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In New York City Primary, Archaic Technology Leads to Predictable Breakdowns

While the Board of Elections opted to use decommissioned lever machines to avoid a a paper ballet recount, machine failures caused a slew of voting problems--and an avalanche of paper ballots that now must be hand counted.

  • Jonathan Brater
September 13, 2013

While jurisdictions across the country leverage new voting technology to improve elections, New York City remains in the past. Six states recently passed legislation to modernize their voter registration systems, which improves accuracy and participation, and other states and localities are developing innovative upgrades to better manage their voter rolls. Flash back to New York City, where Tuesday’s primary election had America’s largest city using decades-old, error-prone lever machines. This left many voters out in the cold and could create havoc as we approach the runoff election, scheduled for October 1.

I spent Tuesday’s primary in the Election Protection Coalition’s call center. Election Protection is the nation’s largest nonpartisan voter protection and education effort; the organization provides voters with information they need to ensure their votes are counted. The day was relatively quiet, at least compared with 2012’s chaotic presidential elections. This is often the case with odd-year, primary elections, which tend to have considerably lower turnout. But one issue kept cropping up: problems with lever voting machines.

We received numerous reports that the lever machines, purchased by the city in the ‘60s, were jammed, not working properly, or not operating at all. Although the data is currently inconclusive, the problem appears to have been widespread: The New York Times reported that by 9 a.m., the city had received 73 calls reporting problems at polling place, many machine-related. Frustrated voters also reported problems on Twitter. Even the candidates were not spared: Republican mayoral nominee Joe Lhota was forced to vote on a paper ballot when his voting machine malfunctioned.

When a lever machine fails, it can trigger a domino effect of problems. Many election districts have a single machine, so if it stops working, long lines can form as poll workers attempt to address the problem or wait for technicians to fix the machines. Election workers are permitted to wait up to an hour before they give voters other means of voting, so people with limited time could leave the polls, unable to vote at all. Other issues involve polling places not have enough emergency paper ballots on hand, or poll workers may improperly give voters affidavit (elsewhere called provisional) ballots by mistake.

Many of the voters I spoke with described chaotic conditions at the polls. In one polling place, all of the machines were broken, and multiple callers said machines had been broken for hours. In another polling place, workers appeared to be giving voters affidavit ballots instead of the proper emergency paper ballots.

Giving voters the wrong type of paper ballot is a significant error that could lead to voters being disenfranchised. Emergency paper ballots are supposed to be given to all eligible voters when machines break down and are counted as regular votes. Affidavit ballots, on the other hand, should be given only to voters for whom there is a problem or irregularity with their registration record – for instance, voters who do not appear on the rolls, or voters who have moved to a different election district within a county. Many of these problematic ballots do not end up being counted.

These problems stemmed from the Board of Elections’ decision in May to bring back these decommissioned clunkers for the 2013 Primary. The Board claimed it would be unable to administer this election using the modern, optical scan paper balloting system that New York finally adopted in 2012 because it would be unable to program the scanners in time for a potential runoff. But lever machines were decommissioned for a reason: they frequently broke down, as we saw on Tuesday, and caused other problems, including lack of accessibility for disabled voters. Lever machines have another drawback: they do not leave an individual paper trail for each vote, which does not allow for meaningful recounts. Some said avoiding a paper recount  was the reason the Board wanted to use the previously decommissioned machines. As it turns out, however, a considerable amount of paper ballot counting may be necessary after all.

First, election officials must count all of the emergency paper ballots – which, unlike the modern paper ballots used in the 2012 election (and which will be used in the November 2013 general election) – cannot be read by optical scanners. Second, officials must sort out all of the affidavit ballots to figure out which of these ballots will count. In addition to voters given affidavit ballots by mistake, many other eligible voters may have voted provisionally because of problems with their voter registration, a constant source of election-day headaches. In fact, mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner arrived at the polls to find his signature was not in the poll book.

The uncertainty is of particular concern in the Democratic mayoral primary, where current returns show Bill de Blasio just over the 40 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff election with second-place finisher Bill Thompson. Until election officials sort out all the paper ballots, it could be impossible to determine whether an election runoff should be held. Litigation could further complicate the process.  

The result is that the Board of Elections’ decision to use lever machines has, predictably, backfired. Although the use of lever machines spared the Board the possibility of a paper ballot recount, machine failure looks to have resulted in an avalanche of paper ballots, which now must be counted by hand. Ultimately, the City will determine who won each primary and what races require runoffs, but this is hardly comforting to the voters who waited in unnecessary lines, voted the wrong type of ballots, or were unable to participate at all because of the City’s insistence on using flawed, out-of-date technology. , New York City must commit itself to embracing modern voting tools today, rather than going back to stone-age. These problems were predictable, and voters deserve better.

(Update: According to The New York Times, Bill Thompson conceded to Bill de Blasio in the Mayoral Primary            on September 16.)

(Photo: Lever Voting Machines; NYC Board of Elections)