By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — As Harlem voters prepare to head to the polls for the area's hottest primary election in years, some are worried that the new voting machines will cause confusion, especially among the reliable senior population.
At a recent street fair where voters were given an opportunity to try out the machines that replaced the old lever system, Harlem resident Donald Lawrence, 62, stepped to the optical scanning device, and slid his ballot through the machine.
But Lawrence had accidentally selected more than one of his favorite pizza toppings on the sample ballot, which polled voters on their pizza preferences, exposing one of the major flaws of the technology.
If a voter selects more than one candidate in a single race, the machine offers the voters two options to correct the error — a green button or a red button. If they press the red button, the ballot can be fixed. If they press green, the vote on that race will be thrown out. But the machine doesn't explain what the buttons mean.
"I think they are going to create a lot of problems with this new system," said Lawrence. "I over voted and I've been voting for 40 years. This is an important election for Harlem."
Embattled Harlem Rep. Charlie Rangel is in a rare, hotly contested primary for the 15th Congressional District seat. There is also a crowded field for the Assembly seat of Adam Clayton Powell IV, who is challenging Rangel. Then there's the battle between Basil Smikle and incumbent State Sen. Bill Perkins for Harlem's 30th District seat.
"You have a situation where for most of the city, there's not much going on. The action is going on in our neck of the woods," said Rangel campaign spokesperson Bob Liff. "Because we are where the action is, if there is a problem, it will be in our area. There is a level of concern. Not panic, but concern."
Liff cited the level of comfort that voters, especially older voters, had with the old lever machines.
"It's not just the older supporters, but that's where we have focused our concerns because we are creatures of habit. We have grown up voting on the same machines for time immemorial," said Liff. "We are talking about people, including Charlie, who remember what it means to fight for the vote."
Some Harlem politicians are taking their concerns to the voters.
At a recent Community Board 10 meeting, Perkins appealed to voters to be patient with the new machines, and raised the struggle of African-Americans to gain the right to vote as a reason why voters should try and work with the new machines.
"Everybody say: 'I will not get frustrated,'" Perkins told the crowd.
"Last year we made history not just by voting for Barack Obama as the first black president but by waiting in line for two to three hours [to do so]. Let's not let this new polling system turn us around," Perkins said. "The NAACP and all those people went through what they went through so we could be heard."
The new voting machines were mandated by the Help Vote America Act following the controversial 2000 presidential elections. New York is the last state to adopt new machines, which require that a paper trial of votes be kept.
The 2000 election was on the minds of a lot of Harlem voters as they tried out the machines.
"It's pretty slick," James Morgan, 52, said of the machines after a demonstration. "I hope they are faithful and don't cause problems. You know what happened in Florida when Bush made his way to office? We don't need that."
Valerie Vazquez, director of communications for the New York City Board of Elections, said 17,000 voters have participated in more than 275 demonstrations of the new machine. But those demos reached a fraction of the 4.3 million registered voters in the city.
Vazquez also said there was a mailing to every registered voter in the city about the new machines and an advertising campaign on buses, the subway and in community newspapers.
To help with confusion, Vazquez said there will be 36,000 poll workers on Tuesday, an increase of 6,000 from the last election.
One complaint that has come from the senior population is the size of the font used on the ballot. The font size is determined by election law, she said. To address those concerns, Vazquez said that plastic magnifying sheets will be available to voters at privacy booths.
"There is always an apprehension with anything new," said Vazquez.
Harlem Assemblyman Keith Wright, who authored the state law authorizing the new machines, said he's confident that there will not be Florida-style voting problems if voters educate themselves.
"Not gonna happen here," Wright said of the Florida debacle. "I'm going to make sure of that."