Voters will soon have a reason to cast their ballots with a little more confidence in New York.
Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a bill last week that will prevent affidavit ballots cast at the wrong location from being immediately tossed out by elections officials – a rule that’s triggered nearly two decades of voter disenfranchisement across the state.
That policy, referred to as “wrong church,” has led to thousands of voters unwittingly losing their vote when they cast a ballot at the wrong poll site, even if it’s in the right county. Data shows voters in New York City are among the hardest hit.
Proponents say the new law will ensure that voters don’t see their ballots tossed on a technicality. Under the law, a vote will count so long as the voter casts it in the correct county.
“You don’t walk into a Starbucks and they say, ‘Sorry, you can’t get coffee here. Yes, we serve coffee here, but this is not your Starbucks. You have to go to a different Starbucks,’” said Jarret Berg, co-founder of VoteEarlyNY, a nonpartisan nonprofit that has been leading advocacy on this issue. “Running our elections that way is just counter to our lived experience with every other transaction.”
After the 2020 general election, Berg’s group issued a report analyzing election data from across the state. It showed 13,800 ballots were disqualified because of the “wrong church” rule. The vast majority of the invalidated ballots were cast in New York City, for a total of 9,481 ballots invalidated because the voter was at the wrong poll site, according to the report.
Included in the report was a ranking of the top 20 Assembly districts with the most invalidated ballots under the “wrong church” rule. All five boroughs made the list, but districts in the Bronx and Queens held the top spots. The second highest in Queens was Assembly District 23, where incumbent Democrat Stacey Pheffer Amato currently holds a single vote lead over her Republican opponent Tom Sullivan, with ongoing court challenges in the race. In 2020, VoteEarlyNY tallied 215 votes that were disqualified in this district because of the “wrong church” rule.
You don’t walk into a Starbucks and they say, ‘Sorry, you can’t get coffee here. Yes, we serve coffee here, but this is not your Starbucks.
The bill signed by Hochul this month ultimately had 60 co-sponsors in the Assembly. Pheffer Amato was not one of them. She did vote in favor of the bill, which does not take effect until 2023 and would not have had any direct impact on her current race.
The “wrong church” rule stems from another very close legislative race. In 2004, Democrat Andrea Stewart-Cousins, then a member of the Westchester County Board of Legislators, was challenging state Sen. Nicholas Spano. The count dragged on for weeks after the election as lawyers for both campaigns challenged the validity of certain ballots.
Affidavit ballots were a key issue. The Court of Appeals ruled that affidavit ballots cast at the right poll site but the wrong election district (i.e.: the wrong table) could still be counted. But ballots that were cast at the wrong poll site, even if it was in the correct county, needed to be disqualified. Stewart-Cousins lost that race by 18 votes, and the “wrong church” rule became the policy across the state.
Her lawyer was Henry Berger, an election attorney who later served as counsel to former Mayor Bill de Blasio. Berger said the new law striking down the “wrong church” rule is a significant improvement and will help ensure a significant portion of the currently disqualified ballots are counted. But he still thinks the law is too narrow.
“If a voter is eligible to vote and they cast a ballot, it should be counted to the extent the voter is eligible in that particular race,” Berger said, critiquing the law’s requirement for a voter to be in the right county.
Other parts of the state have felt the impact of the “wrong church” rule. It was an issue in 2020, during the fierce and litigious fight for the 22nd Congressional District in Central New York between then-Rep. Anthony Brindisi, the Democrat, and Claudia Tenney, the Republican. A court invalidated 128 affidavit ballots because the voters cast them at the wrong poll site. Tenney was the certified winner in that race by a margin of 109 votes.
Another election law change was sent to Hochul’s desk on Monday. That law would allow people to register to vote up to 10 days before an election, instead of the current 25. She has until Dec. 23 to decide whether to sign the bill.
Advocates say they would be shocked if Hochul vetoed the bill and point to her support for other pro-voter laws like the John Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York. That legislation, signed by the governor at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn on June 20 to coincide with Juneteenth, includes a series of provisions like requiring local Boards of Elections in areas with a history of racial discrimination to seek state clearance before making changes to how they run elections, like reducing the number of poll sites or the hours available to vote.
“This year New York passed the strongest voting rights law in the country and other laws like 'wrong church' to make voting easier and more accessible to more New Yorkers in more ways than ever,” said state Sen. Zellnor Myrie, who serves as chair of the state Senate Elections Committee and sponsored both the “wrong church” bill and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York. “We have made a lot of progress, but there's still important work to be done on reforming our state election administration and keeping our democracy strong.”