Jurisprudence

Why Voting in New York Is So Horrifically Screwed Up

Blame a dysfunctional state government, technophobia, and illegal purges.

A voter enters a Brooklyn polling station on Thursday to vote in New York state’s primary election. The signs saying "vote here" are listed in English, Spanish, and Japanese.
A voter enters a Brooklyn polling station on Thursday to vote in New York state’s primary election.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Did you show up to vote in New York’s primary on Thursday only to be told you were mysteriously missing from the rolls? You’re not alone. Throughout the day, New Yorkers reported on Twitter that they were forced to cast provisional ballots because their names weren’t on the books at their normal polling places. In an era of widespread voter suppression, it’s impossible not to wonder: Have New York’s voters been intentionally disenfranchised?

The short answer is yes—but it’s not the kind of naked assault on suffrage that we’re used to seeing in the South. Rather, New York suppresses the franchise through inertia and bureaucratic incompetence that state legislators in both parties (but mostly Republicans) refuse to fix. The system is designed to maximize errors and confusion, which often collide on Election Day to frustrate qualified voters. If you are one of those unlucky individuals, you can probably still make your vote count. It might just require a herculean effort.

As HuffPost’s Sam Levine recently explained, the fundamental flaw in New York’s voting system is patronage-fueled gridlock. Each county board of elections, as well as the state board of elections, has four commissioners—two Democrats and two Republicans. These county boards, which set voting procedures for each individual county’s elections, are selected for their political loyalty, not their competence. Commissioners often fear that any changes to voting procedures will favor the other party, so they stymie proposed reforms. This scheme was created in 1894, and it’s a major reason why elections in the state remain so dysfunctional.

Another problem: New York’s voting procedures are startlingly technophobic. Under federal law, the state is obligated to maintain an electronic database of registered voters. Many other states transmit this information to poll workers in the form of electronic poll books. In New York, election officials send the information to a printer, which produces a paper-based book that must be searched manually. Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York and an expert on the state’s voting laws, told me that information may be “lost in translation” on the journey from “electronic database to a paper-based book.” Your registration may also have been entered into the system incorrectly, since “it’s humans who are entering the information” and “human systems are imperfect.”

In addition to these technological and political problems, the state has also illegally targeted voters for mass purges. Common Cause New York sued the state board of elections in 2016 for unlawfully purging about 120,000 Brooklyn voters, a disproportionate number of whom were Hispanic. (Further investigation revealed that the board had illegally purged 200,000 voters since 2014.) Eventually, the board admitted that it broke the law and agreed to adopt remedial measures to prevent a repetition of the chaotic 2016 primary.

Given the tumult on Thursday, however, it’s unclear if this settlement really resolved much. Lerner told me she was “expecting fewer problems with people removed from the rolls” as a result of the Common Cause lawsuit, but that as she monitored the situation, it felt like nothing had changed. The root cause of these issues won’t be clear, though, unless there’s a post-election investigation.

One major obstacle to fixing these recurring issues is the legislature’s refusal to pass a suite of reforms known as the New York Votes Act. Ideally, the state would pass automatic voter registration, which registers residents who interact with government agencies unless they opt out. It could also enact same-day registration as well as portable registration, which ensures that a voter stays registered when she moves within the state. At a minimum, New York could catch up with most of the rest of the country and implement early voting, as well as no-excuse absentee voting. (Right now, voters cannot get an absentee ballot unless they provide a good reason why they can’t go the polls on Election Day.)

Instead, the legislature has done nothing. Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo purports to support these reforms, but he has declined to fight for them in Albany. Without his vigorous backing, activists say they will never be able to push any legislation through. (To his credit, the governor did launch online voter registration and restored voting rights to some formerly incarcerated citizens.)

In the meantime, if you are one of the many active, registered New York voters who showed up to your polling place on Thursday only to be told that you are not on the rolls, what should you do?

The first step is to ask for the poll worker to check again; she may have simply missed your name when poring over the books. If that doesn’t work, you have two options. First, you can fill out a provisional ballot, called an “affidavit ballot” in New York. If election officials later determine that you were removed from the rolls in error, your vote will be counted. If they determine that you were not properly registered, the affidavit ballot will serve as your registration form, and you will be registered for the next election.

Second, you can go to the county board of elections (in New York City, there’s one in each borough) and demand to see an election judge. You must tell the judge why you believe you’re entitled to vote—because, for instance, you’ve always voted in this location; you haven’t moved; you voted in June’s congressional primary, and you’re certain you should be in the voter book. The judge can then order that you be allowed to cast a regular ballot, which will be counted. Lerner told me that it doesn’t typically take very long to get before a judge, and once you do, “the probability that you will cast a regular ballot is high.” But it may be a schlep to trek down to the board on a weekday.

Experts at the national election hotline 1-866-OUR-VOTE are available all day to walk voters through these steps. But there is one important caveat here: Because New York lacks same-day registration, new voters had to register by Aug. 19, 2018, or mail in their forms by that date if they didn’t register in person. Previously registered voters who recently moved had to notify the state of their new addresses by Aug. 24, 2018. (The New York state Constitution provides for a more generous registration cutoff of 10 days before an election, but election officials need more time than that because they have to print out the poll books.)

If you’re frustrated with these roadblocks, you could vote out the lawmakers who allow them to remain in place. But you can’t do that if you’re not allowed to vote. That vicious circle is exactly how New York’s awful system has resisted reform all these years. It is a neat illustration of a bug in American democracy: The more a state disenfranchises its residents, the harder it becomes to fight back.