By Jill Colvin
CITY HALL — The city's Board of Elections insisted Monday that September's primary election — dubbed by the mayor as "a royal screw-up" for the rollout of new voting machines — was as successful as any in previous years.
"Several media reports and public comments have portrayed a day of chaos at poll sites throughout the City of New York infringing on the voting rights of New Yorkers. Simply put, that portrayal is inaccurate," George Gonzalez, executive director of the board, said in a prepared statement at a City Council hearing investgating what went wrong ahead of next month's general election.
"In my eyes," he said," the election went OK."
While Gonzalez refused to admit that the roll out of new voting machines had caused chaos in the primary, he did acknowledge that thousands of poll workers were ill-equipped to serve voters.
The board revealed Monday that more than 3,000 poll workers — or about 15 percent — had failed to complete the board's six-hour training course and pass its required test. Others who participated in the training sessions testified that course trainers provided poll workers with the answers needed to pass the tests.
Citing preliminary numbers, election officials added that at least 80 poll sites opened or began serving voters late, based on complaint calls to the agency, while two sites in Manhattan had problems caused by wheelchair-accessible ramps.
Numerous other problems, including malfunctioning machines, late poll-site openings and accessibility issues, were reported across the city as the board rolled out a new generation of voting machines. Mayor Michael Bloomberg went as far as to label the election "a royal screw-up."
The agency logged a total of 2,470 primary-related complaints, Gonzalez said. A full review of performance will be completed by December, he added.
Gonzalez explained that isolated problems occur in every election and that issues with the city's new optical scanning machines were to be expected.
But he blamed many of the issues on the city for chronically underfunding the board, saying the board had asked for more than 100 additional personnel.
The board has long complained of underfunding, though spending shortfalls have always been reimbursed at the end of the fiscal year.
Gonzalez also blamed problems cited by the panel to training delays associated with legal changes to accommodate the new machines and last-minute changes in polling sites, including 30 in Manhattan.
But in an often-heated exchange, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn blasted the board for shirking responsibility and called for greater accountability.
"The faith of many New York voters has been shook," she said. "It is clear that many things went seriously wrong."
Quinn added, "It is unacceptable that any voter should be disenfranchised as a result of bureaucratic missteps."
The speaker cited, for instance, an e-mail sent to the Board of Education requesting that custodians at school poll sites arrive at 5 a.m. election morning. The e-mail was sent at 5:36 p.m. Monday night — half-an-hour after the custodians had gone home for the day.
Councilwoman Inez Dickens said that voters at one polling station at East 103rd Street and Lexington Avenue were given ballots intended for a different district. But instead of getting them new ballots, voters were instructed to cross out 14th District Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney's name and replace it with Congressman Charlie Rangel's.
To address some of the issues raised, the board said that it plans to hold updated "briefing sessions" for poll sites coordinators. It also intends to train poll workers who failed to complete the initial course.
In addition, Board of Elections deputy executive director Dawn Sandow said the board had identified a number of technical issues with the new machines that require simple fixes, including distributing ballots in packages of 50 instead of 100, and stapling them differently so perforated edges more easily tear.
She said that the second time around, human error would also likely be less of a factor.
"The majority of these poll workers were petrified," she said. "I feel they panicked."
Neal Rosenstein, government reform coordinator for the New York Public Interest Research Group, testified that what's needed with November's general election less than a month away, are solutions, not blame.
"The system isn’t working," he said.