Gotham Gazette

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Citizens Union

It's Still Broken

A witness at the City Council's first hearing on the city's creaky electoral system called it "a volcano getting ready to erupt." All witnesses agreed that this year's elections will test the system as never before, with more than 150 candidates vying for 35 council seats, four borough presidencies and the three citywide offices -- mayor, comptroller and public advocate. Most pointed out that last November's experience offered too many examples of what could go wrong, and all declared that too little is being done to prevent it.

"New Yorkers should not look with sanctimonious disdain on what happened in Florida," said Robert Abrams, the former state attorney general testifying as president of the Citizens Union Foundation. "New York's own election system is riddled with inefficiencies and disorders that imperil our ability to elect officials in an accurate and fair manner." The hearing was the first of a series planned by the Committee on Governmental Operations, chaired by council member Mary Pinkett, Brooklyn Democrat. It took place on Thursday (February 8) under the peeling plaster ceiling of the council chambers on the second floor of City Hall, and lasted most of the day.

There was near unanimity that the Board of Elections has been short-changed by the Giuliani Administration, which has proposed for several years to cut its funding. The council has restored the funds each time, but added nothing for the board's new needs. Since the mid-1990s, the full-time staff has shrunk from 363 to 312.

One witness called for an "emergency summit" to mobilize forces to fix the system, comparable to the task force that Mayor Koch created to good effect in 1985. Another witness pointed out that in the state legislature, where election law is written, the Republican-controlled Senate and Democrat-controlled Assembly have named separate election task forces, where they should be working together instead. Still others noted that Mayor Giuliani pledged last month to create a city task force, but has yet to act.

The best publicized problem in city elections is faulty mechanical voting machines [See story in Gotham Gazette from last July!!]. The city's 6,800 machines, each with 27,000 parts, were purchased in 1962. (Rochester's are even older.) Production of new machines ceased long ago. For replacement parts, old machines must be cannibalized. Daniel DeFrancesco, executive director of the city's Board of Elections told the committee that the board bought 14 old machines from Maine last year and mentioned that he had just asked the legislature for authority to buy 300 more. He faulted the legislators for restricting "our ability to use new technologies," and said support systems need upgrading, too -- for instance, the board's overwhelmed phone bank.

"Let's be perfectly clear," said DeFrancesco in his testimony. "We are just not going to change the system between now and November, so you have to deal with what you've got."

The hearing included a presentation of the optical scanner voting system installed in Rhode Island three years ago. The state's old mechanical system was the same as New York's. The new equipment is manufactured by Election Systems & Software, Inc., of Omaha, Nebraska, a 35-year-old company with systems installed statewide in a half-dozen states and smaller systems in several hundred counties and smaller jurisdictions. In this system, voters mark ballots by filling blank spaces with a special pen -- much like filling in a lottery ticket or a high school multiple-choice exam. The ballot is then fed into a machine, which scans and tabulates each vote. It rejects ballots marked incorrectly, which the voter may then correct.

The show-and-tell was not a committee endorsement. It just happened that two City Hall staffers who hail from Rhode Island knew that their home state had a new system that was working well, so they investigated and asked for the demonstration.

Any decision on new equipment for New York must be made in Albany for the whole state, and it will not happen overnight, much less in time for the city primaries and general elections this fall. Thus, the immediate benefit of the hearing was a public airing of ideas that can be put in place quickly.

Neal Rosenstein of the New York Public Interest Research Group focused on the need for better pay to attract more new poll workers, and better training. The board needs 25,000 workers for primary day and then again for the general election. It pays $130 for working 16 or 17 hours, from before the polls open until after they close. Several others suggested that the work be split into two shifts, observing that no one can be fully alert at the end of a 17-hour day. Citizens Union is launching a campaign through universities, businesses, unions and other organizations to address what Robert Abrams called "the acute shortage of qualified recruits." Rosenstein also pointed to the menace of mechanics who are no longer sharp enough to repair breakdowns on the spot, but nonetheless keep their patronage jobs thanks to political protectors. This was apparently a problem in two Brooklyn districts last November. NYPIRG has also urged the board to hire new foreign language staff; in Queens last November the Chinese language translations for some Republican and Democratic candidates were reversed.

Arthur J. Fried, executive director of the Center for Excellence in New York City Government at New York University, drew the danger starkly. "Last November a single state senate race [Sen. Roy Goodman vs. Liz Krueger] that required the counting of paper ballots took nearly 7 weeks to resolve. What would happen if two, or five or seven primary races were that close? The Board of Elections might not be able to determine the winners in time to put them on the ballot for the general election in November."

The center at N.Y.U. was first to hold a public forum on election preparedness, where the message was clear, Fried said: "If you want to avoid disaster in the fall, we need to act now." Fried was the witness who called for an "emergency summit." and one of several who implied that management at the board needs fixing, too. "We should see that the board gets not only the resources, but the management assistance it needs" for this years unique election workload.

NYPIRG, Citizens Union and four other civic groups sent a letter to Mayor Giuliani pointing out that the forthcoming elections "will stress the city's election system as never before," and endorsing a half-dozen of the boards "reasonable requests" for immediate help. The other signers were Common Cause/NY, The League of Women Voters of the City of New York, the City Club of New York and The Women's City Club of New York.

Richard Mooney, who wrote about the city's outdated voting machines for Gotham Gazette last July, is a former editorial writer for the New York Times.

Susan Reefer is a Republican pollster and media strategist. She is based in New York City.

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