Is Albany Ready To Bring Back the Lever Machines for Fall Elections?

Capital New York quoted Mayor Bloomberg back in May regarding the City’s voting machine problem as “flirting with Democracy”. After a post-Hurricane Sandy presidential election in which voters experienced long lines and mass confusion trying to vote, on a relatively new system which cost $95 million, it seems the new equipment is simply not ready enough for the demands of a 21st Century mayoral election in New York City. The local Board of Elections has been telling us that they cannot - in the two-week turnaround time between the September 10th primary and September 24th run-off - count all the votes for the former in time to print new paper ballots for the latter.

The NYS Senate voted last week to pull the old analog, lever operated voting machines out of mothballs in order to stave off a delay in the results due to time allotment needed to reprogram machines in the event of a potential run-off. This would only be for non-federal elections, and a similar bill has been introduced in the state Assembly. But that still brings up the issue of: what about the machines and training we spent all the cash on? In the history of this debate, after the passage of HAVA (the federal "Help America Vote Act") there were essentially two possible types of voting systems proposed for New York: DRE (direct recording electronic) devices, machines that simply tabulated your responses to voting options and then stored them electronically, and PB/OS: (paper ballot/optical scanner), in which voters filled out a ballot, that the voter would then feed into an optical scanner machine.  The ballot was kept under lock and key until Board of Elections officials reviewed them, or a hand count was necessary.

The DRE machines are subject to much more scandal and potential for nefarious deeds: hacking, miscounts, software hiccups, etc. DFNYC along with a group of other NYC local grassroots reform groups argued against their adoption, and passionately for a PB/OS system, along with the necessary laws to establish that the paper ballot, and not the digital number on the optical scanner machine, would serve as the official record of the vote count in the event of a contested election. New York eventually went with the PB/OS system of voting.  PB/OS is not without its own list of difficulties, as we have seen from recent elections. But what is readily apparent is that regardless of which style of electronic machine we are discussing, none are possessed of the capacity to operate efficiently, and with expediency within the constraints of NYC’s requirements for this year’s elections.

So, what to do? Clearly pulling out the old voting machines seems like an immediate solution to our pressing problem of deciding whether we will have a De Blasio administration or a Thompson administration, or a Quinn administration, or a Liu administration, or a Weiner administration. However, are the new machines to be relegated to cold storage? Or do we simply trot them out whenever there is a special election, or a Federal level contest, consigning the lever action machines to part of the iconography of New York City life? Is voting something that should and will always be accompanied by a hearty, visceral, “ka-thunk!” as the sound of inevitability? Or can we move this sacred process finally into the digital age?

DFNYC is reaching out to the experts in voting technology and regulations that we relied upon during the movement for a safe effective system years ago. We will update you here with their thoughts on this new development.

We would love to hear your opinions; please get in touch with us at (replace –at- w/@).

~ David Brezler