Voting machines face a tough initial test in NY, last state to comply with federal law

By Sara Kugler Frazier, AP
Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Voting machines face tough 1st test in NY primary

NEW YORK — In New York, the last state to comply with a federal law calling for simpler voting, the switch to a fill-in-the-dot ballot fed into machines had a bumpy start, with scattered reports of delays caused by flustered poll workers and malfunctioning equipment.

Instead of pulling levers — as New Yorkers had done for 80 years — polling sites presented voters Tuesday with the new ballots and two scanners at each polling station. Where the machines worked, voters shrugged and mostly agreed the new system was easy to use. But problems elsewhere caused backups and frustration.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who did not vote Tuesday because he is not registered with any party, called the reports “disturbing.”

“That is a royal screw-up — and it’s completely unacceptable,” Bloomberg said at City Hall.

He blasted the city Board of Elections for failing to prevent the problems despite more than $77 million in funding from the city to ease the transition.

“There is a total absence of accountability for how the board performs on Election Day because the board is a remnant of the days when Tammany Hall ran New York,” the mayor said, referring to the Democratic Party machine that ran city politics for generations before vanishing in the 1960s.

Voting rights advocates have been nervously eyeing primary day as the first test of the electronic system.

The nonpartisan Election Protection Coalition, which monitored the situation with teams of poll watchers and a voter hot line, said it was aware of at least 10 polling sites of the 1,358 citywide where machines broke down or poll workers had trouble setting them up in the morning.

At one site, setup problems delayed its 6 a.m. opening by 2½ hours. And Sen. Charles Schumer’s polling site in Brooklyn was also late opening by about 15 minutes, his office said.

The Board of Elections said it had been working to address the voting snags and asked voters to be patient.

One of the problematic polling sites was on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where voter Christian Rojas arrived at 9 a.m., just as one scanner went down. The line of people waiting to scan their ballots was merged with the other line, and the wait was about half an hour, he said.

But the functioning machine also had a problem — its screen was flashing a confusing error message for every ballot scanned, Rojas said.

“It did say ‘Your vote has been counted,’ so if we’re going to take that at face value, our votes were counted,” said Rojas, a chemistry professor at Barnard College. “But the system error thing does make you wonder.”

The Election Protection Coalition also said it had fielded calls about poll workers apparently unprepared to use the new machines. At the site where Rojas voted, workers stashed ballots in a slot below the broken scanner, ostensibly to be scanned later for people who didn’t have time to wait.

State Board of Elections spokesman John Conklin said the reports of problems were at a typical level, no different from what was experienced with the lever machines.

“As far as we’re concerned, it’s the normal amount for an election day,” Conklin said.

Voters who used machines that worked as intended gave mixed reviews of the new system.

“I found it a little confusing,” said Nancey Flowers, after voting in Brooklyn. “I liked the older lever mechanism better.”

The Help America Vote Act was enacted in response to the contested Florida presidential vote in 2000. It directed states to adopt simpler voting systems to avoid problems like what led to the infamous recount there.

The lever machines violated HAVA guidelines because they were difficult for people with disabilities to use and did not provide a paper trail if the outcome of a vote was disputed.

Associated Press writers Jim Fitzgerald and Karen Matthews contributed to this report.

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