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My Voting Struggle: Two Hours in New York City

Even though I was registered, I had to fight for my right to vote in the recent primary. Voters should not have to jump through hoops to exercise a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution.

  • Jonathan Backer
July 12, 2012

During New York’s June federal primary, I became personally aware of the enormous barriers that exist for many Americans to cast their votes. When I went to vote, a poll worker informed me that my name did not appear in the voting book. I had my registration card with me, but she said that I still could not vote if my name did not appear in the book.

The poll worker offered me a provisional ballot, but I insisted that I wanted to ensure that my vote would count. She then offered to write an order allowing me to appear before a trial court judge to prove my eligibility, something she said she had never done in five years as a poll worker.

At the New York City Board of Elections, the staff looked up my information and said I was not affiliated with a political party. Since New York has closed primaries, this explained why I did not appear in the voting book. But I remembered very clearly registering as a Democrat. I asked the staff to print out a copy of my original voter registration form, which showed that I had crossed out my selection of a minor party before settling on the Democratic Party. This happened because the volunteer with whom I registered reminded me about New York’s closed primary rules. Wanting to vote in primaries, I had asked the volunteer if I should fill out a new registration form, but she said that crossing out my original choice and initialing the change would suffice. The Board of Elections said this invalidated my party selection and informed me I would be unable to vote.

I refused to accept this and said my intent was perfectly clear on the form. The Board of Elections staff said my intent did not matter. At this point, I demanded to appear before a judge.

One of the employees took me across the hall to the trial court. There, a judge, two clerks, and a stenographer sat in a room and appeared to be very excited for the arrival of a petitioner (as it turned out, I was the third case of the entire Election Day). The Board of Elections employee explained his position and said I should not be permitted to vote. The judge said, “Well, how about this? That may have been the case, but we’re going to fix that right now.” She then asked me to explain my side of the story and asked if it was my intent to register as a member of the Democratic Party. I said it was, and she issued an order allowing me to change my registration and to vote.

This was an eye-opening experience for me. Democracy is truly a beautiful thing if one has the means, time, knowledge, and assertiveness to ensure one’s ability to participate in it. There were so many points during my experience where an average voter might have gotten frustrated and given up, lacked the time or knowledge to advance his or her cause, or accepted someone else’s claim that there was no remedy for the situation. I only got to vote on that day because I happen to work at a voting rights organization and had dozens of advantages the average voter lacks. The fact that my polling site had not issued an order for an appearance before a judge and that the judge had seen only two other petitioners demonstrates just how rare it is for voters to successfully dispute being turned away from the polls.

And today, more than at any time in recent history, barriers abound that could result in eligible voters being denied their rights. The proliferation of voter ID laws, ill-conceived voter purges, and other potentially vote suppressing laws drastically increase the likelihood that voters will mistakenly be turned away from the polls. Without any of those factors present, I needed to invest two hours of my time to participate in the election. At every step of the way, I had to decide whether it was worth the time, energy, stress, and frustration. Voters should not have to engage in a cost-benefit analysis to exercise a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution, but countless numbers do during every election. It’s not right, it’s not fair, and it’s not just.