This post was authored by journalist Sam Mellins of New York Focus.
The New York City Board of Elections (BOE) has long been a target of invective for the pervasive nepotism and rank incompetence that it displays nearly every election cycle. In the 2020 cycle, the Board mailed incorrect ballots to thousands of voters and bungled early voting badly enough to leave many waiting on hours-long lines across the city. In 2012, it initially forgot to count dozens of precincts in a competitive Democratic primary, and in 2018 it illegally purged 200,000 voters from its rolls.
What accounts for its gross mismanagement of the most basic function of a democracy? Various political observers say that the explicitly partisan nature of the BOE is to blame. Since 1894, New York’s constitution has placed responsibility for staffing the election bureaucracy in the hands of the Democratic and Republican parties of each of the state’s 62 counties.
Surrendering control of staffing decisions to the tight-knit party organizations leads to connections and favor-swapping being the main criteria for employment, as opposed to competency, some say.
“So much of county politics seems to be about access and personal relationships rather than qualifications and abilities,” said Josh Skaller, a Democratic district leader in Brooklyn. “Those Board of Elections jobs are chips that can be traded.”
This Tammany Hall-style system operates at two levels. The most well-paying posts at the BOE are often used as sinecures for family or close confidantes of party leaders. High-ranking officials in New York City’s BOE include the wife of a city councilmember, the son of the former assistant speaker of the state Assembly, and the son of a current district leader.
But for those not lucky enough to have familial connections, the route to employment at the BOE often involves a kind of reverse patronage. According to Roslyn Tate, a former BOE employee, whose account appears to be corroborated by campaign finance records and the New York City payroll, low-paid employees at the BOE monetarily contribute to the county parties that run the BOE, or the campaigns of their leaders, in exchange for promotions and raises.
New York election law prohibits public employees from using their posts to compel or induce subordinates to contribute to political campaigns. But Tate said that the law is routinely ignored.
Tate worked at the Brooklyn Board of Elections as a full-time temporary clerk from July 2018 to March 2020. During that time, she told Sludge, she felt that employees were under intense pressure to purchase tickets to the Brooklyn Democratic Party’s fundraisers.
Many employees of the BOE begin as poll workers or temporary clerks before being promoted to full-time employees. Tate said that attending fundraising dinners, at which aspirants can mingle with party leaders who control staffing decisions, helped grease the wheels for those seeking permanent positions.
“You had to pay to go to the dinners that were held every so often,” if seeking professional advancement, Tate said.
Fundraising dinners are often used as a tool for influence peddling in New York politics, particularly for judicial candidates seeking to get their party’s all-important endorsement and corporate titans seeking to curry favor. Well-heeled lawyers and executives can pay the hundreds or sometimes thousands of dollars that tickets to such dinners cost, but for part-time BOE employees, who rarely make more than $30,000 in a year, the cost of tickets can represent a real strain. Employees would “say that they can’t afford to go, but they have to kiss the ring,” Tate added.
Tate said that on the flyers advertising the dinners, BOE employees were offered discount tickets reflecting their often financially straitened circumstances. “The BOE rate would be about $100, the regular rate would probably be about $3, $5, and upwards,” she said.
Sometimes, Tate said, employees would access the soup kitchen housed in the same building as the Board of Elections the same day that they would buy a $100 ticket that represented their best hope of professional advancement.
“It’s what you have to do,” she said. “You have to get on staff.”
In Tate’s experience, even attendance at the dinners was not a guarantee of permanent employment. “You could be working there five, ten years, and still be temporary,” she said.
The donations-for-promotions pipeline has existed at least since 2013, when a report by the city’s Department of Investigation (DOI) on the BOE’s employment practices found that “[County party] committees generally recommend individuals [for hiring] who have gathered petition signatures, attended fundraisers, or engaged in other political work for the committees.”
“Current and former BOE employees told DOI that participation in political activities is sometimes necessary for an employee to retain employment at BOE or, in the case of temporary workers, to be re-hired for future election cycles,” the report states.
The report further found that “failure to engage in political activities” on the part of BOE employees “could result in adverse action including termination.”
“The Department of Investigation’s report uncovered real and persistent issues with how the BOE functions and the integrity of the administration of elections, and it’s not clear that any of the underlying issues have been addressed,” Mariana Alexander, president of the reform-oriented Brooklyn political club New Kings Democrats, told Sludge.
“Nothing has changed, as far as I know, in terms of the hiring practices in particular,” she added.
Data on the donation habits of BOE employees in Brooklyn and elsewhere in New York City suggest that even if donations do not provide a guarantee of permanent employment, they may aid in both obtaining a position and securing raises.
Michelle Sealey was hired in 2016 as a temporary clerk at the Brooklyn BOE. In the following year, she donated $405 to her local city councilmember and state senator. While she remained temporary, her hours were dramatically increased, raising her total compensation from $9,021 in 2016 to $31,853 in 2017. In late 2017 and into 2018, Sealey continued her giving, donating a total $525 to the Brooklyn Democratic Party and the campaign account of Frank Seddio, then the Party’s president. In 2018, Sealy was brought on as a permanent employee, though her compensation did not change substantially, and in 2019, she received a substantial raise, with her earnings totaling $56,655. At the end of the year, Sealey was brought on permanently as a financial clerk.
Shirley Ridgeway began working for the Brooklyn and Manhattan BOEs in 2011 and in 2015 made $35,380 on an hourly basis as a trainer assistant. In 2015, she contributed $75 to the campaign account of then-leader Seddio and $250 to the Brooklyn Democratic Party. The next year, Ridgeway was made a salaried employee, and her salary was more than doubled: her 2016 earnings came to $71,402.
Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte, president of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, did not respond to a request for comment.
The trend of donations leading to promotions and increased compensation is not confined to the Democratic Party. Logan Flotte was employed on a temporary basis by the Queens and Manhattan BOEs from 2011 to 2016, earning $19,616 in 2016. In April 2017, Flotte made a $100 donation to the Queens Republican Party, and was brought on as an administrative assistant that same year, boosting his salary to $54,487. In 2017 and 2018, Flotte made three donations totaling $275 to the Queens Republican Party, and by the end of 2018, his salary had risen to $70,392.
For Anna Cicio, significant raises came in years after she donated to the Queens Republican Party. In 2016, the same year that she was brought on as a permanent employee after temping since 2014, Cicio donated $165 to the Queens Republican party. In 2017, she received a promotion and a raise of $26,233, to $68,350. In 2017, Cicio made no donations, and in 2018, her income fell to $60,181, despite receiving another promotion. Cicio then redoubled her giving, donating $230 to the party in three donations, and in 2019, her income climbed to $79,017.
The Queens Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment.
Sludge also identified nine former BOE employees who were employed as temporary clerks during the years 2017-2020 who do not appear to have made political donations during their time with the agency, and whose employment was not renewed.
“These would be the rare kickbacks that are being registered,” said Nick Rizzo, a former Democratic district leader in Brooklyn, noting that appointments to judgeships and the BOE “are the last clear sources of party patronage, and it’s more direct for the Board of Elections.”
Ultimately, Skaller said, the issue is one of ensuring competently run elections.
“These are jobs that should be treated as jobs that go to people because they’re qualified, and because they have the ability to do the job well,” Skaller said, “as opposed to having nepotism play a large role in having access to the job to begin with.”
Skaller added that as long as the BOE continues to be controlled by the party organizations, “It means that the accountability comes up through the political system rather than through job performance.”