When John Ravitz cut his hair short and took over the city’s Board of Elections last year, the former East Side Assemblyman knew that he would face challenges. There were prehistoric voting machines to replace, controversial federal requirements to implement, furious good-government groups to placate. These were managerial problems, and political ones. But soon he had to wonder whether the problems at New York’s weirdest public institution are actually … medical.
Mr. Ravitz’s desk at the board’s lower Broadway headquarters is adorned with action figures of the Incredible Hulk, to whom the 6-foot-3 Republican bears a passing resemblance. After starting work early last year, he didn’t have to wait long for his first comic-book challenge: the mysterious Case of the Two Strokes.
The first stroke victim was Jerry Vedral, a receptionist at the board’s headquarters. Mr. Vedral had been asked to remove an extensive collection of Americana-notably, a mat with pictures of the Presidents-from the reception counter. According to his supervisor, he responded by launching into a racist tirade against another of the agency’s top managers, a black woman whom he apparently suspected of masterminding the cleanup. This sort of thing-using the N-word in particular-might be thought a firing offense at some organizations. Mr. Ravitz certainly thought so, and he recommended to the board’s 10 commissioners that Mr. Vedral be fired.
But Mr. Vedral and his union chief pled ill health. The receptionist, it turns out, had suffered a stroke several weeks before. “Jerry hasn’t been quite right,” said the folksy union president, Richard Wagner. So a majority of the board’s commissioners rejected Mr. Ravitz’s recommendation and settled on a two-week suspension and a transfer to Queens as punishment.
It was a setback for Mr. Ravitz, and the scandal was a stain on the institution. Things were just getting back to normal at the time of the second stroke.
This time, the victim was a Brooklyn Democrat named Anthony Santulli. His stroke, oddly enough, had similar symptoms: racist slurs directed at the same senior Board of Elections official, Pamela Green Perkins. Investigators traced racist messages on Ms. Perkins’ voice mail to Mr. Santulli.
Mr. Santulli, too, cried stroke.
“I know I sound like a broken record,” his union leader, Mr. Wagner, told The Chief , a newspaper which covers civil-service issues, “but a stroke removes your inhibitions, so you’re liable to do strange things.”
“People are having strokes over there all the time,” grumbled Ms. Perkins’ husband, Harlem Councilman Bill Perkins. “Whenever they get in trouble.”
The second time around, the commissioners stood by Mr. Ravitz when he recommended firing Mr. Santulli.
But by now, the kind of problem facing the new chief election official was clear to many critics: the board’s strange hiring system. The only qualification needed for one of the agency’s 316 jobs is loyalty to the Democratic or Republican organizations. The hiring, like all of board policy, is determined within state legal guidelines by the commissioners, themselves chosen by county Democratic and Republican leaders in each of the five boroughs. (One commissioner and one county leader are currently under indictment.)
The board’s system of bipartisan control was designed in 1894-before the consolidation of Greater New York-to prevent the ruling party from fixing elections. But while it has succeeded in that end, its effect on competence has been, perhaps, predictable. With a starting salary of $21,132 for a clerk, the Board of Elections has turned into a downmarket patronage mill.
Mr. Ravitz needs to tell the commissioners one thing, according to one frustrated board official: “You can’t send us your little old ladies or people who can’t work anywhere else.”
That would be an unusually confrontational stance for Mr. Ravitz, 43, best known as a genial, floppy-haired Assemblyman from the Upper East Side, perhaps the last of the borough’s liberal Republican representatives. He served briefly as chairman of the Manhattan Republican Party before taking the elections job, but he said that his partisan days are over. “I made a conscious decision when I took this job: I’m really not going to be a partisan individual in the future,” he said.
Mr. Ravitz insisted that he’s up to the job of shaking up the agency.
“I’m going to piss off the Republican county leaders, and I’m going to piss off the Democratic county leaders,” he said. “Patronage is always going to be seen as one of the words associated with the Board of Elections. But patronage and performance have to be at the same level.”
The patronage, of course, goes all the way up. Mr. Ravitz was the beneficiary of a deal between Republicans and Bronx Democrats that put him into the top slot. One side effect of patronage is that it favors characters, of a sort, over dull bureaucrats. Mr. Ravitz’s deputy is the choice of the Bronx Party, George Gonzalez, who gained some fame for setting records for overtime compensation as an assistant to a previous board chief. Ms. Perkins holds the No. 3 position at the agency, and appears to do much of the day-to-day management with a firm hand that shows no sign of wavering in the face of the racist tirades. The board’s spokesman, Chris Riley, left an editorial job at the hip-hop magazine The Source to come to the board.
In the past, the patronage system gave the board a certain odd charm. Now, however, the stakes are higher. “It’s not the board of many years ago,” said Ms. Perkins.
The pressure comes from Washington, where in 2002 Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, establishing stricter standards for identifying voters and providing states nearly $4 billion to upgrade their technology. The first half promises a bureaucratic nightmare for administrators, and the second demands a technologically savvy workforce.
A Tough Challenge
HAVA, as the legislation is known, also presents a political challenge for Mr. Ravitz. The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 92 to 2, with Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton in the opposition. The New York Senators worried that in a city where many people-particularly the poor-lack a driver’s license, the law’s ID requirement could keep voters away from the polls.
The identification requirements are deeply politicized. Republicans typically say they want to crack down on fraud; Democrats then accuse them of trying to disenfranchise blacks, college students or other likely Democratic voters.
“We’ve already seen more partisan kowtowing to the Republican Party leaders than we would like [from Mr. Ravitz],” said the Democratic commissioner from Manhattan, Douglas Kellner, citing a dispute over how to operate the manual voting machines.
Mr. Ravitz angrily disputes that notion.
“I’m not some plant who’s been put in to spy for the Republican Party and to suppress voting. I’m here to get the job done,” he said.
And the top elections official at the New York Public Interest Research Group, a frequent critic of the board, said that he’s been impressed by Mr. Ravitz. “We have high hopes,” said the official, Neal Rosenstein.
From Mr. Rosenstein’s point of view, Mr. Ravitz is an improvement on his acting predecessor, a devoted Brooklyn Republican with a rough sense of humor named Joseph Gentili. “He once threatened to shoot me because I looked like Osama bin Laden,” Mr. Rosenstein said.
Implementing the federal law will be the real test of Mr. Ravitz’s staff, his ability and, to doubters, his motives. The board expects to send out 60,000 letters this spring asking newly registered voters to verify their identities before they can complete their registration. The focus on identification is a sharp change from past practice, which stressed making it as easy as possible to register. And administering the changes will fall largely on part-time, poorly paid Election Day poll inspectors.
“We’ve been hitting our inspectors in the head; we’ve even been penalizing them when they ask people for ID,” said Ms. Perkins. “This is a 360-degree turnaround.”
The other half of HAVA will, if anything, be more traumatic for the Board of Elections-and, for that matter, for city voters. It requires the state to replace those rattletrap metal booths in which New Yorkers first elected John V. Lindsay in 1965 with some sort of newfangled electronic contraption. Democrats, sore from what some see as Republican chicanery, are suspicious of the machines, but federal law makes them the wave of the future, like it or not. And even Mr. Ravitz, a modernizer when it comes to staff, admits to some ambivalence about the coming change.
“I’ve gotten very partial toward the machines,” he said. “They’re good machines.”