On September 29th Senator Joseph Addabbo, chair of the Senate Elections Committee held a hearing on the recent New York State primary when new paper ballot and optical scan systems were used statewide for the first time. The hearing focused on reported problems that occurred in New York City, the largest election jurisdiction in the country with almost 4.5 million registered voters. In addition to the New York City Board of Elections, others giving testimony included the New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, the Brennan Center for Justice, the League of Women Voters of the City of New York, NYPIRG, Commissioner Doug Kellner of the State Board of Elections and others. Senator Addabbo chaired the hearing, with Senators Bill Perkins, Liz Krueger, and Daniel Squadron also attending.
The hearings started out focusing on the principal witnesses, New York City Board of Elections Executive Director George Gonzalez, President Julie Dent, and other key staff. While acknowledging that problems did occur on Primary Day, the Board seemed particularly unwilling to accept any responsibility for them. Alternately blaming lack of funding, insufficient time to prepare, not enough staff, rigorous pre-election testing requirements, media focus on problems, the Police Department and the Mayor’s office, the Board’s testimony was remarkable in its failure to admit any blame for Primary Day problems. If the public had a nickel for every time the City Board accepted responsibility for problems during the hearing, we’d be flat broke.
The City Board’s unwillingness to own up to the role it played in Primary Day snafus at times reached absurd levels. At one point, to the astonishment of many observers, Executive Director Gonzalez declared that the Board had requested permission to phase in the new systems but had been turned down by the State, saying “We wanted to try it out first in a limited capacity, for example just the county of Queens.” Of course, New York City had precisely this opportunity during 2009, when 47 counties in the state piloted the new systems in a partial roll-out. But New York City explicitly declined to participate in the pilot and forgo this essential trial run. For the Board to now claim they were not allowed to do a phased in roll-out of the system denies reality. The fact is that the City Board of Elections had a chance to phase in the new systems a year ago, they chose not to take it.
Following the City Board’s testimony, other witnesses repeatedly noted that the main Primary Day issues involved voter privacy complaints, late poll openings, and hard to read ballots. Most witnesses noted, as I did in my own testimony, that voter privacy issues can be remedied by proper poll site layout, use of privacy sleeves, and more poll worker training. Late poll openings were often caused by a lack of coordination between the Board of Elections, the Police Department, and the Department of Education (many City poll sites are located in schools). And the poor legibility of the ballot is a direct result of New York State Election law, which requires the awful full face ballot with its many arcane requirements. Given the many documented problems with New York State’ current ballot design, it will be interesting to see if the State Legislature will undertake changing it when the new session starts in January.