Published in the Albany Times Union.
In November 2010, millions of New Yorkers voted on electronic, optical-scan voting machines for the first time. Citizens went to their polling places on Election Day, filled out paper ballots and fed them into brand-new machines.
But tens of thousands of them did not count.
An analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law shows that about 20,000 New York voters did not have their votes for governor counted because the machines read their choices as “overvotes” — the invalid selection of more than one candidate. Across all contests on the ballot, there were as many as 60,000 votes lost due to overvoting.
If you think this storyline sounds familiar, you’d be right. The same problem contributed to the Florida election debacle in 2000. Since then, most states have upgraded their voting machines and fixed the overvote problem. This is because federal law now requires that when voters select more than the allowable number of candidates, voting machines must notify the voter and give her an opportunity to correct her ballot.
New York’s voting machines had an overvote warning message in 2010 and 2011, but that message was confusing to many voters. It used technical election jargon, telling voters only that they had “overvoted,” without telling them what that meant or that their votes would not count if the ballot wasn’t corrected.
People of color were the biggest victims of the confusing overvote message. In New York City, one in every hundred black and Hispanic voters had their vote for governor discarded because of overvoting. Black and Hispanic voters in New York City were more than twice as likely as white voters to overvote in 2010.
Fortunately, the state has agreed to start addressing this problem in 2012. As the result of an agreement between the New York State Board of Elections, the NAACP New York State Conference and several other organizations, every voting machine in the state will now display a new, simplified warning message. That should dramatically reduce overvoting.
But we can do more to prevent lost votes. For starters, New York must fix its unnecessarily hard-to-read ballots. The 2010 election gave us a rare natural experiment: There were separate contests for New York’s two U.S. Senate seats, and they were displayed differently on the ballot. In Sen. Chuck Schumer’s re-election race, the candidates were all listed on one row. In Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s contest, the candidates were listed over two rows. More than twice as many ballots were discarded as overvotes in Gillibrand’s contest. This suggests that displaying candidates for the same contest across multiple rows causes errors. The state Legislature needs to change ballot design requirements so we don’t have this problem again.
In order to identify faulty voting machines and polling places that need better voter education and translation services, New York also needs more thorough data collection on overvotes. Local boards of election are not making this information available. Nearly half of the counties in the state could not produce any data on Election Day overvotes, and New York City could not produce any overvote data on more than half of the polling places in Brooklyn and Queens.
We need complete, comprehensive data on overvoting in order to prevent this kind of disenfranchisement from occurring in future elections. New York legislators should follow the Florida Legislature’s lead and require all counties to report overvote data by precinct. Perhaps even more important, the New York Legislature should mandate that state and local election administrators take all necessary steps to address election administration problems in high overvote areas.
Until the state makes these essential strides, New Yorkers will continue to needlessly lose their votes, this year and beyond.