The director of the city Board of Elections apologized for voter registration and Primary Day polling place problems on Tuesday at a heated meeting of the board's commissioners.
"Despite public opinion presently, at least in the last week or so, we take [public] trust very, very seriously," the BOE's Michael Ryan said, addressing a crowd of several dozen activists, poll workers, and reporters. "And I would like to take this opportunity as the executive director to apologize to the public for any actions that might have been taken by our staff that caused any amount of the public trust in the voter process in New York City to erode."
The meeting was the board's first public accounting of the problems that plagued polling sites on Primary Day, the Tuesday prior, some of which were linked to voter roll purges that seemed to particularly affect Brooklyn. In that borough, 126,000 registered voters were removed from active status between November of last year and this April (a commissioner said that this was a figure counting the total voters removed, not just Democrats, as WNYC first reported).
Would-be voters have reported having their party affiliations changed or their registrations erased in all the boroughs except, to our awareness, Staten Island. Ryan said that he was not "proud" of the Brooklyn database issues. His apology was a stark shift in tone from an interview he gave the day after the primary, during which he insisted, "No one was disenfranchised."
So far, fallout for the registration irregularities has extended only to Diane Haslett-Rudiano, a Republican clerk who is one of two party representatives running the Brooklyn BOE office. She has been suspended without pay pending an internal investigation. Ryan told the audience that the preliminary findings tie some of the Brooklyn irregularities to a series of mailings sent out in May and July of last year as part of a long-term effort to clear the board's rolls of dead, moved, and otherwise officially disenfranchised voters. A series of mailers was supposed to first assess whether someone lived at an address, then if no response was received, to let the occupants at that address know of the board's intent to cancel the registration.
"At the very least, it appears that the first step, in terms of the [notice confirming people's addresses] may not have happened," Ryan said. "However, it is my understanding that the intent-to-cancel notice went out."
Ryan acknowledged that the screw-up is far from fully explained. He said that the updates to Brooklyn's voter list were supposed to be sent to the state in November—shocker: the state Board of Elections does not have a centralized database that updates from the county boards in real time—but the changes did not appear in the state's system until April.
In light of the many reported problems, Ryan said that the board is taking another look at the purged entries, and cooperating with the attorney general investigation into the purges. The board is also adding an extra layer of review to the provisional votes cast that have yet to be counted.
And there are a lot of those.
Affidavit ballots are what poll workers are supposed to give voters when they can't be found on the relevant voter list. On the ballots, voters swear they are who they say they are and explain where they live and what party they believe they should be a member of, and cast a vote, which commissioners are supposed to consider the validity of after the polls close. In this year's primary, a BOE spokeswoman disclosed, 121,058 affidavit ballots were cast, including 37,214 in Brooklyn. For perspective, that's nearly five times the 26,242 counted in the last contested Democratic presidential primary in 2008, and more than a tenth as much as the 1,032,796 ballots counted already in the city.
Based on the ballots currently counted, Hillary Clinton won the state's Democratic primary by about 290,000 votes, whereas Donald Trump trounced his opponents, with 528,792 of 874,572 Republican votes counted.
Nisi Jacobs was one of a group of Bernie Sanders supporters who railed against the BOE's handling of voter rolls and called for an independent inquiry. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)
Ryan said that the number of affidavit ballots is "not unusual" for a high-interest primary, but from the available data, it seems to be. He called the Brooklyn irregularities "unfortunate and regrettable," but said that of those affidavits that have been reviewed so far, "there is a healthy mix of potential real problems as well as, we're finding a chunk of voters that did not necessarily understand the closed primary process in New York."
At commissioner meetings in the weeks leading up to the presidential primary, Ryan and the commissioners anticipated confusion at the polls due to new voters unfamiliar with New York's restrictive closed-primary system, and approved ordering a higher-than-usual number of affidavit ballots. New voter registrations seemed to surge towards the end: at a March 29th meeting, a commissioner reported having received 5,000 new registrations all at once from the city Campaign Finance Board ahead of the deadline, and at an April 12th meeting, the commissioners voted to allow in 623 new registrations that had been set aside in a bin by the postal service.
The commissioners seem not to have seen the data storm clouds looming, though, and even after widespread reports of changed affiliations and missing names on Primary Day, they were slow to acknowledge anything amiss.
In reviewing the affidavit ballots, Ryan said that the board will pull not just the voter's latest record, but all of his or her voting and registration history, in an attempt to reconstruct what's happened to the registration. The process would not include voters whose new registrations were not for whatever reason logged, such as Natalie Keyssar, a Brooklyn photojournalist who mailed her form ahead of the March deadline but was told by a BOE worker that the office had been receiving 2,000 forms a day and hers likely wasn't processed.
"We have to protect the rights of those voters that cast a vote, and we also have to do what is required to restore the confidence of the public at large in the voting process in New York City," Ryan said, adding, "There is no intent on evasion or lack of specific information, but we are intent on laser-focused attention to making sure that the voters that cast their votes via affidavit on Election Day are in fact counted."
Members of the public on hand for Ryan's presentation, including good-government advocates, poll workers, and Bernie Sanders supporters, were not happy with his explanations, and demanded a public accounting of the review process, a reversal of the purges, and reforms to poll worker hiring, among other things (a lone Brooklyn Republican operative also called for the commissioners to reinstate Haslett-Rudiano or resign).
"We want all the affidavits to be counted," said Nisi Jacobs, a Tribeca resident and Sanders backer. "It's a matter of life or death for future generations, frankly."
(Christian Hansen / Gothamist)
Poll monitors from Flushing, Central Brooklyn, and Chinatown reported names missing from voter lists, as well as missing ballots, erroneous instructions, failure to provide affidavit ballots, and other problems. Jerry Vattamalla, a staff attorney for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, recounted correcting misinformation about people's eligibility to vote in the special election to fill the seat of felonious former Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver in Chinatown.
"I really shudder to think about all the voters we didn't contact," he said.
Diana Finch, a poll worker in the Bronx's Allerton neighborhood, said that of 168 Democrats who voted at her table, 27 had to cast affidavit ballots. Approximately a dozen Republicans voted, all normally, she said.
Experts attribute the problems with the primary, and New York's longstanding low voter turnout rate, to the state's byzantine election laws, which perpetuate its closed primary system and give control of the county and state election boards to local Democratic and Republican Party appointees, rather than people good at managing large data sets and complex logistics.
"The real solution here is automatic voter registration," said Susan Lerner, director of the group Common Cause NY, which led a coalition observing and commenting on the primary. "There are things that can be done to clean up the voter rolls in a more reliable way. Clearly something went terribly awry when we've got people who lived in the same place for 50 years, 20 years, 10 years, voting every election, and they get to the polling places and their names are not in the books."
The purges, in a tragic turn, constitute one of the few publicized efforts the board has made to comply with the recommendations of a scathing 2013 Department of Investigation report, which called out the BOE for failing to un-list dead people and safeguard against fraud, as well as rampant nepotism and patronage.
"They tried to clean up the rolls, but the problem is they've kind of run from one extreme to the other," Lerner said. "And the challenge is helping them fully professionalize."
Last June, League of Women Voters board member Kate Doran noted, BOE commissioners voted down a proposal to publicize job announcements for senior-level positions, thus introducing the possibility of hiring outside the party machines. Bills that would expand voter access, meanwhile, routinely pass the Democrat-controlled Assembly, "and they go nowhere in the Senate," which is controlled by Republicans.
Mayor Bill de Blasio this week offered the BOE $20 million, contingent on it allowing in outside consultants to review its structural failings, hire and retrain poll workers, and hire professional record-keepers. Lerner called the proposal "a step in the right direction." Ryan said he and the commissioners have not had a chance to look at the proposal in detail and are "reserving judgment."
A BOE spokeswoman said she could not provide lists of qualifications for clerks running the borough offices. Albert Brinmore-Britton, the Kings County GOP member calling for ousted clerk Diane Haslett-Rudiano's reinstatement, said that her "competence and work experience" made her fit for the job. Asked which work experience he meant, Brinmore-Britton said that she had been chief of staff to an Assemblymember, though he wasn't sure which one, and "she had computer, technology experience."
Ryan said that members of the public could watch the affidavit counting process at the borough BOE offices, starting this morning at 10 a.m. To find your local office, click here.