As I sat in a dented metal folding chair before a computer screen inside a cramped creepily lit Board of Elections room in Brooklyn, I happened to look out of the equally creepy small window nearby. Lo and behold, I found I was looking at the back of Brooklyn Borough Hall and staring, literally, at the golden backside of the statue of Justice that sits atop the building.
It struck me as oddly appropriate, given the task and the location. I was there to help out friend and progressive colleague Judge Margarita Lopez Torres, who was involved in a re-count for the Democratic nomination for Brooklyn Surrogate. (You can find out more about her here: http://www.mlt2005.com/). If all politics is truly local, then this race, which voters will finally decide today, is a troubling example of what’s wrong with our electoral process, how easily it can be led astray, and why entrenched political hacks need to go.
For those who live in the NYC area, you may already know this story, since it was actually fairly well covered by the local media, most notably by the Daily News (and also by the NY Times, Newsday, El Diario, and other, more local papers).
Here’s the short version: Judge Michael Feinberg, Brooklyn’s Surrogate Judge, is removed from the bench in July, finding he approved nearly $9 million in fees to his pal - Louis Rosenthal, counsel for the public administrator - without ever asking for affidavits saying what he did to earn the money. (The Brooklyn Surrogate, by the way, controls the awarding of millions of dollars in fees for handling Brooklynites' wills and estates. It’s all about the Benjamins, once again.) This left the Surrogate’s seat open, and four different judges – all Democrats – began their campaigns to become the Democratic nominee. (Brooklyn’s party registration is so heavily Democratic that winning the primary is tantamount to a final victory.)
Judge Lopez Torres had previously won a seat for Civil Court Judge without the backing of the entrenched Brooklyn Democratic machine. They wouldn’t support her because she refused to hire someone that she was asked to hire. This put her on some kind of electoral party blacklist forever. However, with widespread support within Brooklyn’s diverse progressive community, she easily won election to Civil Court. She was going to test the machine’s patience again by running for Surrogate.
Ah, but the machine isn’t the machine for nothing. Sensing that Feinberg was about to be dumped – and that Judge Lopez Torres might make another successful run – both houses of the NYS legislature, in the middle of the night, passed a bill that created 21 new judgeships around the State, including a second Brooklyn Surrogate’s seat. And, since the law took effect on August 1, after the legal filing date for a primary race, there was to be no primary for this second judgeship. One has to stand back and reflect on the speed and efficiency with which this all happened, with the consent of the entire NYS legislature, Democrats and Republicans. Big money knows no party and no loyalty. Both parties were scared to death that Judge Lopez Torres might break their bottomless piggy banks forever.
She went forward with her campaign for the original Surrogate’s seat, and found, when the votes were counted on Primary Day, that she was in a virtual dead heat with machine-backed candidate Judge Diana Johnson. Judge Lopez Torres demanded a re-count and got one.
...which is what I was doing in the Board of Elections room in the first place. What an eye opener! I don’t know how many of you have actually taken part in a re-count, but it seems to have nothing at all to do with voting rights, democracy, or any other noble cause. Going through the absentee/affidavit ballots and checking them was enlightening and led me to discover the following: if you make a mistake on your affidavit, you’ll never know that it’s been disqualified and you’ll never know why either; if there’s something wrong with your voter registration, you’ll probably never know that either and you won’t be able to correct it; if you’re a felon in NY State you can’t vote, even if you’re on parole. There were a couple of Board of Elections people watching us – the same number of “checkers” from our side and Judge Johnson’s side were going through the ballots– but, truthfully, they couldn’t possibly look over everyone’s shoulder all the time.
Is this the way to count ballots and to honor people’s votes? I have a newfound respect for people who honestly tried to count those “hanging chads” in Florida, but, having gone through this process, it must have been an actual joke.
And it still wasn’t over! This re-count showed Judge Lopez Torres ahead by a little over 100 votes, but the court acquiesced to the other side’s request for yet another re-count of a selected bunch of affidavit ballots. Arcane, very arcane, election law at work here – and guess who it tends to favor? And guess which judge will be in a lot of debt for some time to come because of all the court and legal expenses involved in recounts? Of course, it’s all part of the machine’s scheme.
Ah, but the Judge came out ahead by more than 200 votes after the second re-count. At that point, the other side gave up, and she became the official Brooklyn Surrogate candidate of the Democratic Party. Today, she’s on the ballot, unopposed – with the other candidate for the newly-created, and some say, illegally finagled, other Brooklyn Surrogate’s seat. (The Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund has filed a Voting Rights Act lawsuit against the creation of that second Surrogate’s seat. Read more about that here: http://www.prldef.org/Press/Press%20Releases/PRESS%20ALERT%20-%20PRLDEF%20ASK%20FEDERAL%20COURT%20TO%20STOP%20STATE%20FROM%20INSTALLING%20NEW%20SURROGATE%20JUDGE.doc.
In the middle of all this, by the way, the Brooklyn Democratic chairman, former Assemblymember Clarence Norman, was indicted and convicted on two felony counts of violating election law by taking excessive campaign donations, and two counts of falsifying business records.
And some wonder why more people don’t vote?
Staring at the golden butt of Justice that day at the Board of Elections as I began to see what was really going on, I was thinking that if Justice is blind, she really needs to get herself a good guide dog – or better yet, a guard dog -- with eyes in the back of its head.