To preserve fair elections, Onondaga County needs to invest more money (Commentary)

This originally was published by on April 26, 2021

I am reporting it here to add to my essays on my Tumblr blog on elections.

It was welcome news that the American Rescue Plan had direct aid to local governments as part of its overall relief package passed into law in early March. This aide was meant to help restore vital services that were drastically cut during the COVID-19 crisis.  In this revolutionary package, $89 million was given to Onondaga County with very few strings attached to it.  The decision on how to spend this money resides with Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon and the Onondaga County Legislature.  I believe it is vital that they reserve some of these funds to restore and enhance Democracy in Onondaga County.

Unlike previous packages there is no delineation for local Election Boards to receive any of the money assigned to Onondaga County.  COVID-19 upended the 2020 Election season and the Onondaga County Board of Elections had to adjust.  Comparing to 2016, our registration forms increased 250%; our absentee ballot applications increased 500%.  We hired extra inspectors, temporary help, and worked 12 hour days in the weeks leading up to the General Election and after to meet our obligations to the voters of Onondaga County.   The Onondaga County Board of Elections relied on CARES grant funding, existing federal Shoebox and HAVA grants, as well as a private Grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life to meet those needs and limit the impact on local dollars.

As we head into 2021, we will continue to require additional resources to cover these costs. The COVID-19 epidemic continues in our community and nearly all of the mitigation factors put in place in 2020 will be needed in 2021.  Our workload on absentees and registration forms will continue to grow. Extra staff will be needed for cleaning and securing polling places.  Unlike 2020 though there are no federal grants we can rely on to cover those costs. It is up to Onondaga County to utilize some of the $89 million from the American Rescue Plan and the unexpected budget surplus of over $20 million to provide resources to the Onondaga County Board of Elections so we can continue to meet our mission.  It is my recommendation we do the following:

Restore the budget cuts for 2021. While much was made of the attempted salary cuts of both commissioners, this hid another more egregious issue.  The Onondaga County Legislature reduced the proposed budget for the OCBOE by over $200k.  This bi-partisan budget for 2021 was proposed by both me and my GOP counter-part and agreed to by the County Executive.  We were told at the time this cut was because of the dire budget outlook for the County but given no specific reason for the reduction.  With the unexpected County surplus, it is imperative that the Legislature restore these funds so we can hire the temporary staff and prepare for the anticipated needs of another election season under COVID-19.

Invest in Early Voting Expansion for 2021.  The 2020 election season was a success in almost every way for Onondaga County.   However, the unwillingness to expand Early Voting centers beyond the bare minimum was an abject failure.  Two hour waits as well as massive traffic congestion plagued our sites as voters flocked to take advantage of this new reform.  I give a great deal of credit to my colleague who agreed to expand hours in the face of this challenge in 2021.   However, it is nearly impossible to address the demand in the Early Voting period adequately with so few locations.  This is not a one-time event and we must plan for at least the same level of participation in the future.  In fact, all evidence from other states continues show Early Voting usage grows over time.  

I will propose at our May organizational meeting at the Onondaga County Board of Elections to increase to 10 Early Voting sites adding Onondaga Community College, Lysander Town Hall, Cicero Town Hall, and downtown in the Civic Center complex. Adding sites in Lysander, Onondaga and Cicero will ease the burdens on our three largest suburban sites, Camillus Fire Station, Clay Town Hall, and Dewitt Town Hall. Adding sites at OCC and downtown will also take advantage of the thousands of Onondaga County residents that either commute to work downtown or work, attend classes or events at OCC. Putting sites where people congregate will reduce the burden on all sites throughout the County and accommodate the growing need of our electorate.

New York State has once again included money in the 2021 budget to compensate for Early Voting Operations.  To qualify for this money we must agree to expansion in May.  In 2019 Onondaga County passed up on these funds which said was “penny-wise, pound-foolish”. Failing to take advantage of this opportunity a second time would be compounding this initial mistake.  If we act in May, we can expand with no further cost to the county. Even without this funding source we can do this without much additional resources.  More sites will mean reduced traffic at each site, decreasing the need for additional staffing.  We can always surge staffing to meet increased need in certain locations as we monitor usage throughout the Early Voting period.  

Add Four Permanent Positions to the Onondaga County BOE roster for 2022.  This last week the Onondaga County Board of Elections released our Annual Report. Detailed in its pages is not only the massive additional workload we are experiencing each year but the inequities our Board has had to face in terms of resources. The Onondaga County Board of Elections operates with just 16 full time staff including the two commissioners.  For a county of over 307,000 voters that means we have just 1 full time staffer to every approximate 19,000 voters.  This is the worst ration in the 57 County Board of Elections State of New York. Furthermore, our average dollar spent per voter annually ($9.28) is the 5th most austere budget as well. We are incredibly efficient and utilize technology and modernization to achieve our required duties.  However, over the last few years our tiny staff has routinely had to work 12 hour days for weeks on end to be able to properly run elections.  The human toll on this type of workload has caused turnover and burnout.  Election work is specialized and must have bi-partisan checks and consistency.   Temporary workers are not a proper way to address this tidal wave of work on the horizon. Even if we add 4 full time workers, an increase of 25% of our workforce, we still will be the worst ratio of full time workers to voters in the state.  

Lack of resources is the leading cause of Election Day failures at Board of Elections.  We saw this in Oneida and #NY22 just this past cycle. We have avoided this in Onondaga County because our staff is dedicated to the ideals of free and fair elections. We desperately need the additional resources to continue that excellence and accommodate the growing needs of our community.  The amount for preparing for and fixing our inequities pales in compare to the price we will pay if our election process falters.  We need to invest in our Right to Vote for it is the right that makes all other rights possible.  

Dustin M. Czarny

Onondaga County Elections Commissioner (D)

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