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Dolman: Lever machines aren't perfect for NYC, but they are the best option

An old voting machine is seen in Atlantic

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

Last month Albany rushed in with some CPR for New York City’s wheezing elections bureaucracy. The state passed a measure allowing the city Board of Elections to revert to the old lever-pull voting machines in the Sept. 10 citywide primary election and runoff if necessary.

But now is saying the board could face a lawsuit because the old machines—inaugurated nationally around the time Theodore Roosevelt was running for president—don’t work well for the disabled. People with paralysis can’t pull the lever, for example, and blind people can’t read the ballot.

Beyond that, the ancient machines feature tens of thousands of hard-to-replace parts, are prone to frequent breakdown, and lead to recounts that are fast but less than totally trustworthy.

If advocates for the disabled succeed with a case, it’s hard to imagine how the board’s performance record could become more dismal.

No. 1. The board can’t run a low-turnout election effectively.

A Nov. 8, 2011 off-year election was insanely overstaffed, the city’s Department of Investigation reported in April. The board should have consolidated its workforce. No major city, state or federal races were on the ballot. No big proposals, questions or referendums were up for a vote. Yet the board seemed to gird for an invasion by the electorate—with 28,279 poll workers on hand, or one for every six voters who showed up that day.

No. 2. The board can’t handle a high-turnout election effectively.

It was revealed not long ago that almost six months after Barack Obama began his second term as president, maybe 1,600 uncounted Brooklyn ballots mysteriously materialized from the 2012 election. It seems these ballots—cast at Brooklyn Borough Hall and the Carroll Gardens Public Library using the board’s newer electronically tabulated system—never got uploaded into the Board of Elections database.

Conclusion? The board has a long history of screwing up elections on the old lever-pull machines and a short-but-impressive record of botching elections using the computerized scanning system inaugurated in 2010. At some point, the governor and key legislators should to repair to a meeting room, craft legislation that will give New York City a credible elections system, and propose it as a constitutional amendment.

What we have now is an epic, nonstop embarrassment.