Voters in New York City’s upcoming primary will be making choices for the city’s future by going back to its past.
Thanks to a timing issue with a likely runoff just a few weeks after the Sept. 10 primary, voters will use old mechanical lever machines to choose who gets to run for mayor, comptroller and other offices.
The city used the lever machines for decades but switched to optical scanners reading paper ballots in 2010 to comply with federal law. But citing logistical issues with getting the scanners ready for two elections so close to each other, the primary in September and any necessary runoff on Oct. 1, the board got permission from the state Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to use the lever machines.
“It’s not a machine issue; it’s not a technological issue,” said Michael Ryan, the new executive director of the city Board of Elections. “You just cannot get past the timing.”
A runoff is likely in the heavily contested Democratic mayoral primary, where a candidate must capture 40 percent of the vote to avoid one. Otherwise, the top two candidates advance to a runoff.
Ryan said the board wouldn’t be able to get the scanners reset with three weeks between elections. He said to do so would involve retrieving the machines from the poll sites, reprogramming them, testing them and returning them to polling places across five boroughs, something that “just couldn’t work from a timing perspective.”
Determining who is going to be in any runoff could also be time-consuming, with potential legal challenges as candidates vie to be the city’s first new mayor in a dozen years.
Critics pushed back against the idea that it couldn’t have been done.
The city board could have made adjustments that would have allowed officials to use the scanners and the state Board of Elections offered a set of steps to accomplish that, said Doug Kellner, co-chair of the state board.
Using lever machines could cause confusion for poll workers and voters and could have been avoided, some voter advocates say.
“It was the wrong decision,” said Neal Rosenstein of the New York Public Interest Research Group. He expressed concern about voters using the machines properly.
Reporting results is also more labor-intensive with the old machines. When the polls close, election workers will write the vote tallies from the machines and the results entered manually into a central system. The optical scanners, by contrast, have a paper trail of votes, and just this month, Cuomo signed a law that would allow the use of flash drives for inputting vote totals.
“Now we’re going back to the very ineffective old system,” said Kellner.
Rosenstein also put some blame on the state Legislature, for not taking steps to change procedures the city board says it has to follow.
“It’s a profound disappointment that these two bodies didn’t work harder to come up with a system that would allow us to keep a superior voting system,” he said.
Ryan pointed out that it’s a one-time situation, and that the scanners will be in place for November’s general election.