Election Watchdogs Positioned to Record Voting Mishaps Caused By New Ballots

Voting rights advocates are poised with poll watchers, online surveys and phone hotlines to record what they think is going to be a chaotic day as New York City residents try out new electronic voting machines for the first time in the September 14 primary.

So many advocacy groups have expected voting machine mishaps for so many months, the big story of the day will be if all actually goes smoothly.

Poll watchers for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and for the Center for the Independence of the Disabled will be fanning out in the city on Tuesday to see how New Yorkers fare with the new system and whether poll workers are adequately trained to help the disabled, the elderly and the just plain confused.  The League of Women Voters will have a live hotline throughout the day to receive complaints and ask voters to fill out surveys to report any problems they experienced while voting.  Voters can also call the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law on their Election Protection hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE.

Voting rights organizations are worried there will be fewer poll workers and translators this year as a result of budget cuts. Combine that with new confusing technology, they say, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Advocates and election watchdogs say the new machines -- and the new paper ballots they come with -- set voters up to make several mistakes. They say the optical scanning machines too easily allow voters to mistakenly vote for more than one candidate

"The machine doesn't reject ballots that it can't read at all," says Larry Norden, a senior counsel at the Brennan Center, which is suing New York City and the state board of elections, demanding that they provide better safeguards against overvoting.  

Voting advocates also point out that the new paper ballots -- which are about a third smaller than the ballots for the old lever machines -- are too hard to read. The print is so small, each voter will be offered a magnifying glass. They also say the ballot design is visually confusing. For example, bubbles are placed too close to a different candidate's name, and the space for write-in candidates is obscurely placed in the far right-hand side of the ballot.

Disability rights advocates are worried that poll workers will forget to encourage disabled voters to use special machines that are equipped with audio recordings and Braille keypads. They can magnify ballot text and allow mobility-impaired voters to cast their ballot with their breath through a "sip-and-puff" instrument. They also prevent overvoting. Rima McCoy of the Center for the Independence of the Disabled says in the past, disabled voters reported that poll workers weren't well-trained on the machines and couldn't adequately assist voters trying to use BMDs.  

But watchdog groups say there's a blessing.

"I should say the good news in a weird way," says Norden, "is the fact that this is a primary election so there will be low turnout and you'll have the most well-informed and educated electorate that you can have in a statewide election." Norden says these types of voters are more likely to ask for help if they're confused. Rolling out these new machines during a general election, he says, would have caused more extensive problems.