioner feels accountable to, is a question that I think is at the forefront of folks trying to figure out what goes wrong,” he said, questioning how a worker would get hired on the merits rather than through friends.
“There is no protocol for how I get hired, how I get fired, how I get promoted. It’s not about what I know, but instead about who I know that is problematic.”
Ryan admitted politics do taint the hiring process, but also argued that’s not the case in all instances.
“There’s a myriad of ways that can happen like in any other place, and certainly the political process is an element of that. But where we get most of our employees, the regular employees, it comes as they get engaged in the process, starting out as poll workers and they kind of, you know, graduate up,” he explained.
“There are less than 40 percent of our poll workers now come through the standard, you know, political process, and you know, 60 percent plus, are regular, you know, neighbors and friends. So, and maybe they get involved in the political process afterwards,” he said.
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