Volume 22, Number 25 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | October 30 - November 6, 2009
Saying goodbye to those creaky, lovable red levers
By Ben Krull
They are outdated and clunky, and frequently break down. Still, I will be sad when they are gone.
After the November elections, New York City’s pull-lever voting machines — which have been around since the Kennedy administration — are expected to be replaced by sleek optical scanners. While electronic-voting may reduce problems at the polls, New York is about to lose a link to its political past.
When New Yorkers leave their fingerprints on the arm-length red levers this Nov. 3rd, they will be using the same levers that once bore the fingerprints of voters casting ballots for Robert Kennedy, Nixon, Wagner, Javits, Koch, and Abzug. The machines are a live conduit running through the battles for racial justice, gender equality and gay rights; a repository of a half-century of anger and hope expressed in exactly the same way — by pulling a red lever.
I was 10 years old when I first voted. It was 1969 and my father took me to a polling place on the Upper East Side. I entered the mysterious, curtained booth, which reminded me of the Wizard of Oz, and watched as my father showed me Mayor John V. Lindsay’s name on the ballot. He told me to pull the lever — which I joyfully did.
It was a while before I “voted” again, but the manual machines have defined my experience as a voter. For the past 30 years I have stepped behind the full-length curtain and into the enclosed seven-foot-tall booth, feeling completely alone with my conscience and the names on the ballot.
Usually I know how I am going to vote before I enter the polling place. But other times I have walked into the booth intending to vote one way...only to change my mind.
When Mayor Giuliani ran for reelection, I had decided to vote for him, even though I was disturbed by his bullying manner. But once the curtain closed behind me, something tugged at my gut -- and I couldn’t check his name on the ballot.
New Yorkers will adjust to the optical scanners. Yet I can not imagine that marking a ballot, behind a half curtain, and feeding the paper into a computer-sized scanner, will seem as dramatic as voting on an imposing manual machine. Nor is it likely that the new voting machines will be around long enough to serve as a tangible link between generations of voters, or even as a constant from childhood through adulthood, as it was for me.
I hope that predictions of a low voter turnout for Nov. 3rd are wrong. It would be a shame if our retiring machines received a paltry sendoff. Every New Yorker should come out to the polls on Election Day, even if it is just to hold hands with an old mechanical friend, one last time.
Ben Krull, an attorney in Lower Manhattan’s Family Court, is a freelance writer