Like states and municipalities across the nation, New York City introduced a radically new voting system last Election Day. The familiar curtained booths and mechanical levers were gone, replaced by a potentially more efficient and accurate e-voting system.
“This marked the first time in more than 50 years that the voting infrastructure had been so thoroughly revamped,” says Juan Carlos (“J.C.”) Polanco, an adjunct lecturer in BMCC’s Center for Ethnic Studies, as well as an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Business.
He should know. Since 2007, Polanco has served as a commissioner on the New York City Board of Elections and was unanimously elected president of the Board this year—the youngest person every to serve in that capacity. The Board consists of two commissioners—a Republican and a Democrat—from each of the city’s five counties. Polanco, a Republican, represents the Bronx.
“The primary role of the Board is to interpret election law, administer elections, certify results and help register new voters,” Polanco explains. Last year’s election imposed another responsibility: to help educate the city’s 4.3 million registered voters on the new electronic voting systems.
“More than 8,000 machines were installed at 1,300 poll sites, and 36,000 poll workers had to be trained to help voters transition from old system,” says Polanco. “It was a huge challenge, and we worked closely with Mayor Bloomberg, the City Council, the Department of Education, the Police Department, the New York City Housing Authority and other agencies to make sure make sure everything went smoothly on Election Day. It was important that every site open on time, that the systems were in place before the polls opened, that voter privacy was assured, and that help was available to voters.”
While there were scattered reports of snags and glitches, Polanco says, “whatever problems arose have since been sorted out. And as New Yorkers become more comfortable with the new machines, things are only going to get better.”
An emphasis on listening
Beyond championing e-voting, Polanco sees his primary mission as “leading the Board of Elections into the future and making it a more transparent and efficient body.” Toward that end, he spends a good deal of time “traveling throughout the city, listening to constituents and their concerns.” In the weeks leading up to Election Day each year, he is a familiar presence on many local college campuses, helping to register students to vote—many for the first time.
“It’s incredibly satisfying to speak to these young people and get them involved in the democratic process,” he says. In the 2008 presidential election, the Board’s efforts helped drive the largest voter turnout ever in New York City. “It was an amazing year,” he says. “And 2010 was more exciting still. This has really been a great time to be on the Board of Elections.”