Committee Hopes to Reduce Election Day Drama

A committee of nine appointed officials listened Monday to a room of approximately two dozen angry residents in Tribeca and took diligent notes about the myriad issues voters faced on Election Day.

During the Voter Assistance Advisory Committee hearing, poll workers, activists, lobbyists, and voters sat scattered throughout rows of plastic chairs. One by one, they delivered their testimony about the problems they witnessed or encountered during this year’s election season.

And there were a lot of problems. Amanda Melillo, deputy director of public affairs for the New York City Campaign Finance Board, told the committee that many of the issues that occurred on Nov. 6 were related to outdated equipment, antiquated laws and misinformation. 

For example, Melillo said that the ballots handed out every year aren’t made for the scanners used across polling places. Because the ballots don’t fit properly, the scanners can easily jam, leading to long lines for residents waiting to cast their vote.

Voter Dustin Joyce, 36, a consultant, summed up the feelings of many people in the room. 

“This was the worst experience I’ve ever had voting,” Joyce said during his testimony. “I’m actually really mad about what happened on Election Day.”

He said he brings his kids to the polls every year, but this year he was disappointed by what he saw at his Queens polling station. 

“I saw some people that just gave up on the process of voting,” he said. “That was heartbreaking in a city like New York.”

While the Board of Elections handles everything that happens inside polling places, such as providing and collecting ballots, hiring and training poll workers and maintaining voter records, the Campaign Finance Board handles voter engagement and education. They also print the “I voted” stickers handed out on Election Day. 

The Voter Assistance Advisory Committee reports to the Campaign Finance Board and holds two meetings every year to listen to voter concerns and relay them to the New York City Board of Elections. 

The committee also compiles an annual report that they bring to the State Legislature with their recommendations for future elections.

“People bring up the same concerns every election,” said Amy M. Loprest, committee member and finance board executive director. However, her hope is that by bringing those issues to the legislature, Election Day could get better.

The New York City Campaign Finance Board prints the stickers handed to voters on Election Day. (Photo courtesy Diana Chan)

Committee members recognized the most critical concerns coming out of the meeting: the need for same-day registration, early voting, electronic voter rolls and better training for poll workers.

Diana Finch, 64, a literary agent, has been a poll worker for 10 years. But when she got to her polling location in the Northeast Bronx, she said during her testimony that only two things were in abundance that day: ballots and voters.

“There were fewer pens than at the primary,” she said in an interview.

During her 15-hour shift, Finch said she couldn’t take any breaks, because doing so would have left the polling place understaffed and unable to handle the volume of residents coming in to exercise their right to vote. She also said her team didn’t have enough privacy envelopes for residents waiting to load their ballot into the scanner, and because it was raining, the envelopes—and consequentially the ballots—got wet as they were reused. That caused the scanners to jam.

Voters were also confused about some of the semantics around voting. Committee chair Naomi Zauderer said the most surprising thing she learned at the meeting was a rumor spreading around the polls that residents had to vote straight down party lines.

But that misconception may be related to an archaic election law. In New York State, voters who wish to change their party affiliation must do so more than a year before the election in which they wish to vote, said finance board public relations director Matt Sollars.

This is mainly an issue during presidential election years when turnout is higher and people don’t know about the deadline for the party change, Melillo said.

“The President’s children couldn’t vote for their father,” she said about the 2016 election.

But changing this law would require making an adjustment to the New York State Constitution, and therefore might take a few years.

Despite all of the issues on Election Day, the finance board ultimately considered the day a success because of the massive increase in voter turnout. In 2014, just over a million New Yorkers voted in the midterm election, Melillo said. But this year, that number more than doubled.

“That’s our mission, to make sure that happens,” Sollars said.

But in order to keep up that turnout, the Board of Elections will need to make some changes for the 2020 presidential election. Committee member Mazeda Uddin said she appreciates the opportunity to improve voters’ election experience.

“If you don’t make a mistake, you can’t learn,” she said.