Friday, November 5, 2004

New York Votes, With Difficulty

New York Times Editorial, November 5, 2004

New York City's local election results were bereft of suspense this year, with candidates from John Kerry to state legislators rolling up local landslides. That was fortunate because the city's system - both its human and machine components - could never handle a close election.

Across the city's five boroughs, there were complaints about broken machines, ill-trained workers and lines that were hours long. Callers who simply needed to know where they should vote could not get through to the Board of Elections, and the board's shamefully underdeveloped Web site continues to be of little help. In addition, the board didn't distinguish itself in the weeks leading up to the election. There's enough anecdotal evidence to show that its handling of registrations and absentee ballots was chaotic.

The greatest frustrations may have been with the antiquated machinery, 40-year-old hulks that are finally to be replaced by 2006. While new machines may offer other complications, we hope that they'll be more dependable: 5 percent of the ones in use now regularly break down. On Tuesday, that problem was further complicated by unprepared poll workers, some of whom did not even know how to substitute paper ballots or - at least at one site - where to find them. The voters who hung in there deserve credit for tenacity.

Both Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council speaker, Gifford Miller, have angrily demanded improvements by next year, when both are expected to run for mayor. A good start would be better preparation for poll workers; some of them still show up without attending a single training session. But the entire structure of the Board of Elections, a panel of political appointees selected by county leaders, needs reform. Since the board's executive director, John Ravitz, has been effusive in his praise of how the system worked, fixing the mess will clearly mean looking elsewhere.

Thursday, November 4, 2004

Mayor and Council Speaker Criticize Elections Board

New York Times, By JENNIFER STEINHAUER, November 4, 2004

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg stepped up criticism yesterday of the Board of Elections for its performance on Tuesday, and his complaints were echoed by the City Council speaker, Gifford Miller, who said the Council would hold oversight hearings over the board's practices.

On a day of heavy turnout at the polls, phones at the board's office went unanswered, information on where to vote was hard to obtain and broken voting machines and befuddled workers greeted many voters, some of whom stood in line for nearly two hours at polls around the city. The New York Public Interest Group logged more than 3,000 phone calls on its hot line from voters who had experienced problems.

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"We are concerned about the fact that our system was overstressed yesterday and was not able to handle the tremendous influx of voters," Mr. Miller said during a news conference on the steps of City Hall. "All across this city, voters were frustrated in their attempts to vote yesterday for reasons that are not clear to me and that aren't really legitimate."

He said that his office placed 300 calls to the board's hot line on Tuesday and that only 21 of them were answered. Further, while Mr. Miller conceded that the Council had not heeded the pleas of the board for more money to train and pay workers, he said the Bloomberg administration was even less open to allocating more to the board's budget.

Mr. Bloomberg said yesterday that he was unsympathetic to the board's inability to handle its high phone volume, comparing its performance to "restaurants that complain that the service is slow because it's mealtime."

"I don't have a lot of sympathy for that," he said at a news conference in Queens. "Of course, the Board of Elections had their phone lines busy at election time, and I think they should have prepared for it."

John Ravitz, the executive director of the board, said yesterday that while the board was understaffed on its phone lines and had faced sporadic problems at the polling stations, he was proud of its work.

"I have heard comments that we didn't have a good day or we weren't prepared but I thought we had a great day," he said. "We got an additional 400 machines out and we hired additional workers. At no point did voters have to be turned away. We got 435,000 new voters this year. We got through it."

Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Strong Showing at Polls Catches City's Old System Off Guard

New York Times, By MIKE McINTIRE, November 3, 2004

Strong Showing at Polls Catches City's Old System Off Guard

Crowds like this one, in the gym of Public School 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, were a common sight throughout the region yesterday.

With a huge turnout testing New York City's antiquated voting system, voters complained of long lines, confusion and broken machines at some polling places yesterday, as election officials appeared overwhelmed and unprepared for the crush of people who showed up to cast ballots.

Although the problems did not lead to widespread disorder, they left New Yorkers, including Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, frustrated that election officials did not seem to have addressed longstanding complaints about the outdated voting system.

"At this stage in our electoral process - what is it, over 200 years? - we should have more advanced technology to vote," said David Bartolomi, 39, a Manhattan photographer waiting at an East 49th Street polling place where machines broke down. "This is the first time in 12 years I've had to wait on line to vote."

Three of the eight machines at a polling site in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan broke down early in the morning, forcing voters to use paper ballots. At a busy Wall Street polling site, workers showed up an hour after the polls opened and did not know how to use the equipment, spawning long waits by frustrated voters.

Residents of Park Slope, Brooklyn, also complained of lengthy delays and confusing instructions from poll workers, who sent one woman to the wrong school to vote.

Workers at a Greenwich Village polling place could not find the registrars' books needed to check off the names of voters.

After casting his vote at a school on East 81st Street yesterday morning, Mr. Bloomberg echoed voters' complaints and criticized the city's Board of Elections, whose phone lines and Web site were jammed or inoperable for long periods, thwarting voters trying to locate polling sites.

"We had offered them some help, but they wanted to preserve their independence from the administration, and so they declined the help," Mr. Bloomberg said of the board. "But they better get their act together by next year."

"This has been an antiquated system for an awful long time," he said, "and we've not been able to improve it, I think, in any meaningful sense."

John Ravitz, executive director of the elections board, said that problems with voting equipment were not widespread, adding that the board had not turned down help. Noting that the board operates more than 7,000 voting machines, Mr. Ravitz said, "These machines are from the 1960's and are doing a good job."

Board officials said that their telephone lines were deluged with up to 1,000 calls an hour yesterday, overloading the system, but that a bare-bones version of their Web site, which was down most of Monday, was running yesterday. They said they were caught off guard by the long wait times some voters experienced at the polls.

"We didn't expect there would be two-hour lines, but we expected it would take some time," said Chris Riley, a spokesman for the board. "Usually during an election, you'll hit a dip 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. This election, we haven't seen that dip."

The board bought 400 used voting machines in preparation for what was expected to be a large turnout. More than 400,000 new voter registrations in the past year increased the number of registered voters to 4.4 million.

New York was one of 24 states to get waivers allowing them to delay complying with federal requirements - put into place after the 2000 election - to replace mechanical voting equipment with new technology.

Complaints of problems at the polls extended beyond New York City. In Westchester, where State Senator Nicholas A. Spano, a Republican, faced a hard-fought race, Democrats won a court order impounding the ballots after several voters complained of irregularities. One voter said in an affidavit that that he arrived at the polls to find that someone else had signed next to his name. And two people said in affidavits that voting machines registered two votes cast before the polls opened at 6 a.m.

In New Jersey, more than 300 people went to the Constitutional Litigation Clinic at the Rutgers School of Law in Newark to complain that they had not been allowed to vote by machine or by provisional ballot, an alternative form of voting for those not properly registered.

"These are people that say they haven't done anything like move or change their addresses,'' said Penny Venetis, a law professor, who said she had not seen so many aggrieved voters in her 11 years at the center. "They were just told that they could not vote, period."

In Connecticut, where about 275,000 new voters registered for the election, people waited for as long as two hours at some polling places. Election officials in Hartford reported heavy turnout statewide, and in some towns, registrars seemed unprepared for the volume. Voters at an elementary school in Darien waited up to an hour, only to find a lone, elderly registrar slowly checking off names as people filed into the gymnasium.

But the worst scenes of confusion were at polling places around New York. At 45 Wall Street, a luxury apartment building that serves as a polling place for most Wall Street residents, poll workers were unfamiliar with their tasks, and one of the two machines broke down.

As replacement workers from the elections board scrambled to try to restore order - placing a cardboard box marked "official ballot box" on a folding table - a line of voters stretched out the door, nearly to the statue of George Washington in front of Federal Hall National Memorial a block away.

"They sent five people who hadn't been through training," said Louise Burley, an inspector from the elections board. "You're supposed to have some kind of training. I don't understand."

At Liberty High School on West 128th Street, voters whose last names began with the letters A through L became angry because the wait in their line was two hours, while the M-Z line was nearly empty. After repeated complaints, the poll worker on the A-L line was replaced.

For the most part, New Yorkers seemed to take the long wait in stride. In the Hell's Kitchen section of Manhattan, voters spent more than an hour in long lines at Public School 51 on West 45th Street, reading books or talking.

"I've never seen anything like this," said Vera Wells, who said she had been voting in the neighborhood since the early 1980's. "It's chaotic, but it's civilized chaos."