A lot has changed in the presidential primaries since 9 October 2015. Back then, a CBS News poll showed Hillary Clinton beating Bernie Sanders nationally by nearly 20 points; if Joe Biden had entered the race, the same poll suggested Clinton would beat Sanders by 24 points. She was, in the minds of many liberal voters, the inevitable Democratic nominee.
Another CBS News poll showed Donald Trump with a slim six-point lead over Dr Ben Carson nationally and, after two almost cartoonish debate performances, most Republicans and pundits expected the businessman’s numbers to slide and eventually eliminate him from contention.
Quietly on that same day, the New York state board of elections’ deadline to change party affiliation passed, leaving any registered voters not identified as a Republican or a Democrat with no way to vote in the 19 April 2016 primary.
The deadline to register to vote for the first time in the New York primary passed on 25 March 2016; there is no in-person registration in the state, even to cast a provisional ballot.
As New York’s primary approaches, it is only now that many would-be voters are realizing they will be unable to vote next Tuesday.
New York is one of only 11 states with closed primaries – ie primaries in which only voters who are registered as Republicans or Democrats are allowed to cast ballots – and it is the only state in which currently registered voters must declare their party affiliation more than six months before a primary in order to vote.
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More than 2.9 million of New York’s 10.7 million active voters were not registered Democrats or Republicans as of April 2016 – in part because at least some of them found out after 9 October 2015 that, beginning that day, they could not change their party affiliation until 15 November.
That number includes both Eric and Ivanka Trump, who revealed this week that they will be unable to cast a ballot for their own father in their home state primary. In a statement, they called the process to change affiliation “one of the most onerous” in the country and said: “Our experience in New York, and inability to change our party affiliation so that we could vote for our father in the NY primary, was the reason that we proactively began making videos last year to educate voters on a state-by-state basis on what is required in order for them to vote in their own state primaries.”
But you don’t have to be a child of a Republican frontrunner to find yourself unable to vote in next week’s primary. Elisabeth Garber-Paul is a 29-year-old journalist in Brooklyn who registered to vote as a member of the Working Families Party years ago only to discover in New York City’s last mayoral election that she was unable to vote in the Democratic primary.
She wasn’t going to let that happen again in 2016. “When I renewed my driver’s license in October, I changed my party affiliation, specifically so I could vote for Bernie Sanders,” she explained. “It came back just fine, everything seemed to be in order, and I was excited to vote this spring.”
It wasn’t until last month, after reading press coverage about the voter registration deadline, that Garber-Paul thought to double-check her status – only to discover she’d missed the voter affiliation change deadline (of which she was unaware) by about a week.
“The most frustrating part to me was that neither the state website nor the Democratic party [notified] me that the registration was invalid,” she said.
“This feels like a bullshit way to disenfranchise people in the primary,”
she added. “Given that our presidential elections are two-party affairs, it seems pretty disingenuous to make it so hard for voters to participate.”
Megan B, a 38-year-old teacher in upstate New York who preferred not to use her last name, agreed. “The process of voting (in a primary, especially) in New York is challenging and difficult to navigate,” she said. “It’s almost as if only the well-educated, connected and motivated voter is welcome at the primary polls.”
Megan, a lifelong voter, has never tried to vote in a primary before – “I didn’t want to classify myself as one [party] or the other” she said – but has been following the primaries more closely this year than in the past. “I’m inspired to vote this year because I support Senator Sanders,” she explained. Though she has known for a few months that she would be ineligible to vote next week unless she registered as part of the Democratic party, it wasn’t until last week that she attempted to research how to do so and discovered it was too late.
“Given all of this, I’m volunteering at a phone bank for Senator Sanders’ presidential campaign on Saturday to help get the word out to registered Democrats eligible to vote in the primaries,” she said.
Both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns tried to alert supporters to the deadlines, first in October for registered voters and then in March for new voters. “We registered a bunch of voters before the deadline,” said Karthik Ganapathy, a spokesman for Sanders. “[Our volunteers] have been working to try to make sure it doesn’t get in folks’ way,” he added, noting that many volunteers were working to alert voters about the deadlines in New York before the campaign opened an office here.
Dale M, a 30-year-old staff attorney with a not-for-profit group in Brooklyn, did not get alerted in time, though he did know that he’d have to change his affiliation to Democratic to be eligible to vote for Sanders in the April primary. “So, I changed my designation to ‘Democrat’ over the internet around December of last year, or so I thought.”
But when he received a written confirmation by mail, he was still listed as unaffiliated. “I did some research and found information that [said] I needed to go in person to my local district council office” to change his affiliation.
“I went in person on my lunch hour and, lo and behold, was told for the very first time that my party designation can only ever be changed during November each year,” he explained. Technically, though, he was still given incorrect information, as New York state requires that changes in party affiliation to be sent in “no later than 25 days before the general election”, placed in a sealed box “and opened the first Tuesday following that general election and entered in the voter’s registration record”.
“Our voter registration system is way more of a complicated and inaccessible system than it should be,” he said.
Kayla Santosuosso is a 26-year-old political organizer in Brooklyn who has been unaffiliated since she registered to vote in New York in 2012. She said that the affiliation deadline caught her unawares. “I heard nothing about the party change deadline, and I work in this field.”
She says she didn’t decide to vote in the primary until mid-November, after seeing Sanders’ performance in one of the Democratic debates. “I actually mailed in my registration the moment I felt convinced, which I think was mid-November,” she explained. And, like Dale and Garber-Paul, she heard nothing back directly until, as she said in a blogpost, she decided to double-check her eligibility with the state last week and discovered she was still listed as unaffiliated.
From there, she called the Fair Elections Legal Network, then the state board of elections and finally the county board of elections, who then told her that she’d sent in her change of affiliation too late and it wouldn’t take effect until after the next general election.
“I’m furious,” she said. In her blogpost, she wrote: “I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that maze-like election laws like these are the reason that voter turnout is so disastrous in New York state and nationwide.”
Tom Connolly of the New York state board of elections admitted that “any kind of issue we have on a year-to-year basis is exacerbated in an election year” and that the board was receiving many calls from voters at the moment.
But he said the deadline was a matter of statute and thus could only be changed by the New York legislature, which they encourage upset voters to contact. “We do try to provide that information to callers when they are upset,” he said, noting that Governor Andrew Cuomo floated a proposal to change the deadlines in his 2015 state of the state address and that various legislators have introduced bills in the past to little avail.
The constitutionality of the deadline for party affiliation changes was upheld by the state supreme court in 1973.
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