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Yesterday’s New York City Primary Had the Predictable Voting Headaches

Here Are 3 Solutions to the Problem

  • Jonathan Brater
September 14, 2018

Yesterday’s surprisingly high turnout in a state primary election was marred by voting problems in New York City. For residents of the Big Apple, this is not news. The same thing happened in the 2016 presidential primary. 

Longtime registered voters turning up to cast ballots two years ago in the presidential primaries found their names missing from the voter rolls. Many were victims of a large (and illegal) voter purge by the City Board of Elections concentrated in Brooklyn. New York’s primaries are “closed,” meaning that only registered Democrats can vote for Democratic candidates in a primary and only registered Republicans can vote for Republicans. Yet, choosing a party affiliation is akin to blood oath. To be eligible to cast a ballot in a primary, voters must select their party preference 12 months before a general election.  

With many competitive races this year, turnout was double that of 2014. But coping with more voters was not the problem. Many registered voters again reported their names missing from the rolls, including Dante de Blasio, the mayor’s son, and even a voting rights attorney at the ACLU.  

It doesn’t have to be this way. Here are three solutions to New York City’s election problems.

1. More Robust Protections Against Bad Voter Purges

There were many reports of voters arriving at the polls only to find their names missing from the rolls — even when they showed up to the same place where they had been voting for years. At my Brooklyn polling place, I had no trouble voting (although I checked and rechecked my registration status online with a frequency that bordered on the compulsive), another voter was filling out an affidavit ballot (New York’s version of the “provisional ballot” typically given to voters missing from the rolls) because his name was not on the list — even though he said his address had not changed and had been voting at this precinct for years. 

We don’t yet know why so many votes were mysteriously left off the rolls. But there’s a good chance it’s a result of overly aggressive voter purging. In an effort, to keep registration rolls accurate, election officials will delete voters who have been deemed ineligible to cast a ballot, such a someone who died or moved out of state. Yet, this routine housekeeping can easily become riddled with errors, compromising legitimate voters. 

Voter purges are a growing threat across the country, but New York City is one of the worst offenders. Two years ago, the City Board of Elections purged 200,000 voters in an illegal removal program. The Board agreed to change its policies after a lawsuit, but yesterday’s mishaps suggest much work remains. At minimum, election officials must provide better notice to voters who are purged and to the general public prior to voter list maintenance activities. Voters should not learn for the first time that their status has changed when they show up to cast ballots.  

2. End Longtime Advance Party Affiliation 

New York’s requirement that voters must have a party affiliation 12 months before a general election to vote in a primary is burdensome and unnecessarily restrictive. In yesterday’s primary, only voters who declared a party affiliation before October 2017 — more than a year before the November 2018 general election — were eligible to vote. This absurd policy does nothing but disenfranchise would-be voters. The deadline and closed primary system could also contribute to voter purge problems if, for example, a voter’s party affiliation is mistakenly changed on state records, which could prevent that person from being able to vote in a primary. 

3. Give Voters More Options for Casting Ballots

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which manages city-owned housing projects, sent notices to residents of 650 apartments near Coney Island to remain in their homes from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. for a routine lead inspection. Many immediately cried foul, thinking (not without good reason) that this could be a dirty trick meant to confuse people and stop them from going to the polls. These types of tactics are used from time to time, which is why Congress should pass the Deceptive Practices Act and the state Legislature should pass similar legislation.  

Ultimately, it turned out to be an accident — “We shouldn’t have scheduled appointments for Election Day,” a NYCHA spokesperson conceded. Nonetheless, the incident shines a spotlight on another problem in New York — the limited opportunities for voting.  

New York lacks two practices that are widely used in other states. New York remains one of the few states in which all ballots are cast on Election Day. Many states have early voting, meaning a voter can cast a ballot sometimes weeks before Election Day. Not only is this option convenient for many voters but it also reduces the crush of having all ballots submitted in a single 15-hour period on a single day. 

What would also help is “no-excuse absentee” voting. A majority of states allow any voter to request an absentee ballot, no questions asked. In New York City, a voter must fill out an eight-question form explaining why they’re requesting an absentee ballot. 

It’s long past time for New York to fix its election problems. 

(Image: Drew Angerer/Getty)