Good Government & Civil Rights Groups in New York Oppose Lever Machines Returning New York State to the Past

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Good government groups issued this statement today voicing their strenuous opposition to S.4088-B (Golden/No Number Yet in the Assembly), a bill that would authorize the New York City Board of Elections (City Board) to use mechanical lever voting machines in and for any non-federal elections. The bill has passed the Senate and the Assembly is seriously considering a return to lever machines.

Our groups believe this legislation is a simplistic and misguided attempt to address a potential crisis in effectively administering this year's municipal runoff elections. It would establish dangerous precedents that could lead to the disenfranchisement of voters. Bringing back the lever machines is a half-baked solution that seeks to absolve the responsibility of the legislature in creating a crisis borne of their own failure to act. It does not.

The hard truth is administering a runoff election two weeks after the primary is challenging with the new voting machines or the old lever machines. The answer for this year's runoff election at this late stage should be to embrace modernity rather than revert back to the past, and do what needs to be done to make the new machines capable of handling the run-off election.

That means moving forward the run-off election one week to three weeks to allow the City Board more time for administration. It means adjusting ballot testing and certification requirements to expedite administration. It means temporarily suspending for the primary only the City Board-imposed hand recount in the event of a close race in which the margin of victory is .5 percent or 10 votes, whichever is less. Our groups acknowledge the new optical scan voting machines are far from perfect, but they far surpass the lever machines in enabling voters to verify their vote actually counts and ensuring elections accessible to all voters.

S.4008-B puts forth the old Shoup lever voting machines, invented in 1897, as the solution to the challenges in administering the runoff election for citywide offices in New York City just two weeks after the primary election. The only real solutions to the time constraints imposed by the runoff were moving the primary for state and local elections from September to an earlier month or instituting instant runoff voting ("IRV"; also known as ranked choice voting). Unfortunately, despite calls for reform for years, the legislature failed to act in doing either. Moving the primary date or instituting IRV are the only comprehensive solutions to addressing the administrative hurdles imposed by the runoff. Both options also rightfully enable military voters and permanent absentee voters to cast their ballots in the runoff, which they were unable to do in previous runoffs under the lever machines in apparent violation of the state's own laws.

The biggest problem presented by returning to the old lever machines is they fail to uphold the important principle that grew out of the 2001 Bush-Gore election: every voter should be able to verify their votes for candidates by viewing such choices on paper. S.4008-B instead scoffs at this principle enshrined in the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA), and asks New Yorkers to instead trust the 28,000 moving parts in the lever machines that their votes were cast correctly without an audit. These are the same machines that too often broke down for hours on Election Day, were missing candidate's names on the ballot, and whose parts were near impossible to order in a timely fashion because they are so outdated. This will result in many more emergency ballots being cast that have to be counted after the polls close with delayed results. In 1997 for example, it took 10 days for the City Board to determine that Ruth Messinger had indeed reached the 40 percent threshold to avert a runoff against her Democratic primary opponent Al Sharpton. The scheduled runoff election was just four days away. The bill also raises serious questions as to whether it passes scrutiny under the federal Voting Rights Act. Individual votes of disabled voters at particular poll sites could be identified and lever machines may not be able to accommodate Bengali, a third Asian language recently required under the Voting Rights Act for Queens County. It is also not known whether the City Board would be required to continue to make payments for the millions of dollars it has in current contracts related to the new voting machines, for example with ES&S, the voting machine manufacturer, for printing ballots.

Even if returning to lever machines was a good idea, the bill is fundamentally flawed in that it gives the City Board discretion to use the lever machines in any state or local election, not just the runoff election. Given that federal elections require the use of the new electronic voting machines, this creates a scenario in which the City Board could go back and forth between both systems, confusing the voters and demanding they master two systems when they have struggled to administer even one. The bill also makes no other changes to Election Law that would trigger changes to rules and guidelines that would specify how the City Board would administer elections using the lever machines. Under the legislation, the City Board can effectively do whatever they want: a dangerous proposition given their own management struggles.

Our groups call on the legislature to this year make the changes needed to use the new voting machines while simultaneously moving the primary date or instituting instant runoff voting for future elections as it should have done years ago. We oppose any legislation to return to the past and bring back the old lever machines.

Ujala Sehgal, AALDEF, 212.966.5932 x.217
Margi Trapani, CIDNY, 646-442-4154
Dick Dadey, Citizens Union 917-709-2896
Susan Lerner, Common Cause/NY, 917-670-5670
Barbara Bartoletti, LWVNYS, 518-469-8905
Kate Doran, LWVNYC, 212-725-3541
Neal Rosenstein, NYPIRG, 917-575-4317


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