Board of Elections
NYC purged 200,000 voters in 2016. It wasn’t a mistake.
New York City blocked 200,000 people from voting in 2016.
In anticipation of voting in the April 19, 2016, presidential primary in New York, Kathleen Menegozzi checked her registration online. The Brooklyn resident, a registered Democrat since 2008, learned three weeks before the election that she had been struck from the rolls. Another Brooklyn Democrat, Casey James Diskin, who first joined the party in 2012, discovered five days before the primary that he was not registered at all.
In Manhattan, Michael Hubbard, a Democrat since 2015, checked his status online 17 days before planning to vote, only to find that he too was no longer registered. Meanwhile, in Queens, Benjamin Leo Gersh, who also had been a registered Democrat since 2015, checked on his voter status, and saw two weeks before the primary that he too had been purged.
Then-New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman would eventually reveal that they were among 200,000 New York City voters who had been illegally wiped off the rolls and prevented from voting in the presidential primary. But by January of 2017, when Schneiderman announced that he would intervene in a federal lawsuit against the New York City Board of Elections, along with the U.S. Department of Justice, the news fell on deaf ears.
The announcement had come just seven days after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Although it was the first time the total number of purged voters had been disclosed, the media was consumed with a different statistic: the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration. At the same time, a snowballing narrative that Russia had hacked the U.S. election would overshadow the indisputable fact that a domestic government agency had committed election fraud.
The lack of media attention was in stark contrast to the recent barrage of headlines about a right-wing push to purge eligible voters from the rolls. Much of the media ignored New York’s proven case of election fraud, perhaps because it had been facilitated by Democrats, and not by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican with a national profile for championing stricter voter ID legislation.
Schneiderman’s lawsuit, which was initially launched by a coalition of three voter rights groups, never went to trial – the New York City Board of Elections didn’t even try to dispute the attorney general’s findings. “The New York City Board of Elections got caught with their hand in the cookie jar,” said Jose Perez, general counsel for one of the plaintiffs, Latino Justice PRLDEF.
In October of 2017, the city’s elections board quietly settled the lawsuit by admitting it broke federal and state election laws. It agreed to a vague list of reforms in a consent decree, including that it “overhaul its voter registration and list maintenance procedures, adequately train relevant staff, submit to regular monitoring of its voter registration and list maintenance activities, and review every registration cancelled since July, 1, 2013.”
But given the magnitude of the malfeasance, especially the extent to which board members – at every level – were accused of knowingly violating state and federal election laws, the settlement was a slap on the wrist.
The three original plaintiffs – Common Cause New York, Latino Justice PRLDEF and The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under the Law – praised the settlement as a triumph for New York voters, even though none of them could provide details about what exactly had changed to prevent the city Board of Elections from illegally purging voters again.
“This important victory sets forth a course correction in New York City,” The Lawyers Committee and Latino Justice said in a joint statement. “Today’s settlement represents an important victory for the future of New York City elections,” echoed Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York.
Despite the so-called “victory,” the matter was swept under the rug. The press accepted at face value that Schneiderman had imposed an effective penalty for the crime. But a year after the lawsuit’s conclusion, there’s scant evidence the city Board of Elections has done nearly enough to clean up its act – and there’s little sign that the Democrats who control much of New York have the political will to reform how elections are run in the state.
“The New York City Board of Elections got caught with their hand in the cookie jar.” – Jose Perez, general counsel for one of the plaintiffs, Latino Justice PRLDEF.
The Empire State was a big prize in the 2016 primary’s delegate race. New York offered the country's second-highest total of Democratic delegates (291) and fourth-highest total (95) of Republican delegates. New York is not a winner-take-all state: Delegates to the nation conventions are awarded proportionally by congressional district.
The primary was also a turning point in the Democratic presidential race, and the 73 delegates up for grabs in New York City were crucial to winning the state.
As the candidates entered the New York race, Clinton was leading Sanders by 209 pledged delegates. Although The New York Times, the Daily News and Newsday had endorsed Clinton, the momentum was with Sanders, who had come off seven straight primary wins. By April 2016, Sanders had narrowed Clinton’s initial 60-point lead with voters nationally, to 10 points, and appeared to be gaining on her. However, a Sanders victory in New York had been deemed a long shot, based on Clinton’s formidable support by the local Democratic Party establishment. “If endorsements and electoral history are any guide – and usually they are – Hillary Clinton has New York in the bag,” the Observer reported in October 2015.
The list of 116 Democrats charged with securing Clinton’s New York win read like a who’s who of New York Democratic Party politics. Her New York “Leadership Council” included U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, all 18 of New York’s Democratic House members, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and every citywide elected official from New York City except Mayor Bill de Blasio (who also threw his support behind Clinton before the primary).
The list also included the two officials who would investigate the New York City Board of Elections in the wake of the purge: Schneiderman and New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer. Stringer, who was also a pledged Clinton delegate, did his own year-and-a-half long audit of the city Board of Elections following the purge that focused on problems at poll sites, like handicapped access, and undertrained poll workers.
Despite predictions to the contrary, Clinton didn’t actually have New York voters “in the bag,” just the party elite. Her leadership team's formation came a month after a Siena College poll revealed Clinton's popularity among state voters had reached a new low, with more New Yorkers viewing her unfavorably than favorably.
“For the first time ever, Hillary Clinton is under water with New York voters, facing her worst favorability rating ever in her adopted home state,” Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg said at the time. This mirrored Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, in which her popularity waned with each passing month.
By February 2016 (the same month the FBI formally announced it would investigate Clinton’s use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state), Real Clear Politics reported an even worse prognosis for Clinton. Though few believed it at the time, virtually every poll demonstrated that the Democratic Party ran the risk of losing the general election if Clinton were the nominee. She was only leading Trump by only 2.8 points, versus Sanders’ 6-point lead over Trump, an advantage that would climb to 10.4 percentage points by early April.
As the candidates advanced toward New York’s April 19 primary, Clinton was no longer the predicted shoe-in. “Could anything happen in New York? The answer is yes,” veteran Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said nine days before the primary.
Well aware his insurgent candidacy was a threat to the Democratic machine, Sanders understood his only chance for victory in New York depended on high voter turnout. Months earlier, his supporters had embarked on vigorous voter registration drives to enlist new voters (especially college students) before the state’s March 25, 2016 deadline. In a 10-day period between March 10 and March 20, an unprecedented 41,000 new voters registered to vote in New York, spurring predictions of a higher than usual voter turnout.
Yet many people who tried to register before the deadline were blocked. The state Department of Motor Vehicles’ online registration system crashed when it received an “unprecedentedly high volume of voters seeking to register” on March 25, preventing an untold number of new voters from registering, according to the Attorney General’s Office. At 6:30 p.m. on March 25, the New York State Office of Information Technology Services shut the DMV system down. My DMV remained offline for the rest of the day, and 11 p.m. it posted a message to applicants to email their registration forms by 11:59 p.m. – giving new registrants just under an hour. Because of the system crash, the DMV said it would forward new registrations received the next day, but left it up to individual county election boards to decide whether or not to accept the new registrations.
Though the attorney general included this information in a report released in December 2016, he did not investigate the number of would-be voters stymied by the DMV’s system crash. Nor did he investigate how the DMV disenfranchised voters like Huntington Station resident Alexandra Clark. Clark swore in an affidavit and provided confirmation that she had changed her party affiliation from Republican to Democrat on Oct. 9, 2015, the deadline to switch parties, only to receive a letter from the Suffolk County Board of Elections on April 7, 2016, saying she had enrolled four days past the deadline and could not vote in the Democratic primary.
These surges of new voter registrations were more than likely the result of Sanders’ campaign efforts, not Clinton’s. Shaun King, then a Daily News columnist, accused Clinton and the Democratic Party of the “ugly” game of foregoing voter drives, especially since independent voters, who made up a big share of Sanders’ support, would have had to switch parties by Oct. 9, 2015, more than six months before the primary. An estimated three to four million “unaffiliated” likely Sanders voters were not eligible for the state’s closed primary due to this statute.
“Low voter turnout actually favors her campaign to get the nomination. She and the political machine are not going to invest the time or money to beat the drums for voter registration because they know full well those are primarily votes she won't receive,” King wrote. “As much as establishment politicians have broken for Hillary, young people under the age of 35 have broken for Bernie Sanders. Without fail, in each primary so far, in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, young people under the age of 35 have voted for Bernie by a margin of 85% to 15%. It's not even close. Consequently, party leaders – again, that's code for Hillary supporters – have seemingly hosted fewer voter registration drives. Doing so, would, in essence, be drives for Bernie Sanders.”
While both candidates barnstormed the boroughs in the weeks leading up to the New York race, Sanders’ rallies attracted record crowds – an indication that his voter drives had paid off. In late March he attracted 15,000 people to a rally in the South Bronx. Two weeks later the Associated Press reported 27,000 people rallied for Sanders in Washington Square. On the same night AP wrote, “Clinton attracted a smaller, but still enthusiastic crowd of 1,300 people at a Bronx community center.” One headline for the story – “Clinton and Sanders Both Staged Huge Rallies On the Same Night” – was typical of the mainstream media bias during the 2016 Democratic presidential race. Four days later, Sanders drew another crowd of 28,000 to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.
Despite the media spin, Sanders’ successful voter drives and his massive rally numbers appeared to contradict the narrative that mere voter apathy – not disenfranchised New Yorkers – had ultimately been behind New York reporting the second lowest primary turnout in the country, at 19.7 percent.
“All the security in the world may not protect voters from the New York City Board of Election, however.” – The Brooklyn Daily Eagle
In the wake of election fraud allegations in more than a dozen presidential primary races that cycle, some Democrats were on high alert. Sanders supporters in particular used Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to update and advise voters ahead of each state primary. Triggering their alarm were bizarre inconsistencies in a string of primary results. At least 12 exit polls conducted in March and early April by Edison Research had projected Sanders’ votes significantly higher than his final counts – beyond the margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points that is typical of Edison’s state exit polls. The greatest discrepancies stacked in Clinton’s favor occurred in Massachusetts (which was 8 percentage points higher for Clinton in the final result than the exit polls showed), Tennessee (+8.3 percent), Texas (+9.3 percent), Mississippi (+9.9 percent), Ohio (+10 percent), South Carolina (+10.3 percent), Georgia (+12.2 percent) and Alabama (+14 percent).
In stark contrast, exit polls in every GOP race but two were spot on – even though Edison had deployed the same interviewers, the same methodologies, on the same days, at the same locations, for Democratic contests in all but three states (that held primaries on separate days). Illustrative of disparities, the exit polls in Massachusetts that hit the bull’s eye with all six GOP candidates’ tallies, meanwhile predicted a Sanders win by 6.6 percentage points that went instead to Clinton by 1.4 points, an 8-point discrepancy.
Coming on the heels of the disastrous March 22 Arizona primary (where no exit poll took place), which had been rife with drastically reduced polling stations, voter purges and unsought registration changes, large numbers of New York voters were fast discovering similar troubles.
Voters grew suspicious when the city Board of Elections sent 60,000 newly registered voter’s notices in March, stating their primary date was Sept. 13, 2016. Although there was indeed a primary in September, the fliers failed to distinguish this was a state and local election, and did not mention the looming presidential primary at all. New York City Board of Elections Executive Director Michael Ryan was unapologetic, saying his agency was not required to notify voters about a federal presidential race.
“There is no need for a correction,” Ryan told Gothamist. “We sent out the proper notice as required by law. Our phone number is listed right on the mailer. If there’s any source of confusion, someone can pick up the phone and get an answer right away. You can bother to educate yourself.”
Word began to spread on social media and alternative news sites that New York voters should log onto the state’s Voter Look Up to double-check their registrations, or risk their right to vote.
While thousands of city residents began finding they were struck from the rolls, countless others discovered their party affiliations had mysteriously been changed. Two Brooklyn Democrats, Emily Braunstein and Adam Gallinat, both registered since 2012, found out shortly before the primary they were “no longer affiliated with a party,” according to sworn affidavits. In Manhattan, Chandler Wilson, a registered Democrat since 2000, learned the same. After Brooklyn resident Lisa Kanbar joined the Democratic Party on Aug. 5, 2015, she received confirmation of her new registration by mail. However, her party affiliation was listed as “none.”
The anomalies did not end there. In Queens, Edgar Marty had “purposefully switched”his affiliation from the Working Families Party to Democrat on Oct. 1, 2015, seven days before the deadline. Yet, when he checked his registration on April 14, he learned the change had not been processed. Bronx resident Hillary Jo Frisbie, a Democrat since 2000, discovered her records had inexplicably been altered to “registered in the wrong location.”
State Board of Elections spokesman Tom Connolly said on April 6, 2016, that over the previous three weeks, his office had been receiving about 100 calls a day from voters – “a lot of them Sanders supporters” – who were “pissed off” about their registration status for one reason or another. Connolly recommended that they call their respective county election boards, the only place where complete sets of voter records reside. He acknowledged that although county officials were required to update his office’s database whenever they changed a voter’s status, or processed a new registration, they did not always follow through.
Then, on April 18, 2016, the day before the primary, WNYC reported a record 63,558 active registered Democrats had disappeared from Brooklyn voter rolls – somewhere between November 2015 and April 2016. The news sent a shockwave through the city.
No other county had seen a similar drop. In fact, 55 of New York’s 62 counties all saw increases in Democratic Party enrollments. Brooklyn was also home to the largest number of the state’s all-important congressional districts (based on population), and therefore crucial to the candidates’ delegate allocation. Neither the state nor the city election boards had an explanation. In fact, both agencies seemed to take the bombshell in stride.
“The pool of voters shifts around from active to inactive, inactive to active, and off the list completely through normal list maintenance activities, that each county board undertakes on a continuous basis,” was Connolly’s response.
Ryan, the city Board of Elections executive director, said, “People die every day and they come off the list. New York City is a very transient place to live. People move all the time.”
But the dramatic decline made no sense, especially since Brooklyn had accounted for the largest number of state Democrats going to the polls two years prior. In 2014, 17 percent of all state Democrats cast votes in Brooklyn, followed by 14 percent in Manhattan and approximately 12 percent in Queens.
These same three counties Schneiderman would later name in his lawsuit where the most city voters had been thrown off the rolls. Of the 200,000 total purged voters, 126,000 were purged in Brooklyn and the remaining 74,000 in Manhattan and Queens.
However, these numbers don’t reflect the total number of voters disenfranchised by other methods. Based on government documents, it appears that the attorney general did no comprehensive investigation into voters who claimed in a separate lawsuit that their party affiliations had been mysteriously changed, or of new voters who claimed their registrations either went unprocessed or came back with the wrong party affiliation.
The city Board of Elections refused to provide a breakdown by borough or party to City & State. City Board of Elections Communications Director Valerie Vazquez would only point to a June 2016 WNYC article reporting 64.1 percent of voters purged in Brooklyn were Democrats, and 10.5 percent were Republicans and independents, but would not provide any data to back up the figures.
On the day WNYC’s story broke, 200 disenfranchised voters from throughout the state filed an emergency class-action lawsuit in Central Islip against the state Board of Elections. The majority of them claimed their party affiliations had been changed. Brought by two lawyers from Election Justice USA – a pro-Sanders advocacy group that had formed after the disastrous Arizona primary – the lawsuit requested voting rights be immediately restored to all disenfranchised voters.
“Our filing was not even fully stapled the day we went into court,” Jonathan Clarke, one of the Election Justice USA attorneys, told City & State earlier this year. “We just wanted to get it in, hoping to get some kind of hold.”
Clarke and his co-counsel Blaire Fellows had raced to prepare the suit, once New York voters began checking their registrations online. All 200 of the original plaintiffs were Sanders supporters, he said, “Because they were the only voters who contacted us.”
By law, any New Yorker can demand to vote with “provisional” or “affidavit ballots,” but supplies vary wildly from poll to poll, while not all poll workers know to grant them, and many voters don’t know they exist.
A disenfranchised voters’ best bet is to secure a court order from one of the state Supreme Court judges stationed in all 62 county elections boards. This increases the likelihood one’s affidavit ballot will count. But the process of being vetted by a judge is often time consuming and a crapshoot – which is why Clarke and Fellows were asking the state to effectively open the primary, and create a hearing process where voters could skip court orders, and explain irregularities after the primary.
“We had hoped to shift the burden of proof from the voters to the Board of Elections,
Clarke said. “Issue a blanket order allowing voters to vote, and check their eligibility later.”
The judge scheduled a hearing for 2 p.m. on primary day.
Chaos ensued throughout New York state as hundreds of thousands of voters arrived at their regular polling stations on April 19 only to be told they could not vote. Irate votes descended on county elections boards and begged judges to grant court orders. A hotline set up by the New York Attorney General’s Office was deluged with complaints.
Long lines, locked doors, too few ballots, malfunctioning machines and understaffed polls further compounded the panic and distrust that marked the state’s primary. This was particularly true in Brooklyn, where by the end of the day WYNC reported the number of purged voters had climbed to 126,000.
Upon hearing reports of “entire buildings and blocks of voters” being purged in his Brooklyn home base, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called for an investigation, demanding the elections board reverse the purge. By the afternoon, Stringer announced he would audit the “operations and management” of the city’s election board.
Yet Ryan downplayed the matter. “Brooklyn was a little behind with their list maintenance tasks,” he said.
A little after 3 p.m., the judge on Long Island denied Election Justice USA emergency relief, once New York Deputy Attorney General Ralph Pernick – appearing on behalf of the state Board of Elections – argued purges were done at the county level, so the state body could not be responsible. The judge agreed, telling Clarke and Fellows she would hear their suit at a later date, if they served all 62 New York county election boards.
Clarke and Fellows were relieved their suit had not been dismissed. On the off chance they later prevailed, Election Justice USA took to the internet to encourage voters to cast affidavit ballots en masse. (Eventually lack of funds would force them to abandon the suit.)
Voting via affidavit ballot, even with a court order, is far from ideal. Investigative reporter Greg Palast, who has doggedly exposed voter purges since 2000, calls an affidavit nothing more than a “placebo ballet.” “You get to pretend to vote, but the chance it will actually be counted is, well, good luck. If your name is wrongly removed, kiss your vote – affidavit or not – goodbye,” wrote Palast, who is currently suing 27 secretaries of state and boards of elections for allegedly disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of voters.
By the end of the primary day, 121,056 New York City residents across the five boroughs had voted with affidavit ballots. Less than a month later, behind closed doors, the city Board of Elections would reject 90,000 of them, on the basis they were submitted by unaffiliated voters. (Though critics would claim that the board had relied on the same flawed data that had disenfranchised voters in the first place.)
When the polls closed, a CNN exit poll projected Clinton ahead by 4 percentage points. “Look at how tight it is,” said CNN’s Wolf Blitzer shortly after 9 p.m. “Based on exit poll information, Hillary Clinton at 52 percent, and Bernie Sanders at 48 percent …. Very close, according to our CNN estimate.” Similar numbers from ABC, at the same time, projected a 53-47 percent win for Clinton, also indicating a close race.
By 9:41 p.m., it was all over. ABC and NBC had declared Clinton the winner.
In the final tally, Clinton won by 16 percentage points – an 11.8 percent discrepancy – well outside Edison Research’s margin of error. Meanwhile, CNN’s exit poll had accurately predicted Trump to win with 57.7 percentage pointsin New York, a mere 2.7 percentage points short of the 60.4 percent he won by.
Exit poll analyst and mathematician, Richard Charnin who has written four books on systemic election fraud, calculated that “the probability of the 11.8 percent discrepancy was a 1 in 102,000 chance.”
On May 6, breaking with two decades of tradition, the major networks and AP canceled exit polls for the remaining Democratic primaries in 22 states – a move that Sanders supporters believed was a sign of the big network’s bias.
“Sadly it’s another case of Albany getting in the way of anyone having good elections in this state, or of Albany to fix the Board of Elections, give it back to the people and take it away from the party bosses.” – New York City Councilman Ben Kallos
The next day, a Daily News editorial called the primary “a disaster for voting rights and democracy – and a horrifying embarrassment for New York,” blaming the incompetent city Board of Elections’ inexplicable purge of 126,000 Brooklyn voters.
Bernie Sanders called the voting irregularities in New York a “disgrace.” “While I congratulate Secretary Clinton, I must say I am really concerned about the conduct of the voting in New York State,” Sanders said.
Many of his supporters had hoped he would challenge the results and were miffed when he quickly put New York in his rearview mirror to campaign in Connecticut.
Yet the Clinton campaign insisted that voting problems had harmed its candidate more. “We are very concerned about it because we believe we probably lost a lot of votes there,” said Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri about the purge. “We think it’s more likely that (it) hurt us more than him.”
That day Schneiderman launched what would be an eight-month investigation, culminating in his joining the civil suit against the city Board of Elections. And Stringer came out swinging, saying he’d like “to take a sledgehammer to the city’s Elections Board.”
Ryan stuck to his guns: “We're not finding that there were issues throughout the city that are any different than what we experience in other elections."
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a fierce Clinton ally, never made a public statement about the purge. Following the primary debacle, voter advocates pressured Cuomo to modernize the state’ selections by adopting early voting and same-day and automatic registration.
He paid lip service to the idea in his January 2017 State of the State address, then allocated no funds for electoral reform in the state budget the following April 2017. The governor did, however, announce “new actions” to protect the electorate from cyber attacks. “All the security in the world may not protect voters from the New York City Board of Election, however,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle quipped.
By early afternoon, approximately 100 protesters – many of them Election Justice USA plaintiffs – picketed the Brooklyn Board of Elections carrying signs that read: “WHY DOESN’T THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY WANT MORE DEMOCRATS?” “COUNT ALL AFFIDAVITS!” and “SOMETHING IS ROTTEN IN THE STATE OF NEW YORK.” At night, activists staged another protest, casting a three-story high, neon-green projection onto the Brooklyn Elections Board building asking: “WHERE ARE OUR VOTES?”
Two days later, the city Board of Elections suspended the Brooklyn Republican chief clerk, Diane Haslett-Rudiano, without pay. But if what Ryan said was true, and the board had only updated its rolls, why did they need to suspend her?
Speaking at a Board of Elections commissioners meeting the day after Haslett-Rudiano’s suspension, Ryan said, “Despite what others may think, we run a clean shop here, and I can vouch for not only my own integrity, but for the integrity of our staff.”
On May 3, scores of angry voters packed a city elections board hearing room in Lower Manhattan to air their grievances. Before any of the protesters were allowed to speak, the senior officials voted to certify the primary, then sat stone-faced throughout the raucous hearing. Bronx Democrat Commissioner Bianka Perez’s sole concern seemed to be making sure no one exceeded their two minutes at the podium
“I didn’t go to war, just to get this thrown away,” said Marine Corps veteran Saundra Ramirez. “But today, when I see a board sitting back, apathetic, laughing at the general public, denying a motion to delay the certification of the primary, before hearing anyone’s voices first? That is unpalatable to me.”
In an obscenity laced tirade, another Army veteran turned political activist Niko House, made it clear he wasn’t buying Haslett-Rudiano’s suspension. “You want us to stand here and believe you scapegoated a Republican?! But when a Democrat switches registration – nobody gets fired?! You’re going to scapegoat a Republican in a Democratic State? Really?”
Three days later, on May 6 – the same day staff began the process of certifying the primary results – the Brooklyn Board of Elections suspended its Democratic chief clerk, Betty Ann Canizio, without pay.
The New York Post attempted to shift the blame from Haslett-Rudiano to Canizio, the chief clerk responsible for overseeing Brooklyn’s Democratic rolls. An ally of Brooklyn Democratic Party Chairman Frank Seddio, Canizio had had a long history as a borough district leader of rubber-stamping Seddio’s candidate nominations and political appointments, the Post reported. Seddio, the Post alleged, had used political muscle to reward Canizio with what it called a $120,000-a-year, no-show Board of Elections job. Seddio had also endorsed and campaigned vigorously for Clinton.
That either Haslett-Rudiano or Canizio, or both, had singlehandedlymasterminded throwing 126,000 voters off the rolls was far from the truth. Although they were complicit as Republican and Democratic co-chief Brooklyn clerks, the two worked as kind of bipartisan check and balance on cancellations. Their counterparts in the Manhattan and Queens boards, who cancelled registrations in an identical manner, were not let go.
“It’s interesting to see that the two people whose conduct was found culpable in Brooklyn lost their employment and yet the people involved in some of the other purges identified by the AG in Queens and Manhattan are still there. Why weren’t those people fired?” New York City Councilman Ben Kallos, a longtime critic of the city election board’s hiring system, asked rhetorically.
Not quite scapegoats, the two suspended Brooklyn clerks appeared to be more like settled-upon sacrificial lambs. A city Board of Elections spokeswoman recently described them both as “retired.” But in 2016, what they appear to have been doing was following orders.
“You know what they did about it? Nothing. Nobody went to jail. Nobody got prosecuted. Nobody got in trouble. But they promised they were going to make some ‘serious changes.’ They broke the law. They kicked off over 200,000 registered voters. Did Putin do that? Who did that?! Ohhhh, the Democrats in New York.” – political analyst and comedian Jimmy Dore
Schneiderman wrote in his lawsuit that the New York City Board of Elections improperly cancelled Brooklyn registrations in three separate purges. The first one the board named “The Brooklyn Project,” in which Brooklyn borough staff developed a plan to cancel voters’ registrations solely on the fact that they had not voted since 2008. Yet both the National Voter Registration Act and New York state election law prohibit removing voters from the list of eligible voters by reason of the person’s failure to vote, according to Schneiderman in his lawsuit.
Curiously, Schneiderman did not investigate any purged voters who had registered after 2008 – even though many plaintiffs in the Election Justice USA lawsuit (which eventually grew to 500 voters) registered later and were still purged.
Schneiderman took the board at its word claiming the genesis of the Brooklyn Project was devised in response to a scathing 2013 New York City Department of Investigations probe under outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The scathing report described a 350-member board staffed largely by the county political committees, with participation in political activities the chief prerequisite for securing and retaining employment.
The DOI’s 72-page report also cited jobs obtained through nepotism, in violation of the city’s conflicts of interest law, and criticized the board’s lack of standardized hiring practices when filling job vacancies. It recommended public postings to find qualified workers, the norm in filling city government jobs. The DOI also demanded the board implement screening and background checks on prospective employees, a training program for poll workers, and a modernized system for monitoring time and attendance. All of these problems persist today.
What made headlines, however, was the fact that 61 DOI investigators were able to vote under the names of 39 dead people. Although, according to Schneiderman, there has not been a single incidence of this kind of voter fraud in New York State, Ryan cited this finding in an Oct. 30, 2017 letter to the city comptroller’s office as a justification for its aggressive purge.
“DOI made a series of recommendations to (the) Board. The clear implication was to encourage the Board to remove more voters from the rolls,” Ryan wrote to Marjorie Landa, the deputy comptroller for audit. But most of what the report recommended was for the board to change its hiring practices. However, Ryan admitted in the letter, “Unequivocally, that the process of identifying the voters and the notices were both done in error.”
The Brooklyn Project, Schneiderman said, took place between early 2014 and July 5, 2015, and demonstrated “explicit violations of the law and that high-level officials at NYCBOE had knowledge of these violations.” The board’s stated timeline for when the purges took place would all but eliminate the possibility that any purges could have taken place in relation to Sanders, who announced his candidacy in April 2015.
“The plan,” according to the lawsuit, “did not require staff at the Brooklyn Borough Office to find any evidence indicating that the voters were ineligible pursuant to federal or state laws” – for which the attorney general found no rationale.
In fact, Schneiderman said that senior officials at the city Board of Elections “had sufficient opportunity to recognize the illegal criteria and reinstate the illegally cancelled voters prior to the April 2016 Presidential Primary.”
In addition, senior officials “had many opportunities to learn of the illegal criteriautilized by the Brooklyn Borough Office to cancel voters’ registrations and to prevent the Brooklyn Project from moving forward,” Schneiderman found. His office also found that “prior to the 2016 presidential primary, senior officials at the NYCBOEwere aware that voters in Brooklyn had been illegally removed from the registration rolls due to their failure to vote.”
Schneiderman discovered instead that “during the flagging process, officials from Executive Management, Commissioners and the Brooklyn Borough Office held several meetings.” His office also found that, “during some of these meetings the Chief Clerk discussed the Brooklyn Project and what it entailed.” In other words, neither Haslett-Rudiano nor Canizio acted on their own.
When The Brooklyn Project was complete, the city Board of Elections had illegally cancelled the registrations of over 100,000 New Yorkers.
The two other purges of Brooklyn voters, Schneiderman said, occurred between May 2014 and July 22, 2015, related to changes of address, and purged an additional 100,000 New Yorkers.
If the Board of Elections suspects a voter has moved, federal and state election laws mandate the board follow a precise set of protocols to first make that determination and then properly notify the voter. A postage prepaid and pre-addressed return card on which the voter may state his or her current address – called a “confirmation notice” – must initially be sent to the voter’s original address. If the board does not receive a response – over the span of two successive federal elections– only then does it have the right to cancel the voter’s registration.
Instead, the board sent something called “intent to cancel,” or ITC, notices and waited just 14 days after alerting voters suspected of moving, before purging them from their rolls with regard to the address-change purges.
“Emails reveal that staff at the NYCBOE Central Office explicitly recognized that the NYCBOE violated the law by sending ITC letters rather than Confirmation Notices,” Schneiderman said in the lawsuit,adding in a press release that the “illegal shortcut devised and implemented at the Central Office of the NYCBOE, resulted in the cancellation of over 100,000 voter registrations throughout New York City.”
The board’s central office, in lower Manhattan, houses senior staff, commissioners and the executive director. Haslett-Rudiano and Canizio worked out of the Brooklyn office.
On May 13, 2016, the board met at a New York City Council hearing to discuss a $20 million offer from de Blasio as “incentive funding” to implement immediate reforms. At thisFriday afternoon budget meeting, City Council Finance Committee Chair Julissa Ferreras-Copeland confronted Ryan, demanding to know how his chief clerks were able to purge 126,000 voters under his watch.
“If you’re the executive director and you have oversight, how does Brooklyn, Kings County, make that decision without letting you know that this is a step that they’re going to take before an election?” asked Ferreras-Copeland.
“Other than to say that they made the decision on their own without input from executive management and/or the commissioners, there is no explanation,” Ryan answered. “They did it on their own. And they did it on their own with a misinterpretation of the procedures which are posted on our website and widely known.” Ryan still maintained that day that no one had been intentionally disenfranchised and did not commit to de Blasio’s reforms.
Though Ryan had told the New York City Council that his chief clerks had acted independently, Schneiderman found that the “Coordinator of Voter Registration had informed officials in Executive Management, including Executive Director Michael Ryan, that the planned INFO66 ITC letter mailing included more than 120,000 voters in Brooklyn.”
Additionally the attorney general said, “NYCBOE Executive Management permitted BOE staff to flag registrations for cancellation through the use of INFO66 [ITC] letters and without requiring staff to provide any evidence that the registered voter was ineligible to vote.” – further demonstrating that the Chief Clerks did not “do it on their own.”
Schneiderman also found that Queens and Manhattan Borough staff – responsible for illegally cancelling the registrations of 74,000 New Yorkers – had deployed the exact same M.O.s when they “improperly flagged voters for an INFO66 [ITC] letter based solely on those voters’ failure to vote and without any evidence that the voters were ineligible to vote.”
While there’s no definitive proof, this suggests that the board’s central office had directed subordinates to send out the illegal ITC cards, giving voters 14 days to respond, rather than the two successive general-election cycles, they were allowed.
Schneiderman revealed also that staff in the Queens office illegally used the genealogy website Ancestry.com as its method to determine whether voters had died to cancel their registrations. Even worse, after senior Board of Elections officials were told how they were accessing Ancestry.com to determine voters had died, the practice continued.
Lastly, after having purged 200,000 voters, none of the three county Boards named singled out by Schneiderman – Brooklyn, Manhattan, or Queens update its database, on with that of the state Board of Elections which is also required of them. The New York City Board of Elections refused to comment. Ryan, the board’s executive director, also rebuffed multiple requests for interviews or to answer questions in writing through a spokeswoman.
Although Schneiderman’s lawsuit cited deliberate malfeasance on page after page, neither he (nor the U.S. Department of Justice) recommended the New York City District Attorney bring criminal charges against any party responsible. Nor did Schneiderman bring charges himself. The Department of Justice refused to comment.
Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, offered as explanation, “Our jurisdiction in cases like this is civil. This is not a criminal case.” She did not respond to questions about the cost of the investigation or lawsuit and did not provide details on the reforms in the consent decree.
However, the evidence revealed in the lawsuit begs the question, why wasn’t a massive, illegal, deliberate purge of 200,000 voters – in which the New York City Board of Elections later admitted its culpability – considered to be a criminal offense?
The attorney general’s lawsuit sought to have the board’s voter registration coordinator replaced, but the consent decree did not require any staffing changes. Asked about any staffing changes made as a result of the investigation, Spitalnick said that Beth Fossella, the voter registration coordinator, and others had been replaced. However, Fossella is still listed on the board’s website in that position and answered her office phone there this week.
As described, in the 2013 DOI Investigation, board staff are not appointed based on their expertise in running elections but as plum patronage posts by the Democratic and Republican Party machines. In an attempt to rein in the board’s staffing practices, Kallos introduced legislation in August 2016 that would have required online job postings for 14 days before interviews are held for government jobs, but his bill failed to gain support.
At the very least, the consent decree was an opportunity to mandate changes along the lines of Kallos’ anti-patronage bill. Although the New York City Council plays a role in approving board appointments and budgets, the board falls under state jurisdiction and Schneiderman would have been well within his rights to intensify the remedial measures contained in the settlement. In fact, two former attorney general candidates suggested that more could have been done, including potentially pursuing a criminal case.
“Sadly it’s another case of Albany getting in the way of anyone having good elections in this state, or of Albany to fix the Board of Elections, give it back to the people and take it away from the party bosses,” Kallos said about the end result.
Lo and behold, after the Sept. 13, 2018, Democratic primary, the now familiar headlines ensued: “Reports of Widespread Voter Suppression in New York State Democratic Primary.” “More NYC Primary Voters Find Their Names Missing From Voter Rolls.” “Voting in New York Is a Predictable Mess.”
In a segment two days after the September 2018 primary, TYT Network political analyst and comedian Jimmy Dore blamed the latest round of purged voters on Schneiderman’s failure to bring charges against the board. Over the last two years, Dore has been persistent critic of the attorney general’s decision, arguing it sets a dangerous precedent.
“You know what they did about it? Nothing. Nobody went to jail. Nobody got prosecuted. Nobody got in trouble. But they promised they were going to make some ‘serious changes,’” said Dore sarcastically, referring to the 2017 consent decree. “They broke the law. They kicked off over 200,000 registered voters. Did Putin do that? Who did that?! Ohhhh, the Democrats in New York. If you don’t punish anybody, you guarantee it’s going to happen again. And guess what – it happened again!”
So given the extent of the laws broken and that board staff at every level was cited on page after page of Schneiderman’s lawsuit for breaking the law, City & State asked election law experts if the following felony charges were applicable.
According to state election law, “A public officer or employee who knowingly and wilfully omits, refuses or neglects to perform any act required of him … or who knowingly and wilfully refuses to permit the doing of any act … or who knowingly and wilfully hinders or delays or attempts to hinder or delay the performance of such an act is, if not otherwise provided by law, guilty of a felony.”
As noted in the lawsuit, senior board officials “were aware” that voters had been illegally removed from the registration rolls due to their failure to vote. The board “had ample opportunity to identify and reverse cancellations, but failed to take appropriate action prior to the April 2016 presidential primary.” And “staff at the NYCBOE Central Office explicitly recognized that the NYCBOE violated the law by sending ITC letters rather than Confirmation Notices.”
Letitia James, the Democratic attorney general nominee, would not commit to reviewing her predecessor’s lawsuit, offering only a hypothetical course of action. James, who had the support of the state Democratic Party and with the help of Cuomo raised $1 million for her campaign, has been accused of being “hand-picked” by the state’s Democratic establishment and lacking the independence required for the office. She also endorsed Clinton for president and thanked her in her Sept. 13 victory speech.
“Before spelling out specifics on reforms or whether criminal charges would be appropriate for any NYC BOE employee,” James told City & State in an email in September. “I would need to meet and discuss with AG staff to review the entirety of the case and all relevant facts to determine appropriate reforms and whether the activity in question meets the statutory threshold of criminal activity.”
She said, she would have “called on the NYC BOE to take special remedial action to allow all removed individuals the opportunity to vote (such as through mail-in ballot) prior to allowing the certification of the election results.” James promised only to ensure the consent decree’s “monitoring and oversight” is being followed. Republican attorney general Keith Wofford did not respond.
Florida congressional candidate and law professor, Tim Canova, who is challenging former Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and has been a fighting an uphill battle in exposing election fraud perpetrated withinthe Democratic Party, said more should have been done in New York.
“I believe former NYAG Eric Schneiderman should have brought felony charges against NYC Board of Elections officials who were aware of the illegal purge of voters and never took action to identify and reverse the cancellations of voter registrations,” Canova said after reviewing the lawsuit.
“Without prosecutions, there’s no deterrence of future wrongdoing. Economists refer to this as a ‘moral hazard’ and the rigging gets normalized,” Canova concluded. “I was therefore not surprised to see the purging of voters continue in New York’s recent primary.”
NEXT STORY: 2018 general elections: The too-close-to-call list