Despite the impressions received from media reports, the September 14th primary was not the first time that New Yorkers voted on paper ballots and scanners. In the 2009 off-year election, 47 counties in upstate New York used the new systems as part of a pilot program. This trial run taught participants valuable lessons, and New York City’s decision to abstain led directly to many of the problems reported there. In general, things went smoother upstate than in the City. Problem reports broke down into a few main categories:
Privacy Issues – One of the big lessons from the 2009 pilot was that voters felt that their ballots were too often exposed to public view. Some of this was inevitable – using a lever machine, surrounded on all sides by panels and curtains, the voter is in an isolation booth. Today, the small privacy booths where voters fill out their ballots are open on the back side, and if not placed correctly at the poll site (for example with the open side facing a wall) one can feel exposed. It’s very important that Boards of Elections think about layout and lines of sight within the polling place. A second frequent privacy complaint concerned carrying the paper ballot in plain view over to the scanner. This can only happen if Boards of Elections do not provide sufficient supplies of ‘privacy sleeves’ (folders which conceal the completed ballot) and adequately train poll workers in their distribution and use. Lack of privacy sleeves is an administrative failure, and is really inexcusable.
Poll Worker Training – In general, I think most Boards of Elections did their best to train poll workers. But it was inevitable that for those using completely new systems for the first time some missteps and mistakes were going to happen. Some of the reported problems involving poll workers unsure of proper procedures will lessen as the systems become more familiar. That being said, Boards simply cannot underestimate the effort they must put into poll worker training.
Some poor training is not to be excused. There were far too many reports of poll workers taking voters’ ballots from their hands, either at the scanner (usually in an attempt to help with a problem), or even worse, claiming that the poll worker had to cast the ballot. Let’s be clear – poll workers should never, ever, take a ballot from a voters’ hands or look at the ballot unless a voter specifically gives them permission to do so. The many reports of voters privacy being violated in this fashion indicates that many Boards are failing to adequately educate poll workers on the importance of ballot privacy.
Late Poll Openings – There were several reports about late poll openings, particularly down in New York City. Some of these seem to be administrative failures on the part of the City Board of Elections. Others were caused when poll workers, unfamiliar with the new systems, took longer than expected to get everything ready. And some were caused by machine problems, discussed below.
Whether or not there were more late poll openings with the new systems than we had with lever machines remains to be seen. I recall plenty of reports in recent elections of polls not opening on time because lever machines were not working and were awaiting a technician.
Machine Problems – In my opinion, there were enough reports of machine problems to be cause for concern. While some reports will ultimately be attributable to unfamiliarity with new systems, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that some scanners around the state had problems. In addition to startup problems, there were reports of ES&S’s DS200 scanner displaying a system error message after casting a ballot. Any ballots cast on machines that displayed this or other defects during voting hours should be independently recounted, plain and simple.
If the public is to have confidence in the new scanners, the State Board of Elections has to take action now to document the extent and nature of machine problems. The State Board needs to do a full analysis of machine performance on primary day. This analysis should include each individual machine problem report, the nature of the problem, the circumstances and machine configuration when it occurred, the cause of the problem if known, and how the problem can be prevented from happening in the future. It goes without saying that this report needs to be released to the public as soon as it is completed.
Difficult to Read Ballots – Finally, the single most common complaint was that ballot was very difficult to read (particularly in New York City, where Federal law requires 4 languages on the ballot). Some media reports implied this was a machine problem, but it’s not – it’s a political issue. New York Election Law requires the ‘full face ballot’, a grid layout where all candidates in all races are presented on one page. Further, all candidates from the same party must appear in a single row or column. These and other requirements, like the confusing but obligatory party icon displayed in each box (easy to confuse with the fill-in oval), leave no choice but a small typeface.
It’s ironic to now hear New York politicians complain about the difficult to read ballot. The full face ballot has long been condemned by civic groups, but New York’s Legislature has refused to change it. Why? Because the full face ballot layout reinforces straight party line voting – it’s easy and natural to go straight down or across the party line filling in boxes. Also, as one Senator said in an address to election commissioners back in 2005, “I want to be sure my name is on the first page of the ballot.” The reasons for New York’s awful ballot design have nothing to do with the usability of the ballot for voters, which should be the prime concern. But it does have everything to do with politics.
Politician, heal thyself.