Reports of Voting Problems Citywide

The city's first primary day with the new paper ballot system has been bumpy, to say the least. Problems have been reported throughout the five boroughs, and Mayor Bloomberg himself called it a “royal screw-up.”  A lot of the problems had to do with the new voting machines that use optical scanning instead of levers to count votes. Some listeners told WNYC that their experience went smoothly, but far more said they had trouble reading the small print, there wasn't enough privacy, the ballot design was confusing, scanners were broken, and, the blooper we feel takes the cake: a few polling stations were even missing ballots.

A few anecdotes:

Voters in several districts in Pelham were turned away during the first half-hour of voting because of a glitch in the optical scan machines. The new system involves paper ballots fed into the machines to be read and tabulated.

A poll worker said the Westchester County Board of Elections had been called to send someone who could fix the machines.

The mayor said his office received "disturbing" reports about city-wide problems -- including broken and missing scanners -- and "poor customer service" from poll workers. Here's how he put it:

"We've been told of some polling sites that opened two to four hours late. That is a royal screw-up — and it’s completely unacceptable."

The mayor said over the past five years the city had provided the Board of Elections $77 million to make the transition to the new voting machines, as well as receiving $85 million in federal funds for purchasing the machines.

"But there is a total absence of accountability for how the Board performed on Election Day -- because the Board is a remnant of the days when Tammany Hall ran New York. New Yorkers deserve better than this -- and the time has come to fix it," Bloomberg says.

In Jackson Heights, Queens poll worker Mario Faro was trying to get the machines working Tuesday morning, but could only get two out of three to work properly.

Further east at PS 89 on the border of Elmhurst and Corona, there were reports of broken machines, plus a broken pipe that was flooding voting rooms. 

On the Lower East Side, one polling site opened around 10:30 a.m., nearly four hours late.

On the Upper West Side, voters reported that when they showed up in the morning, the ballots had not yet arrived. Some voters had to leave to go to work and said they could not return before polls closed at 9 p.m., and therefore lost their chance to cast a ballot Tuesday.

On the Upper East Side, voters complained that the print on the new paper ballot was too small and the layout on the new ballot was confusing. Voter Thea Benenson was one of several voters who had to recast her ballot because she only marked her ovals with check marks. The machine only reads ovals that are completely colored in.

“They didn’t tell me to fill anything in,” said Benenson. “It’s ridiculous. I have a Ph.D. And they said, ‘Oh, you didn’t do it right.’”

Many other voters at that polling place said they were offended by the lack of privacy with the new system. Poll workers stood next to the optical scanning machines and voters said the workers could read ballots fed into the devices. One voter was so offended by the lack of privacy, he walked out with his ballot, only to be chased down by police officers a few blocks away and forced to return his ballot. 

Meanwhile, poll worker Paul Hutchinson started the day jittery because he felt he hadn’t been adequately trained on the new system. Hutchinson has been volunteering as a poll worker for a few years already.

“I wasn’t confident,” said Hutchinson. “They just said carry the book with you and try to ask questions once you’re here.”

The City Board of Elections said in a written statement that they increased poll worker training by 50 percent this year and increased the number of poll workers by 20 percent.

Disabled voters reported problems, too -- though disability rights advocates say the mishaps they saw today were the same problems they see every year. Margi Trapani of the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York says wheelchair users had trouble finding accessible entrances to polling sites. At least one polling place in Howard Beach, Queens had dangerous construction and scaffolding near the entrance. Disabled voters who needed to use the Ballot Marking Devices (BMDs), which are equipped with Braille pads, audio recordings and “sip-and-puff” instruments for the mobility-impaired, found they couldn’t wheel their chairs up to the machine because there wasn’t enough room.

Still, not everyone had problems. Voters across the city have described the new process as quick and simple. Many said lines seemed shorter.

If any voters felt their votes were not properly counted, they should contact voting rights advocates with Election Protection, an election watchdog group associated with the Lawyers’ Committee For Civil Rights Under Law.  The organization's hotline is 1-866-OUR-VOTE.  Callers will be able to talk to lawyers about possible legal recourse.