Gotham Gazette

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Going Back In Time To Vote


ALBANY, N.Y. — Going to the polls this year could be like stepping back in time to another era when voters had to pull down on levers to make their ballots count.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation today allowing the New York City Board of Election to bring lever voting machines out of storage for the primary election and likely mayoral runoff. The city has been using electronic voting machines since 2010.

In an approval message, Cuomo called the plan a "poor solution" but also said not signing the bill could be worse.

"Preventing the use of lever voting machines through a veto could profoundly impact the integrity of this year’s elections," Cuomo wrote. He signed the law in private.

The measure also delays the runoff until Oct. 1, from Sept. 24.

Citing numbers from the latest Quinnipiac poll showing City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, former Congressman Anthony Weiner and former Comptroller Bill Thompson in a statistical three-way tie, BOE attorney Steve Richman defended the need for the lever machines at a public meeting earlier today.

"If the margin of victory is that close — and we can only look at the latest polls which show the three top candidates all within a point and a half of each other — that that's something to be done," Richman said before taking a jab at opponents to the BOE's lever solution. "I guess its more important to use, for some people, the scanners than to actually accurately count the votes."

Seven of the nine BOE commissioners approved a resolution on the plan to use the lever voting machines.

BOE Commissioner Naomi Barrera said the Legislature had "tied their hands," referring to efforts by the board to get state lawmakers to move the primary to an earlier date to allow for more time for a runoff.

"We have no choice but to go back in time," she added.

"Hopefully we're not in this position next time around," said Commissioner Simon Shamoun. "But going around the city and speaking to different groups and people — the support for lever machines among voters is overwhelming …I get almost nothing but positive reception."

Board President Frederic M. Umane and Secretary Gregory C. Soumas were absent and did not vote.


Good government groups had opposed bringing back the lever machines, arguing that deploying antiquated machinery would lead to confusion at the polls. They also argued that the lever machines were difficult for disabled voters to use.

They called the plan a "half-baked solution that seeks to absolve the responsibility of the Legislature in creating a crisis borne of their own failure to act."

But the BOE had argued that it would be unable to calculate the results from the Sept. 20 primary with its electronic voting machines and get them ready in time for a runoff election, initially arguing that the primary date be moved up to June. After failing to convince state lawmakers that the date change was necessary, the BOE asked the Legislature to empower them to use the lever voting machines.

The original Senate bill proposed by Republican Sen. Marty Golden, of Brooklyn, would have allowed for the use of the lever machines for any non-federal election. But good government groups said that could set a bad precedent that would allow for their return in the future under other circumstances. That provision was eventually killed.

The measure that was signed into law limits the use of the machines to the primary and runoff.

In his approval message, Cuomo listed a number of fixes the BOE could enact to prevent the need for lever voting machines Cuomo also suggested the BOE change it’s hand-count requirements and use high-speed scanners.

Elections Systems & Software, the maker of the city’s electronic voting machines, had offered the BOE faster electronic ballot counters for free if the BOE continued to use them for ballot printing or charge them $1.5 million for the counters outright.

The BOE rejected that offer, saying the counters would violate state law.

Sen. Adriano Espaillat, whose attempt at winning a seat to Congress was complicated by the messy handling of the 2012 election by the city BOE, slammed the approval of lever voting machines but said he agreed with Cuomo.

“I share Gov. Cuomo’s disappointment that the BOE pushed for this short-term tactic instead [of] pursuing meaningful reform. I stood with every good government group in New York City to oppose this plan,” Espaillat wrote. “The abandonment of federally compliant voting machines for the 2013 primary is a setback towards the goal of bringing sunlight and accountability to a troubled organization."

Soria contributed to this report from New York.

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