By Michael Sainato
On October 24, the New York City Board of Elections finally admitted it broke the law by purging 117,000 voters off voter rolls in Brooklyn shortly before the 2016 Presidential Primary. The admittance came one year after a lawsuit was filed against the board for violating national and state election laws. As part of the settlement, the purged voters are to be restored to voter rolls, the board has 90 days to come up with a plan to prevent future purges and be subjected to regular audits and reports.
“The right to vote is sacred to our democracy. Yet the NYC Board of Elections illegally purged over 200,000 New Yorkers from the rolls, violating the law and New Yorkers’ trust in the institutions meant to protect their rights,” New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement. “This proposed settlement would overhaul NYCBOE’s practices for maintaining voter rolls, ensuring that the issues that led to the purges are addressed, and establishing frequent monitoring and oversight. My office will continue to protect all voters’ access to the polls and continue to fight to expand voting rights.”
In December 2016, Schneiderman proposed a series of election reforms in response to his office’s investigation of complaints from the 2016 New York Primary. “The voting issues we uncovered during the April primary were widespread, systemic and unacceptable,” he said in the press release. “The right to vote is the right that protects all other rights. New York must become a national leader by protecting and expanding voting rights throughout the state.” Those reforms proposed by Schneiderman and pushed for by several progressive organizations have been widely ignored by Democrats in New York.
Despite New York serving as a Democratic Party stronghold, the state’s primary elections are one of the most undemocratic in the country and 2016 served as a prime example of why. The New York Democratic primary had the second lowest voter turnout (19.7 percent) of all Democratic primaries, behind Louisiana. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign helped bring thousands of Independent voters into the Democratic Party, but New York holds closed primaries, and the New York Attorney General’s office noted that many voters were unable to vote in the primaries because their registrations were not properly processed in time for the deadline. In New York, voters are required to register as Democrats six months before a primary to be eligible to vote in it, one of the longest time constraints on voter registration in the United States. Hillary Clinton defeated Sanders in the New York Democratic Primary, 57.9 percent to 42.1 percent, a victory that halted Sanders’ surge after he had won the last 7 of 8 primary contests.
Schneiderman proposed automatic voter registration, offering same-day registration for voters, online voter registration, restore voting rights to parolees, and develop a system of early voting. The low voter turnout in the New York Democratic Primary was a symptom of an election system in New York designed to deter democracy through voter suppression. In New York City, voters were provided only one day to vote during the week, in the most populated city in the United States. New York should serve as an example to the rest of the country in how elections should be held to expand and promote democracy rather than constrict it.