The U.S. Justice Department is joining in on a lawsuit accusing the city Board of Elections of breaking the law when it purged almost 120,000 voters in Brooklyn from the rolls ahead of the April 2016 presidential primary. The DOJ filed a motion to intervene yesterday in a federal lawsuit brought last year by the good-government group Common Cause.

In their filing, the feds accuse the BOE of repeated violations of portions of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 governing voter list maintenance. Justice Department lawyers lay out the chronology of alleged missteps, saying that the trouble began when the BOE's chief clerk in Brooklyn, Diane Haslett-Rudiano, tried to initiate a list clean-up in response to a scathing Department of Investigation report. (The report showed that the voter rolls included 176 people who were dead, had been convicted of a felony, or had moved, among other issues.)

At Haslett-Rudiano's direction, in late 2013 or early 2014, BOE staff assembled a list of more than 122,000 voters who had not voted since the 2008 presidential election, and in mid-2015, began mailing them notices, according to the federal filing. In the process, they allegedly failed to check whether the people in question had died or moved away, as legally required, and flagged more than 4,100 voters who actually had voted since 2008. Around 4,500 voters spared themselves from being purged by responding to the mailed notices, but others were improperly removed from the rolls, the feds found.

The confusion was compounded by another series of errors. New York law requires county voter registration systems to sync with the state Board of Elections' database at least every 24 hours, but the New York City Elections Board failed to notify the state of its mass purge for at least six months, according to the DOJ. As a result, throughout 2015 and into early 2016, as the primaries took shape and became so contentious that New York's mattered to the outcome of the presidential nominations, purged voters who checked their registration status through the state's online database would have found themselves listed as active.

The problem only came to light on April 1st, when the state published its twice-annual voter enrollment statistics, showing that Kings County recorded the greatest drop in active voters of any county in the state. The presidential primary was April 19th, and by the time many voters found out they had been purged, it was too late to fix it. About 120,000 people voted by affidavit ballot in that election, and of those, election officials counted 31,000 towards the vote totals. (In 2008's contested primary, 26,242 affidavit ballots were included.)

Elections Board director Michael Ryan explained last year that many of the affidavit ballots that officials rejected were cast by voters unfamiliar with the state's closed primary system, who mistakenly believed that they were eligible to vote in the primary, but actually were not registered with the proper party, or any party.

Haslett-Rudiano and her deputy Betty Ann Canizio-Aquil were suspended without pay as the votes were being tallied, but not before a defensive BOE director Michael Ryan initially declared, "No one was disenfranchised" during the primary.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer and state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman took on their own investigations of the Brooklyn purges in the aftermath. Schneiderman issued a report in December outlining the many problems with the BOE's performance, and called the issues, "widespread, systemic, and unacceptable. Mayor Bill de Blasio has offered the BOE $20 million in funding if it cleans up its act. So far the BOE has not taken him up on that.

Board of Elections director Michael Ryan, center rear, and BOE commissioners at a post-primary meeting. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)

The board has long been a hotbed of incompetence and corruption, largely due to the way it's set up. Leaders of the city's five county boards are chosen by the Democratic and Republican machines, not based on their qualifications for overseeing elections, but as plum patronage posts. The City Council technically signs off on these appointments, but to oppose one would be to oppose the party bosses, so the Council acts as a rubber stamp, and from the commissioners down, election staffers are hired based not on what they can do, but who they know. Also, the statewide structure is bottom-up, meaning there is little standardization of record-keeping or other basic administrative practices from county to county, making each county board is its own quasi-independent fort of cronyism.

Today, Common Cause, which first sued the city BOE over its botched purge, released a report grading the state elections a D- when compared to the functioning of elections in states around the country.

"The fact is many of New York State's voting laws and procedures have gone unchanged since they were first passed in the 19th century," director Susan Lerner said in a statement. "As the progressive capital of the nation, New York should be leading—not following—the charge for modernizing and expanding voting rights."

The recent gutting of key provisions of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court means that "it is crucial that New York pass laws now that further empowers and protects citizens' right to vote," Lerner added.

The report praises Governor Andrew Cuomo's recent State of the State announcement that he supports legislation to implement early voting, register voters automatically, and allow same-day registration. Currently New York voters face some of the most extreme restrictions on registration, including a party change deadline more than six months before primaries.

The report calls on the state to follow the recommendations of a presidential commission on voting, including adopting electronic poll books, and allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register, so that their registration becomes active when they turn 18.

The BOE did not respond to a comment request, but declined to comment to other publications because the lawsuit is pending.

For the full report click here (Warning: PDF will download).