By: Michael A. Villacrés
In April 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders was closely chasing Hillary Clinton in the delegate race to capture the Democratic presidential nomination. The Sanders campaign staged outdoor rallies and made campaign stops across New York City in an ambitious bid to upset Clinton on her home turf. Sanders was hoping that increased voter turnout from young people across the city, especially in Brooklyn, his former childhood home, would provide enough votes to counter Clinton’s strength among minority voters. As it turned out, Clinton won handily 57% to 42%.
However, many voters across Brooklyn were left frustrated and upset about their experience at the polls. Many discovered that their names were not on the voter rolls. The day before the primary WNYC reported that the number of active registered Democrats in Brooklyn had mysteriously dropped by over 60,000 between November 2015 and April 2016. The Board of Elections later confirmed that over 125,000 Democratic voters in Brooklyn had been purged from the rolls during that time. On the day of the primary the Office of Comptroller of New York City announced that it would audit the Board to determine if it improperly removed the voters. The next day, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman also announced an investigation into New York City’s Board of Elections after his office received over 1,000 complaints of voting irregularities. An analysis by WNYC a few months later revealed that the Board disproportionately targeted Hispanic voters primarily within the boundaries of New York’s Seventh Congressional District.
The executive director of the Board stated that people who moved out of Brooklyn, did not respond to the Board’s mailers requesting updated information, had not voted in the last two federal elections, or were convicted of a felony were removed from the list. New York Election Law gives the Board of Elections authority to cancel a voter’s registration for various reasons including: moving residences outside the county, felony conviction, death, not voting in the last two federal elections, or a personal request to be removed from the registration list. Before cancelling a voter’s registration, the Board is required to send written notification to the voter advising that it will cancel his or her registration in fourteen days if there is no response. Section 5-213 also provides that a voter can be designated as “inactive” when the Board of Elections sends a confirmation notice. The Board then has the authority to remove registration poll records of inactive voters from the poll ledgers.
In May the Board of Elections apologized for the purge.
In response to the scandal, in November 2016, Common Cause New York filed suit against the New York City Board of Elections in the Eastern District of New York alleging that New York election law is in violation of section 8(d) of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). The complaint states that New York voters are improperly designated as “inactive” and purged from the poll books even though they are still eligible to vote. Common Cause is seeking restoration of the purged voters to the registration list. The following January, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would join the suit on behalf of Common Cause while further alleging that there are ongoing problems with the Board of Election’s oversight of voter list maintenance procedures. This case is still ongoing. And more recently in September 2017, Common Cause filed another complaint against the Board of Elections in the Southern District of New York listing the same allegations. The complaints also ask the court to impose a court-approved plan with mandatory reporting and monitoring requirements to ensure future compliance with the NVRA.
If the courts rule in favor of Common Cause, the ruling will restore the purged voters to the registration list. However, in July 2016, the Board announced that it reinstated the purged Brooklyn voters. Before this reinstatement many of purged voters may have already taken independent action to restore their status to “active”, so it is not clear a court order will change anything at all with respect to the affected voters. More importantly, a decision to impose monitoring and reporting requirements could be effective in putting an end to improper voter purges in the future.
But legal victories here will only ensure state compliance with existing law. The bigger problem is that New York has some of the most restrictive election laws in the country. To fix that, legislative action will be necessary and there have been some positive developments in that direction. As a result of the Attorney General’s investigation into the complaints of voting irregularities during the primary, in December 2016 Schneiderman announced that his office would introduce a comprehensive voting rights bill to modernize New York’s election law. The next post will take a closer look at the proposed legislation.