One of the most fundamental elements of a true democracy is the ease with which citizens can vote. “At the core, people want voting to be as convenient as possible,” said Melinda Katz, who won the Democratic primary for Queens Borough president last week.
The most recent primary election on Tuesday, Sept. 10 was not without issues: Poorly trained poll workers, broken voting machines and a lack of translated materials created confusion for some residents in Queens who showed up to perform their civic duty, said government watchdog groups.
According to the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), which sent attorneys to polling sites around the city to spot-check the polling process, one of the biggest barriers to vote was language. One of the sites in Jamaica was missing a Bengali interpreter despite multiple Bengali voters being present, another site in Elmhurst did not have Korean interpreters, and a site in Bayside was lacking Chinese interpreters. AALDEF said Astoria was no better: One polling station did not have any Bengali, Chinese or Korean interpreters, and at another one poll inspector said that he believed all material should just be in English because, “all the idiots should learn English.”
“The law requires translators,” said Neal Rosenstein of New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), a research and advocacy organization in New York City, which also was monitoring the polls during the primary.
“I know that in Queens, the Board of Elections was reaching out to civic groups for Korean translators,” Rosenstein said of the efforts made to fix the shortage. “It’s a chronic problem.”
Another common breakdown in the civic process, according to the AALDEF, was malfunctioning voting machines. At one polling station in Jamaica, workers called the Board of Elections more than 20 times and waited seven hours to get their voting machine fixed.
Another Jamaica site had broken machines that left voters unable to vote, and a Bayside polling center distributed emergency ballots to voters when their machines repeatedly failed, the nonprofit said.
The widespread technical issues were partially attributed to the use of the creaky old lever machines instead of the new optical scan machines that had been used during the 2012 general election. The new machines are due to make a return in the general election in November.
As always, any issues seen during an election, including the most recent primary, were reported to the city BOE. The board’s replies to the reported issues varied, according to Glenn Magpantay of the AALDEF, from “we will get right on it” to “we don’t have time”. The Board of Elections did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Magpantay stressed that that the upper management of the BOE genuinely wants to be helpful and is trying hard to fix problems but, he added, “there is a breakdown between them and the borough offices and the poll sites.”
Both NYPIRG’s Rosenstein and AALDEF’s Magpantay agreed that the issues were not atypical of an election in New York City.
“We shouldn’t get complacent,” said Rosenstein. “We shouldn’t be satisfied with 10,000 emergency ballots being used, a shortage of poll workers and a shortage of translators.”
Indeed, problems with poll sites, poll workers and language barriers can discourage people from voting in future elections, causing an undemocratic disconnect between the desires of citizens and their elected officials.
By Kate Bubacz