Susan Lerner Testimony: Improving Westchester County's Election

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NEW YORK, NY (07/13/2020) (readMedia)-- Today, Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY will testify at a joint Hearing of the Budget and Appropriations and Public Works and Transportation Committees of the Westchester County Board of Legislators about the June primary and how to improve the upcoming election.

See below and attached for testimony.


Testimony of Susan Lerner, Executive Director, Common Cause/NY Before

A Joint Hearing of the Budget and Appropriations and Public Works and Transportation Committees of the Westchester County Board of Legislators

July 13, 2020

Thank you for the invitation to testify at this combined meeting of the Budget and Public Works Committees. I am Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY. Common Cause is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization founded to serve as a vehicle for citizens to make their voices heard in the political process. We fight to strengthen public participation and faith in our institutions of self-government and lead the grassroots component of the nationwide Election Protection effort. Common Cause/NY is among the largest and most active state chapters, with over 75,000 activists statewide, of which nearly 5,000 reside in Westchester County, and is a founder and leader of the statewide Let NY Vote coalition. Accordingly, the orderly administration of elections and insuring that our elections are accessible and fair is part of our core mission to promote civic engagement and accountability in government. I submit this written testimony to supplement and expand on my oral testimony.

As we've seen, the June primary in New York was like no other. Unfortunately, the problems faced by Westchester voters were, in most instances, unique across the state. Others who will testify will detail the myriad problems experienced by voters during the June primary in Westchester County. In this testimony, I will propose possible solutions to improve Westchester County's elections, within the constraints of New York's outmoded Election Law. The bottom line is that what is needed to improve Westchester County's elections is straight forward: more poll worker training, better communication to voters, accurate and public reporting, and improved planning. No amount of expensive technology will cure problems created by poor management and illegal secrecy. The Board of Legislators should consider exercising its power under Election Law §3-200(2) to expand the number of Election Commissioners to 4, as well as use express budget allocations accompanied by specific terms and conditions to foster improvement in designated aspects of election administration.

Recommendations for Improvement

1. Poll Worker Recruitment and Training Must Be Expanded

Inadequacies in poll worker training are the most obvious cause of election day problems. Voters who receive incorrect information, are improperly forced to vote on affidavit ballots, denied the ability to hand in their absentee ballot, or denied their right to vote at all are most often the victims of inadequate poll worker training. Expanding poll worker training requires additional resources to cover the cost of increased hours of instruction, providing for increased compensation for both instructors and trainees. However, it is, perhaps, the most impactful and beneficial investment that can be made in improving Westchester's elections. Common Cause/NY recommends providing additional resources for expanded poll worker training through a specified budget allocation supported by clear terms and conditions which require regular reporting.

Poll worker recruitment is challenging at the best of times and, unfortunately, 2020 cannot be considered even a typical year. This is an area where the county can and should take direct action. Recruiting poll workers from among the county's own employees has proven helpful in other jurisdictions, among them Los Angeles County. Additionally, however, we recommend responding to the COVID-19 unemployment crisis with a poll worker recruitment project targeted to unemployed hospitality industry and retail workers. Bartenders, servers, front desk clerks, salespeople and others who have worked in the hospitality industry and in retail have the requisite skills necessary to be successful poll workers. They are used to satisfying requirements to track activities with computer systems and have developed the skills and patience necessary to deal with the public. While serving as a poll worker is not a substitute for a full-time or even part-time permanent position, it can be a welcome and satisfying source of additional income and these two industries have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. A targeted recruitment program would, ideally, bring in new and younger people to serve as poll workers, a potential lasting additional benefit.

2. Communication with Voters Must Be Improved

The Westchester County Board of Elections' communications track-record is alarming. New York State provides its voters with relatively little information when compared to many other states. Nevertheless, the Westchester Board of Elections provides voters with even less information than is required by law. And, alarmingly, the information which it provided to voters regarding early voting in June was inaccurate. Voters were sent notices assigning them to an early voting location, even though the Board of Elections represented to the Board of Legislators that it would utilize voting centers. And, to add insult to injury, some voters received notifications assigning them to polling locations that informed them they could not vote there.

At the very least, the Westchester Board of Elections must be required to adhere to the minimum statutory deadlines for identifying early voting and election day poll site locations, providing a voter education plan and for mailing information to voters. But more should be done than the statutory minimum. The Board's website should provide voters with the dates for the upcoming election and related deadlines prominently on the homepage. Voters should not have to click through 2 or 3 pages to find something as basic as the date of the presidential and general election in November or the related registration deadline. Following the recent revision in the law, which allows for online applications for absentee ballots, the BOE's website should prominently feature an online application for absentee ballots. Early voting locations must be announced as required by statute and the number of distribution of early voting locations must be improved. The County can assist the BOE to locate possible poll sites, but additionally, identifying potential locations for early voting and election day should be crowd-sourced. Commercial landlords and members of the public should be given the opportunity to recommend potential polling places. Make the specifications for poll sites public and solicit the public's assistance in finding sufficient number of poll site locations. Many states now use what our state would consider "non-traditional" poll site locations, making voting more convenient for voters. Westchester County can be a leader in exhibiting initiative in locating poll site locations.

3. Additional epollbooks and ballot on demand equipment should be purchased and deployed

Westchester currently utilizes the most advanced and secure election technology: voter-marked paper ballots that are fed into an optical scanner by the voter, supported by epollbooks and a ballot-on-demand system. Long lines can be avoided by increasing the number of polling places and eliminating check-in bottlenecks by providing more epollbooks and ballot-on-demand printers.

A Presidential Election Year Is No Time To Change Election Equipment

Common Cause/NY is on record opposing the purchase of hybrid voting machines, such as the Dominion ICE machines that would require a multi-million dollar bond issue. But separate from the question of whether to purchase a particular type of new voting machine is the crucial question of when they should be purchased and put into use. Simple good management practices dictate against changing voting equipment in an election year, much less during a presidential election year when voter turn-out is highest and the breakdowns and errors always associated with adopting new technology could result in the disenfranchisement of Westchester voters. Both poll workers and voters will need extensive voter education before any new voting equipment is introduced. Developing a training program for new equipment takes time – a commodity in short supply in preparing for the November election. Poll worker training is further complicated by the pandemic, which makes in person instruction difficult. Yet there is no adequate substitute for training poll workers how to use new equipment other than training on the equipment itself.

Westchester's June primary election did not go well, but trying to switch voting equipment between the primary and the general election is likely to result in an election day as disastrous as Georgia's June 9 primary. Georgia authorities were warned not to switch to new voting machines for the 2020 election, but went ahead and ignored the warnings. As a result, the New York Times described Georgia's primary as

"overwhelmed by a full-scale meltdown of new voting systems ... Scores of new state-ordered voting machines were reported to be missing or malfunctioning, and hours long lines materialized at polling places across Georgia... Security experts had warned that there was not nearly enough time to switch systems before the 2020 elections - especially amid the coronavirus pandemic, which ravaged the state and scared away hundreds of poll workers."

Interestingly, Georgia's new voting equipment was provided by Dominion.

Assertions that Westchester County cannot use voting centers for early voting without changing its voting equipment are without merit. States and counties around the country have been using voting centers long before vendors starting pushing expensive and controversial hybrid voting machines like the Dominion ICE machines. Colorado adopted voting centers for the first time in 2004, Indiana in 2006. At a conference on election administration which Common cause/NY and Columbia University sponsored in 2013, the Executive Director of the Mecklenburg County, NC Board of Elections spoke about the successful use of vote centers in his county for a number of election cycles. Mecklenburg County includes the city of Charlotte and has slightly more than 750,000 registered voters. At that same conference, the then County Clerk of Bernalillo County, NM, but now New Mexico Secretary of State, Maggie Toulouse Oliver, spoke enthusiastically about her county's experience using vote centers for the first time. Bernalillo County is home to Albuquerque, NM and has just under 500,000 registered voters. Both election administrators emphasized that epollbooks and ballot on demand were the necessary equipment for their vote centers, equipment which Westchester County has already purchased and is using.

Common cause/NY urges the Budget and Appropriations Committee to postpone any consideration of a bond issue to fund purchase of new voting equipment until after the November 2020 election.