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Lawsuit Charges City Board of Elections Knowingly Failed to Repair Voting Machines

July 30, 2003

For Immediate Release
July 30, 2003

Contact Information:
Scott Schell, 212 998–6318
Robin Epstein, Working Families Party, 718 222–3796

Lawsuit Charges City Board of Elections Knowingly Failed to Repair Voting Machines
60,000 New York City voters thwarted in 2000 election; Similar numbers of lost votes in other recent elections; Minorities disproportionately harmed

A lawsuit filed today in federal court claims that some 60,000 residents of New York City failed to have their votes counted in the 2000 elections because the City Board of Elections left disabled a voting machine device designed to prevent such undervoting. The device, known as a sensor latch, had been disabled in all 7,000 New York City lever voting machines. The suit filed in the Eastern District of New York on behalf of the Working Families Party, ACORN and individual voters by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law seeks to compel the Board of Elections to repair the sensor latches in the Citys voting machines.

In April 2003, just one month after voting to reactivate the sensor latches, the City Board of Elections reversed its decision, leaving the latches disabled. No one needs to be reminded that elections can turn on just a handful of votes, said Jeremy Creelan, associate counsel at the Brennan Center. Sixty thousand votes is a significant number and that is just one election. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers have lost their votes and will continue to do so, unless the City Board of Elections repairs the machines.

According to statistics from the boards of elections for the City and State, the lost vote rate is much higher in minority communities than in predominantly white areas of New York City; in some cases, communities of color suffer twice the rate of undervoting. In addition, New York Citys lost vote rate is significantly higher than the rate for counties upstate and on Long Island.

The decision of the Board of Elections earlier this year not to repair New Yorks voting machines is inexcusable, said Creelan. The Board knew full well the numbers of votes at issue and that the lost votes are concentrated mainly in low-income communities and communities of color. The Commissioners chose to preserve a discriminatory voting barrier.

Sensor Latches: How They Work

Many New Yorkers using the lever voting machines mistakenly pull the hand lever back to its starting position before voting for any candidate, inadvertently causing a lost vote or undervote. New York Citys voting machines were manufactured with built-in sensor latches designed to avoid this problem, preventing voters from leaving the booth until either casting a vote for at least one candidate or affirmatively indicating their intention not to vote for anyone on the ballot. If the sensor latch is in working order, it stops the lever from being pulled back to its original position until at least one candidate has been selected. Beginning in 1964, however, the City Board of Elections disabled the sensor latches on all of the Citys lever voting machines.

Plaintiffs in the case charge the City and State Boards of Elections with violations of the Equal Protection Clause, the Voting Rights Act, and the First Amendment, as well as violations of New York States Constitution.

New York should have voting machines that function properly and count every vote, said Bob Master of the Working Families Party. It’s easy and cheap to fix the machines, so it’s just common sense to go ahead and do it.

New York City welcomes immigrants to take care of kids in our homes and to wash dishes in our restaurants. We should also welcome them to vote when they become citizens, said Bertha Lewis of ACORN. Some of our Spanish-speaking members were shocked and terribly upset when they had to leave the polls at the last election without knowing whether their votes had counted.

Neal Rosenstein, Election Specialist with New York Public Interest Research Group, said: Countless thousands of New Yorkers are losing their votes every year because of the inaction of the Board of Elections. Its unfortunate that a lawsuit is needed to stop the Board from disenfranchising those it is intended to serve.

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law develops and implements a nonpartisan agenda of scholarship, public education, and legal action that promotes equality and human dignity, while safeguarding fundamental freedoms. For more information, please contact Scott Schell at (212) 998–6318, or Jeremy Creelan at (212) 992–8642.