(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)
Major changes are coming to the way New Yorkers cast ballots as the New York City Board of Elections prepares to roll out early voting for the first time later this month. In a sort of test-run during a very quiet election year, the Board will be opening up the polls for nine days leading up to Election Day and is taking the opportunity to pilot new technology that can make voting easier and more accessible.
Throughout 2019 New York City elections administrators have had the immense task of expanding voting days from a single day to ten days -- in a city of over 5 million registered voters -- thanks to recent changes in state law. Early voting passed in January as part of a host of election reforms long sought by good government advocates, which finally gained legs when Democrats took control of both chambers of the State Legislature. It begins for the first time in just two weeks.
There will by 61 early voting poll sites across the five boroughs open for varying hours from October 26 through November 3, followed by Election Day, which this year falls on Tuesday, November 5 (there will be no voting on November 4).
What voters experience at the early voting sites will be markedly different from the traditional voting experience New Yorkers are used to, including changes from the more paper-based past. Given it is something of a pilot year, Election Day itself will be a hybrid of old and new.
“What we’d like to be able to do, if we can make this change,” BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan told Gotham Gazette in an interview this week, is give voters and poll workers a taste of the coming changes prior to the presidential election in 2020, “so that people will be a little more familiar with the process.”
There is little on the ballot this year, though there is a citywide special election for Public Advocate and charter revision proposals that could alter voting and governance in the city. There are also some local races, like the Queens District Attorney election and judicial contests. Turnout is expected to be very light this year, before a massive showing in 2020.
As part of this year’s reform package, state lawmakers not only created the early voting program, but authorized local elections boards to use electronic poll books for the first time, a move critical to implementing early voting but one that comes with its own logistical hurdles.
To help administrators meet the demands of the new voting process and comply with the state laws that created it, the BOE has created new positions to coordinate early voting operations in each of the five boroughs and has expanded and updated it’s poll-staff training. These preparations, among others, will soon be tested.
Many voters who take advantage of early voting will be casting their ballot at a poll site different from their assigned Election Day site. By replacing the limited and cumbersome paper poll books used to look up voter registration information, electronic poll books will allow poll sites to track whether a voter has already cast a ballot and enables early voting sites to serve a wider spread of election districts, each with its own unique ballot.
The shift to early voting requires a large amount of digital technology, in addition to e-poll books, all of which has to be backed up, secured, and operated by the Board’s temporary poll-site staff. During the early voting period, the New York City BOE will use the new e-poll books and a ballot-printing system known as “ballot-on-demand,” which syncs with the voter rolls to produce the correct ballot without each early voting site having to be stocked with what could otherwise be a prohibitively large range and number of pre-printed ones.
“Any Line, Any Time”
The ballot-on-demand and e-poll book systems together allow the BOE to pilot a concept Ryan is calling “any line, any time” in the early voting days.
Typically on Election Day, a voter has to check in to a specific table assigned based on Assembly and/or election district where they are given the proper ballot from a pre-printed pack stored in shrinkwrap.
According to Ryan, starting this year when a voter enters an early voting site they will be checked in by a poll worker at one of usually ten e-poll books at each location and will be given a ballot by another poll worker stationed near a ballot-on-demand printer. The system is supposed to create more simplicity for voters and efficiency for poll workers, and is one the BOE believes it can reproduce at Election Day sites in the future.
The new procedure means staff at early voting sites require a different type of training from Election Day poll-site staff.
“That is a difference in the way we currently run elections and our hope is that that will work well, we’ll get rid of those A to L, M to Z lines,” said Ryan, referring to the assigned tables. “Here, for early voting, if there’s a line at one you’ll go to the next one and so on down the line. You’ll basically be able to go to the shortest line, or the empty slot.”
“We’re very encouraged based on our preliminary assessments that this will be something that can be replicated for all of our Election Day sites,” he added.
But execution by the BOE remains to be seen, and there are limitations. The way the system is set up this year, voters may only cast ballots at their assigned early voting site (as opposed to any early voting site in their borough or across the city), which may not be the same as their Election Day poll site and could be further from their home. The differences may cause confusion and the limitations in convenience undermine the intended purpose of the new voting system.
Jarret Berg, an election lawyer and founder of advocacy and watchdog group Vote Early NY, told Gotham Gazette the BOE decided to invoke an exception in the law that allows the city to assign voters to specific early voting sites. “This is one of my top grievances with the program they have. Frankly, it is my top grievance,” he said, indicating his preference that the city allow voters to cast a ballot at any early voting site in their county (also known as borough) or even citywide.
Spoon Feeding on Election Day
Election Day will look differently in the first year of early voting.
Rather than the 61 locations open during the early voting period, a New Yorker who chooses to cast their ballot on Election Day -- November 5 -- will arrive at their local poll site, one of over a thousand operating citywide. The greater number of poll sites means each is serving a smaller number of election districts and has to furnish fewer pre-printed ballot variations.
On Election Day, e-poll books will be used to check in voters, which involves matching a signature with the one on their voter registration, but they will not be connected to ballot-on-demand printers. Instead ballots will be supplied the old-fashioned way from the packs.
Part of the concern with undertaking the “any line, any time” approach on Election Day was the sheer newness of it, Ryan said.
“The fear was, we’re doing it for the first time. So we didn’t want to introduce too much to our poll workers and have too much change but we also have to recognize that we didn’t want to impose too much change on the voters either, because they have to get used to the new system,” said Ryan.
“So we figure we’ll spoon feed it a little bit,” he added. “The voters that vote early will get used to the new way of doing it. The voters that go to vote on Election Day will get used to a new piece -- that being the e-poll pad.”
Kate Doran is a member of the city’s League of Women Voters who has been attending commissioners’ meetings to monitor the BOE’s progress on implementing early voting. “I think they’ve been cautious. I think that they are trying not to make mistakes,” she told Gotham Gazette.
Preparing for the Big Day(s)
In order to get to where the board feels it needs to be by the start of early voting this year, Ryan and his staff have to ensure that each piece of technology will be able to carry out its function or be easily replaced at a polling location, and that the locations themselves could accommodate the technology.
The most essential task was finding early voting locations -- often school buildings, churches, or community centers -- that had the necessary space and power capacity to run machines, and that could be open for an extended period of time.
“It is an imposition on the regular operations of these facilities. That was, first and foremost, the biggest concern -- finding suitable sites,” said Ryan.
Some of the sites are feeling that imposition. Gothamist reported this week that some principals have been caught off-guard by their schools being used as early voting sites over two weeks this fall. In some cases, the Department of Education didn’t inform principals until weeks before the early voting period is set to start, in the middle of the first months of the school year.
The boroughs with the fewest early voting sites will be Manhattan and Staten Island, which will each open nine this year. Brooklyn will have the most with 18.
Good government groups have sought internal BOE documents under the Freedom of Information Law to determine how the city came up with the poll sites it chose. The groups also want to know why voters will only be permitted to vote at one early voting site, “when the law's default position is that each voter should be permitted to vote at any site in their county of residence,” according to Perry Grossman, a voting rights attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and a signatory on the information request.
Ryan says the BOE purchased 10,000 e-poll books in order to have sufficient numbers for each early voting and Election Day site, plus extras for training purposes and back-up. According to BOE meeting minutes, the e-poll books are part of a four-year, $19.1 million contract that also includes software, maintenance, and training.
Each early voting poll site will have roughly 10 books -- some will have eight, some may have 11 -- that will each connect to its own ballot-on-demand printer. The e-poll book vendor, the St. Louis-based company KNOWiNK, was chosen because it had integrated ballot-on-demand and e-poll book devices and tested them for compatibility.
Ryan says in the BOE’s testing so far that has proven to be true, but the Board is still in the process of testing to make sure the printers will be able to produce every ballot style (including the 7.5 point font for the ballot referenda questions). While the board has set out a one-to-one ratio of e-poll books to printers, the machines are capable of operating at a ratio of up to four-to-one, which will allow poll sites to continue running even if some printers break down.
The city of Philadelphia was recently in the process of contracting with KNOWiNK to supply e-poll books for elections this year, but the plug was pulled when compatibility issues were discovered with another company’s voting system, ES&S’s ExpressVote XL. Ryan claims he has been assured by both KNOWiNK and Philadelphia elections administrators that the problem would not impact New York City because the BOE is not using Express Vote or even a similar piece of technology. (In March, according to a BOE letter obtained by NY1, Ryan urged the State Board of Elections to use the ExpressVote XL before it could be fully tested and certified, but was denied the request and the devices were ultimately not cleared by the State Board for New York City. Last year, NY1 reported that Ryan had been a member of a secret advisory board at ES&S since 2014 and had received trips, hotels, and dinners on the company’s dime. Ryan resigned from the ES&S advisory board after the story broke.)
Connectivity and Election Security
One of the main functions of e-poll books is to prevent double-voting at early voting sites or on Election Day. The devices communicate with one another to note when a voter has checked in and received a ballot. They are connected both internally with the other machines at the poll site, and externally to machines at other poll sites through wireless signal provided by contracts with Verizon and AT&T.
“Under the old way, there was no way to check this. If you were a rogue and went from location to location and attempted to vote, there would be no way for the system to know because your name would be signed in a book at some other location and you couldn’t share it,” Ryan said.
To ensure that the e-poll books work as intended, the BOE has purchased wireless routers called Cradlepoints to boost signal at poll sites. The devices are each customized with SIM cards from Verizon and AT&T, which they can toggle between depending on signal strength to ensure connectivity.
For security purposes, the Cradlepoints will arrive at poll sites in a military grade case with a padlock and a tamper-proof seal.
“A missing red seal would be a red flag, literally and figuratively, to a poll worker that something was done with that,” said Ryan. The devices’ hardware is complicated and the human error of temporarily hired poll workers can lead to mishaps, so the city will be using machines designed to function as long as they are plugged in, with no additional set-up.
The security of the e-poll books themselves have been kept under wraps. Ryan says the books have been programmed with internal security measures, which he cannot discuss publicly. According to Ryan, the books as compared to a traditional tablet have “significantly more robust cybersecurity and encryption, et cetera, to make sure the information can’t be tampered with.”
The BOE was required by law to submit within 60 days of early voting a security plan to the State Board of Elections if it planned to store any voting material remotely during the early voting period. The City recently reported that as of the last week of September, no plan had been submitted. The State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services tested the cybersecurity of e-poll books earlier this year, but a representative told Gotham Gazette the agency could not discuss any of its findings.
The BOE is still in the process of testing the Cradlepoints at each site, which Ryan says simply requires turning it on and seeing if it connects to the e-poll books. The e-poll books themselves are essentially tablets that connect to a wireless signal the same way a mobile device would. Should a Cradlepoint go down, the board will have backups in zones throughout the five boroughs, to be delivered to the poll site, rather than having it be serviced by a limited number of technicians (a similar method of using technicians to repair broken ballot scanners last November led to chaos at the polls).
To manage the overhaul of voting days, sites, and technology, the BOE has created dedicated positions to assist in the implementation of early voting. There are two early voting clerks in each borough -- one Republican and one Democrat, mirroring the board’s bipartisan structure -- to serve as point people in the rollout of early voting.
While Ryan says the clerks have been hired to assist borough chiefs and deputies he also says their roles haven’t been fully determined and will likely vary from borough to borough.
“We’d certainly like to segregate early voting to the extent that we can,” he told Gotham Gazette, referring to differentiating those operations from Election Day operations.
By the same logic, the BOE has divided its poll-site staff into Election Day workers, who will need to be trained on using e-poll books and setting up the poll sites differently, and early voting workers who also need to be brought up to speed on the ballot-on-demand printers.
“The training has been rather robust,” said Bill Meehan, who has been a poll-site worker in Jackson Heights for roughly a decade and poll-site coordinator for half of that time. The five-hour training he attended in late September was more hands-on than ones he’d been to in the past, he said.
“The mechanics of [the e-poll books] worked really well,” he said. At a poll site, voters will simply be asked to give their names and poll-site staff will enter the first couple of letters of the first and last names into the devices. “It pulls everything up. And if it doesn’t, then you go with the date of birth. And then it pulls it up. But it gives you everything you need. It’s right in front of you.”
Ryan is hoping to expand the early voting system to Election Day sites in the future and is treating the 2019 election as a test run. This year happens to be the one in every four-year cycle where there is little on the ballot in New York. With fewer, low-profile races (namely, the Public Advocate race, some judicial positions, Queens District Attorney, and five ballot referenda on changes to the city charter), turnout is expected to be lower than midterm, presidential, or mayoral election years, giving administrators a chance to introduce the new methods to the public.
But the BOE is also now grappling with the task of rolling out so many new components in the truncated period between when early voting was passed in Albany and takes place in New York City.
The preparation “wasn’t without concern and it wasn’t, certainly, without work,” Ryan told Gotham Gazette.