When New York City replaced its 40-year-old pull lever voting machines with a sparkly $50 million system of optical scanners for the primary election two years ago, it did not go smoothly. A rash of the DS200 ballot scanners, manufactured by Elections Systems and Software, an Omaha, Nebraska company, malfunctioned, and those manning the polls were dazed and confused by new procedures to accommodate the new technology. This led to chaos at many polling precincts and, in grand New York style, heated arguments between voters and poll workers. Michael R. Bloomberg, the City’s technocratic mayor who, as founder of the news agency that bears his name is no stranger to deploying complex machinery on a mass scale, called the glitches “a royal screw up.” New Yorkers, he said, “deserve better than this.”
Yet here we are in 2012, and the lines — and the wait to vote — are longer than they were in 2008 with the old, analog machines, as well as with the glitch-riddled e-machines that debuted two years ago. In previous elections, it’s taken me about 10 minutes to cast my vote. Today, it took an hour and forty minutes.
On one hand, people died to protect my right to stand on a long line, check Twitter and email, and eavesdrop on fatuous conversations, while I kill time before voting. On the other hand, the inconvenience is completely avoidable — because the problem isn’t the optical scanners, although there were plenty of malfunctions, prompting Bloomberg to fume: “It is just a nightmare and it is really hard to understand in this day and age.” Nevertheless, it’s the archaic system that New York City has in place to tabulate its millions of ballots that’s really to blame.
The languid pace of the line was due to a chokepoint in the form of a lone poll worker whose duty it was to leaf through a book for my name. Once she found it, she told me to sign my name on the line. Then she filled out a white cardboard card with my name and election district and handed it to me along with a paper ballot and a high-tech security system in the form of a manila folder.
I was directed to the rear of the room to a bank of “privacy booths,” where I filled in the bubble dots next to the candidates of my choice with a ballpoint pen, which was attached to a string. Here I am discussing optical scanners, yet this and the preceding paragraph is chockfull of analog words like “book,” “sign,” “cardboard,” “paper,” “manila folder,” “bubble dots,” “ballpoint pen,” and “string.”
Next stop was the electric voting machine. I handed my card to another poll worker then fed my sheet into the ballot scanner, which confirmed that my votes had been tallied.
Note, there was no line at the privacy booths or for the optical scanners. The inefficiencies arose solely from a simple check-in. Surely someone could design an app for that.
Investing in new technology like optical scanners is a complete waste if the protocols for voting don’t change. It’s a bit like handing out high-tech gadgetry to your employees without providing electricity. Bring back the old machines then. At least they had panache, with their ratty curtains, the metal buttons you flicked next to your candidates’ names, the ratchety sound the lever made when you pulled it back when it counted your vote.
I took the logical course of action with my complaints and went on Twitter to air my gripes to Mayor Bloomberg (@NYCMayorsOffice). So far, the Mayor hasn’t responded. I’m hoping he’ll again say that New Yorkers deserve better than this. Because we do.