KEEP CLAM: NYC Board Struggles with Proofreading Problems


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NOTE: I thought about doing another April Fools’ Day post – and I even had some decent ideas (Hasen endorses Election Day freebies! Tammy Patrick to quit elections, go on tour with the Dead and Company!) but I was afraid of making this election year unnecessarily weirder than it already is. Fortunately, the news came through with one of those “you can’t make this s[tuff] up” stories. Enjoy.

New York City’s Board of Elections has taken its share of lumps in recent years – and now it’s even under fire for failing to handle the simplest of skills: proofreading. The New York Times has more:

The New York City Board of Elections has a proofreading problem — and even small mistakes are turning out to be costly.

The board was forced to spend more than $200,000 in overnight postage last month to send corrected absentee ballots for the coming presidential primary, after it discovered an error in the Spanish version of the ballot.

The mistake was discovered around the same time the board realized it had made another error: A recent notice sent to 60,000 newly registered voters included the wrong date for a Sept. 13 primary election for state and local offices. The board then mailed out a correction that may have inadvertently confused voters about the date of the higher-profile presidential primary on April 19.

Those incidents follow a major mistake in the Chinese translation that appeared on ballots for the state’s election in November 2013, which led to the firing of one translator and the resignation of another.

While proofreading fixes are not expensive, the Board is discovering that the cost of notifying voters can add up quickly:

Last month’s costly translation error occurred on Democratic primary ballots mailed to military personnel and American citizens living abroad.

Democratic voters in the New York presidential primary vote for both a candidate and delegates to the party’s nominating convention. But the original ballots that were mailed out failed to indicate in Spanish which delegates had pledged to support Bernie Sanders and which had done so for Hillary Clinton.

When officials spotted the mistake, they notified the State Board of Elections, which in turn consulted the Justice Department, said Michael J. Ryan, the executive director of the city’s elections board. Corrected ballots were printed and sent to 4,131 voters overseas, including 230 military personnel.

The printing cost was less than $5,000, Mr. Ryan said.

But because time was short, it was decided to send the ballots by overnight mail. The bill for postage was $208,579 …

“Given the disparate addresses overseas, overnight mailing, it can be quite costly,” Mr. Ryan said.

Most of the corrected ballots were mailed last weekend, although some may have gone out as late as Monday, he said.

The mistake did not affect the thousands of absentee ballots sent to voters with addresses in New York or other states, which were printed after the mistake had been discovered.

Mr. Ryan said the error was a byproduct of the city’s transition to an electronic voting system, which involves paper ballots read by digital scanners. Although the system was put in place in 2010, it will be used in a Democratic presidential primary, with balloting for both candidates and delegates, for the first time this year.

That mistake followed another that threatened to confuse voters about which of New York’s numerous primaries is upcoming:

In the election board’s other recent fumble, tens of thousands of newly registered voters received a notice from the agency alerting them to the dates of various elections this year, but it included an incorrect date for the Sept. 13 primary for state and local candidates.

The board then sent a postcard to the same voters with the words “Date Correction” blazoned across the front.

“The date on the notice for the primary election was incorrect,” the postcard said. “The correct date is Sep. 13, 2016.” But the card did not say which primary it was referring to, raising the possibility that some voters would confuse it for the presidential primary.

“You’d have to be under a rock not to know that people are thinking about the April 19 primary and to not even mention it,” said Kate Doran, of the New York City League of Women Voters. “All of us in the good-government world are just rolling our eyes.”

These problems are getting attention not long after a much more serious problem occurred three years ago:

The two recent mistakes occurred less than three years after the translation error in 2013, which Mr. Ryan said was far more serious because it was not caught until Election Day that November.

In that case, ballots used at polling stations serving a high concentration of Chinese voters omitted the Chinese translation of a ballot proposition.

There were six propositions on the ballot. The state’s elections board provided translations for each of them to the city’s board. But when city officials created the ballots, someone mistakenly used the same Chinese translation for two different propositions. Mr. Ryan called it “a cutting and pasting error.”

Critics cite these problems as evidence that the process of staffing at the Board needs to change – though the director doesn’t seem to share that urgency:

Councilman Ben Kallos, a Democrat from Manhattan who has been a frequent critic of the elections board, attributed the errors to the agency’s notorious history as a patronage mill.

“At the root of this is making sure that the people working at the Board of Elections are actually hired from an open process,” Mr. Kallos said. “We need to root out patronage in government and at the Board of Elections…”

“We strive for perfection at the Board of Elections,” Mr. Ryan said. “However, any system that’s run by human beings is going to encounter human error. The best that we can hope for is that if an error is made, we catch it and we fix it.”

He’s certainly right that sometimes people make mistakes – but the fact that so many mistakes are happening at NYCBOE (costing tax funds to fix and potentially confusing voters) suggests that the best approach is on preventing mistakes in the first place.

No fooling. Stay tuned …

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