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More N.Y. Democrats Call For Election System Overhaul. Election Officials Say To Keep It Bipartisan.

Voters check in to receive ballots at the Domus Kids, inc. polling place on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Stamford, Conn.
Jessica Hill
Associated Press

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has joined a growing number of New York Democrats who have called for a significant overhaul of how election officials are selected. State law requires that county board of elections commissioners are selected by local Democratic and Republican party leaders to form a bipartisan department.

"There's no reason that we have agencies all across our country, intelligence agencies, law enforcement agencies, where it doesn't matter what political party you're in, it's: 'Are you there to do the job? Are you professional? Are you meeting certain qualifications and standards?',” Bellone said.

Bellone wants to see local election boards placed under the state’s merit-based civil service system like other county agencies.

“You're seeing people across the country, tens of millions of people who are questioning whether the election was run properly and appropriately, that's a real danger to our democracy,” Bellone said. “And I think we have an obligation to do everything that we can to convey to the public that these elections are run as efficiently, effectively, and with complete integrity, as much as possible.”

Nick LaLota, Republican commissioner of the Suffolk County Board of Elections, defends New York’s election process. He said states with civil service-selected election officials allow for the executive branch to run and pick their own party’s people.

“You can't be in charge of your own election even during a civil service process, where the politicians control the hiring, the promotions and the other opportunities, election workers, you will allow the potential for nefarious businesses to seep into the process,” LaLota said. “Our bipartisan system in New York isn't perfect, but it's the best safeguard against anybody putting their thumb on the scale.”

Bellone said an overhaul of the state elections could also help fix long lines at the polls, as commissioners are responsible for hiring poll workers.

LaLota said the polls had to meet COVID-19 guidelines to keep voters and workers safe, and the state needs to better invest in local election boards to streamline the process.

“Republicans are looking over the shoulder of Democrats, and Democrats are looking over the shoulder of Republicans to make sure they don't do anything wrong," LaLota said. "And it's that system of inherent distrust and verification that allows voters to have confidence in our system. And if you were to put civil service workers political appointees from one party, you would throw this balanced system way out of whack.”

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.