By Victoria Merlino and David Brand
A proposal by Mayor Bill de Blasio to fund 100 early voting sites throughout the city could mean a smoother time at the polls for hundreds of thousands of Queens residents all too familiar with jammed ballots, broken machines and long lines.
But it all depends on whether the New York City Board of Elections actually implements “robust” early voting measures and increases language access services, a leading voting reform advocate says.
De Blasio announced last week that the city would provide the BOE with $75 million to create the early voting system ahead of this November’s general election. Early voting would enable more people to cast their ballots, allow the city to quickly diagnose machine or ballot problems and reduce lines on election day, said Citizen Union’s Director of Public Policy and Programs Rachel Bloom.
The BOE may only add seven early voting sites to each borough and still adhere to the letter of the state’s new early voting law, however, Bloom said.
“The legal requirement in Queen is seven polling sites and that is just lunacy. Seven polling sites is not enough for a place as diverse and with as many people as Queens,” Bloom said. “There is nothing to keep the Board of Elections from having more polling sites.”
In addition to instituting an early voting system in New York City, Citizen’s Union has called on the BOE to provide extensive language services at polls citywide (“There are a lot of languages spoken in Queens,” Bloom said). Language access was part of a City Charter Revision ballot initiative to increase voter engagement that passed by popular vote last year and the city sued the BOE in February to ensure that interpreters can remain at polling places.
Queens residents are no stranger to problems at their polling places, like voting machine breakdowns and long lines that can discourage people from casting their ballots.
“Early voting could take away a lot of the stress on Election Day,” Bloom said. “We could also troubleshoot.”
“If we had early voting we could learn that a two-page ballot would lead to a lot of machines jamming,” she continued, referring to a problem that arose during the November 2018 Midterm Election.
Ballot scanner issues and long lines at Queens polling sites were widespread during the November 2018 election.
Reporter Stacey Sager tweeted a video of polling problems at Florence Smith Community Center in Corona, where just one of three voting machine worked and scores of frustrated voters waited in the school gymnasium.
Journalist Max Rivlin-Nadler reported that just two ballot machines worked inside the only polling place for residents of the Queensbridge Houses — the largest public housing project in the United States. Poll workers told Rivlin-Nadler they had never seen longer lines form at the polling site.
Reporter Derrick Waller posted a video on Facebook of voting problems at a school in Briarwood.
“Reports of widespread problems with voting scanners citywide,” Waller wrote on Facebook. “Video from PS 117 in Briarwood, Queens shows jammed machines and long lines. Later in the video listen closely. You can hear a poll worker pounding one machine with a hammer!”
Other everyday citizens used Twitter to share the information about broken ballot scanners at their voting site.
“Only one scanner is on at my location in Long Island city. Two are “broken”. Probably 150-200 waiting to vote,” one voter wrote.
“Such a shame that PS 222 in Jackson Heights only has 3 working machines to take ballots. Embarrassing!” another tweeted.
Inclement weather also proved a problem for polling places across the city during the 2018 midterms, with rain-dampened ballots clogging machines and the nearly 100 percent humidity causing some voting machines to malfunction, according to Propublica.
A poll worker at I.S. 25 in Auburndale said that two of the polling place’s four scanners were jammed due to wet ballots, AM New York reported. Wet ballot issues were reported across the city, notably by officials like City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.
Problems at Queens polling places extend further back than just last year’s midterms.
Jackson Heights resident Louis Flores posted a video on YouTube in 2013 describing his experience at the polls.
“I went to go vote this morning at about 8 a.m. and the voting machine for my election district, which is the 63rd election district here in Jackson Heights, Queens. The voting machine I was supposed to use was jammed for about 20 minutes,” Flores said. “It’s important for our votes to be counted.”
Flores asked for a paper ballot and was denied because confused poll worker said the machines needed to be fixed first, and he was subsequently removed from the polling place.
Bloom, from Citizen’s Union, said the November 2019 election provides a good opportunity for the city and the Board of Elections to work out such kinks while implementing early voting before the 2020 Presidential primaries and November general election.
“This is going to be a low-turnout election. Queens has the big DA race, which is driving people to the polls more and more, but at the end of the day it’s not going to be high voter turnout,” Bloom said. “So it’s a good testing time but they really need to get it right because the next few times there are going to be extraordinarily high turnouts.”