Last week’s presidential primary election was marked by confusion and contention as hundreds of independent voters barred from casting ballots by New York’s closed primary system showed up anyway, impelled by an election-eve legal maneuver and social media-spread rumors that the polling places would be open to all, regardless of party affiliation.
“This one was a little difficult,” said Ulster County Board of Elections Commissioner Tom Turco, who spent much of last Tuesday, April 19 fielding phone calls and traveling between polling sites trying to sort out the confusion.
New York is one of 11 states that operate on a closed primary system, meaning that only registered party members may vote in the contest to select a party’s nominee. New York also has the earliest deadline in the nation for those who wish to switch parties or change their affiliation from non-enrolled. To be eligible to cast a ballot in Tuesday’s primary, already-registered voters must have enrolled in the party by Oct. 9, 2015. The closed primary and early deadline was widely believed to offer an advantage to Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton since her opponent, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, draws wide support from independent and third-party voters.
On April 18, one day before the primary, the non-profit group Election Justice USA filed a lawsuit in Suffolk County U.S. District Court on behalf of 200 presumed Democrats who said their names were improperly left off the party’s registration rolls. The last-minute legal action sought to throw open the primary contest to all voters, regardless of party affiliation.
By noon on Tuesday, when polls opened in Ulster County, social media was filled with exhortations for voters to head to the polls, whether they were enrolled in a party or not. In some cases, the posts referenced the lawsuit and urged non-enrolled voters to cast affidavit ballots just in case the court ordered the primary opened. Others made the patently false claim that the courts had already declared an open primary or that a “law” had passed allowing any registered voter to participate.
Turco said that he was caught off guard by the last minute effort, which he attributed to Sanders’ campaign, to get independent and third party voters to the polls.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Turco. “We just knew [Sanders’] campaign had gotten hold of this issue and was taking it to another level.”
Over the course of the day, would-be voters at poll sites around the county reported confusion about the process for handling affidavit ballots. Kristopher Aadahl, a SUNY New Paltz student, Green Party member and Sanders supporter, said he spent the morning on campus urging fellow students to go to the polls and, if they were not registered Democrats, request an affidavit ballot. Aadahl said that he was concerned, not only with the outcome of the lawsuit, but with reports that thousands of properly enrolled party members may have been purged from the poll books.
“Regardless of the issue that this may have become an open primary, the fact that tens of thousands of people who were registered at Democrats or registered as Republicans and were switched from the party is a huge issue,” said Aadahl.
Not long after polls opened, Aadahl said he began to get word that poll workers at one New Paltz voting site were denying affidavit ballots to those who requested them on orders from elections board officials. Aadahl called the Ulster County Board of Elections and got in touch with Turco. A short time later, Turco turned up at the polling site to instruct workers to give out the ballots to anyone who asked.
Turco explained that the lawsuit, and subsequent complaints, compelled the board to depart from its standard method of dealing with voters who show up to vote in a primary, but are not on the registration rolls. Normally, Turco said, poll workers call board headquarters in Kingston, where staff check the voter’s name against party membership rolls on file there. Turco said that after confusion in the early hours of voting, he instructed poll workers to skip the phone call to headquarters and provide affidavit ballots on demand.
“Technically, by law [non-enrolled voters] are not entitled to the affidavit ballot,” said Turco. “But we’re not going to stop you if you’re really determined to fill one out.”
Turco said that he responded to similar situations in Woodstock, Rochester and Rosendale. In each, case, he said, he advised poll workers to hand out affidavit ballots to all comers. By 4 p.m., four hours after polls opened, the process changed once more after the court ruled that it would not make a decision on the primary issue that day. In response, state election officials advised their local counterparts to carry on with their usual primary day protocols.
Meanwhile, confusion continued at polling sites across the county. In Woodstock, Linda Dubilier said that when she went to vote at the Lake Hill firehouse, she was told she was not in the poll books. When she asked for an affidavit ballot, she was told there were none.
“The guy just didn’t have any,” said Dubilier, who said that she had registered as a democrat years ago, but had not voted in any recent primary. “I didn’t know what to do, so I just left.” (Turco said that he never received a call from Woodstock poll workers to report a shortage of affidavit ballots).
By the time polls closed at 9 p.m. 870 affidavit ballots had been cast across the county, 505 for Democratic candidates and 365 for Republicans. Elections officials will examine the ballots determine if they were in fact valid and, if so, count them.
Meanwhile, the federal court has yet to rule on whether the independent and third-party votes should be counted at all. Aadahl and other activists are collecting stories from local voters who believe that they were improperly turned away from the polls or purged from the party rolls.
“We’re trying to get as many people together as possible to make a strong formal complaint,” said Aadahl.