Help for Voters

Beating NYC’s Troubled System

This historic election year, which offers New Yorkers more candidates for more seats than ever before, also threatens unprecedented problems at the polls. All three citywide offices and 37 of 51 council seats are up for grabs, and more than 300 candidates are running. Some longtime election watchers predict mass confusion if not chaos come September 11, and the closeness of contests for key posts like mayor and Public Advocate means chaos could cost big.

Every election, technical and human mistakes disenfranchise large numbers of voters. The city Board of Elections is to blame, according to critics like Neal Rosenstein, government reform coordinator for New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). He says a patronage-inspired hiring system at the agency makes for little motivation to reform. Last year's November election prompted widespread complaints of broken voting machines, incorrectly worded ballots, misinformation from poll workers, and general confusion. This year, just configuring the city's decades-old voting machines with the many candidates' names will be a big—and perhaps unsuccessful—job, says Rosenstein.

Worse, some voting problems hurt particular constituencies, like immigrants. The New York Immigration Coalition last October complained to then attorney general Janet Reno on behalf of immigrants who said they experienced discrimination on primary day 2000 that prevented them from voting. Russian immigrants in Brighton Beach and Coney Island "were told [by poll workers] things like, 'You're not allowed to speak Russian at a polling site,' " according to Margie McHugh, the coalition's executive director. "There were definitely problems where poll staff couldn't be bothered to look up names [in registered-voter logs] with a lot of vowels in them that sounded foreign."

In last year's general election, the Chinese-language ballots in some districts switched the party affiliations of candidates, listing Democrats as Republicans. While the Board of Elections is legally bound to provide written and spoken translations in Spanish and Chinese, services are often inadequate, according to Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund executive director Margaret Fung.

Queens College political scientist Michael Krasner suspects that, in addition to the obstacles to immigrant voters, "there is a really strong class bias" in how efficiently elections are administered. Despite East Side resident Rudy Giuliani's complaints last year of having to wait a half-hour to vote, Krasner says, "I'd be really surprised if there were as many problems on Sutton Place as there are on Avenue C."

Since a number of next week's races are expected to be close—and in many cases involve unprecedented ethnic and economic diversity among candidates—the votes of New York's minority communities will matter more than ever. A May 2, 2001, Barnard College-CUNY study of exit poll data from last November's election found that of the more than 250,000-person increase in voter turnout, the vast majority were new immigrants. "There's real opportunity for a motivated group [of new voters] to make a huge impact" in this year's primary, Krasner says.

To that end, civic and immigrant groups are hustling to help inexperienced voters ensure that their choices get counted. Below is some basic information they offer to make voting the simple right it's supposed to be:

  • You must be at least 18 and a U.S. citizen to vote. But you do not have to show any identification or proof of citizenship.
  • You must have registered by August 17 to vote in the primary.
  • You have to be registered in a party to vote in that party's primary.
  • You can bring any written material into the voting booth.
  • You can bring anyone, except a union representative or your employer, into the voting booth.
  • You can ask for assistance even while you are voting.
  • You are permitted three minutes in the voting booth.
  • The voting machines themselves confuse a lot of first-timers, voter groups say. A key tip: Make sure the large red handle is pushed to the right when you start. Push it to the left only after you have made all of your selections.


Ultimately, anyone who believes she is eligible to vote has the right to, at least by affidavit (essentially a paper ballot). The validity of a contested vote will be decided later by a judge. Those denied a vote by machine who would rather vote that way than by affidavit can see a judge at their borough's Board of Elections office (Manhattan: 200 Varick Street, 10th floor; Bronx: 1780 Grand Concourse; Brooklyn: 345 Adams Street, fourth floor; Queens: 42-16 West Street, fifth floor; Staten Island: 1 Edgewater Plaza).

For information or assistance, voters can:

  • Call the Board of Elections, toll-free (866-VOTE-NYC).
  • Go to the Campaign Finance Board's online voter guide (www.cfb.nyc.ny.us).
  • Call New York Public Interest Research Group (212-822-0282).
  • Call New York Immigration Hotline (800-566-7636, 212-419-3737 TDD). Translation will be available in Spanish, Russian, Polish, Hindi, Urdu, French, Haitian Creole, Mandarin, Shanghainese, Italian, Arabic, Albanian, Punjabi, Gujarati, Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian, and Turkish.
  • Call the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund (212-966-5932). Translation in Cantonese, Mandarin, Toisanese, Korean.
 
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