Counting votes in NYC goes low-tech

Voting machines for school budgets. (May 11, 2010 Voting machines for school budgets. (May 11, 2010 ) Photo Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

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Dan Janison Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison,

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday since 1997, initially as a staff writer for the New ...

Consider the contrast. While federal authorities use ultrasophisticated software to collect dazzling amounts of private information in the name of security, government in New York has yet to get the hang of digital technology when it comes to accurately counting votes in a hurry.

Less than three months from today, New York City conducts its fourth primary elections for citywide office of the 21st century. This is widely expected to be done on voting machines developed early in the 20th century.

City election officials say they cannot certify a final count of ballots on Primary Day, scheduled for Sept. 10, with the electronic scanner system -- introduced since the last mayoral election in 2009-- in sufficient time to decide if a runoff must be conducted two weeks later.

Which is especially interesting when you consider that computers were invented in the first place to count things quickly. But canvassing and recounting results on electronic scanners takes more time in the city than it did on the mechanical devices.

Which is why officials and candidates fear electoral chaos.

With the candidates already campaigning, and petitions already circulating, state lawmakers in Albany have yet to agree on terms of a measure needed to postpone the runoff date to Oct. 1 from Sept. 24.

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That is why, at this moment, on the verge of summer, part of the election calendar remains unsettled. And the need for a runoff -- which occurs when no citywide primary candidate gets 40 percent of the vote -- appears likely with a six-way mayoral race and a five-way public advocate race now in full swing.

The Assembly's elections committee is due today to approve a bill that would do two things, officials said: set the later runoff date and authorize the use of the mothballed lever machines. The Senate's elections committee has cleared a different version of the legislation. To be enacted, the houses must pass identical bills.

As of now, the Assembly's version covers only New York City, while the Senate's draft would authorize towns and villages outside its borders to return to mechanical devices this year.

The legislature, meanwhile, is picking up steam in its rush to summer recess. Sources say these bills may become a subject of barter with other issues in the frenzied final hours of session. What happens if they fail, nobody seems ready to say.

Even in the low-tech days, the city's 14-day runoff rule posed a special logistics problem.

At times, the totals have brought leading contenders tantalizingly close to 40 percent, bringing the recanvassing into the spotlight. And it's possible for the second- and third-place finishers to come out razor-close too, which would require a careful, time-consuming recount.

Assemb. Michael Cusick (D-Staten Island), sponsor of the lower house's runoff bill, says in a memo: "Because the optical scanning machines were specifically designed to retain and produce voter verifiable voting records, the canvass of votes as well as the testing of machines takes a little more time than the old mechanical lever voting machines."

Sen. Martin Golden (R-Brooklyn) adds in his separate runoff-bill memo: "The time required to properly test the electronic machines makes the two-week window between these two primaries almost impossible to comply with."

Good thing the city didn't sell those old contraptions for scrap.

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