A.G.'s Complaint Follows His Investigation Into Brooklyn Voter Purge After the 2016 Presidential Primary, Showing Widespread Violations By NYCBOE
Schneiderman: The Right To Vote Is Sacred -- Yet NYCBOE Knowingly Disenfranchised Over 200,000 New Yorkers, Violating Federal And State Laws
Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today announced that his office would seek to intervene in a federal lawsuit against the New York City Board of Elections (“NYCBOE”), alleging that widespread policies and practices used by the NYCBOE to cancel voter registrations violate federal and state laws. Specifically, Attorney General Schneiderman’s lawsuit alleges that since 2014 the NYCBOE improperly purged over 200,000 voters’ registrations and, as a result, disenfranchised many voters during the 2016 Presidential Primary.
“The right to vote is sacred, protecting all other rights. Yet the NYC Board of Elections’ practices were directly responsible for disenfranchising over 200,000 voters – violating federal and state laws, and undermining New Yorkers’ trust in the institutions meant to protect their rights,” said Attorney General Schneiderman. “That’s why we’re moving to join this lawsuit – and I won’t stop fighting for the reforms we need to protect and expand voting rights across New York.”
The Attorney General filed papers in federal court – including a proposed complaint– to request that the Attorney General be allowed to join in a pending lawsuit against the NYCBOE, brought by the organization Common Cause on behalf of purged voters. The Obama Administration’s U.S. Department of Justice recently entered the lawsuit as well.
The Attorney General’s complaint makes new allegations that go beyond the prior two complaints, detailing three separate voter purges that removed 200,000 people from the rolls (one purge in 2014 related to changes of addresses, one in 2015 related to changes of addresses, and one in 2015 related to the “Brooklyn Project,” all detailed below) and new evidence that shows both explicit violations of the law and that high-level officials at NYCBOE had knowledge of these violations.
The Attorney General’s action stems from its ongoing nine-month investigation into policies and practices for purging voter registrations. During the Presidential Primary on April 19, 2016, the Attorney General’s Office operated a hotline to troubleshoot problems voters encountered at their polling place. That day, the Attorney General’s Office received more than 1,500 complaints from citizens across New York State, including many regarding cancelled registrations in Brooklyn.
Last month, the Attorney General released a comprehensive report on the unprecedented number of statewide voter complaints the hotline received during the April Presidential Primary and General Election. The Attorney General proposed a series of comprehensive legislative and administrative reforms to simplify the voting process, boost voter registration, and expand voter turnout.
In April, the Attorney General also opened a separate investigation into the policies and practices of the NYCBOE after reports that the Brooklyn Board of Elections improperly purged over one hundred thousand of voters from its registration roll. The Attorney General’s investigation involved interviewing over a dozen current and former NYCBOE officials, reviewing tens of thousands of pages of documents, and examining over one hundred individual voter files. Based on this investigation, the Attorney General’s complaint alleges, in great detail, that the NYCBOE violated federal and state election laws in two clear ways:
- First, the NYCBOE violated clear federal and state law prohibitions against canceling a voter solely for not voting. Beginning in early 2014, officials in the Brooklyn Office of the NYCBOE put together a plan to cancel the registrations of voters who had not voted since 2008, and who had not made themselves known to the NYCBOE in any other way, such as by submitting a change of address, name, or party affiliation. This plan, known in the NYCBOE as the “Brooklyn Project,” was developed in response to a report by the New York City Department of Investigation, which criticized the NYCBOE’s voter roll maintenance practices and alleged that ineligible voters remained on the NYCBOE’s registration roll.
The Brooklyn Project was illegal under both the National Voter Registration Act (“NVRA”), 52 U.S.C. § 20507(b)(2), and the New York Election Law, N.Y. Elec. Law § 5-400, which prohibit cancellations of voters’ registration solely because they have not voted. In spite of this clear prohibition, the NYCBOE proceeded with the Brooklyn Project, and for several months in 2014, more than 20 employees worked diligently to flag voters for cancellation based on the illegal criterion of not having voted. Ultimately, in 2015, NYCBOE sent intent to cancel ("ITC") notices and then purged nearly 117,000 voters. A timeline for the Brooklyn Project is provided below.
Additionally, officials at the Queens Borough Office illegally used the genealogy website Ancestry.com in an attempt to determine whether voters had died, and had notified senior NYCBOE officials about the practice, which still continued.
The Attorney General alleges that senior officials at the NYCBOE had sufficient opportunity to recognize the illegal criteria and reinstate the illegally cancelled voters prior to the April 2016 Presidential Primary. For instance, in August 2015, in response to a complaint received from a voter cancelled by this illegal purge, senior level officials at the NYCBOE were informed that the Brooklyn Borough Office of the NYCBOE had flagged voters for cancellation based on a history of not voting. Despite this notice, the NYCBOE failed to take immediate steps to reinstate the voters. Instead, the voters purged as part of the Brooklyn Project remained cancelled up to and during the 2016 Presidential Primary.
- Second, the complaint filed by the Attorney General alleges that the NYCBOE violated federal and state laws by not following proper procedures for cancelling voters based on a change of address. The NYCBOE regularly receives information from the United States Postal Service’s National Change of Address (“NCOA”) database regarding individuals who may have changed their address. If that information suggests that a voter moved outside New York City, the NYCBOE can initiate a cancellation process described in federal and state law. Specifically, under the NVRA, 52 U.S.C. § 20507(c)-(d), and New York State Election Law § 5-708(5)(c), the NYCBOE must send that voter a notice stating that it suspects the voter has moved and that it is seeking confirmation of the voter’s address. If the voter does not respond to the notice, and does not vote or confirm his or her address in any other way over a timeframe consisting of two federal general elections, the NYCBOE can only then cancel that voter’s registration.
In contrast to this multiyear cancellation process mandated by law, in 2014 and 2015 the NYCBOE waited just 14 days after providing such notice to voters before purging them from the registration roll. 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. Moreover, many voters, including several that contacted the Attorney General’s Office during the 2016 Presidential Primary, were disenfranchised by this illegal project. Timelines for the purges are provided below.
The Attorney General further alleges that inadequate oversight failed to prevent these purges. Staff at the Borough Offices received almost no training to prepare them for the task of handling voter registrations, and several former officials from the Brooklyn Office reported that they were not aware that the NYCBOE had written policies regarding voter registration, even when given a copy of those policies. Moreover, in interviews with the Attorney General’s Office, several former officials at the Brooklyn Office incorrectly maintained that they had the authority to cancel voter’s registrations based on a failure to vote.
The lawsuit alleges violations of the National Voter Registration Act (“NVRA”), 52 U.S.C. § 20507(b)(2), and 52 U.S.C. § 20507(d), as well as violations of New York State Election Law § 5-400, and §§ 5-708(5)(c).
Among other relief requested in the complaint, the Attorney General asks the court to order NYCBOE to:
- audit the cancellation of every New York City voter sent an ITC letter since January 1, 2014 and require reinstatement of any person removed in violation of federal or state election law;
- ensure that a process for cancelling voters is implemented in compliance with federal and state election law;
- create a training program, with the approval of the Attorney General’s Office, regarding the maintenance of registration rolls and the removal of voters from the rolls;
- create oversight policies to ensure Borough Offices’ compliance with federal and state law regarding cancellations;
- appoint a new head of Voter Registration to provide oversight of cancellation processes and ensure that those processes comply with federal and state law;
- and no longer use cancellation letters to cancel registrations without documentation or evidence that a voter is ineligible.
This matter is being handled by Assistant Attorneys General Ajay Saini, Diane Lucas, and Sania Khan of the Attorney General’s Civil Rights Bureau, which is led by Bureau Chief Lourdes Rosado. The Civil Rights Bureau is part of the Social Justice Division, which is led by Executive Deputy Attorney General for Social Justice Alvin Bragg.
The Attorney General’s Office thanks the New York City Board of Elections for its cooperation with the investigation.