Voters have for weeks flooded the New York State Board of Elections with hundreds of complaints over their registration status, many of them charging at the state has wrongfully deprived them of the right to participate in Tuesday's presidential primary.
Most of those grievances are coming from voters who have lost track of their registration details in the years since their party's last primary or who missed the deadline to have their affiliation changed, a Board of Elections spokesperson told Gothamist earlier this month. He said that his office has yet to find a single example of an "inappropriate change of a voter's record."
But more than 200 voters have signed onto an emergency lawsuit against the state — a majority of them Democrats — saying that their voter registration was inaccurately changed, never updated, or had disappeared altogether. Election Justice USA, a new voter suppression watchdog, filed the lawsuit on behalf of New York voters on Tuesday morning just before the polls opened.
At issue, in part, is New York's closed primary system. Only registered Democrats and Republicans may vote in their respective party's presidential primary. Any independents or unaffiliated New Yorkers who wish to vote in the party's primary are out of luck; the deadline to change their party registration was back on October 9, the earliest such deadline in the country.
But hundreds of voters who insist they switched parties on time, and brand new voters who had until March 25 to register, say in notarized affidavits accompanying the Election Justice USA lawsuit that their registration forms were either entered incorrectly or are missing. Other voters who said that they were previously registered as Democrats when they voted in past New York state elections allege that their registrations now mysteriously show them as Republicans or without any affiliation.
Leonard Joseph Campanello, one of the complainants, said that he registered to vote as a Democrat in 2009, but recently learned from the Board of Elections that he is now registered as a Republican. The Suffolk County Board of Elections sent him a copy of a party registration change form that he says he did not fill out, but bears "an identical, pixel-by-pixel copy of the electronic signature" on his driver's license.
Lisa Beattie, another party to the lawsuit, said in a sworn affidavit that she registered to vote as a Democrat in New York in 1989 but discovered just last week that online records showed that she was no longer registered to vote. Beattie said that the Onondaga County Board of Elections told her that her registration had been inadvertently combined with the registration for a Lisa Davison who resides in the same county and shares her birth date. Although the Board of Elections was able to update her file, she will have to vote provisionally on Tuesday because the changes won't take effect in time.
The lawsuit also cites a WYNC report that found that more than 63,000 registered Democrats in Brooklyn, or 7 percent, were removed from the voter rolls since November of last year — the largest drop in any New York county. The public radio station updated that account on Tuesday after the lawsuit was filed, saying that the number is actually twice that.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called for an investigation into the Brooklyn voter purge on Tuesday.
Michael Ryan, executive director of the New York City Board of Elections, told WYNC and the mayor's office that what appeared to be a massive voter purge was actually "maintenance," saying that the Brooklyn voter rolls were long out of date and that the voters who were dropped had either moved, become inactive, or were inactive for so long that they were removed from the voter rolls entirely.
The New York State Board of Elections did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer later announced on Tuesday that his office will conduct an audit of the city Board of Elections in response to "widespread reports" of voter disenfranchisement, voters being purged from the rolls, polling locations that were not open during voting hours, and other alleged irregularities during the day's primaries.
"There is nothing more sacred in our nation than the right to vote, yet election after election, reports come in of people who were inexplicably purged from the polls, told to vote at the wrong location or unable to get in to their polling site," Stringer said in a statement. "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."
The New York State Attorney General's Office is operating a hotline for voters to report any irregularities or problems.
Election Justice USA is asking in its lawsuit that the state allow all voters who otherwise comply with New York election laws to cast their ballots on Tuesday. Rather than forcing the voters to prove their eligibility, the group argues, the courts should put the onus on state and county elections offices to contest those ballots after the fact.
A judge did not grant an emergency injunction in the case on Tuesday but will set a later hearing date, the group said on their Facebook page.
In the meantime, Election Justice USA is encouraging voters to cast provisional ballots before the polls close in New York at 9pm ET. Provisional ballots allow individuals to cast their votes, but they must be approved by elections workers before they can be counted.
That could be a major issue in the state's critical primaries. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are both expected to win their home state on Tuesday, but Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich are looking to keep their margins of victory as low as possible in the delegate-rich state.
Election Justice USA was formed just the last month by activists infuriated by alleged voter suppression in Arizona. The campaigns for both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, as well as the national Democratic party and other Democratic groups and candidates, have filed their own lawsuit to improve voting in Arizona before the November election.
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Update: This story was updated at 8:55pm with the news that New York City Comptroller Stringer is launching an investigation into election irregularities in the city.