New York's New Voting Machines a 'Royal Screw-Up,' Says Mayor

By DNAinfo Staff on September 14, 2010 9:59am  | Updated on September 15, 2010 6:27am

DNAinfo Staff Reporters

MANHATTAN — Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the city's rollout of its new voting machines a "royal screw-up" Tuesday after confusion and delays marred Primary Day elections.

From the Upper West Side to downtown, Manhattanites worried that their votes would not be counted after experiencing machine malfunctions and other issues at polling places. Some said machines were out of service. Others said the machines ate their ballots.

Bloomberg described the reports as "disturbing."

"That is a royal screw-up and it is completely unacceptable," he told reporters outside of City Hall.

"New Yorkers deserve better than this," the mayor added.

Concern over the new optical scanning machines, which replaced the lever machines used in New York since the 1960's, has had politicians, civic advocates and voters on edge for months. With the new machines, voters fill out SAT-like paper ballots and feed them into scanners.

Rep. Charlie Rangel slides his ballot into the optical scanner during a demonstration.
Rep. Charlie Rangel slides his ballot into the optical scanner during a demonstration.
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DNAInfo/Jeff Mays

Results of the elections will take longer to tabulate this year because the new voting machines make the process "more intricate," City Board of Elections spokeswoman Valerie Vazquez said.

"We do expect it to take longer than it has in the past," she said.

At P.S. 165 at West 109th Street and Broadway, a loose cord put one of the two scanners out of commission for roughly an hour this morning, forcing voters to line up to scan their ballots in another machine. The line got so long that some voters gave up and left.

"This is disgraceful. It's crazy," said Linda Levine, 73, a professor at Bank Street College, after waiting 20 minutes on line.

The last time she voted, she said, it took about three minutes.

"I think this could disenfranchise the elderly and disabled and all the New Yorkers who are pressed for time, which is everybody," she said.

P.S. 165 poll worker William Smith described the morning set-up as "utter chaos."

He said that he and other staffers were under-trained, despite a six-hour training session.

"It was too much all at one time. You couldn’t absorb it," he said.

At the Lincoln Houses in Harlem, where a loose wire put one of three voting machines out of service for part of the morning, three people had their ballots rejected by machines three times, leaving them unable to vote, poll worker Lena Hill said.

The voters were given two options: fill out an affidavit ballot or go see a judge to get a court order allowing them to try again. Two of the voters got frustrated and gave up.

The third, Deidre Hopkins, was more determined. After an hour, she got a court order and headed to the state building on 125th Street.

"You're not going to deter me," Hopkins, 50, said. "They better fix this before November."

An hour later, Hopkins returned to her polling station, court order in hand. She walked out dancing. "My vote is in!"

At the 92nd Street Y on the Upper East Side, both scanners were alternately taken out of service. The machines were eventually restored, but not before one of them destroyed Upper East Sider Kathleen Peratis' ballot.

Peratis, 66, was allowed to recast her vote, but she worried it might not be counted.

"Who knows if my vote is going to count since there are two ballots for the same person," said Peratis.

There were also signs of trouble in TriBeCa, where one of the two machines at the P.S. 234 polling site was taken out of service.

"It's a disaster," said Curtis Arluck, 57, a tax accountant and Democratic District Leader, as he worked the polls at P.S. 165 on the Upper West Side. "It's a new system, and there are always kinks, but there are ... basic design flaws that could have been avoided."

Arluck said it didn't make sense to have only two scanners at a polling place where approximately 6,000 voters from 10 precincts would be casting ballots.

In the weeks leading up to the election, many worried that New York's seniors might have trouble reading the small print on the new ballots.

Sheryl Harawitz, 64, who lives in the East Village, is one of many who complained the type was too small.

"What were they thinking? The font type is tiny. I don't even wear reading glasses and I couldn't see it," she said.

Valerie Vazquez, a spokeswoman for the city's Board of Elections, said that some problems had been anticipated as the city rolled out the new system and asked for voters' patience.

"The Board of Elections in the City of New York is aware that some poll sites in the City, as well as elsewhere across the State, are experiencing issues with the new voting system," she said in a statement. "The Board’s top priority today is resolving these issues as quickly as possible."

She noted that a majority of polling sites are working properly and that workers have been training for months to deal with complications.

But Bloomberg railed against the board, which he said was given $77 million by the city to make the transition, in addition to the $83 million in federal funding it received to purchase the machines.

Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and her daughter, Christina Maloney, greeted poll workers at the 92nd Street Y on Lexington Avenue Tuesday before Maloney cast her vote.
Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and her daughter, Christina Maloney, greeted poll workers at the 92nd Street Y on Lexington Avenue Tuesday before Maloney cast her vote.
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DNAinfo/Gabriela Resto-Montero

"There is a total absence of accountability," he said, describing the agency as "a remnant of Tammany Hall."

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio said the day's “widespread delays and confusion with the electronic voting machines has damaged the public’s trust in our Democracy" and "likely disenfranchised" thousands of voters.

His office called for an independent review of the mistakes.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilwoman Gale Brewer said the City Council will hold a hearing to examine what went wrong and recommend changes for the general election.

But not everyone had trouble Tuesday. At polling places where machines were working, many complimented the new design.

"It was easier," said Tom Rode, 60, a retiree who lives in the West Village. "I was in and out in five minutes."

Roy Bell, 29, of Harlem, said he needed a little help submitting his ballot but agreed that the process was still faster than with the old machines.

"I liked it. It's better this way," he said. "There's no levers to push."

Written by Jill Colvin

Reporting by Jill Colvin, Tara Kyle, Leslie Albrecht, Gabriela Resto-Montero, Jon Schuppe, Patrick Hedlund and Julie Shapiro