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

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.