State and city unready for voting machine headaches 


by Neal Rosenstein

Special to the News

Tuesday, September 22nd 2009, 8:32 PM


I took both my kids to the polls with me last Tuesday, to take part in a historic primary. Historic? I don't mean the historic low turnout or unprecedented loss of so many incumbent Council members. It was historic because it was probably the last chance I'd have to let my kids pull that big red lever inside our voting machines before they're all replaced next year.


Unfortunately, I'm worried that the state and city aren't doing enough to make sure that replacement goes as smoothly as it should.


After November's election, optical scan voting - where ballots are marked with a pen and inserted into a scanner for tabulation - is coming to the city. Forty-eight counties across the state have already begun to make the switch this year, complying with a federal court order to replace the levers. Optical scan offers many advantages, provides a genuine paper trail in case of close races and should help reduce lines. But a lot has to happen before the changeover to help make sure that voters aren't disenfranchised when the switch is made.


For starters, we need action in Albany to make sure all those paper ballots are properly audited and counted. Public confidence in election results will depend on confidence the scanners worked properly. That means the state Board of Elections has to listen to auditing experts now, and develop protocols that guarantee votes were counted properly. So far, the board's proposals fall far short of that goal.


The state board should also be faulted for directing counties to turn off a feature that would alert voters if they missed or "undervoted" a ballot. That's ludicrous. We have a scanner that can remind voters they forgot to vote for City Council or President and they want it turned off? They appear more interested in making their work easier and pinching pennies than encouraging participation and accurate results.


Action is also needed here in the city. NYPIRG urges the next mayor to do more than simply point the finger at Albany or Washington when calling for reforms. Plenty can be done here at home by the city and city Board of Elections. Here are two ideas for starters:


We need better poll workers. While most poll workers are competent, hardworking and dedicated, it's clear that many don't know the rules or should be replaced. The city should grant non-essential employees comp time for the primary if they work at the polls (many already get the General Election off.) This would greatly expand the pool of Election Day workers, cut down on the need to rely on patronage appointments by the parties and lead to a qualified pool of workers whose savvy could be crucial to operate the new voting systems.


The board must modernize. The city and Board of Elections are to be commended for vastly improving the board's Web site and using 311 to help handle Election Day calls. But it's time for them to take additional common sense steps like automatically providing voters with a sample ballot on their Web site and whether they're eligible to vote in a primary. Right now, it's more likely to see the city and board sniping at each other than working together to help voters. The city may also need to supplement the board's voter education campaign with more resources. Imagine the confusion at poll sites if voters aren't properly informed of the machine changeover.


The clock is ticking; we've got a year. Albany and the city need to start now to ensure we'll be ready for the big change in the way we vote.


Neal Rosenstein is Government Reform Coordinator for New York Public Interest Research Group, NYPIRG.