NEW YORK—The voting lines were long during this year’s presidential election. Even newly re-elected President Obama noticed, saying in his victory speech, “We need to fix that.”
With the dust settled from this year’s presidential election, voting advocacy groups are looking to do just that, by reviewing what went wrong and discussing ways to ease the process in time for next year’s hotly contested city elections.
Voter turnout was down by approximately 200,000 votes in New York City, a decline of 8 percent from 2008. That is markedly more than the national dip of 4.8 percent, according to statistics from Bipartisan Policy Center.
Hurricane Sandy, which hit eight days before Election Day, and put a crimp in what was already expected to be a stressful voting process. In all, 60 polling sites were relocated, some poll workers were unable to show up, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a last minute executive order allowing citizens to vote anywhere in the state.
Despite these added hurdles, voter advocacy groups say the issues run deeper than just stormy weather. “Sandy exposed and worsened existing flaws in our election system,” said Art Chang, chairman of the Voter Assistance Advisory Committee (VAAC) at its annual election review hearing Monday, according to his printed testimony. “But we cannot allow the storm and its painful aftermath to obscure the need for meaningful change.”
In hopes of curbing the biggest problems during Election Day—long lines, uninformed poll workers, and broken scanners—the advocacy groups at the meeting offered a multitude of suggestions to help bring the election system in New York City up to speed with modern times.
Each year, organizations such as VAAC continue to support an increase in voter registration. With more people able to vote, and without increasing the number of polling sites, long lines can continue to be expected. Allowing early voting, according to Chang, would alleviate this issue.
New York is one of only 18 states that does not allow early voting. Changes in Albany would be needed for that to occur.
In New York, voters hoping to use absentee voting must submit a reason for doing so. Over half of the states, 27, allow no-excuse absentee voting, with some even allowing a voter to opt for a permanent absentee ballot. “Expanding New Yorkers’ ability to vote by mail would make elections easier for voters and administrators alike,” Chang said.
Untrained or uninformed poll workers was the second biggest complaint on Election Day. Some advocates believe fixing this problem would lead to shorter lines and a far superior experience for voters.
Poll workers are hired by the New York City Board of Election to work on Election Day for $200–$300, with the day’s work lasting up to 18 hours. While it is not required by law, the BOE does mandate training.
Hiring temporary workers gets the job done, but Neal Rosenstein, government reform coordinator for the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), believes hiring municipal workers as poll workers would ease the gap.
“The people we get from the public aren’t always up to the job,” said Rosenstein. He said bills, which supported this law have come before the mayor and the City Council, but were not passed.
“It is the fault of a system that isn’t trying to correct the problem. The city hasn’t really done their fair share up to this point in time to correct it,” Rosenstein said.
Intro 721, which was introduced in November 2011, is the latest of these laws. If passed, this law would create a city employee poll worker program, giving city employees the opportunity to be poll workers.
This intro was held in committee for nearly a year until being picked back up in October. It is currently held up in committee again.
Even if this measure gets passed by City Council, the measure would have to be signed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg who, according to Rosenstein, is a staunch opponent of these measures.
Until government can decide on a bill, better educating current poll workers may be the best option. After hearing the call for poll workers, Elizabeth Pearce decided to sign up for this past election. She found several quick, easy solutions to speeding up the lines at the polling site she and her husband worked at as information workers.
The BOE sends out post card reminders prior to each election. In fact, this time they sent them out twice at an extra cost of $1.6 million. Pearce said those cards contain all the information needed to get the voter in the right line instead of asking that information verbally.
Pearce said a poll worker should be trained to ask for the card, not the address, and the voter should be trained to bring the card. It would make for a much quicker experience.
“We spotted that after a few hours and it really sped up the process at our polling place,” Pearce said.
Pearce understands the frustration of voters waiting in long lines, but urges patience with the poll workers, whoever they are. “When people have to wait in line for a long time, they don’t appreciate the amount of coordination it takes,” Pearce said. “The people who are in charge, the pole coordinators do a fabulous job. After everybody else gets to go home, they are there for another 2–3 hours making sure everything is counted up properly and tallied so it can be entered.”
With additional reporting by Zachary Stieber
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