When the lever breaks

Elections in New York City rarely go off without a hitch and 2013’s big primary vote appears to be no exception, with reports of lever voting machines breaking down and poll site workers giving voters inaccurate information.

I wanted to understand why these problems happen, so last week I decided to train to become a poll worker.

It was a wild ride.

After I applied online, the Board of Elections sent me an index card in the mail directing me to a training session in a basement room at 43 Central Avenue in Bushwick. The low-income housing development at the site is owned and managed by Ridgewood-Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, the organization founded by former Assemblyman Vito Lopez and staffed by close associates.

Lopez, of course, is a Democrat who resigned from the Legislature following accusations of sexual harassment and molestation of his young female employees — and he is now running for City Council. On Primary Day, the basement where I’m getting trained will be a polling site, a possible source of turnout for Mr. Lopez.

The basement is spare and rectangular and has no air conditioning. About 35 people, mostly women and a few young men, are sitting gathered around four folding tables. Poll workers taking the class will be paid extra for attending if they work on Election Day, in addition to the $200 they’ll receive for working at the poll site.


Image courtesy New York City Campaign Finance Board

All of these people are listening to the instructor, Sharon. She’s a slight gray-haired woman in red spectacles, a floral blouse, gray slacks and black Crocs. She is handing out thick instruction booklets. We’ll learn Sharon has been working at the city’s poll sites for 35 years.

She tells us the class will be six hours long. Everyone groans and begins fanning themselves.

The reason the class takes six hours is because we have to learn how to use not just one, but two kinds of voting machines in addition to the “ballot-marking device,” which can help disabled voters cast ballots. Voters in the primaries and a potential runoff on October 1 will vote using lever machines that date back seven decades, Sharon says. In November’s general election, optical scanner machines will take their place.

“This is what we call a lever machine,” Sharon says, pointing to a tall gray box that looks like an armoire, with a big American flag sticker and some numbers on it. The Board of Elections phased out these beasts after the 2009 elections because “according to the law this machine was not accessible,” Sharon explains without going into great detail.[1]

The scanners don’t always count up the votes accurately, and this can make recounts a tortured process. This year, with a five-way Democratic mayoral primary and several hotly contested down-ballot races, accuracy and speed are of the essence. There are just three weeks between the primary and the potential runoff election if no candidate wins 40 percent of the vote in each race outright.

“Last year, the Brooklyn Board of Elections took 70 days to do a recount,” Sharon says. The Board of Elections opted to use the old machines for safety’s sake. “Now we’ve got a lot of people running for mayor. That’s what the primary is about, party infighting, and using the scanners, every candidate will be scrambling for every vote they can get,” Sharon says, alluding to a nightmare recount scenario.

Sharon hands us a 100-page poll workers’ manual, and a couple of Xeroxed handouts.

The poll workers’ manual is concerned in part with etiquette. No shorts or campaign tee shirts. “YOU — are an ambassador to the City of New York voters!” it begins. “All of you need to check your personal perceptions, stereotypes, and judgements [sic] at the door of the poll site. You are working for the people of America and you and they are all equal — regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, culture or family background.”

We barely look at this book. It’s more important to learn how to use the machines first.

She makes us count off and divvy up into groups of five or six, and scatter to the corners of the room to learn how to operate our first machine.


‘We’re going to Lever World!’

I consider myself a reasonably intelligent person, but the number of steps involved in opening the polls and the lever machines is inane. It seems impractical. Do poll workers memorize the steps? Or do they spend election day flipping through several hundred pages of training manuals to ensure they’re following the correct procedure?

I count hundreds of steps in the processes for the lever voting machine and the scanner. At the end of our class, Sharon says, we’ll be given a 25-question test that will gauge how well we’ve learned this material. It’s open book, and yet many people still don’t pass it.

The day’s first contraption is the “ballot marking device,” or BMD. This waist-high gray steel box opens to reveal a touch computer screen. The BMD is supposed to help voters who want to enlarge their ballots, or who can’t mark a ballot with their hands for whatever reason. Opening the BMD requires 12 steps, which makes it the simplest machine we will learn to use.

Now, “We’re going to Lever World!” Sharon says.

Two more thick Xeroxed handouts are distributed to the class.

Sharon sets the scene. “It’s 5:30 a.m., Election Day, and we must get the lever machine open.”

Easier said than done. The front of the lever machine is a cabinet with two doors, and a little plastic tie holds these doors closed. Theoretically, on a voting day a police officer is supposed to arrive at 5 a.m. and deliver an official envelope which will contain a pair of official scissors with which to cut the plastic tie.

This first step doesn’t always go according to plan.

Sharon asks “veteran” poll workers in the class to raise their hands. “How many of you have experienced police that are late?” she asks. All the poll workers nod and say “mhm, yes.”

“Bring your own scissors,” Sharon says, “because the police are often late.”

Once you cut the tie, you’ve still got to wait for the police officer and the police envelope to do anything else. The police envelope will contain a little key, engraved with a serial number. The number must match the number atop the lever machine. The key is the only thing that can shut down the machine when the polls close at 9 p.m. on election day.  If it doesn’t match, you have to call your borough office. Calling the borough office is basically the contingency plan for every emergency scenario at the poll site. There are dozens of emergency scenarios.

One person can’t open the door. Both a Republican and a Democrat poll inspector must open it together.

In the back of the machine, next to the gears and cogs and pulleys that operate it, will be a “gray supply bag.” We have to handle the supply bag with kid gloves, Sharon says, because we don’t want to damage the machine, which is likely a septuagenarian at this point, a real antique. “There are over a thousand moving parts” in the lever machine, she says, with a little bit of resignation. “These machines literally date from the 1940s.”

Inside the supply bag is “the list,” which holds the names and addresses of all the registered voters allowed to vote in the election district, and an important blank form called the “return of canvass.” After the polls close at 9 p.m., this sheet is where you tally up the votes each candidate received, a process I’m surprised to learn is done by hand.


‘They miscount a lot’

Sharon pulls out an extension cord and plugs in the lever machine. Inside the machine’s ceiling, a fluorescent light comes on, illuminating rows of black knobs set next to mint green and pale red labels that identify the different offices and candidates’ names. It’s like a diorama of democracy, a quaint-looking card catalog of candidates.

The lights are really just frou-frou, we learn. “I’ve worked at the polls for 35 years, and we never had electricity for these machines,” Sharon says, noting that outlets and extension cords are rarely in abundance at poll sites.

On the right hand side of the door is what looks like a miniature traffic light, with four glass bulbs in red, yellow, green, and blue, which is attached to a hinge and flips over the top of the doors where it fits snugly into a groove, so it’s standing upright. Sharon digs into the back of the machine to retrieve two black vinyl privacy curtains, which she hooks over the tops of the doors with an opening in the front.

The voting machine’s card catalog will have the candidates’ names already in it. Sometimes the names are wrong, though, so we must compare the machine’s ballot with an oversize copy of the ballot that will come in the “gray supply bag.” If it doesn’t match we must call the borough office immediately.

Next you make sure the machine doesn’t already have any votes recorded. The machine’s basically got two odometers, Sharon explains. The “public counter” and “candidate counters” are going to record the number of people who vote on the machine today, on election day. The other counter, a “protective counter,” has recorded every single ballot ever cast on that machine, since it was born, sometime during World War II or shortly thereafter.

All these counter numbers have to be written in a worksheet before the polls open at 6 a.m.

Sometimes the machine’s counters don’t work that well, and will jump up by more than one vote at a time.

“It didn’t use to happen so much, but more recently, they miscount a lot,” Sharon says. The only bulwark against the machines’ bad arithmetic is poll inspectors’ vigilance.

“Every time someone votes, an inspector should go into the booth and make sure the numbers are going up by one at a time,” Sharon says.

This strikes some of the class as fatiguing and unrealistic.

“You mean, get up every time someone votes and check it?” asks a woman with red hair and a tattoo of paw prints inside her ear. Sharon doesn’t hear her and a veteran across the aisle answers, “You don’t gotta do it every time. Just do spot checks and it’ll be alright.”

One more step and we’re ready to receive the voters. There’s a tiny red knob on the side of the machine that can toggle between two choices — “polls closed” and “polls open.” You move it to “polls open.”

We’re about an hour into the class, and my fellow trainees are beginning to flag already. A handful of women have stopped looking at their handouts and are staring off blankly into the middle distance. A woman in a pink T-shirt who has been sitting to my left leaves and comes back with a deli sandwich a half hour later. Some of Sharon’s assistant trainers have also vanished.


‘I’ve been voting here all my life, and I’m not gonna leave’

When the polls open at 6 a.m., voters will walk up to two poll inspectors sitting at a little card table next to the lever machine. Poll inspectors ask for their name and address, and then look them up in the voter registration list, a thick booklet listing every voter who’s allowed to vote in that election district. This booklet also comes in the gray supply bag. Sharon asks one of the class members, a thin young man with the sides of his head shaved and the top pulled back into a samurai-style topknot, to pretend to be a voter for demonstration purposes.

The young man walks up to the table, and per Sharon’s instructions, he tells the assistants pretending to be inspectors that his name is Earl E. Byrd.

“Get it? Earl E. Byrd!” Sharon says, energetic.

First, we look for Mr. Byrd’s name in the fake voter registration list that Sharon’s included as part of our first handout.

Mr. Byrd is in our list so he is in fact at the right polling place. (This is not always the case, the veterans say, with a note of horror.) Mr. Byrd is allowed to vote only for candidates in the party he belongs to, because it’s a primary election, so we must verify that Mr. Byrd belongs to the party listed next to his name on our list.

“A lot of times people get mad at you for asking which party they’re in” says one of my classmates, a trainee with the laid-back cadence of a surfer. Other people nod knowingly. “What if they don’t want to tell you?” he asks.

Voters’ registration is already public information, Sharon says. “In a primary, we’re all about parties.

“If they’re coming to your table and say they’re Working Families Party, they shouldn’t be voting.”

Even so, the law  says the poll workers are never allowed to prevent someone from voting, so if a voter insists on casting a ballot in the Democratic primary, even if they’re, for instance, in the Working Families Party and not really supposed to, they can vote with an affidavit, which we’ll learn about a bit later on, Sharon says.

We’re also never supposed to ask for the voter’s ID, Sharon points out, as she will multiple times over the course of the training. This is different from where her son lives, “in Florida,” where voters have to show some identification. Instead, we will verify the voter’s identity by comparing the signature they provide when they sign in to vote on election day with the one they gave when they registered to vote, which appears next to their name in our voter list. This strikes me as a bit subjective and high-tech, given that entire fields of criminal justice are devoted to analyzing handwriting and determining whether or not signatures match.

The rules are similar to those in Scrabble. If a poll inspector thinks a signature doesn’t match, the inspector can say “I challenge you,” and a voter has to sign a “challenge oath” if he or she wants to vote anyway. Challenge oaths, like the other forms, will come from the gray supply bag.

Back to Mr. Earl E. Byrd. He’s a Democrat, according to the voter list. He verifies this. A poll inspector at the table fills out a little index card with his name, date and counter number that signifies what number voter he is that day. The card will be color-coded by party on Primary Day, green for Democrats and red for Republicans. Mr. Byrd hands the card to a poll inspector sitting in a chair on the left side of the lever machine and the poll inspector should ask him again what party he’s in, in case the first inspector made a mistake filling out his card.

“When things get hectic on Election Day, mistakes happen,” Sharon notes. The inspector is certain Mr. Byrd is a Democrat, so she pulls the party lever on the side of the machine, and pulls down another lever called the “officer’s control handle.” The party lever will render it impossible for the voter to vote for candidates of the wrong party, Sharon says.

Mr. Byrd, being play-acted by the young man with the shaved head, bites his fingernails and says, “I guess if you change your mind, you can’t like, be Republican all of a sudden.”

When the party lever is pulled it should activate the tiny stoplight above the machine. The green bulb should light up to reflect that Mr. Byrd is voting in the Democratic primary.

Our instructor pulls the handle and the light turns red instead. Oops. Everyone in class starts yelling. Sharon investigates, and her investigation determines that the machine is, well, broken.

“I hope it’s working on Election Day,” my surfer classmate says.

Mr. Byrd pulls the red-handled lever at the machine’s base from left to right to begin casting his vote. He makes his choices by flipping little black levers next to the candidates’ names. To signal that he’s done he pulls the gigantic red-handled lever at the base of the machine from right to left.

Earl E. Byrd was supposed to illustrate the most basic voter scenario where everything worked perfectly. Sharon moves on to a series of more complicated voter problems. The remedy for each problem is a different process, with multiple codes, envelopes, boxes and forms. I’m having a hard time following, despite taking furious notes.

A lot of the rules befuddle the class.

You’re never supposed to ask a voter for their ID, but some people’s names in the registration list will have a notation next to it that says “ID required,”  Sharon says. Nobody in the class understands this, because it seems to contradict Sharon’s earlier rules. To satisfy the ID requirement, voters can provide five different forms of identification, each of which correspond with a lettered code, A-E. If the voter provides the ID, you write down the code for what kind it was in the voter list, under the“remarks” column.

If a voter needs assistance in the booth from poll workers, they must be escorted by both a Democrat and a Republican, but inspectors don’t have to record the fact the voter was assisted. But if a voter needs assistance and brings an escort, poll inspectors must note this, even though no party rules apply.

Poll workers shouldn’t help a voter who doesn’t speak English, even if they speak the same language as the voter. They should instead wait for an official interpreter to aid the voter. “You gotta be kidding me,” one Spanish-speaking woman at the front of the class said. “If somebody needs my help, I’m gonna help them.”

And if a voter arrives with an animal, poll inspectors are supposed to point out that animals aren’t allowed in the polling site. If the voter volunteers that it is a service animal, then the voter and animal are allowed to stay. “Even if you know it ain’t really a service animal?” one woman asked. “Even if it isn’t,” Sharon says.

Then Sharon proceeds to lay out the most bewildering scenario of all. The federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) passed in 2002, requires you allow voters to cast their vote, even if they technically are not supposed to be voting.

Sometimes, even if you tell a voter he or she is at the wrong poll site, they’ll insist on voting at your polling site.

The veterans in the class confirm this is a frequent occurrence. The woman with the paw prints tattoo, who until that point had been Facebook messaging on her phone intermittently for an hour, confirmed this. Often, elderly voters whose poll sites have changed because of redistricting insist on voting at the usual place, she said.

“Sometimes you have people who say, ‘I’ve been voting here all my life, and I’m not gonna leave,’” she said.

“If you don’t vote in the correct spot, a lot of times your vote doesn’t count,” Sharon says. This is not something you’re supposed to tell the voter, though. In a sort-of weird nihilistic twist, it is apparently every voter’s right to vote inappropriately, thereby nullifying their own ballot.

Votes cast this way are done by affidavit ballot. The paper affidavit ballot goes in an envelope, which goes in an even bigger envelope with a big letter “A” stamped on it, presumably for “affidavit” and not intended as a scarlet letter implying voters should be ashamed for voting in this fashion. While the voter is putting the ballot into the Russian–nesting doll envelope system, the inspectors have to note the fact someone voted with an affidavit on yet another blank form called the “challenge report,” where you write the voter’s name and address and indicate via yet another lettered code, A through E, the reason they had to vote affidavit.

Envelopes, codes, forms.

If all of the lever machines go haywire or break, an increasing likelihood as they advance in age, then voters have to cast their votes by emergency paper ballots. The ballots go into a cardboard box, which also holds the paper produced by the ballot marking devices. If voters make a mistake on any ballot they’re allowed up to two more retries. Their goof ballots are marked “Void” and then consigned to the “VOID” envelope.

We’re at the two-hour mark in the class at this point, and while I’d initially laughed at the idea of the 25-question open book test, I’m now starting to get a little worried.


‘You should bring a calculator’

As Sharon keeps asking different people in the class to read aloud the steps involved in the various processes described in the handouts, it’s becoming increasingly clear, as people skip words and stumble over the language, that a lot of my classmates are either afraid of reading in public or are not that good at reading.

We learn how to close down the lever voting machine. The key you got from the cops in the envelope 16 hours earlier, which I’d forgotten about by this point in the class, must be inserted into a little hidden panel on the front of the machine, and you turn it a quarter to the right and then it gets stuck there, unable to be removed and effectively freezing the votes, a mechanical paralysis prophylactic against vote-meddling. Then you flip the red knob from “POLLS OPEN” to “POLLS CLOSED” and the candidates’ total votes pop up under each of their names. Later this will seem to me, in contrast to the scanner voting machines, so breathtakingly obvious and simple that I find myself muttering under my breath, “they don’t make ‘em like they used to.”

Then we add up the votes.

Vote totals from the machines are added up in columns on our “return of canvass” form. We remove Emergency and BMD ballots from the cardboard box where we hopefully remembered to put them and we place them face down in a pile. We count the total number and record it on still another form called the “Tally Sheet.” Then the inspector reads the ballots aloud and an inspector from the opposite political party writes the number of votes each candidate got on the Tally Sheet. The Tally Sheet numbers are transferred to the “return of canvass.” Then poll inspectors add up the candidates’ votes, from all the different machines and types of ballots.[2]

This is another crazy thing. Unless the poll site is really slow and no one comes, I’m assuming this is at least a couple hundred votes. They have to be added up by hand, by people who’ve been working for more than 17 hours at this point.

In a rare moment of un-self-awareness, Sharon advises us that on Election Day, “We’re adding across so you should bring a calculator.”

One of the students shouts back, “We ain’t got no calculators.”

All the forms and the keys and the scissors and the envelopes go into yet another envelope called the “return envelope.” This gets handed to a police officer.

“This election is going to be a shitshow,” I say to the woman sitting to my right. She’s a veteran worker and answers back, “It always is.”

We still have three hours left. A 10-minute break turns into 30 for many trainees, but Sharon presses on undaunted to “Scanner World.” When we awake from a trance of hundreds more steps, all of which we’re supposed to remember on Nov. 5, Sharon passes out Scantrons for the class to take the test.

Everyone cheats on it, giving each other answers. “No talking!” Sharon says. They ignore her.

The test is open-book, but I’d like to believe I can pass it, so I take my time. One of Sharon’s assistants, clearly ready to end the class and go home, walks past me and asks why I’m not finished after about 20 minutes.

“I want to learn this, and I’m not sure of the answers on two questions,” I say, at which point the assistant leans over, looks at the two unanswered spaces on my Scantron, and just feeds me the answers. I am so surprised I just stare at her blankly.

When I turn in my test, Sharon crosses my name off a list and hands me a massive manila envelope, with two more manuals, four worksheets and two additional stapled handouts. I am ready.

After I took the test it went to the Board of Elections to be graded. If I passed, the Board could have assigned me to work in the Sept. 10 primary. I would have received an index card in the mail telling me which polling site to report to. I didn’t receive a notice but could still be called for a potential runoff or the general election. In the event I worked the polls, The New York World had committed to donate to charity any money paid to me by the Board of Elections.


[1] New York, along with the rest of the country, was required by law to modernize its voting system after the disastrous 2000 presidential elections and the drawn-out recount that ensued. New York dragged its heels on this process, implementing the scanner machines in 2010, at a cost of $95 million.

[2] For our instructional purposes, Sharon has included a sample return of canvass form in our handout on “closing the polls-Lever and ED.” All our example candidates come from Warner Brothers and Disney cartoons. In our class, Donald Duck and Goofy tied in the Democratic mayoral primary, while Wile E. Coyote bested Tweetie Bird in the Democratic public advocate race. Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny were both running for mayor as Republicans.

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