why I won’t vote in the NY primary election

If I’m lucky and things go as I think they should, I may still vote on April 19th. But I’ve become increasingly convinced that I will not be allowed to. I’m writing this to provide a full record of why not.

Let’s start from the beginning. I first registered to vote in NY at my high school, during my senior year. The town clerk actually stopped by our classroom and walked us through the paperwork. It was 2007, not even a presidential election year – she just decided to have us all registered for the sake of prudence. [1]

That day, while I was still 17 years old, I decided not to register with any political party. [2] I didn’t see the point. I didn’t believe in a two-party political system and didn’t want to participate in one. I didn’t yet understand that my participation was not voluntary, that I was perhaps even more complicit by refusing to vote in the primaries.

But now, nearly ten years later, I understand very well the importance of the primary contest. It is the only stage at which American voters are provided some semblance of a nuanced choice. In a solid blue state like NY, one could argue that the primary is the real presidential contest. And the state’s independent voters are left out.

Next I moved to California for graduate school in the fall of 2013. I registered to vote in Yolo County [3] in February 2014 (my first time registering outside of NY), and voted in the midterm elections at my local polling station. I admittedly never contacted my old board of elections in New York – I entered my previous registration information on the California form, and (perhaps naïvely) assumed my part was done. [4]

I moved back to NY after graduating in 2015 for the chance to spend time with my family, and to prepare for whatever would come next. I arrived home on October 3rd (a Saturday) after a two week road trip across Canada.

At that point I knew nothing of Bernie Sanders, and Donald Drumpf’s candidacy did not yet frighten me. I intended to re-register in NY, but didn’t think it was urgent. It wasn’t even the election year yet! But according to my state and county election boards, I was wrong.

Here’s the rub: the deadline to register as a new voter for the New York Primaries was March 25th, 2016. This was the deadline I circled on my calendar. But the deadline to change party affiliations for the primary was October 9, 2015. Less than a week after I returned from California.

I first showed up to my county election board a few weeks before the March 25th deadline. I had filled out my registration form online, and planned simply to drop it off. But after handing over my form, the woman at the counter informed me I was already registered in the state of NY. As an independent. I had missed the deadline to register for the primary by about five months.

I first asked her to double check the record. My father, grandfather and I live in the same county, and we all share the same exact name. Our records get mixed up in online systems all the time. [5] But the birth date was correct. My registration was never canceled, even though I supplied my previous address on the CA voter registration form, even though I hadn’t voted in NY since 2012.

I explained that I had registered and voted in California, to no avail. They said they were bound by what the records showed, and the records showed my voting registration in NY had been maintained, uninterrupted, since high school. Finally I asked to see the election law myself. At the time I particularly wanted to read the language regarding affiliation changes as it pertained to independents. The officials repeated that I had missed the October 9th deadline, and that if I wanted to read the election law I was better off looking it up online. If I still wanted to submit my form, they said, my party affiliation change would go into effect after the general election. I was frustrated but the situation seemed helpless. I submitted the form and left.

But I did look up the election law at home, and I wound up reading the entire section on registration, cancellation, and moving. I felt cheated when I finished reading. I’m no lawyer, but I at least like to think I have decent powers of reading comprehension. My old NY registration should have been made invalid as soon as I registered in California. I should have been able to register as a new voter.

After that, I mailed Yolo County to request my old voting record, and went back to the elections board to cancel my registration. To be honest, this may turn out to have been a mistake. But it seemed to me that canceling the existing registration was my first step toward re-registering, and the clock was ticking. And of course I wasn’t receiving any guidance during this process from my local elections officials.

Before attempting to re-register, I called the NY state board of elections to sound out my case. I didn’t want to swagger into the county board with my folder of documents only to be humiliated by some obscure rule I’d missed. Eventually I was transferred to a man named Tom Connolly, who is listed as the Deputy Director of Public Information at the state BOE. He told me it sounded like I was in the right, that I should bring my CA voting record to the county and try to re-register. He gave me his office’s direct line in case they gave me any trouble, though he sounded convinced that things should go smoothly.

And they really almost did. I explained the situation to a woman at the county office, she took my documents, called downstairs, and was about to send me (very happily) on my way when her phone rang again. It was her supervisor from downstairs calling back, she wanted to speak to me herself.

The supervisor’s issue was with the number of actions made on my voting record over the span of just a few weeks. First there was the party affiliation change (on hold until after the general election, which I only submitted because county officials informed me I had no other recourse), then the cancellation (which I assumed would wipe out the affiliation change anyway), and now the attempt to re-register.

But the supervisor did more than express her concerns. She accused me of trying to illegally skirt the election law. Effectively: voting fraud. She was eventually joined by the County Commissioner from upstairs, who repeated that word, illegal, a few more times. The implication was clear: they could have me arrested.

If I lost my composure at any point during this saga, it was here. Two county officials were standing in front of me, telling me in their official capacity that I was breaking the law by attempting to register for the primary. Let’s be clear: I did not saunter into the elections board with a fake mustache and try to register as CJ Fitzpatrick. I consulted the election law myself, consulted with state officials, and collected documentation every single step of the way. And now I was being told that I could be arrested for what I was doing. To what end? To intimidate me into shutting up and leaving without the chance to vote? [6]

To the commissioner’s credit, we were able to finish the conversation politely. He told me that he would call the state at the number I provided. Since my application was already stamped and dated before the March 25th deadline, I was told there was no need to stick around for the state to call back. Still flustered, I thanked him and left.

This was Friday March 18th, and the next day I left for a vacation with my family. I returned to the elections office the week of March 28th, and after waiting a few minutes the supervisor came upstairs to say they were still waiting on the state’s response. They hadn’t forgotten about me, they insisted, but would try again as soon as possible. I got the voicemail a few days later from the commissioner’s secretary – they had spoken to Anna Svizzero, the state’s Director of Election Operations, and were informed that my request could not be completed. To date I have not been given any legal reasoning for why a clerical mix-up is enough to block me from voting. However, they told me a judge would be present at the county office the day of the primary, and I could present my case to him.

So that’s where I’m at. Tomorrow morning I will walk into the election office with: my CA voting record, copies of all the documents I submitted to the county board, my CA lease, CA employment verification, bank statements from the month I moved, and a copy of the relevant election law. But I am no lawyer: wish me luck.

FOOTNOTES & RELATED INFORMATION

[1] I wish more municipalities did this.

[2] Somehow I manged not to register with the ‘Independence Party,’ but that mistake is common and the name is bullshit – they should be forced to change it.

[3] Seriously, look it up.

[4] According to section 5-400 of the election law: “1. A voter’s registration, including the registration of a voter in inactive status, shall be cancelled if, since the time of his last registration, he: (a) Moved his residence outside the city or county in which he is registered.” And then: “2. For the purposes of this section a personal request to be removed from the list of registered voters shall include the following: … (d) A notice from a board of elections or other voter registration officer or agency that such person has registered to vote from an address outside such city or county.” This type of notice is what I expected would happen.

[5] Yes, even our credit checks. Shout out to Johnny O.

[6] And if this was happening to me, somebody with basically every privilege this country has to offer, how many other people are being blocked from voting tomorrow? How many of their stories will remain unheard? How many of those voters would have been prevented from even continuing their case as far as I have?

2 thoughts on “why I won’t vote in the NY primary election

  1. I live in Italy, although I am originally from San Francisco. I started out this election year by hearing from Swedish guy from Stockholm that Trump was running. I had never heard of Bernie Sanders at that point. I can’t participate in election matters because of my position. I can donate privately which I did of course to Sanders. I can however write an email to send my gratitude for the work you did, and documenting it. I am really grateful that you wrote and published what went on. It is so IMPORTANT that you documented everything. I think it may prove even more important what happened when you did everything possible to vote including getting a court order, than anything else. Thank you.

    • Thank you for the kind words! I actually have plans to move to Italy myself in the fall (for about a year). I will likely be voting via absentee ballot in the general election.

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