When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced last Saturday that he would postpone the April presidential primary, staff at the New York City Board of Elections breathed a sigh of relief. Some hoped the delay meant they could stop going into the office to protect their health and the health of people still entering them.
BOE staff have paid a high price for showing up to work during the pandemic. To date, 15 people have tested positive for COVID-19 at the BOE’s main office in lower Manhattan, according to sources at the Board of Elections. Two people from the borough offices have died from the virus, with a third death that has not been officially linked to the disease.
While Board of Elections staff were not explicitly deemed essential workers under the governor’s earlier executive order calling for a PAUSE, the city BOE’s Executive Director Michael Ryan told Gothamist / WNYC that they had been given guidance by the State Board of Elections to continue operations.
“We at the Board have a legal mandate to conduct our jobs. The continuity of government depends in part on some of the work that we’re doing,” Ryan said.
Preparing for the presidential primary was only one piece of the work. At their main office in lower Manhattan, and at the five offices in each of the boroughs, a skeleton staff of just over 100 of their 900 workers must process the thousands of pages of petitions submitted by candidates seeking to appear on the ballot for the state and federal primary on June 23rd.
There were also voter registration forms to process and machines to be tested ahead of those contests. As late as this Monday, staff was working until midnight.
“There’s a complex sequence to how somebody gets on the ballot,” Ryan said. “Yes, the petition work is an element of it. But if we are going to be ready for the June primary date, if that date stays on the books, we have to start building ballots by May the 4th.”
Ryan said they have scaled back their workforce as much as possible and provided employees with personal protective equipment. But the guidance around what people should be using in public continues to change, particularly related to wearing masks. A source said staff were not offered masks until earlier this week even though the offices have been open to the public the entire time.
For the time being, staff will continue to show up for work to review the petitions and any objections filed by challengers seeking to knock a candidate off the ballot, a common tactic deployed by insiders who know the system best. Hearings for the designating petitions are still currently scheduled at the BOE’s main office for April 21st through 23rd. That’s the time when someone who is facing a challenge over whether they should appear on the ballot has an opportunity to defend her or himself.
Despite the risks, Ryan said his staff would be there.
“Of course I’m concerned. All of our employees are concerned,” said Ryan adding, “We all have families, we’re all human beings, and yes, we are concerned, but we’ve scaled our staff back as much as we can.”