This September May Be New York City’s Voting Apocalypse

On Tuesday, Bill de Blasio became the latest frontrunner in New York City’s mayoral election, a race which has seen several major shifts in polling. Whoever emerges victorious in the first round of the Democratic primary next month, almost all of the polling indicates he or she will be headed to a runoff against the second place finisher three weeks later. This might be a problem.

The Big Apple’s recent history of elections have included legal battles, chaotic lines at the polls, and vote counts that seem to never end. Adding to those headaches next month are the return of the city’s aging lever-pull voting machines and the possibility of a close finish for that number two spot, opening the door for a nightmare scenario where the results are still in dispute as the date of the final runoff approaches.

“I can’t even think about that, the concept is too stressful,” one mayoral campaign staffer, who asked not to be named, said after TPM asked about how the potential Election Day chaos could complicate the tightly scheduled race.

New York City law requires a runoff to be held if no candidate earns at least 40 percent of the vote in the mayoral primaries. Since the Republicans are polling far behind in hypothetical general election match-ups, the Democratic primary on Sept. 10 is the main event in the mayoral campaign. Though polls have been divided on which of the Democrats will be the frontrunner, they have universally indicated that no candidate will reach the 40 percent threshold necessary to avoid a runoff, and that the battle for the final slot in that round two race could be a tight one.

“The second position — that is what everyone’s going to be focused on: Who’s going to be number two? Who’s going to be in the runoff?” Tish James, a Brooklyn councilwoman and candidate for public advocate, explained to TPM on the phone Monday.

However, close races have proven to be extremely difficult in New York’s last few elections. In 2010, in order to comply with federal law, the city switched from lever machines that had been in use since the 1960’s to electronic voting devices. Since then, multiple close local races have ended in court after the New York City Board of Elections engaged in lengthy vote counts marked by dramatically shifting totals and allegations of voter fraud. In November, President Barack Obama received about 80 percent of the votes in New York City, but even that clear landslide proved difficult to tabulate for the BOE, which announced in July that it had lost 1,600 votes cast in the presidential race and needed to amend its totals nearly eight months later.

A long, disputed vote count would have a big effect in the mayoral election because there are only three weeks between the primary and the runoff on Oct. 1. Any delay in identifying a winner would make campaigning extremely complicated. All of the leading Democrats are participating in New York’s public campaign financing system. This means they are subject to spending caps and reliant on public funds that the city’s Campaign Finance Board will give to the two candidates who qualify for the runoff. Because of this, the candidates can’t afford to get bogged down in lengthy vote counts and legal disputes in the vein of the 2000 presidential recount in Florida.

The New York City Board of Elections tried to avoid Election Day drama this year by getting approval from Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to temporarily take the old lever machines out of retirement for this race. However, James said, not everyone is convinced taking the electronic machines out of the equation will be enough to ensure a smooth ride on the road to City Hall.

James said she is worried the lever machines, which have spent the past few years under plastic sheets in warehouses won’t be in working order in time for the election. She also said some of the spare parts necessary to fix broken machines are no longer being manufactured.

“There’s a concern with regard to whether or not they have all of the parts that are necessary to put these machines back into circulation,” James said.

Even before they were put into storage, James said there were issues with the lever machines, particularly in minority communities.

“Historically, the machines in communities of color have broken down,” said James. “In fact, in Central Brooklyn, Bed Stuy, when I worked there, I used to walk around with a screw driver and when we couldn’t get someone from the Board of Elections to come and repair machines, we would take matters into our own hands. And I became an expert at it. … I’ve worked on these machines with a screwdriver, with a hammer, and sometimes a good kick.”

Broken down machines would force voters to cast handwritten affidavit ballots. An uptick in affidavit ballots could lead to the same slow, disputed hand counts that occurred in races that featured the electronic machines.

Sarah Steiner, an election lawyer and incoming chair of the New York City Bar Association’s election law committee, said she believes “a lot of problems will be rectified by the use of the lever voting machines” even though they have been out of work for a few years.

“There are a lot of people who know how to use the lever machines. … The lever machines, they’re workhorses,” Steiner said. “The counts are reliable, what you see is what you get on the back of the machine. … I do think that they have mechanics for those machines, they have probably more machines than they need and can cannibalize them for parts. I think they’re probably in less bad shape than a lot of people fear. … At least I hope so.”

Though she said she has “more faith” in the lever machines than the electronic ones, Steiner cautioned she didn’t want to “overstate” her confidence in them.

BOE Spokeswoman Valerie Vazquez told TPM the concerns were unfounded and the lever machines will be an improvement on the electronic models.

“The board is confident that, using these lever machines, we will be able to conduct the primary elections and the potential runoff,” said Vazquez.

Vazquez also said concerns about the condition of the lever machines were unfounded and that “only about 18” of the original pool of approximately 7,000 machines were found to be unusable when they were taken out of storage.

“Even before the Legislature passed the bill that allowed us to use the lever machines, they were doing preventative maintenance,” Vazquez said. “The manner in which they were stored since their last use really — I mean for the most part, all of the levers were in very good shape.”

Jumaane Williams, a councilman who represents the 45th District in Brooklyn, also believes the lever machines are better than electronic voting. He described them as an imperfect “best-of-the-worst” solution. However, Williams said he’s still “very worried” New York will see a repeat of last November’s presidential election, where disorganization and confused workers at polling places led to massive lines that turned some voters away.

“I’m very concerned … we could have chaos that we saw in the presidential election,” said Williams. “It was mass confusion and what added to the mass confusion is that everybody didn’t have the same set of instructions. Some people thought that they couldn’t have people taking affidavits, some people thought that they could have people taking affidavits. Some people weren’t in the voter files then you had long, long, long huge tremendous lines.”

Insiders expect about 700,000 to 800,000 people to vote in this year’s mayoral election. That’s about a third of the amount that participated in the presidential race, but Williams said he’s still “concerned about the board’s ability to handle that.” And, in a smaller, more closely-contested race, lines discouraging voters from heading to the polls could have a real impact on the result.

According to Vazquez, the BOE has distributed an “information notice” to voters informing them of where to go once they reach the polls. She said she expects this to help “speed up the lines” and prevent a “bottleneck” on Election Day.

Both Steiner and James were also concerned about the board’s ability to oversee an election without major glitches. They also described the agency as underfunded and inherently dysfunctional. The BOE is structured as a bipartisan agency with two commissioners for each borough appointed by leaders of the two major parties. James said this system and insufficient funding has resulted in the board being “mismanaged” and overly reliant on temporary employees.

“This has become a patronage agency unfortunately and we’ve not professionalized it with the type of with individuals who have the expertise and the know-how to manage an election in the 21st century,” said James.

Steiner said the required bipartisanship at the BOE makes operations unwieldy because it requires “two people doing everything that gets done.” She also echoed James’ argument that the city and state do not give the agency enough funding to be effective.

“The Board of Elections, they’ve been vilified,” said Steiner. “The fact is that we should be strengthening the Board of Elections. We should be making it into an agency that can actually efficiently run an election instead of forcing it to work with temporary employees and way behind-the-curve technology.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has long been a harsh critic of the BOE and has argued the agency has received “plenty of money” from the city. The city spent about $95 million to make the switch from the lever machines to the electronic models.

“They are basically immobilized. They don’t have anybody running it. They’re polarized,” Bloomberg said after the BOE announced its delayed presidential vote count. “And the Board of Elections should not be just people in two parties, it should be everybody.”

Vazquez said the structure of the BOE is “dictated by election law.” She also pointed out the agency has “oversight” from the City Council. However, Vazquez conceded the staffing situation at the BOE is not ideal.

“Unfortunately the board is consistently put in a position in which we had to supplement staff with temporary workers seeing as though our permanent head count for a citywide agency with over 4.6 mill voters is only 351 full-time permanent staff members,” said Vazquez.

Mayoral Election Day drama would require a veritable perfect storm of extremely tight margins combining with the counting woes at the BOE. It may be unlikely, but the potential for problems is enough to put fear in some members of New York’s political class. Other than switching to the lever machines, Williams said he “doesn’t know what else they could possibly do” in the short term to ensure there are no serious issues on Election Day.

“We’re in a bad situation right now. … I feel bad for people who have serious, hotly-contested races,” Williams said. “We’ve just got to pray.”

Photo via Shutterstock / Sebastian Kaulitzki

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