Poll Workers Become Pawns in Battle for Brooklyn’s Democratic Party
Weeks-long gigs worth as much as $8,250 are getting reserved for campaign supporters and leadership allies — others need not apply.
Politics surrounding poll worker jobs are reaching a fever pitch in some parts of Brooklyn, where Democratic Party leaders are wielding lucrative paydays for early voting gigs as rewards to would-be supporters.
Early voting for the June 28 primary election starts on Saturday at designated polling centers and runs through June 26. Voters will cast ballots for governor, lieutenant governor, Assembly and other party posts.
One past poll worker who sought a spot this year in northern Brooklyn said a Democratic Party official who handles those assignments responded by encouraging him to volunteer on her re-election campaign.
That official, 54th Assembly District Leader Arleny Alvarado-McCalla, is among more than a dozen district leaders allied with Assemblymember and Brooklyn Democratic Party chair Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn who are facing election challenges by an organized group of insurgents.
District leaders are unpaid elected officials who help run county political parties, choose the party chair and endorse judges running for court positions. Unofficially, they have also historically determined who gets hired as poll workers, submitting dozens or even hundreds of names annually to the city Board of Elections.
With the advent of nine days of early voting, which began in 2020, the paydays for those jobs have multiplied. New York has an unprecedented 30 days of voting this year, after legal battles over redistricting led to two separate primary votes. Governor, lieutenant governor, judges and party posts are on this month’s ballots, with state Senate and U.S. House seats following on Aug. 23 and then November’s general election.
Someone working all 30 of those voting days would earn as much as $8,250.
Poll workers confirm voters are casting ballots at the right location and shepherd them through the process of filling out and scanning their ballots. They’re on the payroll of the city Board of Elections.
The poll worker power battle is playing out in a heavily contested election that could determine who controls the Brooklyn Democratic Party, which has also featured candidates placed on ballots without their knowledge and forged signatures on paperwork seeking to throw candidates off the ballot.
Bichotte Hermelyn’s district leader allies are facing a wave of organized challengers threatening the establishment’s grip on power. In turn, Bichotte and her allies are challenging several incumbents opposed to her leadership.
Poll workers have become unwitting pawns in that battle for party control.
In recent weeks the party boss stripped the power to recommend poll workers from at least a dozen out-of-favor or outgoing district leaders, a number of those leaders said.
Instead, Bichotte Hermelyn named their primary opponents or other of her allies as “liaisons” to the Board of Elections, granting them influence over the poll worker appointment process.
In low-turnout elections, having allies as poll workers is a significant leg up, political veterans say, because those workers are likely to attract friends and family to the polls.
The county party’s moves have resulted in numerous perennial poll workers, whose placements were made in past years by district leaders newly sidelined by Bichotte-Hermelyn, losing out on as many as nine days of early voting work this month alone.
An email sent by Alvarado-McCalla and shared with THE CITY shows she told the experienced poll worker there was a wait list for early voting slots because many poll workers had been volunteering for her campaign in recent weeks.
But he was welcome, she continued, to visit the campaign office and meet her campaign team.
In a separate email that Alvarado-McCalla sent out more broadly on May 21, with the subject “poll worker assignments,” she again mentions the waiting list but says she can discuss primary day assignments.
“We are currently campaigning for my Re-Election and Assemblyman Erik Dilan’s Re-Election. We are also campaigning to Elect Heriberto Mateo for State Committee Male,” says the email. “Please feel free to stop by our campsign [sic] office, meet the team and volunteer.”
The poll worker, who requested anonymity, said he was troubled by the apparent “quid pro quo.”
“I can’t afford to do volunteer work in order to do early voting,” he told THE CITY.
In emails and texts to poll workers, at least two Democratic Party establishment-backed candidates have falsely referred to themselves as current district leaders, according to campaign communications reviewed by THE CITY.
One of those emails shows a photo of Esther Debbie Louis, a candidate running to serve as district leader for a swath of East Flatbush and Canarsie, identified as the “AD 58 District Leader.” Louis is the sister of City Councilmember Farah Louis (D-Brooklyn), a close ally of Bichotte-Hermelyn.
A text blast from the Louis campaign on June 9th conveyed a similar message:
“Dear poll workers, Your time is valuable. I want to ensure [sic] you that I will continue to work hard for you and I trust you will work with me throughout this DEM primary,” the message begins, concluding with a sign-off from “Your favorite District Leader Esther Debbie Louis.”
The campaign of Tommy Torres, an establishment-backed candidate vying for an open district leader seat in Bushwick and Williamsburg, sent a similar text blast.
“Hi this is TOMMY TORRES your District Leader. I’m writing to thank you for your service as an Election Poll worker,” the text states. “I have the Honor to select you to work an Early Polling site.”
Neither Torrres nor Louis are, in fact, currently district leaders.
They are, however, among the candidates vying for party seats whom Bichotte Hermelyn appointed as a Board of Elections “liaisons” to oversee the poll worker assignments, effectively bypassing the incumbents.
Torres is running for a seat currently held by a district leader who had opposed Bichotte Hermelyn and will be leaving office in September.
The incumbent in the seat Louis is seeking, Melba Brown, has mostly supported the party’s leadership over the past 15 years. She isn’t running for re-election but also still holds the seat through September.
Nonetheless, Louis appears to be using the district leader title to further her campaign.
One source told THE CITY that she saw Louis come into a polling site in Canarsie last month during a special election for state Assembly and introduce herself to the poll workers at each table.
“She said that she is giving out work. She told us she was the new district leader,” said the source, who asked that her name be kept confidential. “I said ‘So what happened to Ms. Brown?’ She said ‘Ms. Brown stepped down.’”
The Torres and Louis campaigns did not respond to requests for comment left by voicemail and email.
New York has state laws against impersonation, and Sarena Townsend, a former deputy bureau chief at the Brooklyn DA’s office, said the candidates should be “forewarned” that they might be “coming very close to the line.”
“If the person pretends to be a public servant, or pretends to have a certain title that they don’t already have, and essentially uses that title to benefit, and communicates that title in some sort of way, which they have on text message, it could lead to a possible prosecution,” the former prosecutor said, noting that such decisions would still ultimately be up to the District Attorney’s discretion.
“If it were me, and I were running for position, I would suggest to myself or to a friend not to misrepresent my position, especially not in writing,” she said.
Brown, the current district leader, said the party boss’s selective attacks on certain incumbents like her are needlessly divisive.
“This is a time more than ever that we need to be sticking together as the Democratic Party,” she said. At a time when Democratic control appears to be at risk in D.C., she continued, the party needs to be fighting, but “not fighting against each other here.”
Bob Liff, a spokesperson for the Brooklyn Democratic Party, previously told THE CITY the changes to poll worker assignments were made in the name of efficiency.
He referred questions about issues in particular districts to officials in those districts, and declined comment on Louis and Torres falsely representing themselves to be district leaders.
‘I Could Have Used That Money’
Among those locked out of early voting poll work is Donna Stone, a retired 73-year-old in East New York grappling with medical debt.
She said the loss of early voting income made “a great difference” to her.
“I could have used that money,” she said. “I just had cataract surgery and that’s a $4,000 bill over my head.”
Stone, who retired from the legal field, had worked prior elections through the recommendations of City Councilmember Charles Barron and his wife, former Councilmember Inez Barron — who are both district leaders in Assembly District 60 in East New York.
The Barrons, who have criticized the county party’s leadership but who aren’t allied with the insurgents, had their ability to assign poll workers stripped by Bichotte Hermelyn in recent weeks.
They’re both facing challenges for their district leader posts from county-backed candidates, including recently elected state Assemblymember Nikki Lucas.
More than a half-dozen poll workers in their district told THE CITY they’ve been shut out of early voting days despite having worked elections for years, including early voting days.
“You would come after a whole group of people because you’re mad at Inez and Charles?” said Stone. “That’s ridiculous.”
State election law grants the chair or secretary of each county’s political party — both Democrat and Republican — the power to submit the lists of poll workers as recommendations to the Board of Elections.
While the Board of Elections does the actual hiring, those recommendations are rarely denied.
The election law doesn’t dictate a specific role for district leaders in the hiring process, but for decades they’ve been the ones that party chairs have turned to make and manage the poll site assignments.
Charlene Davis, a disabled 63-year-old who lives in Coney Island, questioned why district leaders are allowed to play any role in who staffs polling sites when their own names could be on the ballot.
“If you’re running for office, you shouldn’t have a say in who gets to work in the polls or not,” said Davis, who said she had to fight and fuss to land just two days of early voting work this year in the 46th Assembly District. “I feel like it’s a conflict of interest.”
Charles Barron said there’s been a decades-long history of improper politicalization of poll workers.
He said some district leaders require poll workers to join the local Democratic club — and pay membership dues — or volunteer to collect petition signatures for county-backed candidates in order to be considered for election site work.
“Some of us, we don’t pick them based on their political allegiance,” said Barron, who also served for years in the state Assembly, as has his wife. “We pick them based on their ability to do the work.”
On Thursday, the Barrons marched into the Board of Elections Brooklyn office to submit their recommendations for poll workers in person, after not hearing back on prior attempts to land those workers jobs.
Charles Barron was critical of Bichotte Hermelyn not only for playing power games with members of her own party, but also for throwing a wrench in the lives of poll workers and potentially disrupting the operation of polling sites.
“We don’t know who they accepted, who they didn’t accept. Are you gonna reject all these workers?” he said of the early voting assignments. “It’s total chaos.”