Human Error at the Polls

The fiasco on Primary Day last month, when some polling stations opened late and new equipment failed to record votes, was more than a failure of new technology. It was the result of a series of errors by human beings, including those in decision-making positions at the Board of Elections.

Unqualified workers were hired to supervise the voting process. Some workers received no training, despite the fact that voters were confronted with an entirely new voting system–one that, weirdly, was advertised as the latest in high technology even though it required the use of paper ballots. The Board of Elections waited until the last minute to test the new system, having declined to participate in a pilot program last year.

A City Council hearing earlier this week confirmed what many people suspected: Human error, more than technological glitches, caused the problems. Council members, including Speaker Christine Quinn, learned that about 15 percent of the 26,000 workers hired to supervise the election process flunked a basic written test. They were hired anyway, and some were given no training for their assignment. Why? The board was so utterly unprepared that it needed to fill these positions with, basically, anybody who was available to work for a few hours on Primary Day.

This would be shocking under any circumstances. But Primary Day was no ordinary election–it marked the debut of a new voting system that replaced the city’s venerable lever machines. Instead, voters marked their ballots on paper–just as they did in, oh, the 19th century–and the paper was run through an optical scanner. But some scanners didn’t work, and some voters were asked to hand their ballots to workers for scanning purposes, a process that didn’t do much for the idea of a “secret ballot.”

The new system seemed to work fine in 47 counties upstate, where local election officials participated in a dry run of the new equipment last year. The New York City Board of Elections, in its wisdom, apparently considered Primary Day a dry run.

Fixing the new technology is one thing. Fixing the Board of Elections may require a good deal more oversight from the Council.

editorial@observer.com