When Bad Voter Registration Info Goes Viral

The congregation at Cornerstone Baptist Church in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn is tech-savvy. It’s not uncommon on Sunday mornings to see worshipers call up passages of scripture on glowing electronic tablets or use smart phones to check in. 

So last week, when someone posted incorrect voter registration information on the church’s Facebook page, this digitally-connected community spread that information around.

It became an issue for Onida Coward-Mayers, who stood before the congregation on Sunday, not just as a concerned member but as the director of Voter Assistance for the New York City Campaign Finance Board. When people forwarded emails to her that contained the incorrect voter information, Coward-Mayers realized a bigger problem may be emerging – one that could be addressed with voter education, but if left unchecked, could lead to voter suppression.

“This is not something that’s just happened here at Cornerstone,” Coward-Mayers said Sunday morning from a podium in front of the church altar.  “I want to share there are emails and social media messages that are going out that are not correct.”

She explained that people did not need to re-register to vote if they participated in the 2008 presidential election. Voter registration would still be valid unless the voter moved out of state, was serving time for a felony conviction, was deceased, or in the case of a primary election, if the voter was not registered with a political party.

But even after Coward-Mayer spoke, and a correction was published in the church’s bulletin and on its Facebook fan page, churchgoers continued to express anxiety and confusion.

“It goes back to my grandmother paying the poll tax or having to take an exam in order to vote, to prove you can read and write,” said Reginald Shell, 65, who works as a trustee at the church. “It’s a throw back to us from the Jim Crow years.”

Shell said he’s afraid of showing up on Election Day and being turned away. Analysis from the City Campaign Finance Board found turnout was up among black voters in 2008, but overall low turnout continues to be a problem across New York City. 

That fear is not just rooted in the past. Over the past two years, the Brennan Center for Justice has found that 22 states have enacted new laws that make it harder to vote.

“This has been a real unprecedented wave of efforts to make it harder to participate,” said Wendy Weiser, who directs the Democracy Program for the Brennan Center for Justice.

She said even though laws in New York have not changed, confusion about what's happening around the country can contribute to voter suppression here.

Just next door in the swing state of Pennsylvania, a court is deciding whether their new voter ID law violates the state constitution.

It may be impossible to recall all the bad voting information that spreads between individuals and online. But one way to figure out whether a person’s registered in New York, according to Weiser, is rather simple: pick up the phone. A voter can call the Board of Elections to check his or her registration status.

Still, Weiser acknowledges New York's system is far from perfect.

“People should just double check to make sure their i's are dotted and t's are crossed with their registration because New York does make mistakes,” Weiser said.

One of those mistakes may be the number people can call to confirm their voter status. The number is 1-866-VOTE-NYC, although when WNYC called after 5 p.m. the automated system was not working. According to the New York City Board of Elections, trained board staff answer calls during normal business hours. The department has contacted its vendor about the problem with the automated system. People can also go online through the New York State Board of Elections website.

The last date to register to vote for the September 13 primary is August 19.  The last date to register to vote in the November 6 general election is October 12.