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NYC to replace electronic voting machines with old-school levers for mayoral election

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Elections Board says it's a temporary move, but critics worry about voter confusion

US Election Voting Ballot booth (STOCK)
US Election Voting Ballot booth (STOCK)

Officials in New York City are looking to reintroduce lever voting machines for the upcoming mayoral election, citing procedural issues with the electronic scanners currently in use. As the New York Times reports, the city has spent $95 million on replacing the old lever machines with electronic alternatives, but after less than three years of use, it now appears poised to redeploy the originals, which were first developed in the 1890s.

Proponents including Mayor Michael Bloomberg argue that it took too long to count votes using the electronic scanners, though some are upset with what they see as an egregious waste of government money.

"We are right between the rock and the hard place."

"We are right between the rock and the hard place, or, if you're a literary type, between Scylla and Charybdis," Frederic M. Umane, president of the New York City Board of Elections, told the Times. "It's the best solution that we've been able to come up with."

Calls for change became more vociferous following a small legislative special election in March 2012, and a Congressional primary election last year. In both cases, the Board of Elections faced criticism for taking too long to determine a winner — something officials attribute to the peculiarities of the electronic process.

The scanners currently in use, they say, can be cumbersome to prepare for quick turnarounds, as in the case for the upcoming mayoral election, which will see a primary on September 10th, followed by a runoff on September 24th. The plan is to temporarily use the older machines for these two elections, before returning to the scanners for the November 5th general election.

"The voter confusion that’s going to be caused is unfathomable."

Dick Dadey, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens Union, tells the Times that the decision to return to the lever machines — even if on a temporary basis — could do more harm than good. "It's absurd that in a 21st-century New York, we would go back and vote on machines first used in the 19th century when Tammany Hall controlled the elections," Dadey said. "The voter confusion that’s going to be caused is unfathomable."

But the Board of Elections seems intent on moving forward with the plan, as determined during a meeting held this week. The state Senate has already passed a bill that paves the way for the lever machines to be reintroduced, as well as a provision that would delay the runoff by three weeks. Governor Andrew Cuomo, meanwhile, says his office is looking into the problem, describing it as a "conundrum."