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Why New York City voters rolls were missing names again, explained

“This is a perennial problem.”

New Yorkers Go To The Polls In New York State Primary Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

As New Yorkers go to the polls to vote in state primary elections Thursday, some voters are finding there’s no record of their registration.

That includes some prominent media figures: New York Magazine writer Rebecca Traister and HuffPost Editor in Chief Lydia Polgreen were among those who tweeted their names were missing from the rolls at their local polling places — meaning they can’t cast a regular ballot.

They were far from the only ones. Others tweeted about their experiences having to sign an affidavit and cast a provisional ballot for the first time in years. Local New York publication Gothamist reported “mass confusion” at some polling stations.

The stakes are high this year — there are contested primaries for major statewide offices, including governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general. People whose names aren’t found on the rolls can still vote, they just have to sign a sworn affidavit validating their identify before they can cast a provisional ballot.

It’s tough to know how widespread the problems are. As of noon, the voting hotline set up by the attorney general’s office had received 40 calls and emails, according to Amy Spitalnick, communications director for the attorney general’s office. That number suggests today’s issues are not as widespread as they were in the 2016 presidential primary.

The latest reports are a reminder, though, that many voters still don’t trust the New York election system. The New York City Board of Elections illegally purged about 200,000 voters off the city’s rolls in 2014 and 2015, an issue discovered during the 2016 elections. Suspicion around that purge has loomed over every election since, even after the board of elections agreed to clean up its act and institute reforms. And every time there are problems at the polls, this spurs concern and frustration that the city’s voting systems are still not up to par.

“This is a perennial problem,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of voting rights organization Common Cause New York. “It’s very hard to maintain an active voter roll, but in New York City it’s particularly challenging because of the large number of voters, the way people move around readily and the fact systems are not user friendly.”

The purge in 2014-2015 was massive — and created suspicion

In 2016, the New York Attorney General’s office and voting rights groups discovered something alarming; the city board of elections had purged over 200,000 names from the rolls in 2014 and 2015.

The majority of the purged names came from Brooklyn, and was first reported when local public radio station WNYC, which found the borough was mysteriously missing 63,558 Democratic voters — about 7 percent of its overall share of Democrats. No other borough had such a significant drop.

After an investigation, the attorney general’s office detailed separate purges in a complaint against the City Board of Elections; first, the board manually identified and purged the records of over 100,000 voters who had failed to vote or update their forms since 2008, which is illegal under state and federal law.

Second, the board looked addresses in the National Change of Address database, and removed another 100,000 voters from the rolls it suspected to have moved outside of the city. But they did this after giving these voters just 30 days notice, when they were required by state and federal law to keep voters on the rolls for at least two more federal elections after notifying them.

“It was pretty clear that it was frankly, incompetence, on the part of the Brooklyn Board of Election Management,” said Lerner. She believes the board undertook the purges as a far-reaching overcorrection after the release of a report showing they had too many voters who had died or moved out of the city.

“In an overreaction to that assertion, the people in charge in Brooklyn went overboard, did not follow the appropriate procedure and took a bunch of people off the rolls,” she said.

After investigating, the city and the attorney general’s office settled fairly quickly in 2017, and the board of elections agreed to a correction plan it would implement in the years leading up to 2020.

As part of this, the board agreed to restore the voting rights of purged voters, be more transparent, and put down a plan to prevent further unlawful purges. Lerner said she believes the board and the city have put forward a good faith effort to try to correct the issue, but the fact remains such a massive purge leaves suspicion whenever similar problems arise.

Voters whose names were purged from the rolls can still vote — as long as they sign a sworn affidavit to prove their identities, they can file a provisional ballot. Voting rights advocates and the AG’s office are urging people to stay in line and go through this process, rather than walking out of their polling booth in frustration.

“Affidavit ballots, every single one is examined,” said Lerner. “Every absentee ballot is counted. “In an election like today’s election when it seems like many of these races are going to be close, the affidavit and absentee ballots are essential.”