Testimony to the City Council Governmental Operations Committee on Election Day Lines

CITIZENS UNION TESTIMONY

TO THE NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL

COMMITTEE ON GOVERNMENTAL OPERATIONS

            Re: Election Day Lines: Examining the Problem and Proposing Solutions

 

Delivered by

Andrea Senteno, Program Associate

December 17, 2008

 

Good morning Chairperson Felder and Members of the City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations.  My name is Andrea Senteno, I am the Program Associate for Citizens Union of the City of New York (CU), an independent, nonpartisan, civic organization of New Yorkers who promote good government and advance political reform in our city and state.  Thank you for the opportunity to speak today about problems voters faced on Election Day, such as long lines, and ways the City can improve its election operations. 

 

As reported on Election Day and the days that followed, many voters experienced long lines during the recent presidential election.  While lines were not present everywhere, and the most backlog seemed to be in the morning hours as voters headed to the polls early, Citizens Union did hear from a number of voters who voted at poll sites where there was a high volume of New Yorkers.  For example, during the morning voting hours a Citizens Union staffer from Central Harlem waited over two hours to cast her ballot at Election District (ED) 16/ Assembly District (AD) 70.  At her poll site, there were at least three other EDs, all of which had much shorter lines.  There was only one book for her ED, which resulted in a bottleneck when a large amount of voters showed up to vote in that election district.  While this is only one incident among many, the Board of Elections in the City of New York (City Board) should develop a protocol for how to handle problems, like long lines, that can be anticipated, and when such an issue does arise poll workers can simply implement the predetermined plan of action. 

 

Along these lines, it should be noted that Citizens Union Foundation of the City of New York (CUF), the research and public education arm of CU, sent surveys to all of the 4,200 or so poll workers who submitted applications to CUF’s poll worker recruitment program, and while we are still compiling and analyzing the survey results, preliminary analysis has shown that of the approximately 230 survey respondents who answered a question about whether there were long lines at their poll site – fifty-eight percent of the respondents said that indeed there were long lines at the poll sites where they worked on Election Day.    Though it is simply a sampling of those who worked the poll sites, we believe that this response is a good indication that long lines were present throughout the city on Election Day.

 

Long lines are not necessarily a barrier to voting in and of themselves, and while inconvenient, are not the origin of what went wrong on Election Day.  What is important to note, however, is that long lines, missing names from poll books, and other common problems that voters experience at poll sites are all symptoms of operations and practices that need substantial reform. 

 

Based on anecdotal information we received, it seems that long lines can at least in part be attributed to New York’s record voter turnout on Election Day, but can also be attributed to poor management of poll site operations.  Voters unaware of their ED/AD not only had to wait in line to speak to a poll worker who would look up their ED/AD in the poll site locator, but, in addition, after finding out their ED/AD then had to wait in the line for their respective ED/AD to actually vote.  We believe that the City Board could implement low or no-cost reforms and troubleshooting to ensure that poll sites function more efficiently.  Specifically, we believe that the City Board should increase poll worker training, so that all poll workers thoroughly understand their role in the poll site, and ensure that skilled poll site coordinators strongly manage their poll site. 

 

At a recent Voters Assistance Commission meeting, the City Board reported that they hired over 36,000 poll workers to serve during the general election.  The allocation of poll workers and managing the tasks they perform is an important part of ensuring that all poll workers are employed and utilized in the most efficient manner.  In order to do this, the City Board not only has to examine how well poll sites operated on Election Day, ways to improve its operations and the responsibilities assigned to each poll worker, but also has to recruit a large enough pool of standby poll workers so that they can deploy them as needed on Election Day.  To help with this issue, as part of CUF’s poll worker recruitment program, which was established in 2001, CUF recruited and forwarded to the City Board more than 5,000 applications from over 4,000 individual New Yorkers seeking to work at the polls this fall – which brought the total number of applications CUF forwarded to the City Board since 2001 to over 15,000, many of which are still called upon by the City Board to serve as stand-by workers.

 

As previously mentioned, reforming the poll worker training program and tracking poll worker performance is vitally necessary. Poll workers perform the critically important job of assisting voters and running elections at the most micro level and they deserve to be properly and thoroughly trained and to have all the skills, information, support and tools available to them.  It is important that they are comfortable with the new ballot marking devices (BMD), as well as the new voting system that will ultimately be selected, and that they have the resources and knowledge to assist voters with utilizing the machines and correctly implement poll site operations and mitigate problems. 

 

CU has long advocated for stronger poll worker training requirements, including that poll workers be required to: (i) complete training annually; (ii) receive hands-on training on all machines utilized on Election Day, such as the BMDs and current lever machines (and the new voting systems when implemented); (iii) know their Election Day responsibilities and how to handle common poll site problems; and (iv) pass the poll worker test before they are allowed to work on Election Day.  In addition, CU believes that increasing training stipends and poll worker compensation would provide a necessary incentive to attract skilled poll workers. While it is currently required that poll workers receive annual training on the voting systems they will utilize and on their Election Day responsibilities, based on anecdotal information and the results of CUF’s recent poll worker surveys, it seems that the City Board has not complied with these essential requirements.  Many poll workers either do not receive a training notice, receive their training notices after the training session has occurred, or fail to show up for training.  Consequently, untrained poll workers can cause confusion at the poll sites to the detriment of voters.  Moreover, the City Board should enforce a policy that only those poll workers who pass the test at the end of the required training session can work at the poll sites on Election Day.  Enforcing this policy would ensure that only those poll workers who demonstrate a certain level of competency to handle the important task of interacting with and assisting voters.

 

New York is expected to begin using new voting systems by next year’s primary, and while it appears that this process is in jeopardy, CU maintains, that regardless of our ability to comply with the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), New York City can still do more to improve the way elections are administered to the benefit of all voters.  In anticipation of the 2009 elections, where a large number of city council and citywide seats will be up for reelection, the city can begin to think now about small incremental steps to improve voting, the usage of the BMDs, and the way we conduct elections for next year not only to minimize or eliminate long lines, but to make voting more accessible to all citizens. 

 

Along those lines, we, along with our good government colleagues, have testified before this committee on a number of recommendations that should be implemented to improve election operations.  Specifically, we continue to believe and advocate that the City Board should be more transparent, subject to substantially more oversight, and is more accountable by mandating that the City Board establish performance measurement goals and track their achievement of such goals in the Mayor’s Preliminary and Management Report. We also believe that if the City Board increased its voter education and outreach efforts by placing sample ballots online, sending additional mailings to voters prior to the general election, and better usage of the its website and phone hotline, that it would go a long way to reducing long lines and confusion at the polls. 

 

CU and CUF remain committed to effecting positive change in the conduct of elections statewide, and has been conducting extensive research on ways to improve not only the way in which elections are administered in the City and State, but also how to increase voters’ participation in the electoral process.  We look forward to sharing our specific recommendations with you when they are released.

 

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify and we look forward to continuing to work together to advocate for meaningful election reform.