As New Yorkers Go to the Polls, Concerns Remain Over New Voting System

The new electronic ballot reader in New York City - Photo: Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska

The new electronic ballot reader in New York City. (Photo: Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska)

NEW YORK – Today’s mid-term elections in New York City will feature magnifying sheets, palm cards, and automated voting machines.  If the debut of the  new voting system during September’s primary election is any indication, many voters may find voting especially challenging this year.

New Yorkers from immigrant communities, senior citizens and low-income families are likely to be affected, said Lawrence Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice, considered an expert on ballot design issues. The elderly may have problems reading the tiny print on ballots, while immigrants and low-income voters are sectors less likely to ask for help.

“It’s going to be difficult for some,” he said.

In response the New York City Board of Elections (BOE) has offered a range of solutions to make this year’s election a seamless political exercise.

To ensure that New Yorkers are “comfortable and confident” using the new electronic voting system, the BOE is distributing palm cards containing instructions on the proper use of voting machines, BOE Director of Communications Valerie Vasquez told Fi2W. Newspaper ads will reinforce the instructions. Paper ballots, text scanners and audio instructions will be available in Chinese, Korean and Spanish languages, and interpreters will be at polling places to offer assistance.

On concerns that ballot designs are unreadable and “seriously flawed,” Vasquez said a magnifying sheet will be provided in privacy booths, or a ballot marking device can be used to enlarge the print.

“Ensuring that all voters can confidently and comfortably vote is a top priority for the board,” she said.

But many observers are unconvinced, dismissing these features as “bandaids” that will not cure the ills in the voting process.

Palm cards will help, but having multiple sets of instructions – those on the palm cards which differ from those on the actual ballots -could be “disorienting” to voters trying a new system for the first time, warned Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.

“Most voters will be using the electronic voting system for the first time, and I am concerned that voters – immigrant voters in particular – will find the contradictory instructions confusing,” he said.

Not two, but three voting instructions are expected to be rolled out today, said Norden.

“There will be three sets of instructions,” he told Fi2W. “One on the back of the ballot, which is the wrong instructions, one in privacy booths, which is (also) wrong, and one in palm cards, which is the correct one. I understand they are required by law to post the wrong instructions, but it makes no sense to me, and this is the kind of reasoning that unfortunately is the epitome of what has been wrong with the city board and how they’ve been conducting elections.”

The ballot has long caught the eye of the center. In a letter to the BOE weeks before the election, the center pointed to the ballot’s “serious design defects” including tiny font sizes and a layout where candidates’ names are printed multiple times. For instance, Norden said the name of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo is listed three times “under different parties,” and his opponent, Republican Carl Paladino appears four times.

There is also the issue of ovals on the ballots. While the BOE said instructions in privacy booths clearly state that voters need to fill in the oval “below the candidate’s name they wish to vote for,” critics are worried the ballot design may lead voters to mark the oval “above” the candidate’s name.

De Blasio said the BOE, “made it clear they will not reprint the ballots with erroneous instructions,” but would provide palm cards instead.

Jeff Merritt, director of political engagement of the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), said one of the “biggest flaws” is ballot legibility and the BOE’s inability to provide adequate education.

“The letters are too small and some foreign languages are hard to read,” he said. “I e-mailed them requesting a sample ballot, and I haven’t gotten a response.”

Margaret Fung, executive director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, put it bluntly,  “It’s a simple case of someone should have done some proofreading.”

She said AALDEF also reiterated its request that interpreters be provided in Chinese and Korean because “that’s not been done” in some places in past elections.

Deputy Director Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center, said the magnifying sheets and palm cards are mere “bandaids” and “will not be sufficient”  to counteract potential problems.

“We are concerned that these bandaids may not, in fact, be made available across the city, judging from past mishaps,” she said.

The ballot design is just one of many issues likely to crop up and cause voters to stay away from the polls.

Following September’s primary elections, Public Advocate De Blasio’s office received reports of about 150 poll sites with malfunctioning ballot scanners, infringements on voter privacy and late poll openings. Some members of the Russian immigrant community have voiced concerns that instructions on the new machines “were not available until far too late to prove useful.”

“We sent a compendium of these complaints to the BOE and asked them what measures were taken to correct them,” he said.  “Their response was incomplete. The board did not acknowledge the scope of what went wrong. We remain concerned that the board hasn’t taken the necessary steps to prevent these problems from recurring.”

The BOE stunned many when it fired its executive director, George Gonzalez, on Oct. 26 – a week before the mid-term elections — over problems resulting from the primary election.

Polls not opening on time was a major complaint, according to Merritt of NYIC, and some ballots meant for the military and American workers overseas missed their deadline. He said an e-mail reportedly sent by Gonzalez instructing sanitation workers to open polling places two hours early did not reach the intended recipients in time.

Deputy Executive Director Dawn Sandow and Administrative Manager Pamela Green Perkins will split Gonzalez’ duties and will make sure the board runs a smooth general elections.

“Decisions about how the executive director position will be staffed will happen at a later date,” the BOE’s Vasquez said.

Merritt and Norden believe whatever procedural confusion may occur on Nov. 2 could slow the voting, but may not cause massive disenfranchisement that could significantly alter the results of the election.

“There will be problems, and my cautious optimism says it will not have a major impact on the contest in any way,” said Norden.

“I don’t think it’s a game changer,” echoed Merritt.

But Weiser pointed out that in a close race, the slightest procedural flaw could make a difference and possibly lead to legal challenges.

Feet in Two Worlds coverage of the New York election season is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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