National News

Why Did New York City’s Electorate Submit Votes on a Piece of Paper Several Inches Longer Than a Page of the U.S. Constitution?

Posted November 10, 2018 3:06 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Most Americans will go their entire lives without ever holding a piece of paper that is more than three times longer than a normal piece of paper, but of standard width. Try, for a moment, to envision such a sheet. Does the paper of your reckoning curl inward at both ends, like an ancient scroll? Or is it flat and unwieldy, like a rather small, very thin door with no knob that is attached to nothing? Is it more like something out of Kafka’s nightmares, or Picasso’s dreams?

For New York voters in four of the city’s five boroughs Tuesday, this Frankensteinian concept of ultralong paper was made manifest, as they were handed midterm election ballots measuring 34 inches in length, and then left to contemplate them for hours while they waited for technicians to repair the vote scanning machines being jammed by 34 inch midterm ballots all over the city. (Staten Island, which had fewer candidates and races, distributed a shorter ballot. The executive director of the city’s Board of Directions said there were far fewer problems reported there.)

For reference, 34 inches is the number, from withers to paw, of what the American Kennel Club would classify as a show-worthy adult male Irish wolfhound, as well as the height of a three-story Barbie Dream House.

Elsewhere in the country, localities plagued with Election Day calamities are still scrambling to determine the victors of their highly contentious races, but most New York City contests were far from competitive. Frustrations arose not from close margins, but from the ballots themselves.

Scanning machines reportedly jammed if voters failed to tear their paper ballots across a bisecting perforated edge, or if they did tear along the perforated edge, but imperfectly. Those issues led to voting lines that extended outside of polling places, into a daylong rainstorm, where the ballots people were holding became wet, subsequently causing further problems for people attempting to send damp paper through the $6,485.00 ES & S DS200® precinct scanner and tabulators.

At a time when men and women in low-Earth orbit can vote in midterm elections happening 220 miles below them by sending an encrypted email to their county clerk office, the impatient New York voter must wonder: Why did the city’s electorate submit its votes on a piece of paper several inches longer than the browned parchment of the U.S. Constitution?

The answer appears to be: No reason.

New York state election law is popularly understood to include what is often referred to as a “full-face ballot” requirement, stipulating that all candidates for all offices in an election be presented simultaneously, as part of a single display — the sort of idea a person might propose if he had never seen a book, or had only ever experienced music as a second-long cacophonous burst of every note simultaneously.

According to a 2005 examination by The Brennan Center for Justice, the legal basis for the full-face requirement effectively does not exist. The design convention seems to stem from a misinterpretation of ballot reforms that were enacted in the 1890s in order to curb election tampering (by, for instance, leaving a candidate’s name off a ballot entirely), and were subsequently adapted to accommodate the design of the first automatic voting machines, which were first used later in the decade.

In the old days, ballots were not provided by the government, but frequently handed out by representatives of the political parties themselves, which made them subject to, among other problems, underhanded design manipulations. (In the even older days, people just screamed out their vote. New York’s 1777 Constitution proposes an experiment to determine if voting by ballot is preferable to voting aloud.)

Today’s American voting practices were shaped largely by what in the 19th century was known as “the Australian ballot.” (Here’s a sweet sentence from the National Museum of Australia website, describing that nation’s early political ambitions: “When convict transportation to New South Wales ceased in 1840 many residents believed the colony was ready for self-rule, and demands for a new political system increased.”)

Under this method, government-supplied ballots printed with the name of every candidate were distributed only at polling places, to voters who marked the papers in private booths. Secret ballots, it was reasoned, would end rampant voter bribery (since bribers would have no way of verifying if a person had voted as they were paid to) and curtail intimidation. Less publicly touted was the newfound ability to disenfranchise illiterate voters, like, for instance, many of the former slaves who had been granted constitutional voting rights in 1870.

The rise of secret ballots in the United States coincided with an apparent plunge in eligible voter turnouts. Data collected by UC Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project indicates that nearly 88 percent of the eligible population voted in the 1888 presidential election; by 2012 that figure had dropped below 55 percent. Theories abound to explain the participation plummet. Some point to a lack of public accountability once voting was made a private process; a 2008 Yale study of 180,002 households found that voters were much more likely to participate in elections when they believed their turnout (or lack thereof) would be revealed in a mailing to their neighbors. People may have just missed the bribes.

Interestingly, thousands of voters in New York City may have unwittingly participated in a turn-of-the-century Election Day throwback this week, thanks to the broken machines. While standing in line to cast their secret votes, many of them passed the time by filling out their 34-inch ballots in the open.