Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
In polling places across the country, voters faced long lines and malfunctioning machines. In New York City, it's a pattern—and some are calling for resignations.
When Rebekah Burgess Abramovich got in line to vote at the North Henry Street polling center in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, at 9:15 a.m. Tuesday morning, only two electronic voting scanners were working. After an hour of voting, the working machines were down to one. When she finally submitted her ballot more than three hours after arriving, volunteers had begun handing out emergency ballot boxes, which few understood how to use.
“I was lucky because I was given the day off to vote,” she said. But other people were bailing. “I was standing next to a teacher who waited for two and a half hours, and then had to leave to teach a class. She said she had to come back.”
In polling places in New York City’s five boroughs, similar stories of out-of-commission voting machines echoed: At different points on Tuesday, only one scanner worked at Harry S. Truman High School in the Bronx, Erasmus High School in Brooklyn, and the Brooklyn Public Library polling station, according to NBC New York. At PS 22 in Prospect Heights, all four scanners broke for much of the morning, before getting fixed at 10 am. Elsewhere, ballot sleeves were missing. Lines stretched blocks and hours long.
Part of the problem was the rain, claimed New York’s Board of Elections executive director Michael Ryan. “When you have a higher turnout and you have more paper passing through the system, you’re going to have some issues,” he said on Tuesday. “What has just been suggested to me here, and seems to make sense, is the weather, and people are having wet clothing and perhaps ballots getting wet is contributing to that.” Turnout was higher than expected. Volunteers were overzealous, cramming papers and jamming machines.
But the voting problem in New York City is more systemic, others countered—so negligible that City Council Speaker Corey Johnson called for Ryan’s immediate resignation.“Every election is like Groundhog Day: long lines, polling site issues, huge problems,” Johnson tweeted. “Now we’re blaming the weather? It’s unacceptable & unfair to voters.” Voter turnout has been climbing for several cycles, Johnson said. So why wasn’t the city prepared?
It wasn’t only New York. Over the course of a chaotic election day, in cities across the country, voters encountered difficulties. A coalition of voting-rights organizations said they’d received more than 10,000 calls about voting problems by 11:30 a.m., higher already than in any previous election. An election tracking map powered by Google Trends showed the U.S. peppered coast to coast in colored orbs whose intensity represented increased searches for “long wait times” and “voting machine problems.” In Wake County, North Carolina, officials said ballot machines stopped working because the air was “too humid.” In Arlington, Texas, the polling place ran out of paper ballots.
Some of the most disturbing reports both on Tuesday and in the lead-up to Tuesday’s election came from Georgia, where gubernatorial candidate (and the state’s Secretary of State) Brian Kemp purged almost 700,000 voters from the rolls last year, many of them black; enforced “exact match” voting policies that could have disenfranchised more than 50,000 more; and claimed (baselessly) that the state’s Democratic party had tried to hack the voting system, in an effort to undermine the process. By Tuesday, some precincts didn’t have enough cords to power their voting machines; and others had periods when none were working. In North Dakota, too, some polling locations refused tribal letter IDs, the latest in a string of targeted voter suppression tactics designed to prevent Native Americans from voting.
In New York, instead of deliberate malfeasance, Johnson and others are blaming gross incompetence. But polling place problems can’t be entirely separated from the intent of the humans who control them, or at least allocate investments and maintenance. According to a map of reported broken machines on ProPublica, posted at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday evening, many of the polling places were concentrated in Brooklyn; Queens and much of Lower Manhattan were less impacted.
Mistrust in those people—namely, New York City’s Board of Elections—has festered for years. In 2016, the State Attorney General’s office found that the BOE illegally purged 200,000 people from New York City’s registration rolls, and former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sued them. In 2017, they settled, on the condition that the BOE “overhaul its voter registration and list maintenance policies and procedures, adequately train relevant staff, and submit to regular monitoring and oversight of voter registration and list maintenance activities.”
Even after the settlement, problems persisted. On the day of the September primary—a high-stakes race that pitted Governor Andrew Cuomo against Democratic hopeful Cynthia Nixon; and ended up pushing young, progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez through to the general—some people reported arriving at their local polling station, only to be stripped from the list; or incorrectly affiliated with other parties (meaning they couldn’t vote Democrat). When New York resident Michael Ballaban tried to vote Democrat in September, he was told by poll workers that he had been registered as a Reform Party voter. “When I went home the NY state website said I was not registered to any party,” he wrote in a Twitter message to CityLab. (Voting on Tuesday, for what it’s worth, went “relatively well,” Ballaban said.)
Anticipating similar issues during the midterms, the State Attorney General’s office opened a hotline for voters to report issues. By 1:22 p.m., 225 people had reported issues, most of them ballot-scanner-related. By 3:30 p.m., the office had received 335 calls and emails. “Broken scanners remains #1 issue,” wrote Amy Spitalnick, the communications director and senior policy advisor to the New York Attorney General, on Twitter. “[R]oughly 100 complaints re: NYC poll sites with one, more, or all scanners broken. Also getting complaints about sites (mainly outside NYC) improperly requiring photo ID.” Other people reported confusion stemming from the fact that gubernatorial candidates Larry Sharpe and Stephanie Miner were “crammed together on a single line on New York ballots,” when they’re distinct candidates from different parties.
For some odd reason,@MinerForNY and @LarrySharpe are crammed together on a single line on New York ballots, which seems to be causing confusion. They are separate gubernatorial candidates in distinct parties. pic.twitter.com/nIpqg4DtFu— Chris Churchill (@chris_churchill) November 6, 2018
By the end of the night, Spitalnick reported 600 calls & emails statewide—still less than half as many as during the 2016 primary, during which they got 1,500 complaints. And the fact that scanners malfunctioned doesn’t mean they won’t record votes, Joseph Lorenzo Hall, the chief technologist and director of the internet architecture project at the Center for Democracy & Technology, told ProPublica. Ballots are just put into “emergency” scanner slots, to be counted later. But if people bailed because of the long lines, their votes won’t ever be counted.
New York City’s election problem doesn’t have to be this bad, according to reform advocates. It’s in one of only 13 states that doesn’t allow early voting, though its polls do stay open longer than most—6 a.m. to 9 p.m. “The most logical explanation [opponents use] is: It’ll be expensive or complicated for the counties,” Susan Lerner, the executive director of the nonpartisan voting improvement advocacy group Common Cause New York, told the New York Times. There’s legislation in the works that would change that: Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie introduced a legislative package to enact a seven-day early voting period and allow no-excuse early voting. The package was passed by the State Assembly in April, but still has to go through the State Senate. (“New York, get your act together and pass the NY Votes Act,” Spitalnick tweeted, in response to news that people were leaving after waiting for over two hours at a polling location in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.) In a city of almost 9 million people, reducing the sheer volume of voters in the booths could ease some of the pressure on outdated voting systems.
For Abramovich, Tuesday’s election may have been a uniquely stressful one in New York City—but the experience of queuing was also uniquely inspiring. “I’ve been voting in New York since 1992,” she says, in the same polling place each time. “I’ve never seen people be so lovely and patient in line.”