Editorial: Unretire lever machines for mayoral primary

An old voting machine is seen in Atlantic

An old voting machine is seen in Atlantic Beach. (May 11, 2010) (Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy)

New Yorkers can't say they haven't been warned.

State Sen. Martin Golden (R-Brooklyn) has argued for months that the city shouldn't use its new electronic voting system in the Sept. 10 mayoral primary, but instead dust off its old pull-lever behemoths. Now his words are being echoed by Frederic Umane, president of the city's Board of Elections, who is starting to sound like a man teetering on the brink of disaster.

"We are between the rock and the hard place," Umane said this week, adding that "if you're a literary type" we're between the mythical sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis.

Unfortunately, Albany should hold its nose and do what Golden and Umane say.

Coming just three years after the city inaugurated a modern scanner-based voting system, the pleas for a temporary retreat to the old machines -- designed in the 1890s, using 28,000 parts -- are ironic, outrageous and irritating. This is New York, global center of finance and technology and a place that knows how to count.

And New York is telling the world it can't figure out how to count votes quickly? Well, yes, at least for now. But when the election board itself predicts disaster, we'd better listen.

The problem with the new technology lies in recounts, which require workers to sort through scanned ballot cards -- similar to those used in standardized tests -- to decipher the intentions of voters who marked circles. A hand recount in a special election for a State Senate seat in South Brooklyn last year took 72 days.

In a crowded mayoral primary, there may not be enough time for a recount within the required two-week window for a runoff. The big field increases the chances of a runoff by reducing the ability of a leading candidate to top the 40 percent mark necessary for outright victory.

The election board should roll out the old machines to get voters through the primary and runoff. But voters should howl to the heavens until Albany makes it possible for us to have elections managed by pros, not hapless patronage appointees. The state's leaders can prevent future messes if they want to. We should make sure they want to.


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