With less than 24 hours until the presidential primary, a group of New Yorkers who saw their party affiliations mysteriously switched are filing a lawsuit Monday seeking to open the state’s closed primary so that they can cast a ballot.
New York has the earliest change-of-party deadline in the country — registered independent voters who wanted to participate in Tuesday’s presidential primary had to change their party by last October. Many voters missed that deadline — or thought they met it, only to have paperwork get lost in the mail — and are disenfranchised as a result.
The lawsuit is asking for an emergency declaratory judgment that would make Tuesday’s primary open, meaning any registered New York voter could cast a ballot in either party’s primary.
“This is our attempt to provide a means of recourse for those thousands of New York voters who find themselves in this very frustrating position, and to raise awareness about the need for a new level of accountability in the electoral process,” said Shyla Nelson, a spokesperson with Election Justice USA, which is filing the lawsuit in New York federal court on behalf of hundreds of voters.
More than 3 million people — about 27 percent of New York voters — were registered outside the Republican and Democratic parties as of April, and are therefore ineligible to vote on Tuesday. A significant number of voters, including many named in the lawsuit, say their party affiliation was switched without their knowledge.
Westchester County voter Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez decided to check on the status of her voter registration last month, after hearing about problems in Arizona’s primary. She was dismayed to discover that, despite being a registered Democrat since 2008, her party affiliation had been changed to unaffiliated. She is now unable to vote for her preferred candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), in the primary.
“I am so hurt that my right to vote in this primary has been taken from me,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote in a Reddit post explaining her situation.
Ocasio-Cortez was later told by her local Board of Elections that her party affiliation was changed during Hurricane Sandy. The devastating storm hit right before Election Day 2012, and in an emergency measure, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) allowed New York residents to vote at any precinct via affidavit ballot. Ocasio-Cortez was stuck in New York City for the storm, so she voted there instead of in Westchester.
“Apparently when I signed that affidavit my party affiliation was waived,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote. “I had no idea I was losing my party status when I did that… Had I known this was the case I would have fixed this ages ago.”
CREDIT: Emily Atkin
In comments to ThinkProgress, New York state Board of Elections spokesperson Thomas Connolly confirmed that he had been receiving regular complaints about allegedly manipulated voter registrations — specifically complaints that party affiliations had been purged.
But Connolly also said that each complaint he’s followed up on has been due to a mistake on the voter’s part.
“I’ve yet to come across [a voter registration] that’s been maliciously changed,” he said. “There’s always been a legitimate reason.”
The allegations of willful voter registration manipulations in New York are coming most loudly from Sanders supporters. Allegations of fraud have been widespread on the Sanders for President Reddit page, where voters have been posting personal stories of sketchy dealings with their local board of elections.
Nelson said that Sanders supporters would likely be disproportionately impacted by New York’s closed primary law, since Sanders supporters are more likely to have been previously unaffiliated with a political party.
“A closed primary, under these circumstances, definitely has an unfavorable impact on an insurgent candidate like Bernie, whose base is broader and more diverse than the Democratic Party itself,” she said.
Nelson’s organization, Election Justice USA, was founded in recent weeks — specifically, after some Arizona voters waited in five-hour lines to cast ballots.
“Many of us were watching with some horror at what was happening state by state with voter suppression issues coming up,” Nelson said. “As we looked ahead, beyond Arizona, we began to hear an increasing number of reports of mysterious voter party affiliation switches happening.”
The group set up a website asking New York voters to submit information about their mysterious party affiliation switches, and received more than 300 responses. The plaintiffs named in the lawsuit were chosen from that group, and Election Justice USA has a group of people looking to determine why voters’ information may have been switched by the state.
“We have a team of professional data analysts and statisticians who are working on metadata analytics to see if there are any discernible patterns that may suggest causal connections — where could the problem have started?” she said. “It’s a little too soon to tell.”
The lawsuit also seeks to shift the burden of proof from the voters to the state.
“The Board of Elections, not voters, holds the voting records and should be responsible to prove a voter’s ineligibility, rather than putting this burden on the voter,” Blaire Fellows, one of the lead attorneys filing the lawsuit, said in a statement. “As it is currently structured, the statute places an onerous and excessive burden on the voter to prove their eligibility. It requires securing a court order, which takes time that many New Yorkers simply don’t have.”
The problem could impact elections outside of New York. Nelson said her group has received reports of the same issue happening in other states, including California, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky.
“This is a widespread national problem,” she said. “And we’re in the process of figuring out how to connect those dots.”