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In Primaries, Board of Election Fails Stress Test

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Bronx commissioner Juan Carlos "J.C." Polanco during the Board of Elections meeting. (Brigid Bergin/WNYC)

It took two weeks for the Board of Elections to count and certify results in the June primary, including a heated race that grabbed national headlines between incumbent Congressman Charlie Rangel and four opponents.

It’s not the first time the Board of Elections has faced criticism for its practices. When the Board implemented a new voting system in the 2010 primary, many polling sites failed to function properly.

The June primary was yet another stress test for the Board of Elections and trial run for the fall elections – could it quickly and accurately report results using the relatively new optical scanner voting machines and following current election law?

In this case, the answer was no.

“The Board of Elections is just an incompetent group,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg, speaking to reporters in Corona, Queens, the same day the Board of Elections certified the results last week. “It’s worse than the gang that can’t shoot straight.”

Bloomberg’s latest critique of the Board came the same day it certified the results between Rangel and his closest opponent, state Senator Adriano Espaillat.

Rangel won by fewer than 1,000 votes. But the race dragged on for two weeks, while Espaillat levied charges of negligence against the Board. Those charges were withdrawn, but members of the Board itself describe NY-13 as a public relations nightmare. 

The Board wants to find a better way to count election night results faster and more accurately – especially ahead of the September primary and November elections when millions of voters will turn out.

How It Works: Cutting and Pasting

(Photo: The Board of Elections begins its count of more than 2,000 validated paper votes. Chester Soria for WNYC)

The way it works now, poll workers go through a multi-step process that’s based on their understanding of state election law. 

After the polls close, the Board's temporary workforce prints out receipts from each voting machine.

Since there may be more than one election district on a given machine, poll workers cut the tape by election district. Then, they glue together pieces of paper to have the complete returns for each ED.

Poll workers add up the numbers of votes for each candidate, and hand write the results on a tally sheet. There are three copies of that tally sheet.

Those sheets are then given to an NYPD officer, along with the rest of the election materials including flashdrives from each of the election machines.

Officers are on site at each polling site from the time the polls open until they close. This has been part of election law for decades.

The officer brings the results back to their police precinct where the information is entered into an election database, which feeds the Board of Elections and the media.

If the officer can’t make out the handwriting, the result may be entered as a zero.

A Heated Discussion on Reform

Speaking at a heated Board of Elections meeting this week, Bronx commissioner Juan Carlos Polanco acknowledged it’s a process ripe for human error that should be changed.

“What I am trying to do is try to avoid the chaos of having our poll workers at the end of the a 15, 16, hour day, add, subtract, etc.,” Polanco said. “Whatever we have to do, whatever we have to do to eliminate that.”

There is the question about whether the Board has the legal right to change how it interprets election law and therefore how results are reported on election night.

J.P. Sipp, a Commissioner from Staten Island, said he wanted the Board’s attorneys to advise whether the board legally can change how it operates.

“If we have the authority to do it, fine. I agree with you,” Sipp said to Polanco. “If I don’t have the legal authority to do it, then I’m not going to do it.”

Lawmakers in the state legislature have introduced bills that would change the city’s election law to streamline the process of closing polls on election night. But the bill only passed the Assembly.

When Sipp asked Board attorney Steve Richman directly about whether the Board could take Polanco’s suggestion, Richman hedged.

“Do you have right to make an interpretation that is different than your counsel? Yes, you do have that right,” he said, but when Sipp pressed further Richman added, “I think we would have difficulty defending it in a court of law.  You may win the court of public opinion.”

The meeting ended with the Board agreeing that their staff should come up with a proposal for how to count election night results faster and more accurately – while their lawyers draft memos opining on whether that process is legal.

They meet again next Tuesday.  Poll workers for the September primary begin training on July 23.

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