Voters in the District learned on Nov. 3 that, as in launching a spacecraft, any system that depends heavily on computers is vulnerable to error. Although voting went smoothly in some of the city's 137 precincts and improved substantially during the day, some precincts experienced considerable difficulties. The Board of Elections deeply regrets the problems some voters encountered and believes it owes them an explanation. Although the board will prepare and issue a more complete report later, here is what we know now, and what we are doing about it.
Why did things go wrong?
First, the final update computer tape, which the board must have to print its roll of registered voters, wasn't received by the board in usable form until Friday, Oct. 30, approximately two weeks late.
The delay had serious consequences. Registration lists--from which voters could determine errors and omissions--were not available for public inspection in the city's public libraries. Also, the board's staff was unable to check the final tape. The staff had to spend those final hours before the election printing the lists, duplicating them and distributing them to the precincts. Some lists didn't arrive at precincts until after 7 a.m. on election day. In prior years, the roll of registered voters has been delivered to the precincts at least a day in advance.
Second, the final update tape that the board received was full of errors--far more than we had any reason to suspect. This contributed, in some instances, to voters being lost in the system.
Third, in this election the board attempted to reduce the number of special ballots that had clouded the results of prior elections (most notably the 1978 mayoral primary). The new procedure required precinct captains to phone a central location to determine whether a voter who did not appear on the rolls was registered; if he was, he was to be permitted to vote a regular ballot. Unfortunately, so many voters did not appear on the precinct lists that telephone lines into the central file were jammed, and some voters were kept waiting for substantial periods of time.
Some precinct captains responded to the breakdown by resuming the former practice of allowing persons to vote by special ballot. Others clung more tenaciously to the new system. When the board realized the system was not working, it ordered the experiment abandoned. Unfortunately, by that time, some voters had given up.
Fourth, there was some confusion in the advisory neighborhood commission/single member district ballot distribution. This is only the third time the District has conducted ANC/SMD elections, which involve 364 different posts. The bugs have not yet been worked out.
Finally, some precinct workers inexplicably required voters to show identification although written and oral directions of the board were that the identification program was entirely voluntary.
What is the board doing about the problem?
The board was as angered as voters by the confusion in some precincts. First, we will appoint a committee to study the election and prepare a report--which we will publish --analyzing the problems and recommending ways to avoid them in the future. Public comment during the course of the study will be solicited for the committee's final report.
Second, the board has known for a long time that our master list of votes is not accurate. The problems encountered in this election are not new. In 1979 and again in 1980, the board recommended to the city council that, as has been done in other jurisdictions, it declare all registrations void, and that the board undertake a massive re-registration drive. The council did not look favorably on that suggestion.
Therefore, the board's staff began the laborious task of assembling in alphabetical order the approximately 1 million voter cards that it had in its citywide files. That task, which took almost six months, has been completed, but the files now must be purged and the information verified. This is a tedious task that we are pledged to complete before September 1982. We will begin these final operations within a month. However, realistically, a problem that has existed for years cannot be cured overnight.
The board will also suggest to the council that when it considers redistricting it also consider clarifying and rationalizing the ANC/SMD's districts. Those districts should also be rationalized so that they fit more conveniently into precinct patterns. Some precincts have five ANC/SMDs within their boundaries. Such a situation invites confusion.
Since 1978, the board has substantially improved the election process in the District; 1981 was an obvious disappointment. But just as we corrected the mistakes of 1978, we will move to correct the problems that occurred earlier this month. To accomplish this task, we will need and will ask for the help and support of the city's elected officials and its citizens.