I became a citizen of the USA (United States of Amnesia) in 1996. The same day I swore in as a citizen at a court in New York City, I also almost immediately registered as a voter (Democrat); and I have been voting ever since. I vote nearly all the time. In November of 2005 my father died in Trinidad, which dictated that I go attend his funeral there: that was the first time I missed voting in a general election in NYC since November of 1996.
Since registering, I have voted in near all primaries except for a couple. One was when an emergency came up on my job, causing me to be late in getting to my polling site. And if memory serves me right, I may have deliberately missed another in protest of something or the other; even though at this present moment in time, I cannot fully remember when or why.
The point is this however: I am a prolific voter. I even voted in school board elections and also in judicial races. I try to vote in every election. And since I lecture on politics at the university-level (above, beyond and even below) I try to set a good example for my fellow-citizens, students, readers and listeners. You see, to me, elections are the cornerstones of all attempts towards building a true democracy anywhere. Too many people -all over the world- have died fighting for the right to vote freely. I try to respect that every election day; and that’s one of the main reasons why I vote. It isn’t simply about me.
Look, I am sure very few of my readers would be surprised at these revelations, since most know that I have been a “political crackhead” at times. What may surprise many is what happened to me when I went to vote in the presidential primary last Tuesday 19th April, 2016; and also what my response was.
Back in the 1970s when I first started working in NYC politics, there were constant battles at the various BOE (Board of Elections) sites in all five boroughs. Back then BOE-staffers were especially hostile to insurgent candidates and their supporters; and it wasn’t surprising. After all, most of the staffers there owed their jobs to various elected officials and/or their lackeys.
Reflect on the old days when a candidate’s petition had to insure that all electoral districts were correctly stated for each qualifying signature. This was an added feature beyond the correct nomenclature(s); various other accurate disclosures; members on the committee on vacancies; legislative districts (Congressional, Senate, Assembly, Judicial, School, whatever); fundraising disclosure rules; filing rules; and other draconian petition-features. We New Yorkers should never forget all the cumbersome rules that were nefariously used to disqualify a petition, and knock a candidate off the ballot. Sometimes it happened so fast in election court that if you only blinked your eyes at the wrong moment you would miss it.
One Brooklyn judge obnoxiously announced in court one day, that he could knock out a candidate’s entire petition because of a single signature error. He also proudly boasted that he was confident the appellate court would uphold his ruling. Back then insurgents were routinely knocked off the ballot every election cycle. Elected officials, their minions at the BOE offices, their lawyers, along with ostensibly cooperative judges in the election courts, had this “thing”‘ going, whereby insurgents challenging the status-quo always found a bullseye on their backs.
This was the SOP (standard operating procedure) back in the day. Elected officials and their lawyers held clinics on how to eliminate the opposition long before election day. They did this with no remorse whatsoever. Ironically enough, even our present “Public Advocate” (Tish James) engaged in this stuff back then. It appears that these folks couldn’t see that they were undermining the very fundamental ideals of democracy with their reckless and self-serving behavior. They fudged with the rules. They fixed the system where they could and tried to rig it where the shouldn’t or couldn’t: they often succeeded. They still do these things in similar and many other ways; but that’s another column for another day.
How many times didn’t insurgent candidates find BOE workers trying to sabotage the court-ordered line-by-line effort? Too many to count? Back then an insurgent seeking comfort and/or encouragement at any BOE borough office, was sure to find anger, intimidation, frustration and misinformation instead. Very few protested. Too few indeed.
Then somewhere in the nineteen-nineties things changed for the better: at least for a little better. Some of the cumbersome ballot-access rules were relaxed. For example: CDs, SDs, ADs and EDs (etcetera), were no longer required on the petitions; even though a voter’s signature could still be ruled out based on at least a score of questionable stipulations, declarations, and/or idiosyncrasies. A petition-carrier still had to make sure every “I” was dotted, and that every “T” was crossed.
Strange election-rules are often put in place, to enrichen lawyers, keep judges in work, and to give tangible advantages to incumbents: in order to keep them in office. This is one of many reasons why so many officials are perpetually re-elected. Truth be told: this isn’t just a NYC phenomenon; similarities can be found in many elections that take place all over the 50 states.
Please don’t get things twisted: back then insurgents welcomed the newly relaxed rules when introduced. More and more of them successfully made the ballot and actual election day challenges to incumbents increased. However, for most insurgents, Election Day itself still held all sorts of mysteries, subterfuge and intrigue. At the polling sites most of the workers there -usually hired by the district leaders- played all kinds of mind games and not too subtle tricks; while the assigned police officers -who were supposed to be neutral- were of little or no help.
All that I have outlined here have been written from observations I have made over the last 43 years. Workers from the NYC Board of Elections have been “fucking up” for decades. Every political operative here has known this for eons. Go ask Gary Tilzer. Or better yet go ask Maurice Gumbs and Ed Roberts: I challenge you to find them. Every candidate who has been knocked off the ballot knows what I am writing about here. Every incumbent has a bag of political tricks he or she uses to his or her advantage whenever challenged. That’s just the way it goes in the Big Apple.
The suspicion that employees at the Board of Elections compromise the integrity of the voting process (and albeit the overall system too), have been around since George Washington deflowered the cherry tree. Electeds who benefit from the shenanigans and actual corruption in other aspects usually stay silent. Last Tuesday however, there were so many voter complaints about discrepancies and wrongdoings all over the state that the Attorney General (Eric Schneiderman) has launched an investigation. So too the Manhattan Borough President (Scott Stringer). These investigations were long overdue. My only problem with both individuals launching them is this: Schneiderman has his eyes on becoming governor; and Stringer has his eyes on becoming the mayor of NYC. Thus you can see their motivations: raw ambition and not moral revulsion.
Last Tuesday there were over three hundred thousand Brooklyn voters who were inadvertently purged from the voting list prior to the primary. I was one of them. When I went to the polling site from which I have been voting since 2010, my name was nowhere to be found over at this website. I could have voted for Bernie Sanders when a clerk handed me an affidavit; but I was so friggin angry I just stormed out. I was wrong.
My main point here is this: the NYC Board of Elections needs to be revamped from yesterday. The question today is this: is it possible that the time has come for real action and significant reform to truly take place?
Stay tuned-in folks.