Disenfranchised Primary Voters Look To New York Election Judges For Relief

Brooklyn resident Sara Fay Bolouri outside the Kings County Board of Elections. CREDIT: KIRA LERNER
Brooklyn resident Sara Fay Bolouri outside the Kings County Board of Elections. CREDIT: KIRA LERNER

NEW YORK, NEW YORK — Brooklyn resident Sara Fay Bolouri planned to cast a ballot on Tuesday morning for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on her way to work. Instead, she spent a large portion of the day at the Kings County Board of Elections.

“I had to call my employer and say I couldn’t come in because I have to defend my constitutional right to vote,” she told ThinkProgress, sitting in a row of plastic chairs in the downtown Brooklyn Board of Elections office.

After a many-hour ordeal — her last ditch effort to cast a ballot in New York’s primary — an election judge told Bolouri that she would not be permitted to vote.

“It’s voter suppression,” she told ThinkProgress. “I’m a citizen. I registered. I have a right to vote and my vote counts. That’s my constitutional right.”

Bolouri is one of many New Yorkers who discovered that their party affiliation had been switched or was incorrect, with no time to fix the error. New York has the earliest party registration deadline in the country — voters wishing to switch their affiliation from independent to a certain party had to make that change by October of last year.

But for those determined New Yorkers, it’s possible to register with a party at the last minute. There are six election judges across New York City — two in Manhattan and one in each of the other four boroughs — who are on available throughout primary day to meet with voters hoping to restore their primary voting rights. Though the city Board of Elections did not make the information public, Gothamist reported that voters can obtain a court order allowing them to vote in a certain party’s primary by visiting one of the six judges.

I’m a citizen. I registered. I have a right to vote and my vote counts. That’s my constitutional right.

Bolouri was willing to jump through all of the necessary hoops in order to cast a ballot.

Though she voted in the Democratic primary in 2008, Bolouri said she moved to Germany after that election and requested an absentee ballot. She doesn’t remember checking the “unaffiliated” box on her absentee ballot application, but realized last month when she went to register in New York that the oversight had disqualified her from voting in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

An independent organization, Election Justice USA, filed an emergency lawsuit on Tuesday on behalf of hundreds of New Yorkers who saw their party status change without their knowledge. A federal judge is scheduled to hold a hearing on the request for an open primary Tuesday afternoon. In the meantime, the organization is advising voters to file affidavit ballots, pending the judge’s order.

Bolouri said she saw the advisory about affidavit ballots this morning, and asked for one at her Brooklyn polling location. The poll worker denied her request, and advised that she speak with an election judge at the county Board of Elections instead to fight to regain her voting rights.

When she arrived at the downtown Brooklyn office, she was told to wait in a room alongside many other New Yorkers experiencing similar issues. She spoke with Anne Bassin, who was also waiting to speak with a judge because she had not realized until Tuesday that her party status was unaffiliated.

“They showed me when I got my driver’s license that I checked unaffiliated, but I don’t remember checking that. I think I just didn’t realize that was a voter registration form,” she told ThinkProgress.

Voters line up to speak with employees at the Kings County Board of Elections office. CREDIT: Kira Lerner
Voters line up to speak with employees at the Kings County Board of Elections office. CREDIT: Kira Lerner

Some voters who attempted to get orders from election judges were successful.

Fitz Maro, a strategist at an advertising agency, had always been a registered independent. But this past summer, he decided to register as Democrat to vote for Sanders. He knew the rules — he sent in his party affiliation change request in August 2015, two months before the October 2015 deadline.

In December, he realized he had never received confirmation of his party change. After another attempt, he called his local Board of Elections again in February, and they told him he would not be eligible to vote in the presidential primary because his party affiliation change was received in December, two months after the October 2015 deadline.

“I said, this is total disenfranchisement,” he recalled. “I’m going out of my way to be able to vote. I’m having to go beg, borrow, and steal just to be acknowledged and try to do this right.”

I’m going out of my way to be able to vote. I’m having to go beg, borrow, and steal just to be acknowledged and try to do this right.

Maro said he was disheartened — until he read an article in Gothamist stating that he could challenge his registration before a New York election judge.

“I thought, ‘This is totally ridiculous. But I’m going to do it anyway,’” he said.

So on Monday, Maro made his way to a courthouse in lower Manhattan to challenge his voter registration. He was told an election judge would not be available that day — but a woman who worked there, named Abigail, said she might be able to help.

“She was such a baller,” Maro said. “She spent the better part of an hour figuring this out for me.”

Eventually, Maro was given a form stating he’d be able to vote in Tuesday’s primary. But it took months of frustration, and hours of his life. Considering he followed all the rules, he said he doesn’t think the process he went through was justifiable.

“It was complete bullshit, wasting hours of my day, so much time and everything, just to vote,” he said. “I did everything by the book, but it took until the day before the primary to know that my affidavit will count.”

Maro was lucky, but the decision to restore voting rights is up to individual judges who can grant or deny people at their whim.

After roughly an hour of waiting in the city Board of Elections office, a man told Bolouri, Bassin, and two others to follow him to another floor, where they could meet with the election judge. Twenty minutes later, Bolouri called ThinkProgress, defeated.

She pretty much just said, ‘Sorry, you pulled out of the party, whether you meant to or not.’

“I went in and I made my case before the judge, saying I had always voted Democrat, registered that way in 2008,” she said, standing in the sun outside the government building. “She pretty much just said, ‘Sorry, you pulled out of the party, whether you meant to or not.’”

“She just said, ‘I won’t be able to overturn this,’” Bolouri continued, recalling her three minute meeting with the judge. “Because that’s the law. And I understand why she did that. That’s her job. The problem is: why is there legislation being passed that suppressing people’s right to vote?”

Unwilling to give up, Bolouri said she will be returning to her polling location to try one last time to participate in the primary.

“Well, first I might get some fried chicken, just to like soothe myself” she said laughing, pointing to the barbecue restaurant next to the Board of Elections’ office. “Fried chicken before I go cast a vote that probably won’t even count. But you’ve got to fight for democracy.”

Emily Atkin contributed reporting.