New York's Elections and Voting Machines

So this is an op-ed of sorts for the blog, about the NY election.

Here we are 10 years after the 2000 election debacle and New York has managed to have an array of administrative problems in their primary elections.  Given how much we know about elections today – 10 years after the Florida 2000 elections – how did New York manage to botch things up so well?  The answers are simple but defy the easy analysis that many people generally give.

First – let’s get this argument out of the way – it isn’t the voting machines.  If you went online to read about the problems in New York, you could be forgiven for thinking that the City’s touchscreen voting machines had malfunctioned and stolen all the ballots.  In fact, the City used paper ballots that were electronically counted by scanner, which is a form of electronic voting but that also involves paper ballots.  This and other voting systems have been used across the United States without problem during the 2010 election cycle.

So if we cannot blame the machines, what was the problem?  The answer is easy:  people and processes.  Elections are about the interaction of people – voters and poll workers – who work through a process (the election rules and regulations) to implement a technology (the voted ballot that gets counted).  It is easy to blame the technology for failures to train the poll workers to implement the election effectively or blame the technology because the election board failed to work through how to make the process work effectively in the polls.

Reading about the problems that actually occurred in New York in the primary, they are clearly people and process problems.  When poll sites don’t have the scanners that they need at the opening of the polls, it is a simple planning problem.  Why didn’t the election board have the logistics for delivering scanners and delivering enough scanners to each precinct worked out more effectively?  The answer is clearly a lack of planning.  When poll workers struggle to get the scanners up and running, again, that is a training problem that falls at the feet of the city’s Election Board.

When, as the New York Times reported, “workers seemed flummoxed by procedures that accompanied the new equipment, especially for accepting ballots when the scanners did not function,” the implication is clear:  poll workers were not trained to implement the equipment and did not have any sort of easy to use step-by-step guide that walked them through how to set up the tabulators.

Training poll workers and providing them with effective aides for managing the election is not rocket science; cities and counties across the US have been improving their training and processes over the past decade.  And these training and processes matter.  Several studies have found that, when voters have good experiences at the polls, especially interacting with their poll worker, the voters are more likely to be satisfied with the electoral process and more confident that their vote was counted accurately.  When poll workers do not seem competent or voters encounter a problem voting, confidence plummets, and confidence matters.  Poorly run elections affect democracy directly; voters who are not confident in the electoral process are less likely to say that they plan to turn out to vote in the next election.

Fortunately, New York can fix the problems they encountered but it will require the Election Board to be proactive and rethink how they train poll workers and what materials they provide to the poll workers on Election Day.  Studies have found that poll workers find hands on training more effective – no more dry lectures to large rooms of poll workers! – and they need simple guides to walk them through key activities, like setting up and closing down the equipment.   The poll workers also need for the voting equipment to show up on time and for there to be clear procedures regarding how to handle ballots if problems arise.

It has become almost cliché to blame the voting equipment for problems after an election.  Doing this lets the election officials off the hook for failing to properly train the poll workers and for failing to put in place procedures for handling ballots, setting up the equipment, and handling problems.  The Election Board in New York needs to step up and take responsibility for their failures and work diligently to fix them.