By Edith Honan and Francesca Trianni
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New Yorkers were voting on Tuesday for a candidate to succeed Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a primary election that began with complaints that bulky 1960s-era mechanical voting machines had broken down, forcing people to use emergency ballots.
In a campaign that featured a scandal over lewd pictures, a council leader trying to become the city's first female and openly gay mayor, and grave warnings about public safety, it was the voting machines that were the issue on election morning.
Bill de Blasio, the city's public advocate, was leading the Democratic race with opinion polls showing him close to the 40 percent threshold needed to avoid a run-off, set for October 1 if necessary. His main rivals, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and 2009 Democratic candidate Bill Thompson, are competing for second place.
The Democratic candidate will be heavily favored against any Republican in the November 5 general election to become Mayor of the most populous city in the United States with 8.3 million people for the next four years.
Polls opened at 6 a.m. EDT and were due to close at 9 p.m. EDT, but problems soon emerged. The Board of Elections was attempting to replace or repair voting machines and providing emergency ballots.
"In any instance where a machine is not functioning, a voter would never be disenfranchised and would always have an opportunity to cast their ballot, even if it's in the form of an emergency ballot," said Board spokeswoman Valerie Vazquez-Rivera.
She said that the last time the lever machines were used, in 2009, there was a 4.3 percent failure rate. An accurate assessment of their failure rate in this election would not be available until after voting concluded, she said.
New York's mechanical voting machines were retired after the 2009 election in favor an electronic system using optical scanners to read paper ballots.
The state government, however, approved bringing the old machines back for this primary election after the new system caused delays in the vote count in 2012.
Turnout is expected to be low in both Democratic Party and Republican Party primaries. One New Yorker, Zachary Werner, 28, said he had volunteered for national campaigns but did not plan to vote on Tuesday.
"The stakes are not as high," Werner said, describing the race as Democrats battling it out amongst themselves.
"ARE YOU KIDDING?"
Republican candidate for mayor Joe Lhota was forced to use an emergency ballot when the lever machine broke at his polling station in the borough of Brooklyn.
"We're going back to paper ballot? Are you kidding?" Lhota said before handing out cookies to poll workers.
Lhota, the former head of the city's mass transit agency, is facing grocery chain billionaire businessman John Catsimatidis in the Republican primary.
At another Brooklyn polling place, an early voter was greeted by a poll worker who eagerly asked, "Are you here to fix the machines?"
One voter said she was concerned the results of the primary would be delayed because of the machine problems.
"I would like to see the results tonight and I know that it will delay things and that's unfortunate," said Cindry McDonald, 30, a labor union worker who voted by paper ballot in Brooklyn.
Two polls on Monday showed de Blasio with a comfortable lead. A Quinnipiac poll put his support at 39 percent, while in an NBC 4 New York/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll, he was the choice of 36 percent of likely voters.
"We expect a runoff, we're ready for a runoff, and we've been planning all along for it," de Blasio told reporters when he voted.
Underlining his central campaign theme, de Blasio criticized three-term Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
"The mayor has been increasingly unwilling to address inequality and that is the central issue of our times. I made inequality the core issue and I think people responded to it."
Just ahead of Tuesday's primary election, New York magazine published an interview with Bloomberg in which he effectively threw his support behind his close ally, council speaker Quinn.
Bloomberg criticized de Blasio for his campaign's emphasis on economic inequality. But he took particular issue with the prominent role de Blasio's mixed-race family has played in the campaign, suggesting the strategy was meant to fuel "class warfare" and was potentially "racist."
In the same arena, former Congressman Anthony Weiner is fighting for his political life, trailing in fourth place in most polls.
Weiner resigned from Congress in 2011 after admitting that he had sent lewd pictures of himself to women he met online and then lied about it.
When he announced his candidacy for mayor, he asked voters to give him a second chance, and he quickly moved to the top of polls. But campaign issues like police tactics and housing were overshadowed by another scandal involving lewd photographs he sent online, and his campaign collapsed.
(Additional reporting by Hilary Russ; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Grant McCool)