When we walk into our polling stations and see voting machines which represented the absolute pinnacle of modern technology 100 years ago, some of us actually start to wonder why we’re still using such archaic technologies, writes Scott Benowitz
This April, I will be attending the candidates’ debates for the local school board elections. I will watch panelists ask the candidates questions relevant to this year’s agenda and next year’s budget. Reporters from the local newspapers and the local cable news television shows will ask them about their ideas for reform or about the future of our schools, and then they will have a questions- and- answer session with people in the audience. And then two months from now, on the afternoon of Tuesday May 17th, 2016, I am going to walk to the gymnasium at the middle school where I was a student 30 years ago, I am going to sign my name at one of the desks in the front which is staffed by the elections volunteers, and then I am going to proceed to …. ….. ….. pull levers to select my preferred candidates as well as to indicate whether or not I want to approve next year’s proposed school board budget.
Yes, that’s correct. It is now 2016, and in 49 states, you’ll only find the Shoup Lever Voting machines (which are commonly referred to as the “pull – lever voting machines”) now on display in history museums. You’ll see them in the displays in civil rights museums which have exhibits about the history of voting in the U.S., and you’ll see them on display in science, technology and industry museums in exhibits which showcase late 19th and 20th century technologies.
However, here in parts of the Empire State, every May, you’ll still find them in use in the polling stations.
It is no longer permissible to use the pull – lever voting machines in any elections
Following the confusion, the recount and the subsequent month of debate which resulted from the disputed results of the November 2000 general election in Florida, the state legislatures in 49 of our states as well as in Washington, D.C. decided that the pull – lever voting machines are now obsolete for the purposes of voting in the 21st century. Under the terms of the Help America Vote Act (2002), it is no longer permissible to use the pull – lever voting machines in any elections in which any Federal seats are on the ballots. Therefore, similar to the rest of the country, in New York, we’ve been using the optical scan machines in the primary elections in April as well as in the general elections in November since 2010, and some the boards of elections in some counties had started to use them earlier.
However, many counties in the northern suburbs of New York City as well as many of the counties located further upstate have our local school board elections as well as elections for a handful of other local offices in the third week of May each year. Because no Federal seats are involved in these elections, a loophole in the terms of the Help America Vote Act actually permits us to still use the Shoup Lever voting machines in our school board elections each May.
In Westchester County, as well as in a handful of other counties throughout New York State, we also still use the pull – lever voting machines in by-elections or special elections when there are city, town, village or county seats, bond issues or ballot measures, and no state or Federal offices or seats are involved. And there’s actually been impressively little discussion in our state assembly about requiring that they be phased out yet.
In New York City, the chancellor of the New York City Board Of Education is appointed directly by the mayor, so there are no school board elections in the 5 boroughs of New York City each May. However, in most of the rest of this state, the local school boards are elected offices.
We need legislation which ends pull-lever machines in ALL elections
My proposal is impressively simple. It’s now 2016. We need either state or Federal legislation which would close the loop hole in the terms of the 2002 Help America Vote Act which still allows us to use the pull – lever voting machines in the school board elections as well as in special elections in New York State. Many counties have opted to replace the Shoup Lever machines with optical scan machines in the school board elections too, but there are still no state or Federal laws which require them to do so. The counties upstate which have phased out the pull – lever voting machines have done so voluntarily.
My argument isn’t really about potential discrepancies which can result from “hanging chad,” “pregnant chad” and “dimple chad,” so much as the speed with which results can be accurately recorded and finalized. With optical scan voting machines, barring delays related to severe weather which can sometimes cause delays in collecting the absentee ballots, we can almost always have accurate results finalized within one (1) day after each election, especially in local school board elections or by elections in which the residents of each individual city, town, village or county votes only for the local offices within their voting districts.
We want people to feel that they are participating in a system
The first designs for push – button voting machines in the U.S. were first patented in 1875 and 1881, and then in a design improvement in 1889 replaced the push buttons with the pull – levers. The pull lever machines were first used in the general elections of 1892, and two subsequent design improvements in 1894 and 1899 resulted in the pull – lever voting machines which were in use throughout the U.S. for the entirety of the twentieth century.
We’ve phased out most technologies which date back to the end of the 19th century from our daily lives more than half a century ago, and there are actually quite a few very valid reasons for this. We want people to feel that they are participating in a system which is actually intended to work for them.
When we attend candidates’ debates, when we read interviews with candidates in newspapers and when we watch them on television, we hope that we are electing people into offices which are going to serve the interests of the residents of our cities, our towns, our villages and our counties. When we walk into our polling stations and we see voting machines which represented the absolute pinnacle of modern technology 100 years ago, some of us actually start to wonder precisely why we’re still using such archaic technologies. And some of us wonder why we still need to wait for up to 2 or 3 days for the results to be compiled when the optical scan machines have existed for more than 10 years now, which can enable boards of elections to compile the final results far faster than they can with the pull – lever machines. Even if the difference in the amount of time it takes to compile the final results of the elections between the districts which use the older pull – lever machines and the ones which use the newer optical scan voting machines is only an additional day or two, this is in fact the 21st century, and people here do like to find out who their newly elected politicians are going to be in as timely a manner as modern technologies permit.
How much longer we want to keep using voting machines based on a design from 1890’s.
The local school boards and the county boards of elections are two entirely separate entities throughout the cities, towns and the counties of New York state. Many local school boards would in fact have to purchase new optical scan voting machines, so there is in fact a monetary component to the decision to continue to use the pull – lever machines in the school board elections each May, and the cost of purchasing the new machines is a large factor in resisting legislation that would require each local school board to purchase new optical scan voting machines. However, I’m questioning just how much longer we really want to keep using voting machines which are based on a design which dates back to the 1890’s.
The parent company which had purchased the Shoup Voting Machine Company stopped manufacturing the pull – lever voting machines back in 1982. It is now almost impossible to find replacement parts for these machines when parts wear out and when the machines malfunction. The only reason that we’re actually still able to use them at all is that most of the towns, cities and counties throughout the U.S. had kept surplus and extra machines throughout the latter decades of the twentieth century, so when some of these machines malfunction, in most of the remaining cities which still use them, the local school boards and the boards of election still have spare machines which are still fully functional- though it is now only a matter of time now before we run out of pull – lever machines which are still fully functional. And our backup plan- that’s right, as of 2016 we now have absolutely none whatsoever in place or even proposed.