New York City has spent $95 million over the past few years to bring its election process into the 21st century, replacing its hulking lever voting machines with electronic scanners. But now, less than three years after the new machines were deployed, election officials say the counting process with the machines is too cumbersome to use them for the mayoral primary this year, and then for the runoff that seems increasingly likely to follow as soon as two weeks later. In a last-ditch effort to avoid an electoral embarrassment, the city is poised to go back in time: it is seeking to redeploy lever machines, a technology first put in place in the 1890s, for use this September at polling places across the five boroughs. The city’s fleet of lever machines was acquired in 1962 and has been preserved in two warehouses in Brooklyn, shielded from dust by plastic covers.
“We are right between the rock and the hard place, or, if you’re a literary type, between Scylla and Charybdis,” said Frederic M. Umane, the president of the city’s Board of Elections. “It’s the best solution that we’ve been able to come up with.”
Officials in New York and Albany have become increasingly worried about the city’s ability to smoothly oversee the election for mayor, which is the first such race without an incumbent since 2001. The city’s Board of Elections, which is not controlled by the mayor, was widely criticized for its inability to rapidly determine a winner in a low-turnout legislative special election in March 2012 and a Congressional primary last June, leading many people to doubt whether the board will be able to manage the much higher turnout in the mayoral primary, runoff and general elections this fall.
City election officials hope to use the lever machines only in the Sept. 10 primary and in the runoff election, which, if no candidate gets 40 percent of the vote in either primary, is scheduled for Sept. 24. The modern machines, in which voters fill out a paper ballot akin to a standardized test and feed it into an optical scanner, would return for the general election on Nov. 5 and then all future contests.
Senator Martin J. Golden, a Brooklyn Republican, said “there is no other choice” than to bring back the lever machines in September.
“If we had to do a paper recount, and with the setup that we have, it would take us through Christmas and into the New Year,” Mr. Golden said. “We would be tremendously, tremendously embarrassed. You have to be responsible. This is a responsible approach.”
The return of the lever machines has the support of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who has been a frequent critic of the new voting machines and of the elections board, which operates them. But government watchdog groups are furious that after years of debate and millions of dollars spent — not to mention a steep learning curve for voters — the city wants to reverse course, even if the change would be temporary.