Will lever voting machines make a comeback?

Thought you’d seen the last of those old lever voting machines?

Not if a group of local legislators have their way.

State Senators Marty Golden, Diane Savino and Simcha Felder are among the elected officials calling for the return of the old voting machines, at least for municipal elections, when new electronic voting systems mandated by the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) for federal elections are not required.

New York was the last state to adopt electronic voting, finally switching to new machines in 2010, after being sued by the Department of Justice. HAVA was passed following the 2000 presidential election, with the goal of avoiding a similar situation as took place then, when the presidential election remained undecided for weeks. It was also intended to make it easier for disabled individuals to cast ballots.

However, electronic voting in New York has been rife with problems, ranging from long waits to jammed scanners to delayed returns.

That’s the reason that Golden crafted legislation – cosponsored by Felder and State Island State Senator Andrew Lanza — that would allow the city to bring the lever machines back for this year’s city elections, citing concerns that with a large turnout, timely vote counts could be jeopardized. This is a particular issue in the primary which could require a runoff election to be held two weeks later.

“It is a very real possibility that the use of the paper ballots with the scanners could result in a hand count of one or more of the contests, a scenario that would make the runoff impossible to hold in the required time frame,” the legislation reads.

On March 11, Golden pointed out, “The last election was held 123 days ago and the New York City Board of Elections is still finding ballots to be counted. It’s evident that the electronic machines cannot handle the two-week turnaround required for a runoff election, which is a likely presumption as the field of candidates grows.”

There are several candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for mayor alone, and some open City Council seats also have aroused great interest, with several candidates planning to run in the primary.

“This is an example where technology has come back to bite us,” added Felder, who also complained that “seniors can’t see the ballot text” and “voters are confused about how to fill out the ballot.”

Savino concurred. “After watching the BOE waste time and resources going back and forth trying to figure out what to do with the upcoming municipal elections, we believe the best and simplest solution is to use the lever machines,” she said.

Disabled voters would not be disenfranchised should the lever machines be brought back. Rather, the legislation provides for their needs as well, specifying, “that if the Board of Elections chooses to use the lever voting machines, they must also have each polling pace outfitted with a voting machine designed to allow voting by disabled voters.”

However, not everyone agrees. Citizens Union, a nonpartisan good government organization, opposes the return of the lever machines, said Alex Camarda, director of public policy.

“We appreciate the fact that a number of elected officials are concerned about the board’s ability to successfully administer a runoff election with the new voting machines,” Camarda said, “but we don’t think the return to the old lever machines is the answer. ’Back to the Future’ is a great movie, but it makes for bad policy.”

Specifically, Camarda said, returning to the lever machines would eliminate the benefit of a voter-verifiable paper trail that the new electronic voting system provides – a major reasons the shift occurred in the first place.

In addition, Camarda pointed out that the old machines broke down frequently. “Sometimes you would wait for hours for the machine to be repaired, and people could only vote on the one machine,” he emphasized.  “One of the benefits of the current system is that once you mark the ballot, you can go to any scanner.”

So, what would Citizens Union like to see as a way of handling a potential runoff? “What we are for,” said Camarda, “is an instant runoff,” in which voters rank candidates on the ballot in terms of preference. In that case, if no candidate gets 40 percent, the runoff can be done instantly.”

Such a system, Camarda added, could save the city $20 million. To institute it, he said, would require legislation at the state level. “Rather than look back,” he noted, “we think they should look forward.”

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