The county of Kings is playing an outsized role in New York State’s presidential primary race — particularly among Democrats. As the birthplace of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Brooklyn figures into nearly every one of his stump speeches. It’s also where former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has based her national campaign headquarters.
Yet, even as the candidates lavish love on Brooklyn, a WNYC analysis of state voter enrollment statistics found that the number of active registered Democrats dropped there by 63,558 voters between November 2015 and April 2016. That translates into a 7 percent drop in registered Democrats in the borough.
No other borough in New York City nor county in the rest of the state saw such a significant decline in active registered Democrats. In fact, only 7 of the state's 62 counties saw a drop in the number of Democrats. Everywhere else saw the numbers increase.
Despite the precipitous decline, no city or state election official could explain to WNYC why the number had dropped in a borough that’s been a hotbed of campaign activity, and has the highest population in the state, raising the perennial concern that there will be chaos at the polls on Tuesday caused in part by the very agency responsible for overseeing voter registration and election administration: the Board of Elections.
“The pool of voters shifts around from active to inactive, inactive to active, and off the list completely through normal list maintenance activities that each county board undertakes on an continuous basis,” said Thomas E. Connolly, the Deputy Director of Public Information for the New York State Board of Elections.
But Connolly did not have any additional information about why so many Brooklyn Democrats fell off the rolls and referred those questions to the city Board of Elections.
Michael Ryan, New York City Board of Elections Executive Director, also could not explain why so many Brooklyn Democrats were bounced off, but stressed there are many reasons why the lists change.
“People die every day and they come off the list,” said Ryan, as he offered another reason, “New York City is a very transient place to live. People move all the time.”
Also, people who have been convicted of a felony cannot vote while incarcerated or on parole.
Valerie Vazquez-Diaz, a spokeswoman for the city Board of Elections, said a member of the Board’s Management Information System staff said the drop was the result of shifting some voters from active to inactive status.
A voter who is listed as active appears in the poll site books when he or she shows up to vote in an election. A voter is moved to inactive status for several reasons, including not voting in two federal elections (i.e. in the last four years), and if a reminder notice mailed by the Board is returned to the borough office as an undeliverable address.
But even though more than 60,000 people were dropped from the list of active registered Democrats in Brooklyn, there was only an increase of roughly 10,000 inactive voters in the county. That means some 50,000 voters are unaccounted for entirely.
The Board has already made a series of significant administrative errors this year. Gothamist reported it sent out reminder notices to new voters with the wrong date for the primary. It also sent absentee ballots with errors, as reported by The New York Times, that required additional costly mailings to correct the mistakes.
While it’s unclear what impact the drop in active Brooklyn Democrats will have on the outcome of the election, the bigger issue may be what impact this could have on voters at the city’s poll sites.
The Board of Elections is already expecting some confusion because New York has a closed primary. A voter must be a registered Democrat or Republican to cast a ballot in the presidential primary, and the Board is anticipating people who are not registered in a party will show up and want to vote.
For a voter who believes she or he is a registered Democrat or Republican and does not appear in the poll books, Ryan said there is another option.
“If for some reason there's a processing error and the person's name does not appear on the book, they can vote by affidavit ballot at the poll site,” said Ryan.
Affidavit, or provisional, ballots are paper and are not put through the scanner. But it still gives a person the ability to vote and those votes are counted.
If a voter experiences a problem at their poll site, State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office has set up a hotline that will be staffed by attorneys in the office's Civil Rights Bureau. That number is 800-771-7755. Complaints can also be submitted through email at firstname.lastname@example.org at any time between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. on Tuesday.
For more information about the special elections and where to vote, read WNYC’s voter guide.