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Millions of New Yorkers Disenfranchised from Primaries Thanks to State’s Restrictive Voting Laws

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Voters head to the polls today in New York for both the Democratic and Republican primary in one of the most closely watched races of the election. But millions of New Yorkers won’t be able to vote, thanks to the state’s restrictive voting laws. The state has no early voting, no Election Day registration, and excuse-only absentee balloting. The voter registration deadline for the primary closed 25 days ago, before any candidate had even campaigned in New York. Meanwhile, independent or unaffiliated voters had to change their party registrations back in October—over 190 days ago—to vote in today’s closed Democratic or Republican primaries. Meanwhile, WNYC is reporting there are 60,000 fewer registered Democrats in Brooklyn and no clear reason why. This comes as a group of New Yorkers who saw their party affiliations mysteriously switched filed a lawsuit seeking to open the state’s closed primary so that they can cast a ballot. We speak to The Nation’s Ari Berman, author of “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are on the road as part of our 100-city tour. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re headed to Colorado today. Today we’re broadcasting from the PBS studios of KUED at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah. We’re headed to Colorado today. We’re broadcasting from the PBS studios at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

But back in New York, voters are heading to the polls today for both the Democratic and Republican primary in one of the most closely watched races of the election. In the Republican race, Donald Trump has a commanding lead in the polls. On the Democratic side, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has touted his Brooklyn roots and is hoping to pull a major upset in New York, keeping his streak of victories alive. He’s won eight of the last nine contests. But Hillary Clinton, who served eight years as a senator from New York, has remained in the lead in every opinion poll. On Monday, Clinton addressed supporters in Flushing, Queens.

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, we are so happy to be here and reaching out to every voter throughout Queens, throughout New York City, throughout the state, in order to turn people out to vote tomorrow, because the kind of future that we represent, where we break down barriers, we give people a chance to get ahead, and where we support immigrants and the dreams that immigrants have brought to our shores all of these years, is very different than what the other side offers. So, we hope everyone will come out and vote tomorrow.

AMY GOODMAN: While Hillary Clinton urged everyone to come out and vote today, that’s not an option for millions of New Yorkers, thanks to the state’s restrictive voting laws. Last week, Bernie Sanders admitted New York will be a tough primary, thanks to those voting rules.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: We have a system here in New York where independents can’t get involved in the Democratic primary, where young people who have not previously registered and want to register today just can’t do it. So this is going to be a tough primary for us.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Senator Sanders speaking last week in front of 27,000 people in New York’s Washington Square Park. While Sanders has held a series of massive rallies in New York, many of his supporters can’t vote today in the state’s closed primary. Voting rights activists say New York has some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country. The state has no early voting, no Election Day registration, and excuse-only absentee balloting. The voter registration deadline for the primary closed 25 days ago, before any candidate had even campaigned in New York. Meanwhile, independent or unaffiliated voters had to change their party registrations back in October—over 190 days ago, before any debate or any primary or caucus—to vote in today’s closed Democratic or Republican primaries. This will reportedly disenfranchise nearly 30 percent of New Yorkers. Donald Trump’s own children did not manage to change their party registrations from independent to Republican in time to vote for their father.

Meanwhile, WNYC is reporting the number of registered Democrats in Brooklyn dropped by 60,000 since November, and there’s no clear reason why. During that same period, most counties in New York saw an increase in registered Democrats. This comes as a group of New Yorkers who saw their party affiliations mysteriously switched filed a lawsuit seeking to open New York’s closed primaries so that they can cast a ballot. The lawsuit is asking for an emergency declaratory judgment that would make today’s New York primary open, meaning any registered New York voter could cast a ballot in either party’s primary.

Well, for all this and more, we’re joined by Ari Berman, senior contributing writer for The Nation, where he covers voting rights. His latest book, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Ari. You wrote a piece in The Nation, “27 Percent of New York’s Registered Voters Won’t Be Able to Vote in the State’s Primary.” Can you explain this?

ARI BERMAN: Yes. Thanks for having me back, Amy. So, nearly a third of New Yorkers can’t participate in the primary because they are not registered with the Democratic or Republican Party, and New York has some of the most restrictive voter registration laws in the country, as you mentioned. People had to change their party affiliations back in October, when no one was paying attention to the New York primary. People had to register to vote 25 days before the election, before any candidate had campaigned in New York. And beyond that, New York has some of the worst voting laws in the country. Unlike 37 states, we don’t have early voting. Unlike 15 states, we don’t have Election Day registration. Our Constitution doesn’t even allow Election Day registration, because you have to register no later than 10 days before an election. We have excuse-only absentee ballots, meaning you have to prove you’re out of town and—or you to prove you have a disability to get an absentee ballot.

I think it’s sad that we are the fourth bluest state in the country but have some of the worst voting laws. We rank below Texas, below North Carolina, behind all of these states with new voting restrictions, in terms of voter turnout. We ranked 44th in voter turnout in 2012. We got a D-minus from the Center for American Progress on accessibility to the ballot. So, regardless of which candidate you’re for, regardless of whether you’re for open or closed primaries, we should be for making it much easier to vote in New York.

AMY GOODMAN: Why is this, Ari? Why are these laws so restrictive in New York? Who passed these laws, and when did they do it?

ARI BERMAN: Both parties want to protect the status quo in New York, Amy. Democrats, by and large, are happy with the system. Republicans, by and large, are happy with the system. They just want their slice of the pie, and they what to protect it. Incumbents who are in power want to stay that way. So, unlike states like Oregon and California, which have embraced reform, passing policies like automatic voter registration and Election Day registration, New York has not followed this trend for progressive reform. And I think that’s really unfortunate. The one good thing that could come out of this primary, with the Trump kids not being able to register, with so many Bernie supporters not being able to register, is that finally people are paying attention to just how bad New York’s voting laws really are, how many people are shut out of the democratic process here.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about this piece in the New York Daily News, which recently ran an article, “Hundreds of New York state voters to file suit calling the closed primary 'a threat to our democratic system' after claiming their party affiliation mysteriously changed.” The article quotes Joanna Viscuso, a 19-year-old from Long Island. She said she registered to vote as a Democrat during her college orientation at Adelphi University in 2014. Then, she noticed last week that now her voter registration online says she’s not affiliated with a party. Viscuso reportedly called the Nassau Board of Elections, and they told her that she had filled out a form in September to change her party affiliation, and sent it in October. But she claims she never did that. She says she’s a first-time voter. She told the New York Daily News, “As soon as I noticed it was changed I was infuriated, and then when they said there was nothing I could do I was still infuriated. All of a sudden we can’t vote? That’s ridiculous!” she said. How is this possible?

ARI BERMAN: It’s a very mysterious situation. We’ve seen similar things happen in other states. In Arizona, where there were five-hour lines at the polls because they reduced so many polling places, a lot of people also had their voter registration switched without them knowing. So people waited in five-hour lines and still weren’t able to cast a ballot, because they were not registered. In New York, what these voters should do is cast a provisional ballot and try to have that ballot counted after the election. There is going to be a lawsuit this morning to try to open up New York’s primary. Regardless of whether or not that succeeds, people should go to the polls. They should vote today. They should cast a provisional ballot and try to get that counted afterwards.

AMY GOODMAN: A WNYC analysis of New York state voter enrollment statistics found that the number of active registered Democrats dropped there [in Brooklyn] by 63,558 voters between November 2015 and now, April 2016. That translates into a 7 percent drop in registered Democrats in the borough. According to the NPR station in New York, WNYC, no other borough in New York City nor county in the rest of the state saw such a significant decline in active registered Democrats. In fact, only seven of the state’s 62 counties saw a drop in the number of Democrats. Everywhere else saw the numbers increase. Can you explain what’s going on in Brooklyn?

ARI BERMAN: What the Board of Elections in Brooklyn said is that they had changed the number of voters from active to inactive, and that’s why there was such a big drop-off. But 60,000 people are a lot of voters to shift from active to inactive. So, it’s very possible that some active voters are going to be wrongly purged from the polls, and some people are going to show up to vote in Brooklyn, think they’re registered, think they’re active, and not be on the voting rolls. We have seen this in many other states, in Florida in 2000, in Ohio in 2004. I hope—

AMY GOODMAN: Ari, how do you become inactive?

ARI BERMAN: You become inactive—

AMY GOODMAN: What determines this?

ARI BERMAN: —by not voting in the past few elections. That’s how you become inactive. But sometimes people don’t vote for whatever reason and want to vote now. Other times, people are wrongly labeled inactive and wrongly purged from the voting rolls. So, we don’t know enough to say what happened here, but it’s disturbing that some people may have been put on inactive status if they are not in fact inactive.

AMY GOODMAN: Ari Berman, I want to thank you for being with us, senior contributing writer for The Nation, where he covers voting rights. His book is titled Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. And we’ll link to your piece in The Nation magazine, “27 Percent of New York’s Registered Voters Won’t Be Able to Vote in the State’s Primary.” We’ll link at democracynow.org.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we stay here in Utah, and we look at, well, a very different outcome in a Republican Legislature when it comes to LGBT rights. Stay with us.

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