Over Three Million New Yorkers Can’t Vote
Shyla Nelson of Election Justice USA says voters are awaiting a decision in the lawsuit demanding an open New York primary, while Ari Berman of the Nation says New York’s voting laws are some of the most restrictive in the country
SHARMINI PERIES: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. As candidates make their final push in New York today ahead of the Presidential primary, 3.2 million registered New Yorkers will not be able to vote. The New York restrictive voting laws hurt voters across the political spectrum, but could have a particularly chilling effect on younger Bernie Sanders supporters. 37% of voters under the age of 30, that is Sanders’ core group of supporters, aren’t registered to a political party in New York. For them, the voter registration deadline for the primary is the earliest in the entire country. It closed on October 9th, depriving many New Yorkers who missed the deadline, namely younger voters. Some of these voters say their party affiliation was changed without their knowledge. They filed an emergency lawsuit on Monday morning, seeking to open the primary so they can cast their ballots. Ari Berman is a Senior Contributing Writer for The Nation Magazine. His latest book is titled “Give Us the Ballot: the Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.” And he recently wrote an article in The Nation Magazine entitled “27% of New York’s Registered Voters Won’t Be Able to Vote in the State’s Primary.” Also joining us now is Shyla Nelson. She’s the spokesperson for Election Justice USA, the group that is filing the lawsuit, and she’s also an international environmental and human rights activist and a preforming artist. Thank you both for joining us.
ARI BERMAN and SHYLA NELSON: Thank you.
PERIES: So, Shyla, let me begin with you. Give us some background on the lawsuit and how voter party affiliations switched. How was that happening–which is rather crucial for today’s vote.
NELSON: Well isn’t that the essential question–how is it possible that this voter affiliation, party affiliation switch has happened? We do not have the answer to how. We do know that it has happened. And the lawsuit which Election Justice USA filed yesterday on behalf of two primary classes of plaintiffs in New York are asking for declaratory judgment that would enable those voters who have been erroneously purged from the voter roles to be re-instated as voters today. And those who were registered as registered Democrats who discovered unpleasantly very recently that their party affiliation had been switched to not affiliated with a party, which prevents them from voting today.
PERIES: Which actually makes them independent.
NELSON: That is exactly right. That is exactly right. We’re asking for declaratory judgment that would enable those voters to vote. We’re asking also, and we recognize this is a major request, that the primary itself in this emergency situation be declared an open primary, which would solve the problems for many of the voters for whom this would be a problem.
PERIES: Now if they’re declared independents, they’re not able to vote in the Democratic or Republican races.
NELSON: As it stands, yes.
PERIES: Is there any chance that this will be a remedy and some decision will be made in time for tonight’s counting of the ballots?
NELSON: The hearing is on as we speak and we might even get some decision during the course of our interview.
PERIES: That’s good to hear. And Ari, in your article you wrote that New York has some of the worst voting laws in the country. Why is that?
BERMAN: Well, I think the problem in New York is that both parties are accepting of the status quo. That incumbents of both parties want to keep the system as it is. So while many other states have passed new reforms–things like early voting and same-day voter registration and automatic registration–New York has not kept up with that trend. So unlike 37 states, we have no early voting. Unlike 15 states, we have no election-day voter registration. We have excuse-only absentee ballots. So our election system is something out of the 1960s or 1970s, or maybe the 1860s or 1870s, as opposed to something that really has kept up with the way people vote and live today.
PERIES: Now Ari, do you think that this is outright voter suppression or voters just need to be better informed about election rules?
BERMAN: No, I think it’s more like voter inertia. I don’t think that people in New York are actively suppressing the vote, but I don’t think they’re actively encouraging people to vote either. And when you don’t have things like early voting or election day registration, then you have a deadline to switch parties that’s all the way back in October, when no one even thought about the New York Primary, and you have a deadline to register in March, when no one had even campaigned in New York, it’s very problematic. So I don’t think that officials at the board of elections are ill-intentioned, but I think the political leadership in this state wants to preserve the status quo, and is not taking affirmative steps to make it easier for more people to participate.
PERIES: And if there is lower voter turnout, does that favor any one of the candidates?
BERMAN: Well I think it–what the thing is, it’s not designed to favor another presidential candidate over another. It’s designed to favor incumbents in both parties. And that’s really what the political establishment in New York is concerned about. They’re concerned with preserving their own power. So in terms of the cut-off and in terms of the closed primary, that is more likely to hurt Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, but I don’t think it’s really going to hurt one candidate so much that they’d lose the state, I think it’s more that New York is consistently among the lowest states in voter turnout and the same thing is likely to happen in November if the laws aren’t changed.
PERIES: And it’s not really voter turnout, in this particular case. It’s [inaud] show up at the ballot box but not be allowed to vote because you’re registered for the wrong party.
BERMAN: Well there’s that too. So I mean in the primary the problem is that people can’t even vote and they have no mechanism to vote. So other states have closed primaries for example, but they have much more reasonable registration deadlines, or they have election day registration so people can show up and if they’re not registered with the Democratic or Republican party, they can register and vote if they want to. In New York, we don’t make it easy to do that at all. And then if you look at a general election, turnout is very low in New York because we have very few competitive races and comments are really challenged. And also we don’t have laws that encourage participation.
PERIES: And Shyla, if you don’t get a decision on this today, and I hope you do, but if you don’t what are the plans for pursuing this?
NELSON: We are in the process of determining that as we speak. Obviously this is a developing situation and one, which is really a little bit difficult to predict. We will go ahead and file in Brooklyn tomorrow if it turns out that we don’t get the decision today. We are getting reports every hour still from disenfranchised voters who either didn’t check until today or checked very recently and are submitting their reports to us. So this is still very much a developing situation for us.
PERIES: And how did you get wind of this situation to file the case?
NELSON: Election Justice USA came together somewhat spontaneously in the wake of the Maricopa County and Arizona primary crisis. And as we began to develop a strategy working to see how we might address retroactively what had happened in Arizona, we then began to really think more holistically about the nation as a whole. We are I think, all of us, very much aware that problems have arisen in other states as well. And of course look out on the horizon with a storm brewing in New York and began to set our sights on what we could do to at least provide some immediate injunctive relief for those voters in New York who seem to be effected by systemic problems. So we began that process just about 2, about 10 days ago. We have been working literally around the clock, a team of 7-10 people. Literally not stopping for much of a breath to send out calls to voters, to submit their reports, their stories, many of which are just heartbreaking stories and to gather as much evidence as we can and to be prepared to file. 2000 pages of affidavit evidence and documentation were filed yesterday.
PERIES: Now, I understand that the mayor of New York, de Blasio, had gotten involved in this lawsuit. What’s his position on all of this?
NELSON: He’s not involved in the lawsuit per-say, but he is asking the same question that we are asking, which is how is this possible. He was specifically curious as to how 63,500 registered voters in Brooklyn alone could have been dropped from the roles since November of last year. And has been quite forthright in asking the board of election for decisive answers as to exactly what has happened.
PERIES: And is there any possibility that just as absentee ballots are counted and included after the fact, in fact after they declare the winners, is there any way of including the voters that have been disenfranchised in this process to be included in that process?
NELSON: That is our hope. And one of the things that we are also asking in our lawsuit is that provisional or affidavit ballots, as they are sometimes called in New York, be counted as part of the actual count from today’s primary.
PERIES: Alright, Shyla and Ari, thank you so much for joining us today and we’ll be keeping an eye on this and hope you come to some resolution very soon.
NELSON: Thank you.
BERMAN: Thank you.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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