Why Can't NYC Hold An Election Without Spiraling Into Crisis?

Voters at Brooklyn Public Library during last year's general election, where voters reported "an hour and a half wait minimum"
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The scene at Brooklyn Public Library, where voters reported "an hour and a half wait minimum" Scott Heins / Gothamist

Forget Russian meddling—New York hacked itself.

Across the city on Tuesday, the engines of democracy sputtered and stalled, as a mass breakdown of ballot scanning machines forced thousands of residents to battle interminable lines and bureaucratic anarchy. From Flatbush to Jackson Heights to the South Bronx, would-be voters waited hours for the chance to cast their ballots—a maddening experience that left New Yorkers plenty of time to contemplate the city's apparent inability to host a modern day election, and the state's ongoing failure to address the most regressive voting laws in the country.

Some people walked out, though plenty of others stayed put. Poll coordinators frantically placed calls to their respective county's Boards of Elections, as orderly and not-so-orderly lines spilled out the doors of public schools and libraries and YMCAs. At the city BOE's direction, emergency boxes were produced for ballots that the machines refused to scan. Reports of overflowing cartons of exposed ballots soon followed. One poll worker at the Van Nest Academy in the Bronx was overheard suggesting that not-yet-scanned ballots be placed in one of the school's large garbage bins.

It was pouring in Windsor Terrace when the final working machine jammed at around 10 a.m.—prompting jeers and a sort of frustrated civic solidarity from the crowd as the announcement spread through the queue. The good news, someone later pointed out, was that the machine had lasted long enough so that the line no longer extended into the rain. The bad news was that no one had any idea when, if ever, they'd be able to exercise their right to vote.

The culprit for the citywide paper jam, according to BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan, was New Yorkers themselves, whose high turnout for an election widely billed as the most important of our lifetimes somehow caught officials off guard. The damp weather might have also played a role, Ryan said, as humidity is known to cause the ballots to become slightly larger.

Or maybe the true agent of chaos was the perforated edge of this year's laughably long, tear-off ballots—an extra dosage of democracy that our $6,500 apiece DS200 ballot scanners were apparently not equipped to handle. In a statement, a spokesperson for Election Systems & Software, the company that manufactures the machines, explained, "Due to an unusually long ballot, some precincts have experienced ballot jams due to ballots that are not separated properly or have excess moisture."

Whatever the cause, it quickly became clear that the scale of the scanner collapse had eclipsed our typical Election Day mayhem, and was entering what technologist Joseph Lorenzo-Hall described as "the 'We have a problem, Houston' stage of this." Before the polls were even closed, Mayor Bill de Blasio had called for a major overhaul of the BOE, while City Council Speaker Corey Johnson went so far as to demand Ryan's resignation.

"We're hearing problems literally in every neighborhood across the City and all five boroughs, with broken scanning machines, long lines, wet ballots, and chaos and confusion," Johnson told Gothamist. He noted that firing the executive director would require a majority of votes from a ten-person board of commissioners split evenly between Democrats and Republicans—an unlikely scenario, though not impossible. Ryan, a Staten Island attorney who's held the job for five years now, was narrowly elected despite opposition from the Democratic commissioners in Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Manhattan. He makes $172,000 per year.

"Today is not a good day for democracy here in New York City and we need to do better," Johnson added.

In some parts of the city, it was an extra lousy day for democracy. Alisa Besher's "mellow hell" began at 9:45 a.m. in the gymnasium of St. Cecilia's Church in Greenpoint. Besher, 33, says she immediately noticed the lines were longer than anything she'd encountered in 14 years of voting, and soon learned that three of four machines had jammed. A man a few spots in front of her, Hassam Asif, had repeatedly called the New York City Board of Elections, but they kept hanging up on him, he said.

Still, they waited for hours, along with hundreds of others inside St. Cecilia's—passing the time by drawing, befriending their neighbors and even organizing the wave. Both voters say they weren't offered an emergency ballot until a little after 12:00 p.m., though by that point they'd resolved to stick it out a bit longer, partially out of fear that their ballots wouldn't be counted. More than an hour later, and nearly four hours from the time they'd entered the church, Besher and Ashif successfully voted.

"I'm furious. We're all furious," fumed Asif. "This is voter suppression."

"The whole thing felt absolutely absurd to me," echoed Besher. "Why was there no preventative checking of the machines? This is a huge election, I don't understand how you're not prepared."

A spokesperson for ES&S insisted that the machines were "tested to operate with perforated ballots" before the elections. The BOE, meanwhile, hasn't responded to Gothamist's request for comment about what went wrong, and whether the machines will continue to be used in future elections. Following reports of polling mishaps in 2012, the city briefly replaced the three-year-old electronic scanners with vintage lever machines in the next primary, though they were forced by the state to return to the new technology for the general election.

While there are still plenty of unanswered questions about New York's finicky and potentially insecure vote scanners, the blame for yesterday's fiasco does not fall solely on the hardware manufacturer. According to Common Cause Executive Director Susan Lerner, a major reason for the voting chaos stemmed from the confusing layout of the ballots themselves—the result of the BOE "digging in their heels" and refusing to acknowledge decades of research about how to communicate clearly with voters, Lerner says. Some of those design changes could have happened in Albany last year, but legislation to create a more voter-friendly ballot stalled in the Senate.

"It's a combination of bad state law and obstinate political appointees who don't know anything design, usability or customer service," Lerner summarized for Gothamist. And of course, there's the basic fact that this whole mess could've been avoided if New York joined 37 other states in allowing early voting, as opposed to squeezing millions of votes into a 15-hour window on a weekday.

As Lerner told Gothamist one day before the election, "There's absolutely no reason whatsoever that New York doesn't have early voting." Now that Democrats have control of the State Senate, another vote-suppressing meltdown like yesterday’s will only become harder to justify.

Additional reporting by Jim O’Grady and Rhyne Piggott.

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