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Why Voter Rolls Can Be A Mess

A man votes on April 19 at Public School 22 in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Stephanie Keith
Getty Images
A man votes on April 19 at Public School 22 in Brooklyn, N.Y.

This week, as part of the Nation Engaged project, NPR and some member stations will be talking about what the 2016 primary season has revealed about voters' confidence in the American electoral system.

Part of running a fair election is knowing who the voters are. That means keeping an accurate list of who is eligible to vote. This has proved to be a difficult task in many states — including New York, where a spectacular meltdown angered thousands of voters and inflamed partisan passions during the state's April presidential primary.

The problems in New York City are part of a much larger issue. A 2012 study by the Pew Center on the States found that 24 million voter registrations were wrong or invalid. That's 1 in every 8 voters across the country, which translates to a lot of voting roll problems.

In the run-up to the election, the New York City Board of Elections mistakenly purged more than 120,000 voters from its rolls in Brooklyn, 10 percent of the active registered voters.

News of the purge exploded on social media and spilled over into primary day — one of the most fiercely fought and closely watched primary contests in a generation, especially among Democrats in New York — when, the state attorney general's office reports, it received more than 1,000 complaints from voters, more than six times the number received in the 2012 general election.

The news was first reported by WNYC two days before the primary based on an analysis of state voter enrollment statistics. The number of purged voters then doubled the day before the primary, based on additional information from the New York City Board of Elections.

CD-ROMs and spreadsheets

On a dreary Tuesday after the primary, inflamed voters packed into what is generally a sparsely attended weekly meeting of the city Board of Elections. In a conference room on the sixth floor of a downtown Manhattan office building, voters waited for more than two hours for the opportunity to speak. They demanded to know why voters were purged and targeted their anger at Michael Ryan, the board's executive director.

Ryan said his staff is still piecing together what happened, but they've found a few clues.

"What we've now located is a disk at the Brooklyn office that contained all of the individuals that were purged on either June 18, 2015 and July 5, 2015," Ryan said in an interview at his board office.

That disk is a CD-ROM containing two Excel spreadsheets.

Michael Ryan, New York City Board of Elections executive director
Brigid Bergin / WNYC
Michael Ryan, New York City Board of Elections executive director

While the election board does need to remove people from the voter rolls for valid reasons all the time, like moves, deaths or other eligibility issues, on those two dates last year, Ryan said, the purges were done incorrectly.

Last week, the board returned all those voters to the rolls to ensure their names would be in the poll books for an upcoming federal primary on June 28.

Still, Ryan insists the problem is bigger than this purge

"We can't keep updated lists. It's just impossible to do that," said Ryan.

Right now, the onus is on local election officials. There's no national voter database. Ryan said even data sources that are supposed to be reliable — like the Social Security Administration's death master file and the U.S. Postal Service's national change of address database — contain errors.

"We have a transient metropolis and a transient society in general in the United States," said Ryan. He added, "And the boards of elections, not just the New York City Board of Elections, but all over the country don't have the ability to track people's movements."

When people are paying attention, that is the time to think about making systemic changes to our election system to make it work.

A moment for reform?

In a system that is so complicated, breakdowns like the one in New York can also open up an opportunity for reform, say experts such as Jonathan Brater, counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute that works on voting issues.

"When there are these moments when people are paying attention," said Brater, "that is the time to think about making systemic changes to our election system to make it work."

For now, multiple investigations are continuing.

The civil rights division of the New York State Attorney General's office and the New York City Comptroller's office launched an investigation and audit, respectively, into what happened in the run-up to the April primary.

But major changes at the city Board of Elections are not in the works.

Mayor Bill de Blasio even tried a carrot-and-stick approach. In the fiscal 2017 budget, which starts on July 1, the mayor offered the board a $20 million boost to its budget if it pledged to make specific reforms, like hiring an outside operations consultant, empaneling a blue-ribbon commission to identify failures, enhancing poll worker training, and providing new email and text notifications for voters.

The mayor cannot force the board to make any of these changes. While New York City funds its local Board of Elections, the commissioners are political appointees and its executive director and staff report to them, in accordance with New York State election law.

So far, the board has not accepted the mayor's offer, a move he criticized when announcing a final city budget last week.

"I think if people come in a generous spirit and say, 'Here's $20 million to modernize and upgrade but it's going to take some real guarantees and reforms,' I would have thought that answer would have been a very fast yes," said de Blasio. "So, I'd like to see more from the Board of Elections."

Copyright 2020 WNYC Radio. To see more, visit WNYC Radio.

Brigid Bergin