Election Watchdogs: Humans, Not Machines, Caused Primary Day Problems

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The City Board of Elections has less than 60 days before the general election to figure out what went so wrong with the new voting system on Primary Day and how to fix those problems. Election watchdogs say most of the voting mishaps were caused by humans, not the new machines.

A lot of it just seems to be poor planning. Machines didn't show up on time. Neither did keys to polling places. Even poll workers arrived hours late. And many of the workers who were there at the start of the morning didn't know how to correctly set up the machines or didn't have the right code to turn them on.

"It wasn't all a failure of technology, but sometimes it was more of a failure of making sure that the proper preparations and proper contingencies were put in place," says Eric Marshall from the voting rights advocacy organization Election Protection.

Even Mayor Michael Bloomberg chimed in, blaming the Board for poor planning when more than 70 polling places opened late yesterday.

"What happens if Macy's advertised a big sale with a 6 a.m. opening but was unable to open some stores until 8 or 9 or 10 a.m.?" the mayor asked. "It would never happen. And the reason it would never happen at Macy's is because they know their customers would go some place else."

Optical scanning machines definitely broke down, but when that happened, poll workers made mistakes. They told voters to wait for the machines to be fixed, or to come back later. Larry Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice says that defeated the whole purpose of the new system.

"When the machines break down, people can still vote," says Norden. "People can still be given their ballot. They can fill them out, and they can be put in an auxiliary bin, so the fact that poll workers didn't know enough and the people running the polls didn't know enough to take advantage of that benefit is very troubling."

He says most of yesterday's problems could have been solved by better training. Voters complained poll workers took their ballots without their consent to feed them into the scanning machines. But that violates state election regulations. Poll workers also didn't tell many voters they could insert their ballots face down. Norden says the City Board of Elections should have been more cognizant of these privacy issues — especially since New York voters are known to be touchy about their right to a secret ballot.

"We voted on lever machines. We had curtains. We were very used to total privacy when we went to vote," says Norden. "There's no reason you shouldn't have privacy when you're voting on these systems and poll workers shouldn't be taking people's ballots."

Election watchdogs say the problem is that New York City waited until the last minute to try out the new voting machines. The state deadline to put these machines into place was 2010, but 47 counties decided to participate in a pilot program during last year's general election. Voting technology expert Bo Lipari says that gave those counties a chance to shake out kinks with the new system.

"The decision by the City Board of Elections not to participate in the 2009 pilot led directly to the problems they had yesterday," says Lipari. "In essence, the primary was their pilot program."

Lipari says upstate counties that took part in last year's pilot program learned how to deal with the privacy issue. They told poll workers not to handle people's ballots at the scanning machines. They realized they had to line up voters waiting for scanning machines away from voters filling out their ballots. They had a full year to learn how to fix other training problems.

In the meantime, the City Board of Elections says it is still preparing a report to summarize yesterday's voting problems.

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Comments [4]


I was a poll worker. The set up instructions were horrible and very complicated to follow. The amount of paperwork that is now generated that the election inspectors must handle is staggering. Talk about a paper trail!

Our location got the wrong floor plan and had to wait 45 mins to set up. It took us an 1-1/2 to shut-down and close out the machines after the poll closed with all the rig-a-ma-roll required.

We took considerable time with the voters explaining the system BEFORE they even went over to the privacy screens to mark their ballots. And it would figure, most of the issues happened with the rudest voters who didn't read the instructions on the ballots. I agree that there should be a longer wait time to confirm the ballots. Sometimes a confirmation never appeared on the screen, so voters weren't really sure the vote was recorded. The voters can use those silly privacy folders, but they are really bulky and most people weren't coordinated enough to use them ... yes, you can feed in your ballot any which way, as any referendums will be printed on the backside. It will be interesting if the Board of Elections fixes any of our troubleshooting and suggestions before November ... let the melee continue.

Just to let you know ... write-in votes get counted counted later ... and you will not get a notice if you under-vote (forget or purposely miss marking a selection) you'll only get an alert if you over-vote (pick too many candidates), or if the ballot is not readable. If you don't do another ballot and submit that one, it will be counted later. So, if your ballot is messed up, be sure to do another one electronically to be sure that your vote is counted with the masses ... you can spoil a ballot up to 3 times. The spoiled ballots have to be sealed by the voter in a special envelope and turned in to get a new ballot. There definitely is lots of room for improvement. So much for so-called progress.

Sep. 19 2010 06:08 PM
Bert from New York, NY

Aside from the usual comments about the size of the font or having to insert the ballot face-up in front of a poll worker, my concern is that the confirmation of my choices was displayed for, at most, one or two microseconds. A longer display time is rabsolutely necessary and the voter must accept or reject the machine's reading of the ballot.

Sep. 16 2010 09:16 AM
Behistun from Bronx, NY

This reminds me of a Steve Allen Joke, where a Sultanesque character bemoans, "I have three hundred wives and no children. What's wrong with those women?" The new process seemed so wrong-headed: simply "progress" for its own sake, not to improve our human democracy. At every step of the way the voting process has now become more cumbersome, time consuming, and confusing; less mysterious,more banal. It was disconcerting just to walk into the voting area to see these ubiquitous voting stations blocking the line of sight, without increasing one's sense of privacy. If anybody thinks that this is going to increase voter participation, especially among younger voters, they are living in Cloud Cuckoo-land!

Sep. 16 2010 07:58 AM
jenlynch from manhattan

I find the new machines very troubling. After I inserted the ballot, I expected my choices to appear on a screen so I could confirm the machine had scanned my ballot correctly. Instead, my ballot disappeared into the box with no further ado. How do I know the machine was functioning properly and not misreading the ballots? Anyone who has grown up in the error of fill-in-the bubble test taking has good reason to be skeptical and concerned.

Sep. 16 2010 06:51 AM

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