NEW YORK—Even the most jaded New Yorkers might consider this a recipe for chaos: New electronic voting machines are being introduced in the Sept. 14 primary. State and city budget cuts mean not enough staff has been trained to help voters use them. A glitch in the computer programming will let people mistakenly vote for too many candidates.
And the machines come with paper ballots so hard to read, voters will be offered magnifying glasses.
Election officials still insist the rollout of the optical scan voting machines should be relatively smooth, as New York becomes the last state to comply with the federal Help America Vote Act. HAVA, enacted in response to the contested Florida presidential vote in 2000, directed states to adopt simpler voting systems to avoid the nightmare that led to the contentious, 36-day recount in Florida that gave George Bush the state -- and the White House -- by 537 votes over Al Gore.
But voting rights advocates are so concerned about New York's new system that one group has filed a lawsuit over flaws they have detected. And a state lawmaker has asked the U.S. Justice Department to intervene in what he warns could be a full-blown voting debacle.
"After years of voting the same way, you've now got to use a computer, and that's not a friendly situation for people," said Democratic Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who's running for attorney general. "This is a big change in culture, and it has real potential for disaster."
For 80 years, New York voters stepped into curtained machines, pushed tabs on a panel and swung a heavy metal lever to cast their votes. But the lever machines violated HAVA guidelines because they are difficult for people with disabilities to use and do not provide a paper trail if the outcome of a vote is disputed.
After years of research and a push from federal officials who threatened a lawsuit if New York did not comply, state lawmakers finally decided on an optical scan system to replace the lever machines. Two companies, Dominion Voting and ImageCast, provided the new machines.
Beginning with Tuesday's primary, voters will be given a paper ballot on which they indicate their choices by filling in an oval next to a candidate's name. When the voter completes the ballot, it is fed into an optical scanning machine that records and tabulates the votes. The system is not expected to speed up reporting of election night results, and untested new procedures could cause delays.
Other states have adopted optical scan systems with mostly positive results. But things are never quite so simple in New York, whose voting system "violates more basic usability principles than any other state we examined," according to New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, a voting advocacy group.
Take the hard-to-read paper ballot, a direct result of the state's quirky political system.
Besides contested primaries for federal and statewide offices, voters will be asked to consider dozens of candidates in races further down the ballot, like delegates to a convention that selects candidates for the judiciary. In one state Assembly district in Manhattan, Democratic voters will choose among two dozen candidates for judicial convention delegate -- and another two dozen running for alternate delegate.
State law mandates that each candidate on the ballot must be identified by party -- twice -- along with that party's official symbol. The ballot also includes a lot of jargon-heavy instructions.
In New York City, all of this will be printed in four languages -- English, Chinese, Korean and Spanish. But in a city where as many as 120 languages are spoken, many voters still won't be able to read the crowded ballot.
With so much text forced onto a ballot about a third smaller than those used in the lever machine, many voters may indeed be reaching for the magnifying glasses.
John Conklin, a spokesman for the state board of elections, said the crowded ballot would mainly be an issue in the city but wouldn't be a problem for most voters.
"The average voter will be able to read it. It won't disenfranchise anyone," Conklin said.
It's all going to get even more challenging in the general election, when voters can choose candidates from any political party. In addition to the Democratic and Republican parties, the state has numerous others -- including the Conservative, Working Families and Independence -- all of which field candidates and are given lines on the ballot, taking up even more space.
There's also the matter of overvoting, or inadvertently voting for more than one candidate for one office. The lever machines didn't allow overvoting, but election advocates worry it will be an easy mistake to make on the paper ballot.
The problem is further compounded by the optical scanning machines. The machines will warn the voter of an overvote when the ballot is scanned and will still allow the ballot to be cast but the vote will be invalidated.
Larry Norden, a senior counsel at the Brennan Center, said a similar problem in Florida's optical scan machines in 2008 caused at least 20,000 votes to be invalidated.
The Brennan Center has filed suit against the New York City and state boards of elections, directing them to provide better protection against overvoting. The machines could be reprogrammed to reject all overvoted ballots, Norden said, pressing the voter to redo and recast the ballot.
Despite the potential snafus, Norden said he didn't envision widespread problems Tuesday, mainly because it's a primary election rather than a high-turnout general election.
"In primaries, you have the most informed voters coming out. If they have problems, they will ask for assistance," Norden said.