When Mayor Michael Bloomberg blasted the debut of new polling machines as a “royal screwup” during the September primary, many New Yorkers felt the label fit for practically any election day in New York.
After all, complaints of late poll openings, delayed equipment arrivals and malfunctions, and privacy violations reflect a business-as-usual frustration many voters confront.
The root of the problems? The mayor and other observers pin the lion’s share of the blame on the Board of Elections, a panel conceived to ensure fairness that experts say has devolved into a haven for patronage and ineptitude that answers to seemingly no one.
The board “is one of the hidden shames of our democracy,” said Susan Lerner, executive director for New York Common Cause. “It’s the perfect example of a patronage system designed to fail and designed to discourage the ‘wrong’ people — and by ‘wrong’ I mean people who are not party loyalists — from voting.”
Indeed, New York experiences a much higher rate of poll troubles than other places, said Wendy Weiser, director of the voting rights and election project for The Brennan Center.
In testimony before the City Council, Board of Elections Executive Director George Gonzalez testified that the complaints about the Sept. 14 primary “were in large measure similar to those we encounter in some form at every election.”
The 10-member Board of Elections — five Democrats and five Republicans — are appointed by the leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties in each of the five boroughs for four-year terms and confirmed by the City Council. The board receives funding for its operations from the City Council and the mayor’s office.
“The agency really doesn’t have much oversight,” said Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the New York Public Interest Research Group. “Their procedures for dealing with problem employees,” or even recalling commissioners, he notes, “is just not known.”
Gonzalez responded that the board has a “noncompliance program” for any of the city’s 36,000 poll workers who generate complaints, which can result in anything from remedial training to dismissal.
Many of the issues that generate frustration, such as patronage appointments, user-unfriendly ballot design, and a stone-age voter registration system, are “legislative issues,” over which the board has no control, said Gonzalez.
There is little legislative appetite, however, to tackle such tasks because the system — originally designed for the Republicans and Democrats to keep an eye on each other — has become a symbiotic system for the parties to “scratch each others’ backs,” said Neal Rosenstein, NYPIRG’s government reform coordinator.
Will voting on Nov. 2 be any less painful? Gonzalez said he has taken multiple corrective actions: “We’re bringing back all our coordinators and assembly district monitoring teams,” to drill them on the importance of opening and closing the polls on time, the importance of privacy and instruction on how to use the machines.
According to the New York City salary list, Gonzalez’s base salary is $155,478. Gonzalez, who said he had worked for the BOE for 22 years in positions including clerk, driver for a previous executive director, election day operations, and finance, said he has a high school diploma from DeWitt Clinton High School. “I’ve done every aspect of this job and moved on and up the food chain,” he said.
“My goal,” said Gonzalez, “is to ensure we have a 100 percent problem-free election.”
Voters with disabilities face election frustration
Think you have problems at the polls?
Voters with limited English comprehension, vision trouble or a physical disability have an even harder time exercising their right to vote. A survey of 53 poll sites during the Sept. 14 primary found that 80 percent had one or more barriers that impaired access for people with physical disabilities.
For T.K. Small, voting can be as challenging as climbing K2. The Brooklyn Heights attorney and radio host uses a power wheelchair and can’t use his hands.
Two years ago, Small tried to use the Ballot Marking Devices (BMDs) which, with its “sip and puff” option, permits voters such as Small to cast a ballot unassisted. But, Small recounted, no poll worker could get it to function. A technician arrived, but was stumped, too. Small finally went to a judge at the Brooklyn Board of Elections, who referred him elsewhere. “So I went to the Municipal Building and it was even more useless.”
The judge finally gave him an order for an emergency ballot.
Small found nonworking BMDs during this primary. He told his attendant to grab a ballot and the poll worker “spoke to my attendant instead of to me,” which enraged him. He was able to vote by having his attendant fill out his ballot for him.
BMDs are a problem, admitted George Gonzalez, executive director of the New York City Board of Elections. Supervisor training should rectify the woes, he said. “Our top priority is to ensure that all voters, including voters with disabilities, can vote privately and independently,” Gonzalez said.
Tokit Lam, 71, of Flushing, who had a language barrier at the polls, said no worker told him a BMD could make the ballot more legible. “I used my own magnifying glass,” he said through an interpreter.
On Nov. 2, poll workers will be instructed to ask voters “Do you need assistance voting?” to determine if they need a BMD, Gonzalez said.
Lam didn’t mind that a “helpful” poll worker fed his ballot into the optical scanner, even though the confidentiality protocol is for the voter to scan his ballot personally.
Small is skeptical that the BMD will be functional for him next Tuesday, but dearly hopes to be proved wrong. (Sheila Anne Feeney)
Read the voters’ guide that is sent to you before the election so you can make a swift, informed choice, which will reduce poll congestion.
l Confirm your poll location by clicking on the “poll site locator” at www.vote.nyc.ny.us. Also, 311 operators should be able to tell you your precinct.
l The Board of Elections hotline (866-VOTE-NYC), should have operators on hand to troubleshoot, said board executive director George Gonzalez. If you call immediately and provide sufficient detail (like your assembly and election district), “We can send someone out to the poll site,” to resolve your problem, he said.
l The League of Women Voters will be operating a hotline on election day: 212-725-3541. If you encounter a closed poll, for example, “We will use every number we have at the BOE to try and identify who can open it,” said Adrienne Kivelson, vice president of the NYC League of Women Voters. Other hotlines? The National Lawyers Guild (800-OUR-VOTE) and the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (212-966-5932) will also be staffing phones to help voters facing difficulties.
l If you can’t read the tiny type on your ballot, ask to use the Ballot Marking Device, which should be available in every polling site: It has a magnification option that should help you to see it clearly.
Did You Know?
• Hawaii has a "no excuses" absentee voting law. Any registered voter may request an absentee ballot by mail or vote early (absentee walk in) for any reason.
• All of Oregon, and most of Washington state conduct “vote by mail” elections: You don’t have to go to the polls because there are none.
• The 375,000 voters who turned out for the last primary represented fewer than 10% of the 4.4 million registered voters in New York City.
• People who cannot provide a valid reason as to why they failed to vote in Australia are fined the equivalent of $20. The fine goes to $50 if they take the matter to court and lose.
• What most increases turnout is a candidate or issue that galvanizes public interest, says University of Rochester political science professor Richard Niemi. Presidential elections, for example, draw 15 – 20% more voters than “off year” elections.
• New York was the last state to ditch its archaic old lever machines (patented by Thomas Edison) in favor of optical scanning devices to comply with the federal Help America Vote Act.