How to Mess Up Election Day: New York Edition

Maybe it's not what you could call sexy, but the extremely long queues on election Day, 8 November, in NYC were longer than they should have been.

Yeah, it was a presidential election, and that means that lots of hiding vote trolls who don't bother with midterms or primaries were hot to dot. 

And yeah, most people realized that in a city of eight million-plus residents, lines are, if not de rigueur, then totally expected.

But there was another spanner in the works that, had it been prevented, could have sped up the process by hours, eliminating many man-hours of sidewalk waiting.

State attorney general Eric Schneiderman's staff called attention to the fact that over 650 complaints of election snafus across the state flooded his offices' phone lines.  At the Board of Elections on Varick Street, we heard of many more reports of problems than Schneiderman's people.

The culprit that kept so many on so many patient lines on that sunny, unseasonably mild autumn day was that the machines that took the ballots, counting them, were breaking down at a record pace.

In New York City proper – just the borough of Manhattan, that is; other boroughs have an equal number or fewer – there are some 350 poll sites of varying sizes and capacities.  Some are tiny and service just one election district (E.D.) in a larger Assembly district (A.D.), and some sites have up to 14 E.D.s in one poll site. 

Every poll site is equipped with no fewer than two scanners, sturdy black and silver devices officially in service since 2010 and the retirement of the popular electronic curtained 1962 Shoup "lever voting machines" of the past, an older version of which was in service with curtain and levers since 1898. 

Whatever device voters use to count and collect their votes, they must have a choice as to which scanner they would like to insert their marked paper ballot into.  Each ballot bin liner box at the bottom of each scanner accepts approximately 1,400 paper ballots before it needs to be taken out and replaced with an empty receptacle for more ballots.  At that full point, poll workers are supposed to notify poll site coordinators that a new scanner is needed to accept yet more ballots.

But for the entire time that these scanners have been in service, the ballots used have been a certain measure of thickness, and the machines dutifully and happily absorbed each inserted ballot slid into the accommodating tray.  This year, the paper thickness of the ballots was perceptibly thicker than before.  The thicker ballot prevented inadvertent ripping or tearing as the poll workers at the dispensing tables took names, witnessed the voter signatures, and handed the voter his or her perfect ballot, unripped.  A torn ballot will not be accepted in any scanner, so the voter is entitled to another untorn ballot.  The problem was that although the ballots were less likely to be ripped by the table "inspectors" dispensing them, the delicate machinery inside the scanners did not take happily to the thicker paper ballots.

Hundreds jammed.  When one scanner jams, the other can, of course, be used.  But when both jam, as happened on this past election day, the technicians have to be called, and special emergency measures are taken that take slightly longer to administer, since the voters need to be instructed where else to slide their ballots.  The larger poll sites jammed as well as the smaller ones, and the technicians called and sent from 200 Varick were stretched thin.  The lines became longer, and some sites did not, alas, get their fixes in time to prevent moderate chaos, since the poll workers are not taught how to correct such jams, and they were in any case far too busy coping with the avalanche of voters to be able to leave their posts.

Thus, in some cases, queues that might have been 40 or 50 minutes long became an hour, even two.  Lines we witnessed ourselves stretched around a NYC block – an avenue block, which is three times the length of a "street" block.

Some scanners never got fixed, as there were not enough technicians to go around in the vastly increased emergency situation.

Because some of the poll workers were newbies and had never worked an election before, pressed into service with but one four-hour training session, some were less than proficient in advising voters what to do or where to go or how to proceed.  The Board of Elections knew from past experience that some workers failed to show up at the mandated 5 a.m. hour and had pressed for more poll workers, fearing a shortfall – which has happened during every election the past eight years or so.  So new poll workers were trained and put into gear on the busiest election of the decade.

A learning curve – at the expense of the voter.  But next time, wise observers at the BoE pray for a return to the thinner paper of past ballots.  And trainees who are primed by trial primary runs that prepare them for the tsunami of New York City elections.