PULLING THE RED LEVER TO THE RIGHT, ONE LAST TIME

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They looked like vertical metallic coffins, more than 2,200 voting machines lined up in rows in a Red Hook warehouse on the last Wednesday before Election Day.
After 100 million voters yanked the machine’s distinctive red lever, the relic-in-waiting stood ready for what could be their final tour of duty in service to democracy—a tour that began when Robert Wagner Jr. was mayor in 1962.
“Name something that lasts for more than 46 years,” said John O’Grady, chief voting machine technician for the New York City Board of Elections.
The deal comes to an end on Tuesday, Nov. 4. This Election Day is likely the last time New Yorkers will cast votes using the city’s aging fleet of pull-lever machines.
New York is the only state in the nation that still has yet to update its machines in compliance with the federal law born of the disputed 2000 presidential election. What is in store for voters next year remains uncertain.
And so these pull-lever voting machines, formally called the Shoup 3.2 Mechanicals, will probably retire after Nov. 4. But they are going out with a bang as New Yorkers are turning out to vote in record numbers. O’Grady is confident in the machines’ ability to handle the anticipated increase in traffic. The machines underwent a thorough preventive maintenance program three months before the election.
“We check and test every machine before they go out,” O’Grady said.
That means checking about 20,000 parts in each machine, working in a highly complicated grid, programmed by a team that knows them well.At the back of the dusty Red Hook warehouse, a senior technician, 41-year-old Richard Kanar, picked up a few discarded parts scattered along the floor. Like reading a laundry list, he named the minute parts of the machine that ensures the votes are recorded fairly and accurately: “This is a handle. That’s a thick. That’s a three-strap.”
Proper maintenance requires 85 technicians to get the machines ready for Election Day. The machines themselves are only one part of an intricate system that includes serial numbers, keys, police envelopes, protective counter numbers and signed seals, all assigned to specific election districts.
“Sometimes I feel the world’s on my shoulders,” O’Grady said as he lit another cigarette. “If anything goes wrong in New York City, basically it’s front-page news.”
O’Grady oversees the massive task of preparing more than 7,700 voting machines citywide and then trucking all the equipment—besides the machines, there are 34,000 chairs and 6,000 tables—to some 1,300 polling sites.
They had four days to move everything to the polling sites, and O’Grady was feeling the pressure.
“I can’t change Election Day,” he said.

Senior technician James Parks called the voter machines he has maintained for seven years his babies. Photo by: Sandra Roa

Senior technician James Parks called the voter machines he has maintained for seven years his "babies." Photo by: Sandra Roa

More than a dozen workers pushed the first group of machines toward the loading dock, and the machines rattled as they rolled onto the back of the truck. Most of the team members see each other more than their own families during the busy election season, O’Grady said. He and his staff have been working since July to prepare, and have worked many 12-hour days since Oct. 9.
“The last mechanical machine is going to crush me before it goes into storage,” he said with a wry smile and a laugh.
Nearby, Yolanda Bentley, another senior technician, carefully copied a series of numbers from yellow police envelopes and wrote them onto “long sheets,” or logs. Each police envelope contains a key to a voting machine.
Each machine is assigned to one election district, and there dozens of election districts at each polling site, said Bentley, 42, who lives in East New York and has worked for the elections board for seven years. The law requires an additional voting machine for an election district with more than 800 people, she said.
Surrounded by piles of envelopes, she marked some of them in red to remind poll workers to use the correct key to lock the machines when the polls close. If they use the wrong key, it will break in the machines, which causes delays on election night, she said.
Bentley said she was going to miss the lever machines, but that the most important thing on her mind was to get the machines out to the polling places in time for the election.
“Main thing is to get everything out and in order,” Bentley said. “It’s history and we’re a part of it.”

View more pictures and video of this story and other local election news at http://www.nycitynewsservice.com/2008/11/03/final-curtain-for-old-voting-booths/.

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