Even before the polls closed in New York’s primary, the city’s election board dismissed as groundless hundreds of complaints, many from people in Bernie Sanders’ hometown borough of Brooklyn who said they were unable to vote.
It wasn’t until days later, after both the state attorney general and the city comptroller launched separate investigations, that New York City’s Board of Elections began to appear to take the accusations seriously, as reports of irregularities began to surface throughout the city, including in Manhattan.
It suspended its chief clerk in Brooklyn without pay amid questions into whether she followed proper procedures in what was supposed to be a routine housecleaning of voter registration lists.
Between November and April, about 126,000 Brooklyn voters either were removed from voting lists or had their statuses changed to “inactive” -- ostensibly because they had moved, their mail was returned as undeliverable or they failed to vote in two federal elections and didn’t respond to letters.
So far, the board has yet to fully explain what might have gone wrong with that process.
To New Yorkers, news that people are unhappy with the Board of Election’s performance was hardly surprising. It has been a punching bag for years, castigated for errors such as polls opening late, broken voting machines and poll workers providing wrong information. A city probe three years ago found widespread abuses including poll workers who peeked at voters’ choices while they cast ballots and others who told voters to “vote down the line.”
“The people of New York City have lost confidence that the Board of Elections can effectively administer elections, and we intend to find out why the BOE is so consistently disorganized, chaotic and inefficient,” City Comptroller Scott Stringer said in announcing his audit of Tuesday’s election.
Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said his office had received more than 1,000 Election Day complaints about voting problems.
Initially, the city Board of Elections executive director, Michael Ryan, described the voter purge as routine.
And just hours before Thursday’s announcement of the suspension the Brooklyn elections chief, Ryan suggested that the complaints were mostly coming from Sanders supporters who misunderstood the state’s rules for voting in primaries.
“No one was disenfranchised,” Ryan told Fox 5 New York. “What we did see was a concerted effort by some folks to apparently protest New York’s closed primary process by showing up to vote when they weren’t registered to vote. We tracked down dozens who say they were disenfranchised and as it turns out they weren’t registered in the parties that they were trying to vote for.”
Some of the initial frustration over Tuesday’s election was based in New York’s rules for party primaries. Independents are barred from voting in either the Democratic or Republican contests and the deadline to switch parties passed unnoticed by many in October.
Nancy Fray, a Sanders supporter who lives in Manhattan, learned too late that she wouldn’t be able to cast her ballot, despite having switched her registration to Democrat in November.
“I’m not just upset. This is completely full-out fury!” she said.
Then, public radio station WNYC reported on Election Day that state statistics showed that the number of registered Democrats in Brooklyn had declined by more than 63,000 in the past five months.
Critics say the voter purge points to problems with voting in New York City and state that go beyond one election.
“Regardless of the outcome of any investigations of voter purges, the actual scandal is New York’s outdated and archaic voter registration laws,” said Neal Rosenstein, the government reform coordinator of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
NYPIRG is calling for reforms also backed by Stringer including Election Day registration and automatic registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles and other state agencies.