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New Yorkers Call on City and State Boards of Elections to Prevent Disenfranchisement

Here’s what public officials, civic groups, computer scientists, and others have to say about the need to change New York’s procedure for handling overvoted ballots.

Published: July 9, 2010

On June 28th, the Brennan Center filed suit on behalf of the New York State Conference NAACP, the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, Families United For Racial and Economic Equality, and the Working Families Party to stop the New York City Board of Elections from using a setting on its voting machines that will confuse voters and cause tens of thousands of votes to be discarded.

The problem can easily be fixed by checking a box on the voting machines’ setup files to use a different configuration. But State and City officials say it’s too much trouble.

Join us in calling on city and state
officials to fix this problem

Read what others are saying about
this issue 

Featured Quote


“Configuring your scanners to automatically reject overvoted ballots can reduce your overvote rate to nearly zero, and we believe that it is the better administrative practice.  It should not lead to long lines or confusion at polling places.  To the contrary, by automatically rejecting overvotes, voters are immediately taken out of the voting line, provided with a new ballot, and given the opportunity to ensure that their intended choices are accurately recorded.”

-Chief election officials in eight jurisdictions using optical scan systems

Public Officials


Margaret Chin, New York City Council Member, District 1

“[T]he voting machines New York will use this fall may discard thousands of my constituents’ votes.”

Click here to see the letter that Council Member Chin sent to the New York State Board of Elections

Bill DeBlasio, Public Advocate, City of New York

“Our democracy fails when voters are disenfranchised.  Less than 80 days before primaries, our state’s electronic voting machines contain fixable flaws that could easily disrupt our elections. The Board of Elections has an obligation to fix the problem before it’s too late.”

Daniel Garodnick, New York City Council Member, District 4

“It is not acceptable to wait [to reconfigure the machines] until after the primary at such a time when other, unforeseen flaws with the machines arise”

Click here to see the letter that Council Member Garodnick sent to the New York State Board of Elections.

Click here to see the letter about this issue that Council Member Garodnick sent to his constituents.

Vincent Gentile, New York City Council Member, District 43

“I…hope that the State Board of Elections will take every step possible, including this simple configuration, to make every vote count.”

Click here to see the letter that Council Member Gentile sent to the New York State Board of Elections

Liz Krueger, New York State Senator, 26th Senate District

“As the State adopts our new voting technology, it is critical that the public have confidence that it is reliable, accurate, and easy for voters to understand. I do not believe the current plan for handling overvotes will foster this confidence.”

Click here to see the letter that Senator Krueger sent to the New York State Board of Elections

Brad Lander, New York City Council Member, District 39

Click here to see the letter that Council Member Lander sent to the New York State Board of Elections

Scott M. Stringer, Manhattan Borough President

“Instead of making it easier for New Yorkers to have their voices heard on Election Day, this new voting machine system turns our ballot into an exam and silences the vote of any New Yorker who inadvertently selects too many candidates. If the NYSBOE insists on running our elections as though voters go to the polls intent on casting an invalid ballot, then a lawsuit of this kind is necessary.”

Dean Logan, Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder

Kevin Kennedy, Director and General Counsel, Wisconsin Government Accountability Board

Warren Slocum, Chief Elections Officer, San Mateo County, California

Elaine Ginnold, Registrar of Voters, Marin County, California

Mark Ritchie, Minnesota Secretary of State

Susan Bysiewicz, Secretary of the State of Connecticut

Jerry Holland, Supervisor of Elections, Duval County (Jacksonville), Florida

Michael Mauro, Iowa Secretary of State

“Overvotes are almost always mistakes that do not reflect the real intent of the voter.  For this reason, automatically returning ballots with an overvote is common practice among states and counties around the country that use optical scan machines, including our own.  This is an important practice that could substantially reduce the number of overvotes cast in New York.”

Click here to read the letter that the eight election officials listed above sent to the City and State Boards of Elections.


Citizen Groups


Aimee Allaud, Elections Specialist, League of Women Voters of New York State

“A voter with an overvote error on her ballot should be given the opportunity to correct her ballot before casting it.  If the voting machine is not set so that it automatically rejects an overvoted ballot, many voters may be disenfranchised.  This potential should be eliminated by simply configuring the voting machine so that an overvoted ballot is rejected and the voter can correct the error.”

Margaret Fung, Executive Director, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund

“I think we’re all especially concerned that the training of poll workers and education of Asian-language voters are going to be huge issues with respect to the new voting machines. So, it’s critical to deal with this overvote issue to avoid further problems.

Valery Jean, Director, Families United for Racial and Economic Equality

“In order for our country to carry out the important principle that every vote should count, we should be using our machines in a way that will ensure that, and not in a way that will disenfranchise voters.”

Susan Lerner, Executive Director, Common Cause/NY

“In deciding to ignore the standard procedure for dealing with overvotes, The State Board of Elections seems to be confused about the purpose of conducting an election. While everyone wants to be sure that voters are not subjected to unnecessary delays and inefficiencies on Election Day, people do not vote in order to have a good voting ‘experience’, they vote in order to have their vote counted.  It is a shame that it is necessary to file a lawsuit in order to force our election authorities to use good common sense and ensure that the votes that are cast are cast in a way that ensures they will be counted.” 

Bo Lipari, Founder, New Yorkers for Verified Voting

“New York’s voting machines should provide voters with every opportunity to change mistakes on their ballot. Returning the ballot in the event of an overvote is an important way to inform voters of a problem.”

“Changing the scanners to return an overvoted ballot only requires flipping a switch in a settings file. At startup, the scanner reads this file to determine, among other things, whether an overvoted ballot should be returned or retained. This change does not require reprogramming the machine software in any way, and will not cause any delay in preparation for the upcoming elections.”

Rima McCoy, Voting Rights Coordinator, Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York

“Voters with disabilities who need accommodations to cast their ballots may lose their hard won private and independent vote over a technicality that the Board of Elections could easily solve. Poll workers coping with learning the ropes of a new voting system may be too overwhelmed to help voters understand an over-vote message on the scanner. Now that those of us with disabilities finally have a voting system that allows us to cast our ballots like everyone else, it would be painfully ironic to lose our vote due to a confusing over-vote procedure that is easy to fix.  The BOE must do everything in its power to ensure that every vote counts.”

Neal Rosenstein, Election Specialist, New York Public Interest Research Group

“By refusing to configure new optical scan tabulators to make it easier for voters to understand and correct mistakes on their ballots, the Board will cause countless thousands upon thousands of lost votes. Perhaps they should also rename themselves the Board of Rejections.

Marjorie Kelleher Shea, Director at Large, Women’s City Club of New York

“New Yorkers should be able to correct mistakes as they cast their ballots on the new machines. State law says that if voters mark their ballots for more than one candidate for a single office, i.e. ‘overvote,’ they should be notified and given a chance to privately and independently change it before the ballot is scanned and counted. To do less disqualifies voters.”


Experts & Academics


Douglas W. Jones, Associate Professor of Computer Science, University of Iowa

David Dill, Professor of Computer Science, Stanford University

Barbara Simons, Ph.D., IBM Research (retired); EAC Board of Advisors*

Aaron Burstein, Research Fellow, UC Berkeley School of Information; Associate, California Voting Systems Top to Bottom Review*

Joseph Lorenzo Hall, Postdoctoral Researcher UC Berkeley School of Information/Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy; Policy and Document Consultant, Ohio EVEREST Voting System Study*

Bo Lipari, New Yorkers for Verified Voting

Whitney Quesenbery, Member, Technical Guidelines Development Committee for the Election Assistance Commission, 2004–2009**

“There is substantial evidence that the overvote interface currently contemplated for New York’s voting systems will not give voters adequate notice and opportunity to correct overvoted ballots… The most obvious solution to this problem is to set the voting machines to reject overvoted ballots. This is a common practice among jurisdictions that use optical scan systems.”

Click here to read the letter that the voting system experts listed above sent to the New York City and State Boards of Elections

*Affiliation listed for identification purposes only.
**Added on July 20, 2010

Click here to read the report by Mary K. Garber of the Florida Fair Elections Center that brought this issue to our attention.




One Person, No Vote? (New York Times, 7/5/2010)

Does not compute: Board of Elections needs to fix glitch in new voting machines (New York Daily News, 7/6/2010)

Make sure every vote is counted (Journal News, 7/7/2010)

Let’s Get Voting Right (Newsday, 7/13/2010)

N.Y.'s elections being Floridized (Letter to the Editor, Albany Times Union, 7/13/10)


News Coverage


New York’s New Voting Machines Flawed, Suit Says (New York Times, 6/27/10)

New Voting Machines Under Fire From Civil Rights Groups (WNYC, 6/28/10)

Ballot Squabble Becomes a Federal Case (New York Daily News, 6/28/10)

New Voting Machine Opponents Sound Off (NY1, 7/8/10)

Cancel the Voting Machines? (Brian Lehrer Show, 7/14/10)

New Concerns Raised Over Voting Machine Upgrade (NY1, 7/19/10)

Fear New Machines Will Confuse Voters (Wall Street Journal, 8/11/10)

Counties Gear Up for First Statewide Use of New Voting Machines (Star Gazette, 8/22/10)

About the Problem


New York State is about to use new voting systems for the first time this fall. Under the new system voters will fill out a paper ballot and then “scan” them into an electronic machine. The State and City Boards have setup the new machines so that they do not give voters adequate warning of “overvotes”– ballots that cannot be read in full because the machine reads the ballot as having too many votes for a particular contest. Instead of returning the ballot, as is done in many other jurisdictions, in New York the ballot will be retained, and a computer screen with present the voter with a confusing message that includes a green “cast” button. Voters are not told if they press the green button, their vote will not count.

DS200 screenshot

A screenshot of the overvote message on one of New York’s new voting machines

The only other time these voting machines have been used in the same way in a major election (13 counties in Florida in 2008), they produced overvote rates almost 14 times higher than expected, with thousands of votes for the presidential contest rejected – in comparison to almost no votes rejected in the 36 counties that automatically returned the ballots. Evidence shows that African Americans and Latinos, in particular, were disproportionately impacted by the lack of overvote protection.

The State and City Board can fix this problem by checking a box in the setup files that would automatically reject overvoted ballots. Despite numerous attempts by the Brennan Center and other voting rights groups to make this change, they have not done so.

To read the complaint the Brennan Center filed in federal court to compel the City and State Boards of Elections to reconfigure their machines in a way that will not unduly disenfranchise voters, click here.


What You Can Do


Send a Letter

The best way you can help is to contact the State and City Boards of Elections directly. Tell them that it is unacceptable to risk disenfranchising voters, especially when such an easy solution is available. Urge them to take immediate action to reconfigure their voting machines to automatically reject overvoted ballots.

Contact them at:

New York City Board of Elections
32 Broadway
New York, NY 10004

New York State Board of Elections
40 Steuben Street
Albany, NY 12207


Submit a Statement

Make your views on this issue public. Issue a press release on behalf of your organization or office, and send your statement to us for publication on this website.

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Write an Editorial

Write a letter to the editor of your local paper expressing your concern about the overvote procedure that the State and City Boards of Elections have adopted and emphasizing that it is not too late to fix the problem.