The New York City Board of Elections‘ improper purge of around 120,000 Brooklyn voters ahead of the April 2016 Presidential Primary Election was not a single isolated incident; the mass purges turned out to be widespread, extending over two years and stretching all across the city, according to an eight-month investigation by the New York State Attorney General’s office. There are more than 4 million voters registered to vote in New York City.
On October 24, the Board of Elections finally admitted that it broke state and federal election laws by purging 117,000 voters off voter rolls in Brooklyn shortly before the April 2016 Presidential Primary Election. The guilty admission came one year after a lawsuit was originally filed against the BOE in federal court last November by LatinoJustice PRLDEF, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, and the law firm Dechert LLP on behalf of Common Cause, a voting rights advocacy group. In January of 2017, the Department of Justice joined the lawsuit, filing a motion against the Board for violating the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 by improperly removing those voters from the rolls. The law prohibits removing voters from the rolls unless the person has failed to vote in two successive federal elections and has failed to respond to a notice from the Board indicating that their registration will be cancelled. Two weeks later, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman‘s office followed the Justice Department’s lead, joining the lawsuit and filing its own motion against the Board for violating federal and state election laws.
The consent decree, filed on Tuesday in Brooklyn federal court, requires that the Board review every voter registration removed from its lists beginning July 1, 2013, identify those improperly purged, and reinstate their registrations. The Board must also devise a plan within 90 days to prevent future purges and address its violations of election law, and be subjected to regular audits and reports.
“The right of citizens to vote is a critical part of democratic process,” said U.S. Attorney Robert L. Capers of the Eastern District of New York. “We will work tirelessly to ensure that, in the future, the New York City Board of Elections fulfills its statutory obligation to maintain the rolls properly, and follows the appropriate notice and timing requirements for voters that federal law requires when it does so.”
In its lawsuit filing against the NYCBOE, the Department of Justice published for the first time the results of its own investigation into the Board, including how the Board staff flagged 122,000 voters for deletion throughout 2014 but never sent notices to alert the voters until May 2015. The government said that some voters had in fact voted in prior elections, and in other cases the notice itself was improperly handled. It also reported that the Board’s staff in the central office sent the notices to voters, suggesting this was more than just a localized Brooklyn Borough problem.
Beyond the Brooklyn purge, Schneiderman’s office found that the city improperly removed another 60,000 voters in 2014 and 43,000 voters in 2015. These actions were taken with the knowledge of borough officials and the central staff, commissioners, and executive management.
It was also reported that the purge disproportionately affected Latino voters in Brooklyn’s 7th Congressional district. Elected officials and advocates also argued that more voters may have been improperly purged on other dates, and that the problem persists.
The original court case describes the situation of two foreign service workers, Benjamin Buscher and Sean Hennessey, the two named plaintiffs, who keep a permanent residence in Brooklyn while they work overseas for the State Department. In October of 2016, both men applied for absentee ballots to vote in the general election, according to the complaint.
When those absentee ballots did not arrive, they contacted the Kings County Board of Elections Office and were told that their registrations were no longer valid and that they had missed the deadline to update their registration.
The plaintiffs contacted the nonprofit Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, which discovered that the Board had removed the plaintiffs more than two years before. Four additional named plaintiffs were added to the lawsuit, and the case was brought on behalf of all the plaintiffs by the Lawyers Committee along with LatinoJustice PRLDEF and the law firm Dechert LLP.
In a statement about the lawsuit’s settlement, Schneiderman said:
“The right to vote is sacred to our democracy. Yet the NYC Board of Elections illegally purged over 200,000 New Yorkers from the rolls, violating the law and New Yorkers’ trust in the institutions meant to protect their rights. This proposed settlement would overhaul NYCBOE’s practices for maintaining voter rolls, ensuring that the issues that led to the purges are addressed, and establishing frequent monitoring and oversight. My office Will continue to protect all voters’ access to the polls and continue to fight to expand voting rights.”
In December 2016, Schneiderman (pictured right) proposed a series of election reforms in response to his office’s investigation of complaints from the 2016 New York Primary. “The voting issues we uncovered during the April primary were widespread, systemic and unacceptable,” he said in a press release. “The right to vote is the right that protects all other rights. New York must become a national leader by protecting and expanding voting rights throughout the state.” Those reforms proposed by Schneiderman and pushed for by several progressive organizations have been widely ignored by Democrats in New York.