90% of sampled poll sites had serious issues — from improperly handled ballots to poorly trained poll workers

(New York, NY) — As the City prepares for a citywide election in the coming days, New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer today released an alarming new audit showing significant breakdowns in the operations of elections by the City’s Board of Elections — or BOE — that jeopardize New Yorkers’ right to vote. After the BOE’s voter “purge” came to light in April 2016, the Comptroller’s Office deployed staff to more than 150 poll sites to observe three subsequent elections. Auditors discovered violations of federal, state, and BOE rules — including mishandled affidavit ballots — at more than half of poll sites in our sample, inadequate staffing at three-fourths of voting locations, and fundamental failures in serving voters with disabilities at more than a quarter of BOE polling places.

“Most know about the Brooklyn purge, in which more than 117,000 residents were taken off the voter rolls. What these new findings show, however, is that there is effectively another purge that takes place beneath the surface. We’ve uncovered deeply concerning, systemic issues in the BOE’s operations. The BOE cannot be synonymous with dysfunction, and we cannot allow these egregious failures to undermine New Yorkers’ fundamental rights,” New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer said. “Our poll workers work exceptionally hard, but the BOE isn’t giving them the support they deserve. After a thorough review of the agency, it’s clear the voter purge is a reflection of larger, systemic, day-to-day breakdowns. Elections matter, and every vote must be counted in every election. That’s why the BOE needs to fundamentally change its operations.”

Auditors scrutinized the BOE’s operations at 156 poll sites over three elections (held on June 28, 2016, September 13, 2016, and November 8, 2016), cross-checked their findings with Federal, State, and local laws, and examined voter rolls. The report uncovers how:

Federal and State Election Laws Were Broken, and the BOE’s Own Internal Rules Were Ignored

In the course of the audit, Comptroller’s Office staff examined 156 polling sites and found that at 82 of them — or 53 percent —Federal and State election law or BOE rules were broken. That increases the risk that New Yorkers’ votes could go uncounted.

  • At 14 percent of sites, affidavit ballots — which are used by voters whose names are not on the rolls but may still be eligible to vote — were mishandled. At one location, poll workers were unaware that a voter should have been offered an affidavit ballot, despite Federal and State law requiring that offer be made. As a result, that voter — who may have been eligible to vote despite not being listed on the rolls — was potentially disenfranchised.
  • In 10 percent of sampled polling locations, we observed voters who went largely unassisted when issues arose. In one egregious example, auditors witnessed a distracted poll worker disenfranchise a voter in real-time. The poll worker failed to see that a voter’s ballot had been rejected by a scanning machine, and — by the time the poll worker realized what happened — the voter had already left the polling place. The ballot was then marked as void and not counted.
  • At numerous poll sites, auditors observed unlawful electioneering, including:
  • Poll workers — within earshot of voters — discussing candidates on the ballot;
  • An interpreter assigned to a poll site to help voters with limited English Proficiency telling voters which candidate to vote for instead of how to vote;
  • And a poll worker telling a voter who needed help with an affidavit ballot which candidate to support.
  • At almost a dozen sites, poll workers weren’t familiar with the procedure to close a poll site at the end of Election Day. This included a lack of knowledge about processing required vote-count documents, calling into question the BOE’s ability to ensure every vote is counted.
  • At 27 percent of the sites sampled by the Comptroller’s Office, voters were given ballots before they signed registration rolls. This increases the risk that a mistake could occur, leading to improperly cast, or improperly counted, votes.

The BOE Failed to Properly Staff More Than Three Quarters of Sampled Polling Sites — Leading to Confusion and Delays at the Polls

During the course of the investigation, the Comptroller’s Office identified staffing problems at 118 of the 156 poll sites — or 76 percent of those visited. Issues included:

  • One poll site coordinator told auditors that she called poll workers several days before the election to confirm their attendance. After realizing that many poll workers were not planning on showing up, she informed the BOE — which ignored her request for replacement staff. On Election Day, a full 41% of the staff assigned to that poll site — St. Marks School in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn — did not arrive. No additional staff were sent, and their positions were left unfilled.
  • At 14 sites that auditors visited, poll workers indicated that there were either too few interpreters for the primary languages spoken in those specific neighborhoods or that no interpreters were assigned to the poll site at all. At one site at which the main languages spoken by the local population included Spanish and Russian, the BOE assigned three Chinese-language interpreters. According to the BOE coordinator assigned to the site, those interpreters’ services were not used by voters during the auditor’s observation.
  • The BOE reported a 13% absentee rate during the three elections that the Comptroller’s Office staff observed, along with a 17% “vacancy rate” — which means no one was even assigned to 17% of required jobs.

The BOE Often Failed to Provide Assistance for Voters with Disabilities

Under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the BOE is required to ensure that New Yorkers with disabilities are provided a full and equal opportunity to vote. Auditors, however, found that at 45 of the 156 sampled poll sites — nearly 30 percent — the BOE did not provide adequate assistance for people with disabilities. Specific findings include:

  • 15 sites — 10 percent of the total sample — were not accessible for all or part of the day. In these cases, wheelchair ramps weren’t installed until hours after poll sites opened, elevators were broken, and signs denoting accessible entrances were not publicized.
  • At 19 of the polling sites (12 percent of the sample), “accessibility clerks” — who are specifically assigned to help voters with disabilities — either didn’t show up on Election Day, or were re-assigned to other tasks.
  • At 16 locations — 10 percent of the sample — “Ballot Marking Machines,” which help voters with disabilities fill out their ballots independently, were not fully functioning.

Poll Worker Training Proved Exceptionally Inadequate

Auditors attended five training sessions for poll workers and found that the lessons failed to cover the full scope of work required to effectively coordinate Election Day operations. Specifically:

  • In all of the training sessions auditors attended, instructors stated that they were skipping certain information because of time constraints.
  • Little — if any — hands-on training was provided to poll workers. Across the five trainings that auditors attended, for example, only two attendees were allowed to touch the “ballot marking devices” that are used to assist voters with disabilities.
  • The poll worker exam, on which prospective poll workers must score at least 85 percent to pass, was of questionable value because it was both open book and included page numbers where answers could be found next to each question. One participant went so far as to tell auditors the test was an “idiot test… where you are told where to find the answers.”

 The BOE Illegally Purged 117,305 Voters from the Rolls in Brooklyn

Between March 2014 and July 2015, the BOE’s Brooklyn Office improperly cancelled the registration of 117,305 voters based only on the fact they had not voted since 2008. That move violated both Federal and State law and denied voters their right to participate in the April 2016 Presidential Primary through the normal voting process.

The Comptroller’s Office made a number of recommendations, including that the BOE:

  • Improve training for poll workers — and consider extending training hours so all of the material that poll workers need to know can be covered;
  • Ensure every poll site is fully accessible and fully staffed, including with the appropriate interpreters;
  • Attract more poll worker candidates by working to increase poll worker pay;
  • Evaluate a pilot program that attempted to increase the number of poll workers by allowing them to work half-day shifts, and consider implementing this program if applicable; and
  • Establish a working group to identify and implement reforms.