For the first time, NY-23 will vote on paper ballots
The special election for the seat in the NY-23 Congressional district has begun to draw national attention, being seen by some as a bellwether of the strength of conservative Republicans. Unnoted by the mainstream media is the fact that the election will be conducted on new voting systems that are being used for the first time as part of the state’s pilot program. The pilot, which permits use of the as yet uncertified machines on a provisional basis, was designed to allow local Boards of Elections try out the new systems in an off year election when turnout is typically low and few races for state or national offices are held. However, the vacancy in the NY-23 seat created by the resignation of Representative John McHugh and the political makeup of the district, always strongly Republican, creates a high tension atmosphere where the eyes of the nation will focus on northern New York on November 3rd. The performance of the new voting machines as well as the procedures used to manage and secure the paper ballots will be under intense scrutiny.
NY-23 lies in the northern most part of New York State. It is made up of all or parts of 11 counties, all of which but for two, Clinton and Essex, will be using new Dominion ImageCast scanners to tally paper ballots marked by voters. The county Boards of Elections will be programming and installing the election data, sealing systems with tamper evident seals, printing and distributing paper ballots. Poll workers at 277 poll sites across NY-23 will follow new security procedures to inspect and turn on machines, record everything in chain of custody logs, and hand out paper ballots to voters. Next week the high visibility of the NY-23 race will test how well election officials have prepared for the election in terms of poll worker training, secure management of ballots and machines, and procedures for auditing and recounts. It will also be a test for the ImageCast machines, which are being used for the first time in a general election.
The September primary saw a limited use of the new scanners, and for the most part went well, although not without some hiccups. We should expect the same on Election Day, and given the national focus on the race there is a good chance that someone will raise questions if there is any indication at all of machine problems, or ballot security issues, or procedural mistakes by poll workers. All the more reason that election officials in NY-23 counties should be paying meticulous attention to getting all the myriad details of preparing and running a 21st Century election right. As the saying goes, the last thing an election official wants is to be in the newspaper on the day after the election. If you’re in the newspaper, it means something has gone wrong. And in today’s media environment and a high stakes election like this one, if anything goes wrong you don’t just get in the newspaper, you’re fodder for the 24/7 cable/internet news cycle.
So what happens if something does go wrong? Well, that’s the beauty part of paper ballots. With good security and chain of custody procedures, we can count them independently of the scanners. While New York’s current auditing provision leave much to be desired, it’s not nothing – 3% of the machines must be audited. And, given the high stakes and New York’s well known propensity for ‘litigious behavior’, I expect that if any questions arise someone will be in Court requesting a recount of the paper. Since this is the first use of new machines and a pilot program at that, there’s a good chance a Judge will grant a request for a recount of the paper ballots, just as one did in Putnam County after the September primary.
Look at what happened just this year in Minnesota, in a hotly contested Senate race that had the eyes of the nation on it. After all the questions and controversy, hand counting the paper ballots decided the contest once and for all. At last, in New York State, we can do that too.