There are multiple floors in the nondescript Varick Street building that is home to the city Board of Election’s Manhattan borough office. Yet when visitors entered the lobby Wednesday and paused with dazed looks, the lobby security didn’t even wait for the question.
“Going up to 10,” they’d say — the BOE’s floor. One guard said that crowds had turned particularly heavy this week, starting on Columbus Day even though the office was closed. That day they’d had to turn people away.
But it was a steady stream Wednesday as New Yorkers rushed to make a non-negotiable deadline — the last day to register to vote in time for the Nov. 8 general election.
That deadline is this Friday, Oct. 14, by mail or online, as well as in person at your borough BOE office. There is also a one-day grace period on Saturday, when new voters can register at sites around the city (look up a nearby one here).
But many New Yorkers weren’t waiting for the bonus day or USPS — instead, they came in person to make sure everything was straight. Who can blame them given he absurdly tight voting restrictions in New York and the sometimes unnerving chaos that is the BOE.
It was a tough primary election for the agency. Tens of thousands of Brooklyn residents went missing from the voting rolls in April, due to what the BOE said was routine maintenance of the voter lists. Some voters had been improperly moved off the inactive list and had difficulties voting.
Voters also complained about confusion at polling sites — being directed to the wrong site or incorrectly asked for ID. The chaos launched investigations by city Comptroller Scott Stringer (not yet completed) and others.
Kate Doran, an election specialist for the League of Women Voters, says the controversy was not “malfeasance” or “evildoing” by the agency — just the usual incompetence.
Unfortunately, it helped spread conspiracy theories about purposefully dampened turnout. A Sen. Bernie Sanders supporter who had mapped out a BOE office with all the potential places where votes might be “disappeared” was hardly alone in that sentiment, and echoes of it continue to this day.
This week, a report from WNYC radio probed the issue of ballot-on-demand absentee voting. Voters can show up at their local BOE office and request an absentee ballot starting just over a month before the election, fill a ballot and submit it on the spot.
Three out of five borough offices, however, did not seem to be aware of that right.
BOE spokeswoman Valerie Vazquez says it was a “miscommunication or staff error.” On Wednesday, things seemed to be running more smoothly. Multiple people requested and received and deposited their absentee ballots during an hour-long period.
“You wanna vote now?” an election worker asked an absentee ballot requester at one point, “I’d love to vote now!” the woman answered.
Another voter, Chapman Riedel, 31, a producer for the Food Network, said he worked 12 hour days and wouldn’t get off in time to vote on Election Day. He cast his vote.
Only in New York
This quirk of the absentee voting system is an anomaly in New York State, which is one of a minority of states with no form of early voting. We don’t even have what’s known as “no excuse” absentee voting, under which you don’t have to claim inability to vote on Election Day as your reason for voting absentee. Weeks of early voting probably isn’t necessary, but lengthening the period to longer than a day could help increase turnout along with other innovations such as same-day voter registration.
New York also has a closed primary system, meaning that if you’re an independent or Green Party member, for example, but tend to vote for either Democrats or Republicans, you’re barred from voting in the primaries. That unnecessarily limits turnout, and helps both major parties minimize the effect of elements outside of the establishments.
Case in point: Are you an independent or minor-party member who cares who New York’s mayor should be? Perhaps even a Republican? The next mayoral election is in November 2017, but the real election in New YOrk’s Democratic utopia is decided during the September 2017 Democratic primary. In which only Democrats can vote. Anyone else would need to switch to have meaningful say in choosing the city’s highest official.
The deadline to prep for 2017? Also on Friday by mail or online, or Saturday in person.