Elections boards say they’re ready for midterms after NY-22 failures

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Elections officials say they’ve made changes based on lessons learned from failures during the 2020 election. (Vaughn Golden/WSKG)

VESTAL, NY (WSKG) — Just over a year ago, a judge ordered county elections officials to certify Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-22) as the winner in New York’s 22nd Congressional District race. Elections officials say many of the administrative failures that plagued the 94-day count have been resolved, but advocates say some of the systemic problems with the state’s election process remain.

The 2021 absentee ballot canvass in Broome County appeared relatively normal except for the hand sanitizer stations and plexiglass barriers between poll workers and campaign officials as the former opened absentee ballots.

In 2020, the scene was much different. Broome County had around 22,000 absentee ballots to process, more than three times its previous record. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the count had to be carried out in a larger space outside the Board of Elections office.

Broome County Republican Elections Commissioner Mark Smith told WSKG at the canvass that only roughly 3,000 absentee ballots were cast in 2021, making the counting process far easier. The year was also mostly void of any major competitive races as NY-22 had been in 2020.

Smith said his office now has more resources from the county and the state to support personnel and equipment, making him confident that he won’t be faced with another 94-day count.

“If we do face another 20-plus thousand ballots, I think we’re going to be in an even better position than we were last year when that happened,” Smith said.

Broome County was one of several in the 22nd District that used sticky notes to flag challenges to absentee ballots – usually on lines that they violate the law’s provisions against identifiable marks.

“We would each have different colored sticky notes,” Smith said explaining the process he and his Democratic counterpart would go through with the challenges. “I would have red, Dan [Reynolds] would have blue. We would write the challenge. We would initial it, then we would put it in the void pile and after the fact, Dan and I would go through and we would both agree or disagree.”

Other county officials had a similar practice and by the time some of the challenged ballots were brought up in court, some of those sticky notes had fallen off, making it unclear why they had been challenged or if they were counted.

The most glaring instance of this came from Oneida County’s Board of Elections. In addition to the sticky note problem, the Oneida County board also failed to register almost 2,400 residents to vote who had applied through the Department of Motor Vehicles and improperly rejected over 1,000 affidavit ballots.

After the election was certified, the U.S. Department of Justice threatened to sue Oneida County unless it effectively overhauled its Board of Elections.

That onus largely fell to Sarah Bormann and Nichole Shortell, the new Democratic and Republican elections commissioners respectively. They took over after their predecessors resigned.

In an interview with WSKG, Bormann and Shortell agreed that the Board had underwent a culture shift in the wake of 2020.

“We took it slow. We wanted to make sure that we didn’t overlook anything,” Shortell said reflecting on what she considers a successful election process in 2021.

Nichole Shortell (left) and Sarah Bormann (right) took over as Oneida County elections commissioners in 2021, after the predecessors resigned following the 2020 election. (Vaughn Golden/WSKG)

Shortell and Bormann say they cleared the backlog of DMV voter registrations, brought on many new staffers at the Board of Elections, began implementing new technology and established a written set of policies and procedures for carrying out most the board’s day-to-day tasks.

“We developed an employee handbook, which has extensive policies and procedures, written policies and procedures, which is something that was lacking here before,” Bormann said.

She said many of these policies and procedures were copied from other counties and through some recommendations from the state Board of Elections.

“The issues during the NY-22 race helped the state understand that many of the counties needed more guidance and support on some of these things,” Bormann said.

The new Oneida commissioners agreed that they are ready for the 2022 election.

Despite that, some advocates insist that the state implement one universal set of procedures and standards for county boards to follow.

“Right now, you just don’t have enough basic standards and enough management control to really feel that everything is under control in every county and the problems in CD-22 really underline that,” Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said.

Lerner co-authored a white paper with Common Cause New York Deputy Director Sarah Goff in the wake of the NY-22 count.

Without a statewide baseline, Lerner said, it may be difficult for the state to effectively make other changes to the electoral process.

Lerner, as well as the Bormann, Shortell and Smith agree the county boards still need more grant funding for election resources. This comes as the state looks to expand early voting and other measures meant to make elections more convenient for voters.

“As we’re modernizing our election law here in New York, we’re expanding the responsibilities of boards of elections,” Lerner said. “That means the counties need to support the necessary budgeting. But the state also needs to provide budget financial support to the Board of Elections to be sure that they have the resources they need to get the job done.”

In 2021, the state Legislature approved $2 million in grant funding to help county boards upgrade equipment and invest in other resources like electronic poll books and ballot printers.

Gov. Kathy Hochul did not include that funding again in her executive budget proposal. But Lerner said she and other election reform advocates will continue pushing for it.