All Your Lever Voting Machine Questions Answered (Admit It - You Have Them)

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Red lever in mechanical lever voting machine

Are the lever machines really coming back? Where are the machines now? Do they still work? Here’s everything you might be wondering about those 50-year-old lever machines we’ll probably use as we elect next mayor of New York in the 21st century.

First, a quick recap on how we ended up here. Way back in January and February, the New York City Board of Elections began contingency planning for the primary and runoff elections. The commissioners wanted an option besides using the current electronic scanners and paper ballots because recent elections have been, well, problematic. So the commissioners made a list. It included things like moving the primary date to June (clearly didn’t happen), using instant runoff voting (where a voter picks her first and second choice at the same time, so no separate runoff!), and, of course, bringing back the lever machines. Most options on the list required action from state lawmakers.

At first, the return of lever machines seemed the unlikely alternative. Surely the staff of the Board of Elections could find another way? But, in the final weeks of the legislative session, a Democrat and a Republican worked some legislative magic to come up with a bill that sailed through the legislature. That bill allows the board to bring back the lever machines, just for the primary and runoff (scanners for the general election) and moves the run off date to October 1, making it three weeks after the primary instead of two.

Is this really happening? 

Most likely. The bill passed the Senate and Assembly on Thursday night. Once it hits Governor Andrew Cuomo’s desk, he has 10 days to sign it. Last month he signaled that lever machines weren’t his ideal solution, but if there’s no other way, “you still need to count the votes.

Technically, there may be one more step. Since New York City falls under the federal Voting Rights Act, the Board of Elections will need to seek what’s called pre-clearance from the Justice Department. Basically, the Board will need to make its case again that it can’t possibly run the primary and run off elections on the scanners, and that's why it needs to bring back the lever machines.

UPDATE: Now that the US Supreme Court has overturned a key part of the Voting Rights Act, it will be that much easier for the Board of Elections to bring the lever machines back. Until that decision, the Board of Elections used to need to seek what’s called pre-clearance from the Justice Department before making any changes to voting. Find out more about what the decision means to New York.

Where are the machines now?

In two warehouses in Brooklyn. Here's one.

Do the lever machines still work?

Each one weighs 840 pounds, has more than 20,000 moving parts and was born in the 1960s. But the machines were wrapped in plastic bags for the past four years, so they should be totally fine.

I love that sound. It feels like I’m really voting. So why did we stop using them?

It is a great sound. I never thought I’d get to play it on the radio so many times in one year! But, while pulling that lever is viscerally satisfying, these machines don’t provide a paper trail. If the machine breaks, and screws up the vote count, there’s no way to fix that because there are no ballots to count. The city stuck with the lever machines until 2009. The following year, the Justice Department cracked down and forced the state to comply with the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which meant swapping out the lever machines for a system that can be audited in the case of a recount. Enter paper ballots and optical scanners

By the way, guess when that HAVA passed: 2002! New York was the last state in the nation to comply with it (take that, democracy).

Does anyone not love lever machines?

Yes. Lots of people do not love these machines. Good government groups like Citizens Union, NYPIRG, Common Cause and the Brennan Center for Justice hate them. The groups have been banging their collective drum trying to stop this from happening.

Susan Lerner from Common Cause calls them a, “resolute march back to the 19th century in election administration,” which is fair since the lever machine technology does date back to the 1800s.

Disability advocates also oppose the lever machines since they are not fully accessible.

Wait, I never used a lever machine. How does it work?

Enter booth. Close curtain. Slam lever to the right to set the machine in voting position. Pull the little knobs to make your selections. Slam the lever to the left to record your vote. The counter inside the machine keeps track.  Unless something happens, like the lever breaks off (true story, it's happened).  If there is a problem, and a machine is pulled out of commission, there are always paper ballots available for the asking.

Is there any chance the lever machines won’t come back?

Well, Cuomo could veto the bill. The Justice Department might block the plan. Someone could sue to stop it from happening.  I’m not a betting woman (there weren't casinos upstate when I was growing up). But if I were, my money would be on the lever machines. That sweet sound of voting is back, briefly, assuming the machines work.