Not Just in Florida

By Henry Berger

High voter turnout is usually considered a good thing. But when millions of New Yorkers showed up to cast ballots last week, the city's election system simply couldn't handle the burden. This left many citizens frustrated, deprived some of them of their right to vote, and has cast doubt on the results of at least one close local contest.

The Board of Elections apparently did not anticipate the heavy voting, even though turnout always increases in presidential election years. As an attorney specializing in election law, I heard the complaints when machines broke down, inspectors appeared to flout the law, and polling places ran out of paper ballots and voting cards. Now, I'm monitoring the vote count in New York's 26th State Senate District on Manhattan's East Side, the contest between Roy Goodman and Liz Krueger, where the result probably won't be known until Thanksgiving -- partly because of all the Election Day difficulties.

One of the two biggest problems in New York is the voting machines. They're 40 years old, they're not manufactured anymore, and the spare parts for them also aren't produced. Because of that, when a machine jams or a lever fails to operate or falls off, another machine may have to be cannibalized to fix it. This leads to longer and more frequent breakdowns.

When the machine isn't available, voters are entitled to cast paper ballots. This year, given the high turnout and frequent machine malfunctions, a number of election districts ran out of the paper ballots, and some were without them for several hours.

The first solution for New York's election woes is to get new machines. If people are suspicious of electronic machines, the city must purchase new mechanical machines.

For now, there seems little prospect of that happening soon. Until it does, the balky machines will continue to point up the second big problem plaguing New York's election system: the inspectors. Most simply do not know what they are doing, which perhaps isn't surprising given that they only work two or three days a year, get very minimal training and are poorly paid. Their base rate is $130 for 16 hours, with extra money for training time and working both the primary and general elections. At a time when most competent people have jobs, few are willing to take a day off from their usual employment to make such a small amount of money. In fact, in 1998, 7,000 out of 25,000 inspectors didn't even bother to show up.

Many of the inspectors seem to have trouble simply checking names. On Tuesday, one man told me that he went to his local polling place and was pleased to find only four people in line. It still took 20 minutes before he could enter the voting booth, entirely because of the slowness of the inspectors.

When somewhat complicated problems arise -- a voter not appearing on the registration list or a machine breaking down -- many of the inspectors either don't know the law or refuse to enforce it.

One particularly blatant example occurred at a polling place at Columbia University. Voters who think they are registered but whose names do not appear on the voting rolls are entitled to cast paper "affidavit ballots." If the person casting the ballot turns out to be registered, the vote is then counted.

But things didn't work out that way for some voters at Columbia this year. An inspector there flatly refused to give out the affidavit ballots, saying they were reserved for voters who had moved. The coordinator, who is supposed to oversee larger voting places, told her that wasn't true. The inspector said, "I don't care. I'm not doing it." When the police officer at the polling station also told her that wasn't true, she continued to insist that she would not hand out the ballots.

At another polling place, an inspector instructed all people using paper ballots to sign the back, even though that would have invalidated the ballot. And inspectors at several stations were thrown into a quandary when they ran out of the card voters are given after they sign in but before they actually cast their ballots.

More money would help remedy these problems, enabling the Board of Elections to pay better and provide more training. In addition, full-time board staff could travel from polling place to polling place on Election Day, reviewing the situation and looking out for possible difficulties.

The board, though, has its own problems, notably a structure that seems designed for failure. It is intended to be rigorously bipartisan, meaning that every time a Democrat gets a job a co-equal Republican has to be appointed as well. This may sound high-minded but, given the reality of politics and the civil service in New York, it allows for many bad appointees and has created deep partisan divisions on the board.

Just as the closeness of this year's presidential race has shed light on problems with the election system in Florida and elsewhere, the shortcomings of New York's system become more apparent when a race here is especially tight. The delay in determining whether Roy M. Goodman or Liz Krueger will represent the 26th District in the State Senate arises largely because few votes separate the candidates. But the vote counters are plagued as well by a large number of paper ballots, which will probably end up being counted by hand. Then there are the affidavit ballots that must be checked against registration rolls. Because of the problems in Motor Voter registration, which enables people to register when they get a driver's license, those ballots must also be compared with Department of Transportation records. Then there are confusing instructions on forms that people had to complete before they could register and vote.

Perhaps New Yorkers can take some solace in learning this week that other places -- notably Florida -- mess up their elections as much as we do. Rather than taking comfort from that, though, New Yorkers should buy some new machines before the elections system faces the next "unexpected" burden, on the next Election Day.

Henry Berger is a New York election lawyer who has represented John McCain as well as a number of Democratic candidates.

###

Check out the Feature Archives!