On the first day a new voting system was unveiled in New York City that was supposed to be speedier and more accurate, the process was plagued with problems, with some polling places opening as much as four hours late and others verging on chaos as workers coped with malfunctioning machines.
Some polling sites did not receive the optical scanners needed to read paper ballots by 6 a.m., when voting was supposed to begin. At other polling places, the scanners did not function when they were switched on, forcing voters to wait while election workers struggled to get the devices going. In still others, the workers seemed puzzled by new procedures that accompanied the new equipment, notably about how ballots were to be cast when the machines could not take them. At times the frustration boiled over, and there were shouting matches between voters and poll workers.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg delivered a strongly worded denunciation of the city’s Board of Elections, which was responsible for overseeing the change from mechanical voting machines to computerized ones.
An incensed Mr. Bloomberg ran through a list of problems, including poor customer service, that translated into long delays and some voters being unable even to cast a ballot.
“That is a royal screw-up, and it’s completely unacceptable,” he said. “New Yorkers deserve better than this.”
Senator Charles E. Schumer was held up when he arrived at Public School 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, just before the scheduled 6 a.m. opening; he and other voters had to wait 15 to 20 minutes before the machines were ready to take their ballots.
The public advocate, Bill de Blasio, discovered that, for lack of keys to start the new machines, his polling place in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood did not begin collecting ballots until around 9 a.m.
“Whatever the exact protocol is, it didn’t happen,” Mr. de Blasio said. “So, basically, the folks in Park Slope were disenfranchised.”
Once they had voted — a process that involved marking up a SAT-style form and feeding it into a scanner — some voters worried that the new system did not guarantee a secret ballot, the way the old voting booths did, with curtains that closed. Some found the names on the form too small to read. And some voters said there were not enough election workers on hand as New York finally did without the old-fashioned voting machines it had talked about replacing for a generation.
Valerie Vazquez, a spokeswoman for the board, said by e-mail that the board and its staff had worked to prepare the city’s 1,358 polling places. She said that every new machine had been tested in advance to make sure it met state standards. She wrote in a later e-mail that the board had increased training for poll workers by 50 percent to prepare for the debut of the new machines.
“Every year, Election Days bring challenges,” she wrote in one of the e-mails. “This year, the Board of Elections in the City of New York knew the change to the new voting system would present additional challenges.” She urged voters “to have patience at their poll site.”
There were reports of problems at some polling places in Harlem, where Representative Charles B. Rangel was locked in a five-way primary fight. Alberta Slappy, the president of the tenants association at the George Washington Carver Houses, said residents had been turned away at the polling place at Public School 72 on East 104th Street.
“There were no machines,” she said, adding that eventually the poll workers let people vote on paper ballots.
But even at polling places where the new machines seemed to operate correctly, it was slow going. At Public School 165, on 109th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, 80 people waited in a long line, waiting to feed the ballots they had filled out into the machine. At least one frustrated voter tried to bail out and throw his ballot in a wastebasket, though an election worker told him not to–that, she insisted, was against the rules.
Some voters were unhappy about having to give the completed ballot to election workers running the scanning device. “That’s not a secret ballot at that point,” said Paul Randour, 75, a retired lawyer who voted on East 79th Street in Manhattan. He insisted on inserting his ballot into the machine himself.
Some election workers seemed flummoxed. Alice Wong, a poll worker at Public School 20 in Flushing, Queens, said that two scanners failed early in the day, around 7 a.m.
“Everything is new to everybody,” she said. “Sometimes it scans, sometimes it doesn’t. We called the police to fix it, but it still says ‘Error.’”
Sporadic breakdowns slowed balloting through the day. At Public School 163 on West 97th Street, both scanning machines had stopped functioning by about 11 a.m., said Michael Motto, 31, one of many voters whose ballots were fed into an emergency box. As Mr. Motto, an educational consultant, was leaving the polling site, he overheard a poll worker on the phone, presumably with the Board of Elections, saying the boxes were full and asking what to do.
“It just seemed very haphazard,” Mr. Motto said.
In some places, the problem was terminology, not technology. Assemblyman William Colton, a Brooklyn Democrat, said he knew of two polling places where workers were apparently confused by the term “standby ballot.”
In past elections, Mr. Colton said, the term “affidavit ballot” had been used for ballots given to people who claim to be registered but cannot be found in the voter registration book. This year, he said, those ballots were labeled “standby ballots” – and were initially given to regular voters at the two polling sites. Mr. Colton guessed that fewer than ten people were affected by the mistake at each of the two polling sites, but said he was concerned that the problem may have been more widespread.
Ms. Vazquez of the Board of Elections promised to do better by November. “We will apply all lessons learned from the primary election to November’s general election,” she wrote in an e-mail. The board employed 751 people (of whom roughly one-third were temporary election workers) in the fiscal year that ended in June 2009, the most recent for which figures were available. Altogether, they were paid $25.7 million, according to the city’s Office of Payroll Administration.
The board has long been seen as a vestige of political patronage, with five Democrats and five Republicans appointed as commissioners. The political gamesmanship was so intense, in fact, that the board could not agree on an executive director for the better part of this year. Finally, last month, the job went to George Gonzalez, who had been the deputy executive director, after the Democrats on the board convinced a Republican commissioner from the Bronx to side with them.