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Attorney General to Investigate Board of Elections After Chaotic Primary

By Jeff Mays | April 20, 2016 6:38pm
 A man casts a ballot at St. Sebastian's school gym on primary day on April 19, 2016. There are now two investigations of the Board of Elections.
A man casts a ballot at St. Sebastian's school gym on primary day on April 19, 2016. There are now two investigations of the Board of Elections.
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DNAinfo/Katie Honan

NEW YORK CITY—The New York State Attorney General's office became the second government agency to announce an investigation into the Board of Elections following widespread reports of voter disenfranchisement during Tuesday's presidential primaries.

"I am deeply troubled by the volume and consistency of voting irregularities, both in public reports and direct complaints to my office's voter hotline, which received more than 1,000 complaints in the course of the day yesterday," Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement. "That's why today, we have opened an investigation into alleged improprieties in yesterday's voting by the New York City Board of Elections."

The move comes after City Comptroller Scott Stringer announced plans to audit the BOE. The agency confirmed to Stringer that 125,000 Brooklyn voters had been removed from the rolls.

Stringer also opened an online portal to solicit information from voters regarding their experiences trying to vote.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders called voting issue in New York state "absurd" in a speech Tuesday night and Mayor Bill de Blasio has also called for "major reforms" in the BOE as well as state voting laws.

Stringer, in announcing his audit, said the BOE "hasn't functioned well for a very long time."

The board is made up of 10 commissioners, two from each of the five boroughs, chosen by the Democratic and Republican parties. The City Council appoints the commissioners to a four-year term and the board is supposed to hire a bipartisan staff to run day-to-day operations.

That system has spawned complaints of patronage that has led to the BOE's failures over the years, including the inability to upgrade to electronic voting machines required by the 2002 Help America Vote Act by the deadline years later.

New York was the last state in the Union to comply with the act.

It took the BOE several years to choose a replacement for the old lever machines, which had to be re-used one election because of confusion over the new machines.

A 2013 investigation of the BOE by the Department of Investigation found widespread problems, including patronage, with many employees of the BOE having relatives that already worked there and a failure of workers to prevent ineligible voters, including the deceased, from casting a ballot.

In the 2013 Democratic mayoral primary, broken machines led to a delay in determining a victor because of ballots that had to be counted by hand.

In spite of the long-standing problems, nothing at the agency seems to change. A 2008 DOI investigation found numerous workers with criminal records and a worker promoting a political campaign from his office computer during work hours, the Village Voice reported.

Stringer said "politicians from both parties come together and run an agency like it's a backroom Tammany Hall political club." 

But BOE executive director Michael Ryan denies any voters were disenfranchised during Tuesday's primary.

"No one was disenfranchised," Ryan told Fox 5 New York.

Ryan said he was "proud" of the job his staff did in Tuesday's primary and that the purge of voters from the rolls in Brooklyn was part of a "routine list maintenance process."

He also said that the number of complaints was part of a "concerted effort" by people protesting New York City's closed primary system that does not allow independents to vote.

"We tracked down dozens of voters who say they were disenfranchised and as it turns out they weren't registered in the party they were trying to vote for," Ryan said.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Sanders may have drawn more independent voters to the polls. But critics say New York's closed primary system is part of its troubles.

Rose Clouston, national coordinator at Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said her Washington-D.C.-based group received hundreds of calls from New York independents who did not understand why they couldn't vote Tuesday. There are about 3 million independents in New York State.

"A lot of New Yorkers are confused or dismayed about the closed primary," Clouston said. "Despite the fact that they are a registered independent and excited about this election and want to participate they were disappointed by rules that prevent them from participating in the democratic process."

New York City's election system is not aligned with the federal election system, which means voters may face more elections during any given year.

To improve New York's dismal turnout, advocates have encouraged things such as same day registration, which is available in at least 10 other states. Early voting would also increase participation rates, they say.

"We need more resources in the BOE and New York state needs to overhaul how it does elections," said Evan Thies, a political consultant who is president of Brooklyn Strategies. "We need a system that allows people to be a part of the process."

Clouston said the uproar from Tuesday's primary might lead to change.

"While I wish so many voters hadn't been taken out of the election process, I'm glad to see calls for a more friendly election system," Clouston said.