Wednesday, April 20, 2016

In New York, voting "sucks": a story from a worse time

Josh Marshall at TPM has been using the occasion of the first meaningful presidential primary in New York State in decades to point out the Empire State's voting process is antiquated and burdensome to voters. The state is heavily Democratic already. And the political parties are mostly content to split the spoils rather than compete. This works fine for current office holders; they won, after all. Why rock the boat through measures to increase turnout like early voting, easy vote-by-mail, easy registration, etc.? In consequence, by the standards of contemporary "best practices" for democratic (small "d") balloting, as Josh says New York sucks!

Naturally, there are people who are trying to do something about this. Apparently in Tuesday's polling, New York City's elections bureaucracy committed enough procedural "irregularities" that there will be audits. (This is about the mechanics of voting, not the outcome.) And VOCAL-NY is working hard to open voting to people with felony convictions, thus returning the franchise to 100,000 mostly Black and brown men.

It really used to be worse. Here's a tale from more primitive times: I allowed myself to be recruited as a poll watcher for a neighborhood candidate for some sort of Rent Board. I think the year was 1972, probably in a local election. The place was the Lower East Side -- not then the hipster playpen it is now, but a gritty Puerto Rican neighborhood where we stepped over addicts and drunks on the sidewalks. Esther Rand was already a legendary tenant organizer, a warrior against "urban renewal" as displacement of poor people was called then -- and a proud member of the Communist Party. She was loved by tenants, known as a fighter who would drive the City government nuts before allowing landlords to mistreat tenants. That she might win this minor job was not impossible, if still unlikely.

So I dutifully reported to a dark, dingy basement on Christie Street. The Democratic election functionaries who ran the place greeted me as if I might have two heads. But I'd been briefed to insist on my right to observe, so they decided I could sit in a corner as long as I shut up. I settled in.

In those days, New Yorkers voted on heavy metal "voting machines" about the size of a refrigerator. There were four of them, each in a separate "booth" enclosure. The voter had to pull a curtain across the opening behind herself in order to prime the machine to accept a vote. The machine wouldn't work if the curtain wasn't properly closed. The ancient machines didn't work very well, so the curtain closing sometimes took several attempts.

Once the curtain was closed, the voter confronted barely legible names inside small metal windows. Next to these were sort of switches that you could move to indicate your choice. Or you could do your voting the easy way: Democrats and Republicans each had a "party" lever that would automatically vote the party list. But your vote wouldn't count unless you then pulled a large level that recorded what levers or switches you had moved. This released the curtain and made a satisfying "clang" sound.

As anyone can imagine, there was a lot here that could go wrong -- and much did. The most frequent problem was closing the curtain to begin the voting. The elections functionaries did try to help with this. Sometimes voters would get angry once inside at malfunctioning switches and kick the machine. What effect this had I didn't find out. The functionaries were always asking, "did you pull the lever?" to ensure that a vote had been counted.

We didn't have a lot of traffic. Usually the voters presented themselves to the officials, then used the nearest booth. Only when we got busy did anyone use the machine at the end of the row. But when they did, things got really interesting. Whenever anyone would use that machine, they'd see their choices be switched to the Democratic slate list when they pulled the final lever, regardless of what they had chosen. Or the machine would jam completely and not let them finished the process. Imagine angry New Yorkers who were pretty sure their votes were being stolen from them. Despite much yelling, the election workers couldn't seem to get that one working properly -- unless this was "properly."

I don't think any higher authority ever took any notice.

Esther Rand lost. I don't really think it had to do with the machines, but there was certainly no way to find out.

Graphic via Met Council on Housing.


Hattie said...

We League of Women Voters members exercise more care in the community association elections we run and the vote counts we do than is shown in official elections. Running an accurate election and vote count is incredibly tedious and time consuming. Public elections are seldom well run,as far as I have been able to observe.

janinsanfran said...

I once was recruited to run an election at a convention of several thousand people in which there were something like 40 candidates for 25 spots on an executive committee. Somehow we managed to do this on paper ballots with volunteer counters who checked each other to prevent cheating. It was monumental. I would never do that again!!

Naturally the executive committee then created an executive committee of the elected executive committee so there'd be some body that could actually get anything done ...

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