City's BOE Opts For Scanners in Primary, Runoff

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The New York City Board of Elections voted on Tuesday to use the electronic voting machines for the upcoming primary and runoff elections, despite saying for months that the machines weren't up to the task.

The city BOE had narrowed their choice down to four options. One involved using the old lever machines, two of the others relied on all paper ballots and differing types of manual counts. Each of these scenarios required some change to state law. Since the BOE's ideal solution was for state lawmakers to move the primary date entirely, and Albany remained resistant, commissioners raised concerns around any scenario that relied on legislative action.

Ultimately the board opted to forge ahead with optical scanners, through a vote of 8 to 1, because that option only required the State BOE to approve the city's plan for reduced testing between the primary and runoff.

"It was the only option that was legally viable," said Greg Soumas, the city BOE's Secretary and Democratic Commissioner from Manhattan.

The city BOE still plans to lobby the state to move the runoff election at least one week out, increasing the time between the primary and runoff to three weeks. The city will still need to print every possible version of the runoff ballot for testing. 

But State BOE Commissioner Doug Kellner cautioned there still may be problems.

"If there is a very close primary election, it may not be possible to determine the candidates in the runoff election in the time frame available," he said. 

If the difference between two candidates is less than one half percent, or ten votes, that automatically triggers a manual recount according to the BOE's guidelines.

Kellner said even when the city used the old lever machines, there was at least one recent election where it took so long to finalize the results that the BOE didn't know whether a runoff would be needed until the three days before the election was scheduled. That was the 1997 mayoral primary for the Democrats where Ruth Messigner just barely topped Rev. Al Sharpton with forty percent of the vote, eliminating the need for a runoff.

For this year's elections, a close race is only one of the potential problems. BOE president Fred Umane said cost is also an issue.

"There is no money budgeted for the runoff primary," Umane said. "So we would essentially be using our credit cards for everything."

A primary generally costs the city around $20 million dollars, according to Board officials. Using the scanner option, the runoff will cost that much, plus an additional $8.5 million.

Historically, the City Council and the mayor have closed the budget gap.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the BOE approved using the scanners through a unanimous vote. The vote was 8 in favor, 1 opposed, out of the total of 9 commissioners present. WNYC regrets the error.