Machine Politics


Maybe you can’t tell from the papers, but New York is in the midst of one of the most dynamic elections in the city’s history. Thanks to term limits and a model campaign-finance system, candidates who would never otherwise have had a shot have entered races for the City Council and even citywide positions. Look closely: There are some genuine community activists scattered among the party hacks and scions of incumbents who traditionally claim open seats.

Unfortunately, New York’s arcane and archaic election process could dilute or even invalidate your vote. You’ve already missed the deadline to register for the primary, but you can still vote in the general election if you get your form in before October 12. They’re available in government agencies (like libraries and post offices); you can also call 1-866-VOTE-NYC for a form to be mailed to you, or download the version at

If you use the New York form, you’ll be asked to choose a party affiliation. New York voters can’t choose at the polling place, so if you want to maximize your franchise, register as a Democrat: They outnumber Republicans by more than four to one in this town, so for most races, winning the Democratic primary is tantamount to winning the general election. That logic may be self-perpetuating, but it’s not likely to change any time soon.

If you just can’t bear to be in one of the big tents, New York is home to several smaller parties, including the Liberals, the Conservatives, the Working Families Party (WFP), the Right to Life Party, and of course the Greens. Be sure you know what you are getting yourself into: The Liberal Party is quite conservative (Alan Hevesi has the Liberal line for the general election, and may run on it if he doesn’t win the Democratic nomination) and the WFP was founded in 1998 by several unions and community groups to counter its influence. (I am a dues-paying member of the WFP, although I am a registered Dem.) The Independence Party is the local version of Pat Buchanan’s Reform Party, but you can also register as an “independent” and waive your right to vote in any primary.

When you go to the polling place, you don’t need ID, but you should bring a book; the city’s decades-old voting equipment is prone to failure and inevitably causes delays (ask anyone who tried to vote in Brooklyn in November). If you registered but your name does not appear in the book, you can fill out a paper “affidavit” ballot; if the machine is broken, then everyone fills out an “emergency” ballot.

If you think the machine did not record your vote properly, a special election judge in the New York State Supreme Court for your borough can order that you be allowed to vote again. Report any problems you have to the voting inspector for the precinct and the campaign office of your candidate.

Once you get in the booth, check out the machine, which would be charming if you met it in a junk shop. Yank the big red bottom handle from left to right; then twist levers scattered around the face of the monster so that an x appears next to your candidate’s name. When you’re done, pull the handle back to the left to record your vote. The levers for referenda and candidates outside the two major parties can be hard to find, and the handle is heavy, so people with disabilities may require assistance.

All of the primaries use the same machine, so make sure you vote in the right race. You don’t have to vote for every office if you don’t want to or don’t recognize any of the candidates (for example, many judges in New York are elected, but they don’t campaign, so if you haven’t checked them out in advance, you may not have any idea who they are).

The primary will be the first of several rounds of election this fall. If no candidate for the citywide races wins 40 percent or more of the vote in the primary, there will be a runoff two weeks later (unless the Board of Elections is forced to postpone it by litigation), so Democrats will probably get to vote again. There aren’t any runoffs in the City Council races, but with so many candidates in the running, expect some photo finishes followed by exhausting recounts at the Board of Elections and expensive litigation. If you support someone in a close race, volunteer for their poll-watching and recounting teams; after weeks of early mornings and late nights counting New York’s version of chads, the candidate with the most fresh sets of eyes will have the upper hand.

Finally, in the general election, you can make your vote count twice. New York allows smaller parties to cross-endorse the candidates nominated by the majors, so you can vote for the establishment candidate and send them a message about your agenda. In November, for instance, I pinched my nose and voted for Hillary and Al on the WFP line, because the party’s platform called for a living wage, universal health care, and campaign finance reform. If that option had been available nationwide, the presidential election might not have come down to one vote: Justice Kennedy’s.