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Reform proposed for state Board of Elections

WBFO News file photo

Anti-corruption proposals are proliferating in Albany, following two high profile bribery scandals.  Some of them focus on the long neglected state Board of Elections, which hasn’t even had an investigator on staff in over a year.

The Board of Elections is supposed to make sure that elections run smoothly and that all the rules, including the campaign financing laws, are followed by candidates and their donors.

But most believe the Board, as it’s structured, is badly flawed.  Two Democratic and two Republican Commissioners are empowered to make all major decisions. But that has led in recent years to near constant gridlock.  The chief investigator’s position has gone vacant for over a year, leaving the board powerless to act on any complaints about possible campaign finance violations.

 Governor Andrew Cuomo is one of several elected officials who is proposing reform, spurred on partly by recent bribery charges against a State Senator and Assemblyman.

 “The Board of Elections has been a toothless tiger for a long time,” Cuomo said.

 Cuomo wants to create an independent investigator at the Board, with authority to pursue civil and criminal cases.

The governor would choose the investigator, subject to confirmation by the Senate. Some question, though, if a prosecutor chosen by the governor could really be independent. Cuomo believes they could be.

 “I believe I can find an independent person,” Cuomo said. “I think I can achieve that. If they don’t think they’re independent they don’t confirm them.”

 When Cuomo was the Attorney General, he had proposed that the AG be given new powers to probe campaign finance fraud. Now that he’s governor, Cuomo says  giving the current Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, additional powers would not be his first choice to solve the problem. He says it could be a “fall back” plan, though.

 Barbara Bartoletti, with the League of Women Voters, says her group has long been concerned, that the Board of Elections has been just one more manifestation of the state’s well known government dysfunction. She says she’s glad it’s finally getting some attention.

 “We need better laws,” said Bartoletti. “For years we have had had absolutely no oversight or investigation or prosecution of any of the on going problems within the campaign finance system.”

 Bartoletti says the League has in the past supported giving the state’s Attorney General the authority to probe potential campaign violations. But she says Governor Cuomo’s latest idea is a “positive step forward”, and would like to see the details. The governor has not released a bill.

 Assembly Democrats have also proposed a restructuring of the State Board of Elections. Their plan would create five new commissioners, an uneven number to break gridlock. The governor and each of the Senate and Assembly’s majority and minority party leaders would get to appoint one commissioner says Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

“It would prevent stalemate in most instances, since there’s an odd number to begin with, “Silver said.  

Silver says the board would retain its powers to probe any possible transgressions.  The State Attorney General would prosecute any criminal violations that they found.

The leader of the Independent Democratic Conference in the Senate, Senator Jeff Klein, has also proposed changes to the Board of Elections. He’d like to create a new Campaign Finance Board within the Board of Elections that would be “fully staffed” and would police the entire campaign system.

 Senate Republicans, who control the Senate along with the IDC, and whose support will likely be needed to pass an of the proposals, have yet to weigh in.


Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.