Editor’s note: More than 10,000 officials across the country run U.S. elections. This interview is part of a series highlighting the election heroes who are the faces of democracy.
Since January 2013, Dustin Czarny has served as the Democratic Election Commissioner for Onondaga County, New York, located in the center of the state and home to Syracuse, the fifth-largest city in the state and Czarny’s hometown.
In New York, the Democratic and Republican parties in every county each nominate an equal number of commissioners to serve on a county’s board of elections and these nominees are then appointed to serve by the county’s chief policy-making body, the county legislature.
A self-proclaimed voting rights activist and nerd, Czarny began his political career during college in Florida by volunteering with the Alachua County Democratic Party. Upon returning to New York, he continued his political involvement by joining the Onondaga County Democratic Party and supporting a variety of Democratic campaigns. He also served the residents of Syracuse as an administrator for the city for more than a decade.
In 2017, his peers selected him to serve as the caucus chair for the Democratic commissioners at the New York State Election Commissioners Association. In this role, he organizes the Democratic commissioners from all 62 county boards of elections across the state. He has been part of efforts to bring direct funding from the state to county boards of elections and implement several voter-centered reforms.
As an extension of his public outreach, Czarny hosts several podcasts focused on local election and political news as well as resources for voters. Outside of his election work, Czarny was involved in the Syracuse arts community for more than 25 years and is an avid Boston Celtics fan.
Since 2023, he has been part of Issue One’s Faces of Democracy project advocating for protections for election workers and for regular, predictable, and sufficient federal funding of elections.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Issue One: Earlier this month you came to Washington, D.C., to meet with lawmakers and policymakers as a part of a bipartisan advocacy push organized by Issue One. Why did you decide to make this trip?
Dustin Czarny: I wanted to make this trip because what Issue One has put together with this Faces of Democracy campaign really appealed to me. To be quite honest, I have never really seen anything like this where dozens of bipartisan election workers are getting together to meet with federal office holders and staff to push in a cohesive and comprehensive way for funding and protection for election workers. I have been doing a lot of this work on the state level in New York, and this was an opportunity to take it to the federal level. I really jumped at the chance to do it.
Issue One: What were your key takeaways from those conversations and meetings?
Dustin Czarny: My takeaways are that we had incredible conversations with a lot of honest dialogue, but we have a long way to go. There are political barriers at the federal level that need to be broken down.
The importance of election workers and the importance of our democracy seems to be felt by everybody, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are going to follow through with the funding that is needed. The fact that the federal government needs to be an equal partner with states and counties is something that is going to take a long time to get through to enough lawmakers to really see some effects.
The good news is I think that protection for election workers is something that all of the parties that we met with felt was very important. There is a bipartisan coalition building for anti-doxxing laws and for protections against retaliation.
Issue One: A lot of people are surprised to learn that the federal government does not routinely fund election administration. Why do you think that the federal government should routinely invest in elections?
Dustin Czarny: The federal government — and the races that go into the making of the federal government — take up a lot of space, not just on our ballots, but in the minds of citizens and in the body politic itself. So, they should be equal partners in funding these elections. The old adage that it is up to the states to do this is no longer appropriate. The federal government has the money and can disperse money in an equitable way where those that need funds the most are able to get it, and they can do it in a way that is above politics.
Issue One: How can the federal government best help local election officials securely and efficiently run elections at the local level?
Dustin Czarny: Well, obviously, with more consistent funding. The level of funding is important, of course, but consistency — with as few strings as possible — would bring the ability to do long-term planning. Then, needs can be met at the local level based on priority. Some counties may need equipment. Some counties may need staff. Some counties may need to upgrade their salaries to attract the best people. Counties can make those decisions, but the federal government can provide funding.
With divided government, I think the best we can hope for is a commitment to consistent funding and a commitment to protecting election workers, which will hopefully prevent some of the issues that we have seen in the wake of the 2020 and 2022 elections, with threats against election workers.
Issue One: What is the current typical price tag of an election in Onondaga County?
Dustin Czarny: We run an annual budget of about $2.7 million to $3.1 million, depending on whether it is a federal year or a local year. And in a presidential year, it may be as much as $4 million. This is another reason why the federal government needs to step up their game when it comes to funding. Our budgets swell during federal years because of the requirements that are needed to staff the polling places, and we have a presidential primary that adds another primary into our system.
Issue One: If you had a magic wand and your jurisdiction received extra funding from the federal government, what would be the first thing that that money would go to?
Dustin Czarny: That is an easy answer: Staff. Onondaga County is one of the least-staffed boards of elections in New York state when you do a ratio of full-time workers to registered voters. Extra money would go towards recruiting and training new staff.
Issue One: How many people do you currently have on staff in your office and what would your ideal number be?
Dustin Czarny: There are 18 staffers, including the commissioners, that are full time for a county of 305,000 active registered voters. If we were just to do the average of what New York state does, we would have another 12 staffers for a total of 30. That is how low we are. We are almost half of what we should be.
Issue One: Through your work with the New York State Election Commissioners Association, you helped bring direct funding from the state to the county boards of elections in New York. What advice would you give to local election officials in other states who are seeking more funding from their own state governments?
Dustin Czarny: New York is one of the few states that doesn’t give consistent funding either. It is a constant gripe that I have with my state government, that we are always asking for funding each year. Sometimes we are successful. Sometimes we are not. This year, we got $15 million in funding. Last year, we got zero dollars. So we absolutely need to do better on the New York state level as well as the federal level.
My advice is to engage with your state representatives. Bring them down to your office. Let them know what you do. Meet with them. Even if they think they know what you do, they don’t. You need to engage with them and show them what goes into the vote. That will help you with the recent trend of election denial as well. As you show them the bipartisan measures that you have in place, the security measures in place, how you count votes, not only are they going to see the need for more staff or funding, but they are also going to see that the vote is safe and secure and that you, as an election official, can be trusted.
Issue One: What part of the election administration story in your area do you think isn’t told enough or isn’t widely understood enough?
Dustin Czarny: The disparity in resources from county board of elections to county board of elections. People just do not realize how much of our budgets are wrapped up in county budgets and that we are not getting federal or state funds. That creates a big disparity. When people criticize a county board for not having the same services as another county board, well, they probably do not have the same resources. That, to me, creates an issue when it comes to equity for the voters. We should not have these large disparities in resources for individual voters from their county boards of elections, and that is why consistent state and federal funding is necessary.
Issue One: In the United States, election administration is not centralized, so 50 states have 50 different election administration systems. Can you help us understand the nuance of the system in New York?
Dustin Czarny: New York is actually pretty unique, and I am, obviously, very partial to it. New York has what is called a bipartisan elections commission model, which means the two parties that get the highest vote totals in the last governor’s election get to nominate a commissioner at the county level. We have 62 counties in New York. 57 of them have one Democratic commissioner and one Republican commissioner on their county boards of elections. New York City does it a little differently. They have five counties that operate together, so they have 10 elections commissioners that are not full time, but rather they have professional staff that run the board of elections there. And when I say we are a bipartisan elections commission, it is not just at the commissioner level. Every hiring throughout the board and all the way down to the polling inspectors that are at the polling places are an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, or as close as possible to equal.
Sometimes this system means we are a little slow to react because the two commissioners at the top have such different ideologies. But most of the time, this system forces us to put our ideologies at the door. We do the best we can to service voters, to use the resources that we have to service as many voters as possible.
And when you are determining the number of polling places and determining the systems you are going to use when you are determining how to rule on a ballot, there are clear guidelines in the law in New York. Having both parties there at every step of the level, I think has inoculated us from the scourge of election denialism that has run rampant over the country since 2020.
Issue One: How did you end up in this profession?
Dustin Czarny: I have taken a different path through life than a lot of people. I had a kid at 17. I was a senior in high school, and I ended up getting sole custody of her and raising her for most of her life.
That meant that I had to be the breadwinner right out of high school. Though I tried to go to college a couple of different times, time constraints and her needs were always put first. I was always working a couple of different jobs to try to make sure that she had everything that she needed.
I was always enamored with politics, and so I started working on campaigns as a volunteer. I kind of saw that as a trade school, you know. I was learning a lot. I worked on a lot of losing campaigns. But on losing campaigns I learned more because I was able to jump into positions that maybe I wouldn’t have necessarily been hired for — and I say hired but I almost never got paid.
While I was cutting my teeth, I started to gravitate towards “get out the vote” work. And in that work, I ended up working with the board of elections a lot. Over time, I slowly became the local Democratic Party’s go-to person when it came to dealing with the board of elections.
In 2012, my predecessor announced that he was retiring, and I ran for the office. In Onondaga County, our county party committees have almost 800 committee members on them, so it is like a small village election. And when I ran for the job, I was opposed by the then-minority chairman of the county legislature. I was just a campaign volunteer that had been working hard and made a name for myself, but I won, and I have been appointed by the party every two years since.
Issue One: What are your hobbies and what do you do kind of outside of work?
Dustin Czarny: I was involved with community theater here in central New York for 25 years, and for a while, I had the most active community theater in our area. We had 12 shows a year. I directed a couple of them. I produced all of them. It was another job that did not pay me, but it was fun. It was my passion. When I became caucus chair of the New York State Election Commissioners Association, I decided it was time to cut back a little bit. My last show was Feb. 29, 2020, right before the pandemic. It was the best timing of my career! I still enjoy theater. I’m just not as involved anymore.
Issue One: What was your favorite show that you ever put on?
Dustin Czarny: My favorite musical I directed was “Chicago.” I was able to bring that to Syracuse for the first time in like 20 years. But my last show was maybe my favorite acting role. We did the play version of “Shakespeare in Love.” I directed it, and I cast myself as Hemsworth, the theater owner who says, “Hey, it will all work out, it’s a mystery.” That’s a line I have used a lot of times with elections as well. [laughs]
Issue One: What is your favorite book or movie?
Dustin Czarny: I am a huge Marvel geek. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is something I enjoy with my son. We watch and rewatch everything. One of my favorite books is “John Adams” by David McCullough. John Adams is one of my personal heroes. He also was the main figure of a musical I directed twice, “1776.” He was so brave. He put his life at risk so many times to fight for independence. Then he became president, but when he was the first president that lost reelection, he left office. That was something that was very important to our founding, and it is something that I wish we would see a little bit more nowadays.
Issue One: How did the Boston Celtics become your favorite NBA team?
Dustin Czarny: It was Larry Bird. I really liked watching him play, back when I was growing up, and I stuck with that team. I just liked the way the Celtics were kind of working class, had great determination, and were not always flashy.
Note: This piece was cross-published with The Fulcrum.