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Late poll openings, paper jams mar New York City primary

NEW YORK — About 6 percent of New York City's polling sites did not open on time for last month's primary election and thousands of poll workers had not been trained to operate new voting machines that debuted that day, the city's Board of Elections acknowledged Monday.

The board sought for the first time to paint a picture of the problems associated with the rollout of an automated voting system. The machines, which replaced an 80-year-old mechanical lever system, resemble ATMs and optically read paper ballots that voters feed in after marking them by pen.

Elections officials testified at a City Council hearing that at least 80 sites opened late, some because of snags with the new machines. They also revealed that more than 3,000 of the 26,000 poll workers staffing the city's 1,300 polling sites had not been trained to operate the new system.

"They panicked," said Dawn Sandow, board deputy executive director. "A lot of them did panic."

Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. said the issues were troubling.

"Clearly we had election workers who were not trained and didn't know what they were doing," he said.

During a hearing that at times grew heated, council members prodded board officials to provide details about the problems that voters and poll workers encountered. Until Monday, details had come mostly from voting rights advocates and anecdotal reports.

Sandow said one common reason for delays was a misunderstanding about the passwords needed to start the machines before polls open. The codes were supposed to be entered in lowercase, but poll workers often were unaware of this. After three wrong attempts, the machines were programmed to shut down.

Paper jams were another widespread problem. Various factors caused blockages, including perforations on the ballots and metal guides inside the machines that inadvertently bent.

Executive Director George Gonzalez said the board received 2,470 calls to its phone banks on primary day. He acknowledged that it was possible that more than 80 sites opened late, a figure based only on reports received by phone.

Gonzalez said officials are figuring out how to make the Nov. 2 election go more smoothly, including retraining the coordinators who oversee polling sites. He said it would be too costly — $3 million — to retrain poll workers.

Officials said they could not gauge how many people might have been deterred from voting because of the problems.