Avoiding The Great Voter Turnoff of 2001

By Linda Stone Davidoff

It is a question with almost Zen-like simplicity: who got more votes? But the election for president is not the only race where people (and lawyers) are getting an endless Zen-like riddle for an answer. The State Senate contest on the East Side of Manhattan between incumbent Republican Roy Goodman and Democratic challenger Liz Krueger is also in a legal tangle, the two candidates at the moment separated by 346 votes out of some 117,000 cast.

But these elections may start looking like landslides compared to what could be in store for New Yorkers next year, when the Great Turnover, as it is being called, could easily turn into the Great Voter Turnoff.

In 2001, a new law, passed by referendum, goes into effect that limits the terms of New York City elected officials. This will force the mass retirement of most incumbents in the city, including the mayor, the comptroller, the public advocate, four of the five borough presidents, and 36 of the 51 members of the City Council. Term limits, coupled with major improvements in the city's campaign finance laws, is likely to produce a yearbook's worth of new faces running for office. Citizens who have been active in community, school, religious, sports or other neighborhood activities will be able to ask their neighbors for modest campaign contributions and then match those contributions, four dollars to one, from the city's campaign treasury. Without the imbalance caused by the greater name-recognition and financial resources of incumbents, the election of 2001 will tempt more citizen activists to enter races for City Council and encourage lively multi-candidate primaries.

So what is the problem? A large field of relatively unknown candidates in wide-open races is likely to produce many very close races. And close races, as we have seen so painfully demonstrated in Florida, require the kind of accuracy and efficiency in vote counting that is simply not possible under our current system.

As we have been told (see story by Henry Berger) the snafus in New York City during Election Day last month were appalling. In the Goodman-Krueger race, the Board of Elections sent out thousands of ballots to absentee voters in that district which mistakenly listed the candidates for another State Senate district. In polling places throughout the city, countless citizens arrived only to be told that they did not exist, or at least that their names could not be found. Some of the frustrated voters were simply attempting to vote at the wrong machine in the polling place, or in the wrong polling place. Others who thought they had registered to vote when they filled out the proper forms in a motor vehicle bureau office found that these forms had never found their way to the Board of Elections.

Many of these voters, whether registered in the wrong place or whether never actually registered at all, were given paper ballots on Election Day which were ceremoniously transmitted to the Board of Elections to be checked against the voter rolls and were then, many cases, simply discarded. But some polling places did not even have enough paper ballots to hand out in the first place.

In other polling places, the old machines broke down or jammed. Voters who had only a few minutes to cast their votes before they became late for work found themselves standing in lines snaking out the doors of the polling place while the poll workers waited for repair crews to arrive. Frustrated, the voters left, some never to return.

In many elections, in which the results are lopsided in favor of incumbents, you could argue that none of this really matters. But if an election comes down to a few votes for or against a candidate, how does the voter feel who had to leave before casting his or her ballot?

Long-term solutions must be found for the big problem of New York City's antique voting machines, for which replacement parts are no longer being manufactured (see story by Richard Mooney). Solutions must be found as well for the structural problems of the Board of Elections administration.

But we need not wait. Some simple, immediate steps can be taken in time to increase the probability that the city's new officials in this coming year will be elected fairly:

1. Increase the pay and mandate advance training for poll workers. The current level of pay -- $130 for 16 hours of almost continuous, exacting clerical work -- attracts only the most marginal workers. Furthermore, training requirements are nearly non-existent. Year after year, workers who don't know the alphabet and workers who don't know how to find a voter's correct polling place greet citizens as they attempt to exercise the most precious right and obligation of democracy.

For the longer term: consider whether polling place work should become a civic requirement, like serving on juries. Consider as well whether automated voting systems can replace many of the poll workers required under the current system. An automated voting system could be designed to require fewer polling place workers because the voter, once sent to the correct terminal, could use a stylus to sign in and activate the voting screen. There would be no need for an election worker to hunt up the name in alphabetical order, nor to check the signature.

2. Take the first steps toward restructuring and bringing the Board of Elections under competent professional management. For the short term: establish a city special oversight commission to review the Board's operations, report to the Council and Mayor, and institute some emergency measures to guard against mailings of the wrong absentee ballots, disregarding of valid voter registration forms, and other egregious practices. For the longer term: consider abolishing the Board of Elections and establishing a civil-service agency with a manager responsible to the Mayor. (Currently the two political parties choose the ten commissioners whom the City Council then officially appoints).

3. To help re-establish confidence in our elections procedures, immediately launch a review of the current technology of voting systems and prepare, for the longer term, to move to a more reliable system that might resemble a bank ATM; or might provide a paper ballot resembling the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), scannable by computerized equipment; or might be an updated version of the machines currently in use. The Florida court testimony in recent weeks has certainly provided a clear enough view of what we ought not to buy for our next generation of voting technology. The glimpses of the count in the state of Washington seem to indicate that other states have experience we may want to draw on.

As voting is the most fundamental right and duty of citizenship, so must reform of our antique and error-ridden voting system be the central concern of the civic organizations that believe in making democracy work honestly and efficiently. The civic community must mobilize. Citizens Union, which was founded in 1897 precisely "for the purpose of securing the honest and efficient government of the City of New York," has made overhauling the city's voting system a top priority. Our civic colleagues - among them, the New York Public Interest Group, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, the Women's City Club Of New York -- are all committed to restoring faith in this city's elections.

New Yorkers can write the members of the City Council, the mayor, and the mayoral candidates, to urge remedial action. Tell them that the city's future -- and their own -- may be at stake.

Linda Stone Davidoff is the newly-appointed executive director of Citizens Union and Citizens Union Foundation.

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