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Elections Board reform due

The recent grand jury indictments against the current county Democratic elections commissioner (46 felony and 48 misdemeanor charges) and the immediate past Republican elections commissioner (one felony and two misdemeanors) is devastating to the public’s trust for election integrity. The election commissioners’ chief responsibility is safeguarding the election process.

Yet if we believe the indictments, the converse is true. The charges are absentee ballot tampering and the altering of votes, both with the intended result of stealing elections. The indictments have now led to arraignments with trials soon to follow as our justice system performs its role. Even as the shadow hovers over voting integrity, it is important that other venerable American principle be maintained: innocent until proven guilty.

The present situation is an opportunity for meaningful reflection on the need for reform to our state election system. The indictments notwithstanding, New York state’s current model of bipartisan boards of election has consistently showed itself to be unworkable, duplicitous, highly expensive and suggested by the present allegations, ripe for abuses.

The logic that sought to safeguard elections by employing an equal number of Democrats and Republicans as staffers to serve as a check and balance to one another merely confuses justice with equality. It has politicized the election process. What is needed now is not party oversight, but voter oversight. It is beyond time that the State Legislature step in and reform the boards of election system.

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Under the current model, election commissioners are chosen by their respective parties and then confirmed by county legislators. Once appointed, the commissioners then hire political appointments as their staff, mostly from the ranks and leadership of the local party organization. Since political parties exist for the sole reason to elect candidates, can it be any wonder that corruption enters in and the ultimate goal of fair elections gets sidetracked by the zeal and gamesmanship of winning an election? The real reform needs to de-politicize the process.

Election commissioners should not be chosen by party officials or by party conventions but determined directly by voters. This may eliminate the quid pro quo mentality that leads elections commissioners to perhaps believe that their power comes from the party, thereby to remain in power they must serve the interests of the party. Let us instead encourage our commissioners to serve the interests of the people.

Secondly, boards of elections should be re-aligned from their current placement in the legislative branch, where partisan bickering is the norm, and placed instead under the oversight of the judiciary. Our courts have mostly achieved reputations for the fairness and even-handedness that our system of justice requires. They have done so by self-policing themselves with code of conducts, expectations and separation from politics. Why should our system of elections be any different? At the very least election workers should be prohibited from serving in party leadership positions.

The judiciary and the bar can assist the State Legislature in de-politicizing the election system. Attorneys and judges have already blazed a trail by adopting their own high codes of conduct in professional responsibility. It is long since passed the time that those charged with overseeing elections do the same.

Michael N. Kelsey represents the people of Amenia, Washington, Stanford, Pleasant Valley and Millbrook in the Dutchess County Legislature. Write him at KelseyESQ@yahoo.com.