Imagine being told by the federal government that you have to replace your old car because it's unsafe. A law is even passed saying that you have to get rid of it. But you still don't listen and the federal government eventually sues you to replace the car. You finally spend a lot of money on a nice new car, use it for three years, but then decide that you like the old car better. That's essentially what New York City is doing this September by bringing back those old lever voting machines for the September primaries.
Following the debacle of the hanging chads of the presidential election of 2000, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, mandating that every state had to modernize its voting procedures. New York, with its old lever machines, eventually had to be sued by the Justice Department to comply with HAVA because the state couldn't get its act together and pick a new system. Finally, in 2010, New York started using new optical scanning machines, which also leave a paper record of every vote.
But Board of Elections officials say the new machines won't tally things quick enough in a primary to determine the results in the likely event that a runoff has to be held two weeks later. Their solution? Bring the old lever machines out of retirement from warehouses in Brooklyn.
Forgetting about the legal questions that this raises (could this be violation of HAVA?) and the logistical ones (will these old machines still work?), it seems amazing that the new technology can't be streamlined to fit the narrow window of the runoff. And the runoff process had hardly been smooth with the old lever machines. In 1997 and in 2005, the Board of Elections initially said there needed to be a Democratic primary runoff in the mayor's race -- only to reverse itself after looking at the results again. (A runoff is held if no one gets 40% of the vote.)
Adding to the mess is the fact that the optical scanning machines – which are being pushed to the side in September – may be brought back for the general election in November. I can only imagine the confusion that elderly voters will experience, let alone the thousands of poll workers who often seemed challenged by routine questions even when turnout is light.
All of this highlights the need for a overhaul of the city's Board of Elections. Unlike other city agencies, the Board is essentially overseen by the city's Democratic and Republican parties, with its commissioners appointed by party leaders in each borough. The thought process behind this setup was that a bipartisan board would keep politics out of a highly-important and sensitive operation. But instead, the organization has often become a dumping ground of political patronage, with little thought given about the quality of its appointees. With Primary Day a little more than three months away, the board still has no executive director, despite conducting a national search. But I'm not surprised: Would you want to be the person overseeing this year's elections? At least we don't have chads.