As New Yorkers continue to set record-breaking tallies for early voting, with more people casting ballots in the first three days than during early voting periods for last year’s general election and this year’s primary contest combined, long lines remain a persistent problem. Many voters report waiting upwards of an hour - and often longer - to cast their ballots.
While enthusiasm may have led to more than 300,000 voters turning out across New York City—and just-proposed expanded early voting hours later this week—there is another reason why some voters may be waiting significantly longer than others to cast their ballots. The New York City Board of Elections assigned voters to one of 88 specific early voting sites, seemingly without regard to the space capacity of each location.
An analysis by the city’s Campaign Finance Board shows that the number of voters assigned to each site varies by tens of thousands, peaking at nearly 120,000 voters at the most assigned site down to fewer than 10,000 voters assigned to the least. A commissioner for the New York State’s Board of Elections said it appears city election officials did not do the math.
Listen to Brigid Bergin's report on WNYC:
Given the varying size of each early voting location, the number of assigned voters would be expected to vary. What is not clear is why so few voters are being sent to some of the largest physical spaces, while so many voters are being sent to smaller, more restrictive locations. It is also not clear whether the Board allocated staff and resources differently to account for disparate numbers of voters assigned to each site.
The site with most voters assigned to it is Robert Wagner Middle School on East 75th Street in Manhattan. On Saturday, the first day of early voting, the line to enter the site stretched back between Second and Third Avenues on East 76th Street, running to the entrance of the school, making a loop and then going again around the entire block where the school was located. At one point, the line for voters became tangled with a line of shoppers waiting to enter the Citarella on Third Avenue.
Took me 4 hours at Robert Wagner Middle School today! Knees are super tired, but my democratic spirit is high!— Kelsey Dowd (@kels_dowd3) October 24, 2020
“It was pretty crazy, and definitely pretty frustrating to wait that long,” said Kelsey Dowd, 25, who lives in Yorkville, and waited for four hours. This was the first time Dowd voted in person after just moving to the city from Colorado, where all voters are mailed a ballot. While she said she got in line expecting to wait, she did not anticipate it would be so long. “The problem was I didn’t expect it was going to be four hours, I thought it would be more like two,” Dowd explained.
By comparison, the site with the least number of voters assigned to it was also in Manhattan. The Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at New York University on LaGuardia Place has fewer than 10,000 voters assigned to it. While there were some voters in line on Tuesday afternoon, the wait was a fraction of the time compared to sites with more voters.
The Board did not respond to repeated requests for comment about how it assigned voters to sites. In the past, Board officials have talked about the requirements set by the Americans With Disabilities Act, provisions dictated by site owners as terms for making their space available and limitations due to social distancing requirements, all of which may limited their ability to assign more voters to larger physical spaces
Speaking at their weekly meeting on Tuesday, New York City Board of Elections Executive Director Mike Ryan acknowledged that the city does not have “standard and uniform” sized poll sites and stressed the city Board needed to work within the space they have.
He also said that the city Board has adjusted its policies since the start of early voting, adding a new position to manage the line of voters while other poll workers help older voters and those with disabilities to ensure they do not have to wait in line. “These are all the things our poll workers are doing all in the face of an international pandemic,” he added.
Pending approval of the poll site location owners, the city Board also approved an extension of early voting hours starting on Friday, adding nine additional hours of early voting throughout the weekend. “You can't just sneak up on 88 sites and expect they will be able to limberly respond," said Ryan, adding that they also need to communicate with other partners including the NYPD and the cleaners who sanitize the sites each day.
The Board has long struggled to secure enough poll sites for voters. That challenge became more acute with the addition of early voting, which requires site owners to make their space available for 11 days, including nine days of voting and two days to set up and break down a site.
Dozens of cultural institutions that collectively receive half a billion in tax benefits rejected the Board’s request to serve as poll sites. But for the first time this year, voters are casting ballots at the city’s two largest sports arenas: Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Based on their hulking physical size, it’s no surprise that MSG is the early voting site with the third most voters assigned to it, tipping just over 110,000. What seems more inexplicable is that the Barclays Center has only 32,000 voters assigned to it. Out of the 27 sites in the borough, there is only one site with fewer voters assigned to it and that’s a community center in Red Hook.
The site with the largest number of voters assigned to it in Brooklyn is the Council Center for Senior Citizens in Gravesend. That’s where Deborah Turner, 66, voted on Saturday, lining up with her neighbor, folding chair in tow, before the poll site even opened. Despite the three- hour wait, Turner’s spirits were high.
“I'm saying to myself, I never thought that I would be somebody to show up and stand in line to vote but it's just how important it is,” she said.
But not every voter was as willing to wait. "We took one look at the lines, I walked around the block, I said no way at my age I can stand on that line,” said Rodney Cheyenne Walmer, 62, who came back with his absentee ballot and dropped it off instead.
Allie Swatek, director of policy and research at the New York City Campaign Finance Board, whose team conducted the poll site analysis, said it was clear that the city needed more early voting sites. “Even better would be a borough based vote center model,” said Swatek.
“We also believe that the Board of Elections can use their check in data to give voters more information about when to go vote,” she added, pointing to a map for voters in Travis County, Texas, which gives real-time wait information for every poll site.
State Board of Elections Commissioner Doug Kellner said he is seeing places in New York State where leaders are coming up with different ways to help voters manage the high turnout. He pointed to the town of Greenburgh in Westchester County where they set up a live web stream showing the poll site at the town hall and the parking lot so voters could see when the site is busiest. He also noted that elections officials in Nassau County added more staff to accommodate voters after lines at their poll sites. More than 700,000 New Yorkers have voted statewide so far,
In terms of the New York City Board of Elections, Kellner said, “I don't think they did the arithmetic to determine what their capacity was,” referring to the number of voters that could reasonably cast ballots at a given site. Kellner, who lives in Manhattan is assigned to the second most crowded early voting site in the city, West Side High School on West 102nd Street, where nearly 113,000 voters are assigned to vote.
“Say it takes two minutes per voter at the choke point, which is the poll book,” said Kellner, “that means that that is a capacity of 30 per hour.” He said given the number of voters assigned to some sites, the limited number of check-in tables available to them, and the need for social distancing, he did not think the Board planned sufficiently for the turnout of this election.
Ryan, the city Board’s Executive Director, insisted Tuesday it only took an average of 30 seconds to check in voters.
State law mandates that local Board’s make adjustments if wait times exceed more than 30 minutes. The New York State Board of Elections sent a memo Monday to all of the local Boards reminding elections officials that if wait times were longer than half an hour that Boards, “shall deploy such additional voting equipment, election workers and other resources necessary to reduce the wait time to less than 30 minutes as soon as possible but no later than the beginning of the next day of early voting.”
This latest episode has once again elicited cries for reform of the New York City Board of Elections.
“Between the absentee ballot snafu and the huge early voting lines, it is clear the agency is not ready for prime time,” said Laura Wood, senior adviser and general counsel for the Mayor’s Democracy NYC office. The city has already urged the Board to add more equipment and staff to locations with the longest wait times.
But the larger issue of reform is one that will have to be handled by state officials since the Board of Elections is governed by election law and the state constitution. One of the outspoken proponents for changing election law is State Senator Liz Krueger, whose Manhattan district is also home to Robert Wagner Middle School, the site with the most voters assigned to it.
“That's pretty outrageous,” said Krueger about the gap between the sites with the largest and smallest numbers of early voters. “Even given the population density of Manhattan and the difficulty apparently the Board of Elections had finding places that were willing to be early voting sites, the concept that you would divvy it up that way is completely unexplainable.”
With reporting from Gwynne Hogan, Katherine Fung, Jake Dobkin, Jen Chung, and David Cruz