Tuesday, September 14, 2010

New York State report: Election Day in the Empire State goes electronic, and the natives are restless


Mayor Mike summed up the reports he heard today about New York's brave new world of electronic voting as "a royal screwup."

by Ken

We probably all have elections on our mind, so this seems no time to continue with the late Tony Judt's late thoughts about the lengths to which smart people will go to avoid having to think for themselves. Pencil that in for tomorrow.

As Noah reported recently, today's statewide primary is a watershed election in New York State, as we discard our rusty old mechanical manual voting machines, which I believe were put into service when Alexander Hamilton was the big name in state politics, in favor of an electronic system, under the compulsion of federal electoral "reform" law aimed at proving that by golly we can do worse than the Florida hanging-chad horrors of 2000.

The new system worked -- for the lucky ones among us -- pretty much the way it had been described. When you check in at your poll site you're given a paper ballot (as I understand it, by state law the entire ballot is going to have to fit on the two sides of this not-very-larg page, which was fine for the limited choices of a primary but is going to be sorely tested with the infinity of races and parties and ballot propositions that make up the typical general-election ballot -- though in fairness this wasn't exactly easy to follow on the old machines), which you then take to a "privacy booth," where you completely fill in a tiny oval for each of your choices, after which you wait in line for an available scanner (the availability of scanners at polling sites was a source of considerable controversy among today's voters), stick the page in, and if it doesn't recognize any problems with the ballot, your vote is (presumably) counted.

This afternoon Noah passed along this link from the Daily News:
Sen. Charles Schumer fumes after new voting system fails at his local polling place in Brooklyn


Tuesday, September 14th 2010, 10:51 AM

Sen. Chuck Schumer allegedly had trouble Tuesday at his Primary Day polling place with the new voting machines (seen below).

Apparently even Sen. Chuck Schumer isn't immune to the pitfalls of the new voting system.

What the hElmo is going on with these voting machines?

A party insider told me Schumer showed up at his polling place, P.S. 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, at 5:55 a.m.

"They don't open the polling place until 6:10... They can't figure out how to open the machine and he is, like, screaming at the staff that he wants to vote," the insider said.

Another source said, "First, the site opened late. Second, the room was in a different location. Third, there were only 2 machines, and workers told him there were supposed to be 8. And 4th, the machines did not boot-up on time."

There was some dispute about whether the senior senator had to vote by emergency or regular ballot, but his office says he was (finally) able to vote by regular ballot.

Schumer's not the only one having trouble:

A voter wrote to me:

"Voted on Long Island, in Suffolk. Got to my polling place a few minutes after six. None of the new voting booths were working. Poll workers had no idea where to find the paper ballots that are supposed to be used for backup.

Watching the poll workers was like watching your grandparents try to work a VCR for the first time. They were all confused and yelling at each other. I was the second voter in my election district, and it took me 35 minutes to cast my ballot because they didn't know what they should be doing. It's a good thing they have 15 hours to try to figure it out."

I led off my response to Noah: "My question is: Would our Chucky have behaved better or worse if there'd been cameras present?" We know the sight of a camera, especially a video one, shoots Chucky instantly into high performance mode.

After a day of politics-free toil, and a couple of hours of transit agony (don't ask) I got home way late this evening, and after flipping on the Yankee game and seeing the Yanks (mired in a four-game losing streak) increase a 2-0 lead over the (snarl) now-first-place Tampa Bay Rays to 4-0, felt safe to switch to our local cable news channel to see what they're reporting about the day's political doings.

I was greeted by a distressed Mayor Bloomberg railing for the cameras about the widespread reports around the city of problems with the new machines. It all sounded to him, he said, like "a royal screwup," which he judges "completely unacceptable," Back in the studio, guest Liz Benjamin, the Daily News's ace political reporter, who of course spent the day tracking voting reports, pointed out that the mayor has had seriously strained relations with the city Board of Elections for some time. She suggested, though, that "these voting machines could eventually turn out to be a really big problem," raising the possibility that with many close races today, and with so much of the day's voting in such a state of flux, we may not necessarily have results tonight. (The polls don't even close for -- as I write -- another 12 minutes.)

For the rest, here's the rest of what I wrote to Noah this afternoon:
I had no problem to speak of this morning, but luckily my polling place is pretty sleepy (only two EDs).

I actually read through three long pages of reader experiences on the NYT blog. Geographic distribution was interesting: Don't recall a single one from Queens or Staten Island, and the only one from the Bronx I recall was Spuyten Duyvil, which is barely the Bronx, but a fair number of Brooklynites -- mostly the downtownish gentrified areas like Park Slope, where there do seem to have bee a lot of problems just getting voting started, with polling sites not open and/or functional till after 8am (instead of 6am) or even, so it's claimed, 9:30am. Apparently sites with 5 or 6 EDs had to make do with two scanners, with lots of scanners breaking down.

There seems to be a diversity of opinion about how the ballot has to be inserted in the scanner, where my pre-election info was expressly that you could insert it any which way. But then, I could swear I'd read that when your ballot was scanned you got some sort of printout to check. All I got was the machine flashing that my vote had been counted. Robert Benchley once wrote (more or less) that he would believe anything that was said to him with a friendly smile; I wonder whether this would have qualified.

I'm fascinated by how many people are freaked out by the fact that in the course of the process somebody might SEE their ballot, thereby nullifying the concept of the secret ballot. I mean, I'm a big fan of the concept, and yeah, I worried a little about my ballot being seen during the march to the scanner, but ferchrissakes, the possibility that the person behind you in the scanner line or the election worker might catch a glimpse of your ballot is truly not the same thing as being in Soviet Russia. Really now, like as if anybody at your polling place gives a friggin' damn who you voted for! (Maybe those people had cast write-in-votes for Hitler or Mussolini?)

After all the warnings about tiny type, I was relieved to find I had no problem reading the ballot, and my vision ain't great. Of course we should also remember how small this ballot was compared with a normal NYS general election, and my understanding is that by state law the ballot has to fit on two sides of that sheet.

I'm not so sentimental about the old machines, which broke down plenty, and never left me feeling all that confident that I'd completeld the process correctly, or that my various votes had been counted. (It always struck me as dead wrong that the very first thing you had to do when you went in the booth was to pull the giant lever all the way across the width of the booth. And even after I did it, I was sure most every time that I'd done it wrong.)

All in all, given the many ways in which this system is subject to breakdown, it's hard to believe that the results are going to be more accurate than our sad old machines -- left over from the Age of the Dinosaurs -- were.

Well, I guess we'll see what we'll see.

UPDATE: I checked back into the Yankees-Rays game to find the Yanks ahead 6-1, briefly -- in short order the Rays completed a seven-run fifth inning to take a 7-6 lead. I'm not sure I'm up to this.

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