Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/2707 Wed, 16 Oct 2019 12:39:40 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) In Its First Year, Early Voting May Give Glimpse of Modern New York City Election https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8843-first-year-early-voting-glimpse-modern-new-york-city-election https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8843-first-year-early-voting-glimpse-modern-new-york-city-election voting gen election may office

(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.

Locations
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.

Technology
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).

Staff
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.

***
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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In Its First Year, Early Voting May Give Glimpse of Modern New York City Election Thu, 10 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
With Under a Month To Go, Board of Elections Mum on Shift to Electronic Poll Books https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8816-board-of-elections-shift-to-electronic-poll-books https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8816-board-of-elections-shift-to-electronic-poll-books poll pad e poll book

(photo: knowink)


With just one month before New York rolls out early voting for the first time, it is unclear exactly where the city’s Board of Elections stands on acquiring and readying new technology considered essential to the new voting system.

BOE commissioners and staff have been discussing the acquisition of electronic poll books at board meetings since January, when the State Legislature passed and Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law establishing early voting and authorizing counties to purchase the new tech, which enables implementation of early voting. In June, the State Board of Elections approved three vendors that counties could contract with, and the same month the city BOE appeared to have chosen one.

But as of late September, the city board has been silent on its progress toward purchasing the 10,000 e-poll books it says it requires, much less loading them with the voter rolls and training staff to use them.

Early voting sites in all five boroughs will open on October 26, but the BOE has given no word on the status of various aspects of the e-poll book rollout, despite repeated attempts by Gotham Gazette over the course of two weeks.

Electronic poll books are considered a necessary tool in the implementation of early voting because they better allow elections administrators to manage the flow of voters at polling sites scattered around each borough over the course of nine days of early voting, followed by the full slate of poll sites typically open on Election Day.

According to city Board of Elections meeting minutes, the commissioners moved to adopt a $19.1 million four-year contract with an electronic poll book company called KNOWiNK in July, but no contracts have been submitted to city or state fiscal oversight entities. The city BOE did not respond to multiple requests for information by email, phone, and text message leading up to the publication of this story. After an initial exchange with Gotham Gazette about scheduling an interview with Executive Director Michael Ryan, a BOE representative stopped responding.

A number of other unanswered questions remain. Where the city BOE is in terms of acquiring supportive technology like back-up generators and wireless network connections are under wraps, as well as any efforts to test machines, meet security needs, or transfer voter registration data.

“In theory, that’s all done ahead of time and preloaded,” said Jarret Berg, an attorney, election reform advocate, and founder of Vote Early NY, referring to programing each electronic poll book with the city’s voter roll. Berg, who has met with elections administrators in counties throughout the state to monitor early voting implementation, believes the city BOE is already in possession of the new poll books. A BOE spokesperson provided no information to confirm or deny that possibility.

Running New York City elections has been a largely paper-based operation. Currently, poll workers use physical poll books to look up voter registration information and provide voters with a ballot. The paper books are cumbersome and limited to the names of voters assigned to a particular poll site.

Electronic poll books provide a way to track whether someone has already voted at one or another site, preventing overvoting during the early voting period. They can also contain larger voter rolls than the paper books, allowing poll workers to identify a voter’s registration information and direct them to the proper poll site, even if they arrive at the wrong voting location. They should also speed efforts to look up registrations in the voter rolls at various points in the process.

“We are hoping the new electronic poll books will help us eliminate human errors in poll sites,” wrote John Conklin, director of public information at the State Board of Elections, in an email. He said they will also enable county boards of elections and the five-borough New York City BOE to track wait times and voting patterns to identify where adjustments may need to be made in future elections.

“Most of all we hope it will improve the voting experience and get feedback from the electorate,” he wrote, saying he did not have specific knowledge of the city BOE’s roll-out of electronic poll books.

The Adjustment Period
Elections in New York City are run by county boards in each of the five boroughs under the umbrella management of the city BOE. The State Board where Conklin works is a separate entity that provides some policy-making and oversight around state elections and campaign finance laws, but does not in most cases directly administer local elections.

Under the new state law, counties are required to open poll sites for nine days in the lead-up to any primary, general, or special election. The first round of early voting statewide will take place from Saturday, October 26 through Sunday, November 3, ending two days before Election Day. By law, counties must have at least one early voting site for every 50,000 registered voters open during each day of the early voting period, and late hours are required on at least two weekdays. New York City will have 61 sites open across the five boroughs during the early voting period.

Each county is responsible for developing its own specific electronic poll book implementation plan, including procuring the technology, training staff, and deploying the machines, according to Conklin. Because this is the first year local boards have been authorized to use electronic poll books, the State Board may field questions and provide guidance to the jurisdictions planning on using them.

“While we hope that the e-poll book systems offer efficiencies in various processes, such as voter check in and updating of information, any time a new component, technological or not, is inserted into an existing process, there may be an adjustment period,” Conklin wrote.

The city Board of Elections has already failed to meet in a timely fashion certain requirements of the law that created early voting. As The City recently reported, the BOE missed a deadline to notify registered voters of their assigned early voting location 65 days before an election, while also posting the information to its website late, and only after an inquiry from The City.

“We expect that there is a bit of a learning curve and we know that,” Berg told Gotham Gazette. “This timetable, in fairness to the administrators, was very truncated.”

Acquiring New Technology
Earlier this year, the State BOE began piloting electronic poll book systems in local elections in Albany, Tompkins, Madison, and Onondaga counties. In June, it issued a list of three approved vendors that county boards could contract with.

The decentralized nature of elections administration means the State BOE is not involved in local efforts to implement electronic poll books, like selecting an approved vendor or negotiating contracts. “We do not have direct oversight over procurement. Most counties bought them using their local procurement agencies,” Conklin told Gotham Gazette.

New York City elections administrators, however, appear not to have gone through either the state or city comptroller’s office to get approval for their contracts.

“The procurement did not fall under OSC [Office of the New York State Comptroller] jurisdiction and did not receive that contract. You should probably reach out to NYC BOE for it,” wrote Matthew Sweeney, the assistant communications director at Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office, which reviews contracts involving state funds.

A spokesperson for New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer told Gotham Gazette that no contract had been submitted to the office for registration.

Board minutes from June indicate the city BOE would follow rules set out by the Public Procurement Board when purchasing the new poll books. Those rules require “all contracts, agreements, contract changes, change orders, amendments, modifications, contract time extensions, and “Buy-Against” procurements [to] be presented to the Comptroller for registration.”

It is not unusual for city agencies to submit contracts to the comptroller after they have already begun. According to a report by Stringer’s office, “In FY18, 80% of all new and renewal contracts arrived at the Comptroller’s Office for registration after their start date had already passed.”

The city BOE’s budget comes from New York City allocations, but the state has a plan to reimburse counties for certain early voting expenses, including equipment purchases like electronic poll books.

The city BOE’s total budget in the current fiscal year is $246 million, of which $21 million will go to purchasing electronic poll books and another $75 million for early voting operations, according to the board’s meeting minutes. Some of these expenses will be reimbursed by the state.

The state allocated $14.7 million in capital funding for electronic poll books in all 62 counties, and another $10 million from the aid to localities budget for early voting operations to be distributed at a rate of $15,000 per early voting site. The Auburn Citizen reported in June that New York City’s five counties would receive a total of $8.5 million from the state for 57 poll sites (the city now plans to open 61 sites). New York City BOE meeting minutes from mid-July indicate the state will reimburse $5 million specifically for electronic poll books.

According to the BOE meeting minutes, the city Board began discussing the implementation of new early voting procedures and electronic poll books almost immediately after the law was changed. By mid-February, according to the minutes, the BOE’s chief contracting officer was looking into potential vendors and the commissioners were already expressing concern with the truncated timeline to bring electronic poll books to the city.

By May, the city BOE’s executive director, Michael Ryan, had met with numerous jurisdictions and an election consultant and reported the conclusion that, “Electronic Poll Books are essential to proper Early Voting management and operation,” the minutes read.

After what appears to be extensive evaluations in which three committees were set up to score vendors based on “user experience,” “technology,” and “feasibility,” the city BOE chose a St. Louis-based company called KNOWiNK, which sells electronic poll book systems and is one of the three vendors approved by the State Board.

KNOWiNK also had the capacity to provide another technology known as ballot-on-demand, which enables poll workers to print a voter’s unique ballot on-site at a polling location, allowing individual early voting sites to accommodate a wider catchment of the electorate. Together, electronic poll books and ballot-on-demand create a streamlined voting experience and a simpler process for arranging poll sites.

On June 11, according to minutes, the city Board of Elections adopted a motion to begin contracting with KNOWiNK under Public Procurement Board rules. On July 16, the BOE approved a four-year contract for $19.1 million. The contract includes $405 per poll book, $4 million for software, and $1 million a year for maintenance and licensing.

KNOWiNK did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls requesting information about any contracts or contract discussions with the New York City Board of Elections.

The contract discussed in the minutes included another $48,000 for training, though it is unclear what exactly that money will go to. The last mention of training in city BOE meeting minutes was on August 27, when Ryan reported to commissioners that the poll worker training video had been updated to include information on electronic poll books. In that same meeting, Ryan told the Board that 12,000 of the roughly 21,000 general election poll workers had received training, but that “Early Voting poll workers will receive separate Early Voting training.”

Challenges Ahead for the New System
New York City BOE meeting minutes provide a sense of the multifaceted operation to determine the new technological needs of the largest metropolitan democracy in the United States. But the city Board of Elections has provided no recent comment on how close it is to meeting those needs.

Adding new technology to the system comes with additional obstacles that must also be addressed before the early voting period begins. During the June 25 primary elections, the city BOE experienced connectivity issues with the mobile wifi hotspots it used and in July Ryan reported to the Board that his staff was exploring other providers.

Power is another concern. In late August, Ryan informed the Board of a discovery that some poll site outlets could not provide the amperage electronic poll books and ballot-on-demand require. The minutes state, “The Board’s long term plan would be for the poll site to update their electrical capabilities in the designated poll room.” In the meantime, it appears the Board is exploring options to secure generators, which are also necessary in the event of a power outage.

There may also be security steps that must be taken. According to The Citizen, KNOWiNK and other vendors were evaluated on cyber security as part of the state’s pilot program by the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services and the New York State Technology Enterprise Corporation. Chet Lasell of DHSES told Gotham Gazette the agency could not disclose specifics about its cyber assessments due to “internal protocols and security considerations.” NYSTEC did not respond to a request for comment.

The new voting system, intended to make voting easier and improve the state’s low turnout record, will change the way New Yorkers experience elections, not only next month, but for years to come. This year, with few items on the ballot and little voter turnout expected, is seen as an important warm-up for the 2020 election cycle, which is likely to see high turnout.

“This is not just about staff that needs to be trained and brought up to speed. I think we have to break a bunch of bad habits among the public,” said Berg, adding, “I’m fond of saying, we need to grow a culture of early voting.”

***
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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With Under a Month To Go, Board of Elections Mum on Shift to Electronic Poll Books Thu, 26 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Electronic Poll Books Next Step in New York Election Overhaul https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8255-electronic-poll-books-next-step-in-new-york-election-overhaul https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8255-electronic-poll-books-next-step-in-new-york-election-overhaul express poll e poll book

(photo: Elections Systems & Software)


As Democrats in the state Legislature continue a rapid pace of passing legislation to start the new session, the state Senate seems poised to advance another round of election and voting reforms, including approving the use of electronic poll books to administer elections.

Electronic poll books, used in at least 34 states and the District of Columbia, are a fairly simple but significant instrument in making elections more efficient, experts and advocates argue. They make voting faster, preventing long lines at polling sites, save costs in the long run, and are easier to update and maintain compared to the paper lists currently used in New York.

Some advocates also say e-poll books, as they’re often called, are essential in implementing improvements to voter registration processes, which the state Legislature put into motion last month, and helpful in the implementation of the significant shift of early voting, also part of the recently-passed package.

On Monday, the state Senate’s elections committee held a vote and approved a bill allowing electronic poll books, among other items on the agenda. The bill will now head to the Senate floor for a vote. Senator Zellnor Myrie, committee chair and the sponsor of the bill, is confident e-poll books will subsequently be passed by the full Legislature, in advance of this year’s primary election in June. The legislation does not mandate the use of e-poll books.

“The larger reforms that we’ve instituted and that we’re looking at for the rest of the session are going to be made much easier by us modernizing how we see whether or not someone has voted,” Myrie said in a phone interview. “So electronic poll books is something that has wide consensus.”

When Democrats took control of the Legislature this year after flipping the Senate, they quickly passed a series of voting and elections measures including early voting, consolidating the federal and state primary to June, and preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds. They also passed measures to amend the state constitution to implement no-excuse absentee ballots and same-day voter registration -- amendments that will require passage by the next Legislature seated in 2021 and then approval by voters through a referendum.

Advocates say that early voting and same-day voter registration in particular would be far more efficient with electronic poll books.

“Implementing early voting in New York City without electronic poll books would be an administrative disaster,” said Rachel Bloom, director of public policy and programs at Citizens Union, a government reform group. “To have effective and organized early voting in New York, we need to allow for the use of electronic pollbooks.”

Other advocates aren’t as worried but agree that electronic poll books should be the next step for the Legislature. “You don’t need to have electronic poll books to do early voting but it would make it easier,” said Jennifer Wilson, director of program and policy for League of Women Voters of New York State. She noted, for instance, that Texas implemented early voting more than a decade ago but started using electronic poll books about five years ago. But for same-day registration, she said it would be “crucial.”

Jarret Berg, executive director of the New York Democratic Lawyers Council, concurred. “I don’t think it’s an indispensable component but it certainly makes a lot of sense and I don’t see how you could do [early voting] effectively without some kind of real-time reconciliation,” he said. “We need to move away from this really sloppy paper-based system.”

The advocates do acknowledge challenges and concerns about electronic poll books. Among them is the upfront cost that local counties may have to bear for purchasing equipment, like digital tablets, on which the poll books would be stored (localities may look to the state for help in paying for such equipment). Poll workers also tend to be older and could struggle with the technology. “There’s a digital divide,” Berg conceded. Training would be necessary regardless.

There are also concerns about the security of voter lists, made that much more severe after Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. Digital devices could be vulnerable to hacking, necessitating standalone devices that would not be connected to the internet and would have to be individually updated. This is similar to the electronic ballot scanners that are not internet-connected and therefore far less susceptible to hacking.

Myrie is aware of those concerns but, as the advocates also argue, says the benefits outweigh the costs. “This is really about making and administering elections much simpler,” he said. “It allows for cost savings. In the future we’re not gonna have to pay for storage of all these [paper] poll books. It is a much more efficient way to do things so that...some of the lines that we have become unfortunately very accustomed to when we go to vote are reduced by a significant measure if we make the process of checking a registration easier.”

Electronic poll books also have bipartisan support. Before Myrie took over the elections committee, Republican Senator Fred Akshar had sponsored a bill, with companion legislation put forward by Democratic Assemblymember Michael Cusick that was repeatedly passed by the Assembly. Governor Andrew Cuomo also backs the measure but some say his support would have to be backed up with funding to help counties transition to the new system, money he did not include in his executive budget proposal.

“Governor Cuomo proposed a comprehensive set of reforms in the Executive Budget to make voting easier, including authorizing electronic poll books,” Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokesperson, said in a statement. “We will work with the legislature to identify additional resources to the extent necessary.”

Myrie is prepared to push for those resources; as some are already doing when it comes to funding early voting. It’s not clear what the initial and ongoing costs of the e-poll books may be. “Even if its a significant cost, I’ve been saying and will continue to say, to go from worst to first is gonna require some pain,” he said of New York’s voting laws.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note - This article was updated after the Senate elections committee held a vote and passed the e-poll book bill.  

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Electronic Poll Books Next Step in New York Election Overhaul Sun, 03 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000