Polling snafus persist for some Bronx voters

Adam King, a poll worker at P.S. 123 in Melrose, waits outside to welcome voters. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Adam King, a poll worker at P.S. 123 in Melrose, waits outside to welcome voters. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Tiny font, scanner problems, and privacy complaints topped the list of Bronx voter-reported gripes during Tuesday’s general election.

Voters said the new electronic scanners caused less confusion this time compared to the chaos of September’s primary, but they were still far from perfect.

Soundview seniors complained that they couldn’t read the small type, while Mott Haven voters said the ballots were too big for the scanners.  Still other voters in Fordham were put off when asked to hand their ballots to poll workers prior to placing them in the scanners, potentially compromising their privacy.

“I thought the older version was better,” Sharon Walker, 47, of Highbridge, said of the new ballots, expressing a concern shared by many who hoped they had left ballot-related confusion behind in the primary.  “There’s too many steps.  The words on the paper were too small.  The workers seemed lost too, they weren’t very helpful.”

The 2010 election marks New York State’s debut for the electronic paper ballots, replacing the old lever polling booths.  The new method was designed to streamline voting and increase efficiency in tallying results.

However, the new machines faced so much criticism in September that Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the primary “a royal screw-up.”  The city received numerous complaints about the ballot’s typeface, confusing instructions, and non-working scanners. When the Board of Elections failed to sufficiently address the problems in time for the general election, Bloomberg took action last week, firing Board of Elections chief George Gonzalez.

“Mr. Gonzalez screwed up!” said City Councilman G. Oliver Koppell who represents portions of the north Bronx.  Of the firing, he added “It’s probably a good thing.”

Even with the firing at the top, there were fewer complaints on Tuesday than on primary day, according to Marjorie Lindblom, a lawyer working with the Election Protection Committee, a group that fields complaint calls.

Still, a smattering of on-site snafus made for a challenging general election day in the Bronx and across the city. The election committee reported a number of issues ranging from broken polling machines to unprepared workers from Brooklyn, the Upper East Side and into the Bronx.  The Bronx Ink conducted exit interviews at 29 sites throughout the borough, and participants at a majority of them reported system-related problems.

The most common complaint was that the paper ballot was difficult to read.  “I don’t think the forms were user friendly,” said Courtney Foster, 42, of Norwood.  “And I didn’t see anyone there to help you.”  Donald Lundy, 65, also of Norwood, said the layout of the ballot was “a bit too congested.”

The next step – walking the paper ballots over to an electronic scanner –  was not a voter favorite.  “I thought the voting machines stunk,” griped Ruth Lentz of Riverdale.  Lentz, who is 89, who has never missed an election, lamented the loss of the lever system.

In some neighborhoods, voters had to wait for workers to deal with glitches. In Mott Haven, one of the two polling machines at the Carmen Parsons Senior Center did not work until 7 a.m.  Problems persisted later in the day when some ballots were not cut properly and did not fit in the scanners.  “The first form that they gave me, it was bigger than the space,” she Maria Pena, 32, of Melrose.  Pena had to toss out her first ballot and fill in a second.

Voters also lamented the new lost privacy.  In the old lever system, voters cast their ballots in a curtain-enclosed booth. In the electronic system, voters hand their paper ballot to a worker to scan.  “Some people thought maybe workers were looking at their ballots while they scanned them,” Lindblom said.

“It’s not private enough,” said Perneter McClary, 64, of Fordham, who missed the old booths.  “Before, the curtains guarded you and you were alone.”

In addition, in neighborhoods such as Highbridge and Williamsbridge, lines of residents snaked outside polling sites.  Also in Williamsbridge, the polling site at P.S. 78 opened 20 minutes late because security guards wouldn’t let poll workers inside on time.

In Soundview, Freedom Party campaign workers handed out flyers just outside of P.S. 93, in violation of a prohibition against campaigning close to the polling site; they remained on the premises for more than two hours, before they left on their own.

Unprepared poll workers were the source of some complaints, albeit fewer than Lindblom anticipated. The executive director of the New York City League of Women Voters explained that poll workers were trained to instruct voters to turn over their ballot to see two propositions on the back.  They were also trained to correct the incorrect voting instructions printed on the ballot.  His colleague said she was not confident workers would act consistently.  “I think the really underreported story is the personnel,” said Kate Duran, chair of the League’s city affairs committee. Duran, who was coordinating a polling site in Brooklyn, said some of her workers didn’t show up because they would have to work from 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Koppell wondered on the eve of the election if the small cadre of poll workers was up to the task of handling the complicated system.  “It requires going to one place, then taking the ballot to a second place to fill it out, and to a third place to have it counted,” he said.  “I’m very nervous.”

Elected officials and advocacy groups said they will continue to push for needed reforms.

In the meantime, Bronx voters are taking the new system in stride.

“We’ll get used to it,” said Darlene Cruz, 53, of Soundview.  “But I didn’t understand what I was doing.”

Exit polls and additional reporting by the Bronx Ink staff.