New York City Considers Move Back To Lever Voting Machines For September Elections
Originally posted at The Brad Blog
We have yet another potential mess concerning elections in New York City on the new optical-scan computer tabulation systems, which recently replaced the mechanical lever machines used by the city for decades.
This time, the problem relates to the upcoming citywide elections in September. If no candidate wins more than 40 percent in any of the primary races, a runoff will be required by state law — just two weeks later.
This is now a huge problem for the city, since there is concern that it could be all but impossible to re-prepare and fully re-test the computer optical-scan systems in the short time between the primary and the runoff . It has left some, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the NYC Board of Elections, seemingly regretting the move away from lever machines and considering bringing them out of mothballs for this year’s runoffs.
“The computers just can’t be programmed and readied in time for a runoff,” WABC7’s Dave Evans notes in his video report on Monday (posted below). “The old machines can be.”
Further adding to the problems, says State Board of Elections Commissioner Doug Kellner “If there is a very close primary election, it may not be possible to determine the candidates in the runoff election in the time frame available.”
Since New York was the last state in the nation to “upgrade” their voting systems from the old lever systems to new proprietary computer optical-scan systems over the last several years, the move has caused nothing but headaches in New York City and across the state.
For example, back in 2008, as the new systems began to arrive, just 15 percent of the new $11,000-apiece electronic Ballot Marking Devices (BMDs) for disabled voters actually arrived in working order in Nassau County. All the others were “unusable or…require[d] major repairs,” according to the county attorney at the time.
During the 2009 special election to fill the NY-23 U.S. House seat vacated by Kirsten Gillibrand after she was named to fill the U.S. Senate seat of then newly appointed Sec. of State Hillary Clinton, unsubstantiated rumors of a “virus” in the new optical-scan systems, used for the very first time in the district during that race, sullied confidence in the computer-reported results. [We covered the story extensively at the time for the right-leaning Gouverneur Times, which is now, unfortunately, out of business.]
In late 2010, the state court ordered that a manual “recount” of paper ballots had to be stopped and that unverified computer tallies were to be used as “official” in a New York state Senate race where just 451 votes, out of some 84,000 ballots cast, separated the top two candidates. The election would result in Republicans gaining the majority in that body that year.
Last year, after a public records request, the New York Daily News discovered that during the 2010 statewide September primary elections, some op-scan systems in the South Bronx experienced a failure rate of 70 percent. In the November general election that year, the failure rate was found to be 54 percent. Thousands of valid votes went uncounted entirely.
When the new op-scan systems rolled out in New York City itself in 2010, long lines, “reports of broken and missing scanners,” and computer “system errors” resulted in what Mayor Bloomberg at the time described as a “royal mess.”
All of those royal messes might have been avoided, had the state simply listened to the Election Integrity advocates at the time, who were attempting to persuade the state to stick with their old tried-and-true mechanical lever voting machines, rather than move to secret vote counts by computer tabulators. The advocates had tried to warn the state to ignore a wholly inaccurate “legal advisory” issued in 2005 by the woefully compromised U.S. Elections Assistance Commission (EAC), which had incorrectly advised that mechanical lever voting machines did not meet the requirements of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002.
Even today, some elections official in New York refuse to certify races tabulated on the new, unreliable electronic systems, insisting on a hand-count before they will sign off on official results.
Which brings us to the latest royal mess in New York City surrounding their upcoming September elections, which has led Bloomberg to pine for the old lever machines. In fact, using those systems has been presented as one of the possibilities examined by the NYC Board of Elections as a solution to the latest woes, as explained in WABC7’s Monday night report below:
“We used to be able to get, within a couple of hours, a count. Now you can’t get it within a couple of months,” Bloomberg complains in the report above. “This is ridiculous.”
The old lever machines, still stored in a Brooklyn warehouse, “could easily be called up for a runoff this fall because they’re uncomplicated, easy to use,” reports WABC7’s Evans. “The new computers aren’t.”
In response, Dick Dadey, executive director of NY good-government group Citizens Union, calls the lever machines “unreliable.” He goes on to argue that they “haven’t been used in three or four years, do not count votes correctly [and] would cause more problems than they would solve.”
While there are various problems that can crop up with the old lever machines, they are very rare, and limited in scope only to the single precinct where the problem occurred. Unlike the secret-vote-counting computer systems that Dadey seems to be arguing for, the suggestion that they “do not count votes correctly,” is simply wrong.
In WABC7’s report, Frederic Umane, chief of the NYC Board of Elections, calls for simply “getting rid of the runoff” entirely.
As usual, here we have a case of technology driving the democracy, rather than the other way around.
Other proposed solutions for the problem have included calls for the state legislature to move the September primary up to an earlier date (Republicans would like it in August, Democrats prefer June before folks go out of town for the summer), to allow time to reprogram the systems between the two elections if a runoff becomes necessary.
Still others have called for the horrible and incredibly confusing idea of an instant runoff, using a process known as Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) which requires voters to select first and second choices, with the votes of losing first-choice candidates being shifted to others until one candidate finally reaches the required percentage to be declared the winner. Schemes like that — in a country where we have enough trouble adding 1 + 1 + 1 in a way that the citizenry can know votes have been tabulated correctly — have been tried and failed all over the country. They can also be gamed and lead to candidates “winning” even though they’ve received less than a majority — even less than a plurality — of the vote. (Here is an excellent YouTube video channel with a bunch of great videos explaining the many problems with instant runoff voting and RCV.) Think NYC has problems with its elections now? Try adding RCV to the mix.
All of those “solutions,” however, would call for legislative action by the state, which is believed to be unlikely.
So, yesterday, here’s how the NYC Board of Elections decided to handle the problem for now, according to WNYC:
The city BOE had narrowed its choice down to four options. One involved using the old lever machines, two of the others relied on all paper ballots and differing types of manual counts. Each of these scenarios required some change to state law. Since the BOE’s ideal solution was for state lawmakers to move the primary date entirely, and Albany remained resistant, commissioners raised concerns about any scenario that relied on legislative action. Ultimately the board opted to forge ahead with optical scanners by a vote of 8 to 1, because that option only required the state BOE to approve the city’s plan for reduced testing between the primary and runoff.
Yes, that’s right. The “solution” settled on, for now, by the BOE, is to do less testing of the oft-failed, easily-hacked, computer tabulation systems already in use, rather than move to a simpler, cheaper, overseeable option like the tried-and-true lever machines, or, better yet, simply hand-counting results as per “Democracy’s Gold Standard.”
And, as if all of that wasn’t dumb enough, there was this closing note from WYNC: “A primary generally costs the city around $20 million, according to Board officials. Using the scanner option, the runoff will cost that much, plus an additional $8.5 million.”
Brilliant. The September elections in NYC should be fun. What could possibly go wrong?
Photo: Center for American Progress/Flickr.com