City Board of Elections Mulls Lever Machines for Upcoming Vote

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


The New York City Board of Elections isn't ruling out bringing back the old lever voting machines (PDF) if the dates for the upcoming primary and runoff elections remain unchanged. It's just one of several options to account for a snafu with the new electronic voting machines.

The Board has said repeatedly that it can't run a primary election on September 10 and then turn around and hold a run-off two weeks later using the electronic machines because of all the time it takes to tally the votes, determine the top candidates, print ballots and test the machines.

A runoff applies to city-wide races and gets triggered when no single candidate gets more than 40 percent of the vote. That's something that becomes increasingly likely when there's a crowded field of candidates, like the race for mayor. So if the dates don't change, the Board is exploring contingency plans.

BOE president Fred Umane says bringing back those lever machines is a remote possibility.

"We have them. We’ve kept them just for emergencies so it might be something that ultimately could happen, but it’s unlikely," Umane said.

The BOE is also studying something called instant runoff voting, where a voter would pick their first and second choice at the same time. Right now the scanners aren't equipped to read that kind of ballot, so that would mean counting those second choices by hand.

Another option is using ballots that don't actually have the candidates name of them — just letters A and B. Then for the runoff, voters would take a guide into the privacy booth that would explain which letter corresponds with which candidate (note: see the full list of options on page 3 of the minutes below). Any of these options would require state approval. 

The BOE has had problems executing elections of all sizes in the last year. In the low turnout June congressional primary, a narrow contest in upper Manhattan and the Bronx proved to be counting challenge and led the BOE to change their election night closing procedures, moving to use the memory sticks from the voting machines to report unofficial election night returns.

After the 2012 general election, the BOE also struggled to finalize the count, in part, because Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order on the eve of Election Day that permitted any voter in counties impacted by Sandy to vote by affidavit ballot at any poll site.

The BOE is also experiencing a shake up of its membership after Republican City Council members decided to take advantage of a section of election law that allows them to replace county commissioners if the party leader does not submit their name for Council approval within a certain number of days at the start of the year. There is a total of 10 commissioners - two from each borough by party. So far, the Republican commissioners from Brooklyn and Queens have been replaced; the status of the commissioners from Manhattan and the Bronx is unclear.

010813 Meet by Brigid Bergin



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Comments [4]

Douglas A. Kellner

I agree with the New York City Board of Elections that the two-week timeframe for a runoff election invites serious problems. This is nothing new. I first raised that issue as a party official in 1985 and have repeated it many times since then. On numerous occasions in the last few months I have told the press and elected officials that it is urgent that the Legislature address the potential problems of the runoff and that my number one recommendation is moving the primary to June (or July or early August) and holding the runoff at least a month later. Alternatively, I have been recommending that the Legislature abolish the runoff, either outright, or by using instant runoff voting. Nevertheless, we election officials also need to address the very real possibility that there will be no legislative changes.

It is not impractical to conduct the runoff election using the state of the art scanners purchased by New York City in 2010. On February 6, 2013, the four commissioners of the New York State Board of Elections agreed that the State Board would consult with the NYC Board to develop a feasible plan for the runoff election. This includes any modifications of the testing procedures that are necessary to deal with the special circumstances of a runoff election just two weeks after the primary.

I have heard second-hand reports of overly complicated and grossly expensive proposals of what would be necessary to use the scanners for the runoff. I liken many of these misstatements to the unnecessarily complicated procedures devised by NYCBOE for closing the polls and completing the poll site canvass reports. I, and others at the State Board, have urged the NYCBOE to use much simpler procedures like those used by other election boards in the state. I have been very concerned by the exaggerated reports regarding the runoff, which is why I made a special point to have the four state elections commissioners go on record that the State Board will work with NYCBOE to develop the best possible procedures under the circumstances.

The nostalgic recollections of the lever machines ignore the numerous problems that we had with those machines, both in general, and with the particular problems of setting up the runoff. Hand counting paper ballots without the scanners would raise many, many more election integrity issues than are raised by abbreviating the logic and accuracy testing procedures. I would strenuously oppose either of those alternatives to using the scanners.

We have advised the Legislature of the problems in administering a runoff election just two weeks after the primary and only six weeks before the general election. But let's not exaggerate the problems and let's develop the best strategy for conducting the runoff under the parameters set by the current law.

Douglas A. Kellner
Co-Chair, New York State Board of Elections

Feb. 21 2013 05:40 PM
cb_nyc from UWS

For voters whose disabilities present obstacles, wouldn't paper ballots be available on site, as they have always been in the past. If voting on paper on site does not proect the voter's privacy, there is always the option of voting by mail on an absentee ballot.

Feb. 19 2013 06:38 PM
Chris J. from San Francisco, CA

San Francisco has been using instant runoff voting for about eight years now. I've been a polling place inspector there. It works well and has eliminated the need for a low-turnout December runoff right after November.

Feb. 19 2013 02:15 PM
emprentiss from NYC

And, what about voters with disabilities who can't vote on lever machines?

Feb. 19 2013 01:27 PM

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