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Board of Elections Approves New Ballot Procedures After Primary Fiasco

By Jill Colvin | July 18, 2012 8:47am
Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel casts his vote at PS 175 in Harlem on June 26th, 2012.
Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel casts his vote at PS 175 in Harlem on June 26th, 2012.
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DNAinfo/Paul Lomax

CITY HALL — The city's Board of Elections is about to enter the 21st Century.

After nearly screwing up the contentious primary between Rep. Charlie Rangel and State Sen. Adriano Espaillat, the troubled board voted unanimously Tuesday to immediately update the way it counts ballots on election night.

From now on, the electronic memory sticks from inside of voting machines will be used to calculate preliminary, election-night totals, just like every other county in the state.

“We will have a new method of providing preliminary, unofficial, end-of-night tallies to the press,” said board commissioner J.C. Polanco, who added that the new system is expected to give significantly more accurate and potentially faster results. “What it’s going to avoid is the element of human error."

The Board of Elections voted Tuesday to update the way it counts ballots on election day.
The Board of Elections voted Tuesday to update the way it counts ballots on election day.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

Under the old system, election workers were required to print out receipts from electronic scanning machines after the polls closed and then cut them by hand, by election district. They then had to add up the tallies for each candidate, manually transcribe them onto various input sheets, and then hand over the sheets to NYPD officers, who transported them to local precincts, where the information was entered manually into precinct computers, and then finally transmitted to the Board of Elections and the press.

From now on, memory drives from inside of voting machines will simply be transported by police directly to station houses, where the data will be uploaded onto secure computers and transmitted to the board and press.

The new method will require the board to purchase 150 new laptop computers, which is expected to cost much as $300,000.

“This actually is going to allow for the PMD stick — the flash card which has the actual tally from the actual machine — to be transported to their local precincts, where there will be a bipartisan team of election officials waiting at the precinct to download the information," said Polanco, who said that members agreed to a "more liberal" reading of state law to allow the change.

The board had repeatedly insisted that state law required it to use the old error-prone process, even though the State Board of Elections and other boards across the state insisted that wasn't the case.

“The city board has made it unnecessarily complicated,” said state board co-chair Douglas Kellner, who urged the city to abandon the cumbersome process before the state primary and general election this fall.

The city's method came under fire after last month's contentious Congressional primary in Upper Manhattan, when preliminary election night results showed Rangel securing a decisive win. The Associated Press, however, soon discovered that dozens of precincts had been left out of the count because of shoddy tallying, throwing the outcome into question and leading to accusations of fraud.

Board members also warned that, without a change, they might be incapable of running the city’s 2013 elections, which could require a run-off election two-weeks after primary day.

City pols who had slammed the Board's conduct during the primary praised the decision to switch to memory sticks.

“The Board of Elections may have just spared New York from becoming a national embarrassment on Election Night,” said Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.

“We are relieved that come November, we will be one step closer to using these electronic voting machines as they were actually intended,” he said.

The commissioners also discussed the possibility Tuesday of calling on Albany to change state rules to allow the city to equip its voting machines with wireless capabilities, so that results could be transmitted directly from machines to the board without needing to transport memory sticks or ballots.

But some raised questions about the potential for fraud.

"There is no such thing as security," said Teresa Hommel, a staunch opponent of electronic voting, who argued that even the FBI and U.S. Military have difficulty keeping computer systems safe.

Kellner agreed the state prohibition was in place for a reason.

“There are serious integrity issues," he said.

The changes will not affect official election results, which are often certified weeks after Election Day.