By Mary Alice Miller
In anticipation of the first New York election cycle since the U.S. Supreme Court last spring invalidated
parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Dr. Esmeralda Simmons said, “Our voting rights have been extremely curtailed already. The SCOTUS decision has already had a major impact in New York State and the city.” Simmons, Executive Director of the Center for Law and Social Justice, was referring to New
York State’s legislative decision to return to using the old mechanical lever voting machines for the Tuesday, September 10 primary election and any potential runoff. Electronic scanners will be used for the general election in November.
“Normally, they wouldn’t have even tried this because they would have had to get the Justice Dept.’s permission. That would have taken 60 days unless the Justice Dept. gave them expedited pre-clearance,” said Simmons. “Under Section 5, we had pre-clearances. Now that there is no Section 5 (because Section 4 which determined which states and counties must receive pre-clearance from federal authorities was invalidated), they can do what they want to do without anybody looking over their shoulders.”
Three counties in New York City – Kings, Manhattan and the Bronx — were covered under Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act. “If part of New York State was covered most of the time all of New York
State complied,” said Simmons.
“The whole reason that Section 5 was there was to catch problems before they occur. Without the expertise and the clout of the Justice Department to stop something that was discriminatory or having the likelihood of being discriminatory against voters or causing voter dilution, now we have to wait until after they discriminate to go running in to court to charge discrimination when the election is over,” said
Simmons. “Finding out what the changes are is extremely difficult. Before we would just go to the Justice Department website to see what New York State and New York City filed. Now there is nothing unless you have someone inside within the Board of Elections you don’t know.”
One known change will surprise a lot of voters on Primary Day is the return of the mechanical machines.
“Those mechanical machines have a very poor history in Black and Latino communities,” said Simmons.
“Back in 1988, the Center for Law and Social Justice won a lawsuit that required the Board of Elections to stop sending the machines that had a history of breaking down into our polling sites. The court determined it could not have been accidental that we kept getting the same broken-down machines.”
These machines have not been in use since NYS spent $95 million for voting scanners to come into compliance with the Help America Vote Act. “I know the mechanics have cranked them up, but I expect to see lots of problems and a lot of inspectors will not be familiar with the mechanical machines,” said Simmons.
In addition, “There are going to be a lot of voters who just started voting in the Obama rush of 2012 and 2008 who are not familiar with the mechanical machines and are going to be faced with using them and will not be offered any training.” Simmons acknowledged that the only thing the Board of Elections is doing to train voters on the mechanical machines is they have a little pictorial illustration in the election materials that were sent out by the Voter Assistance Commission.
Simmons noted that the state does not always comply with its own law to provide Chinese, Korean and Russian language voter materials and translators. “There is a lawsuit pending against them right now because of how they have treated Asian voters in New York City,” said Simmons. “They have continually been flaunting the law. They had been made aware of that by various voting rights groups particularly the Asian-American Legal Defense Fund. And now with no more Justice Department (oversight), the Asian-American Legal Defense Fund has gone to court to force them to do the right thing.”For an election as important as the mayoral election when a lot of people are going to come out to vote, Dr. Simmons said there is a great chance with the machines and some people having changed polling sites that people will be more likely to lose their vote.
“I do not look forward to a peaceful Election Day,” Simmons said.
If voters encounter any election problems, Simmons suggested they call the Center for Law and Social Justice at 718 804-8892 or 1 866 VOTE-NYC.
Dr. Simmons provided a list of things that people can do to safeguard their vote before and during the elections:
1) Make sure you are registered to vote. A lot of people think they are registered to vote, but your registration in this state will lapse if you don’t vote within four years. The Center for Law and Social Justice has challenged voter purging in New York and courts found it to be discriminatory.
Check to make sure you are registered by physically going to the Board of Elections and bring a picture ID or call 1 866 VOTE-NYC, or going online to http://voterlookup.elections.state.ny.us.
If you are not registered, it is too late to register for the primary election or the runoff, but it is not too late to register for the general election in November. You can register for the general election in November by going to the Board of Elections website, printing out a registration form then taking it to the BOE office in your borough.
2) If you want to vote in the Democratic or Republican primary or any other primary, you must be enrolled in that party.
3) If you don’t want to lose your vote, make sure you are at the right polling table within the correct poll site. Often, there are many EDs or polling tables in a poll site. If you go to the wrong polling table, you will not be in their roles and will have to sign an affidavit ballot and make sure it is filled out correctly in order for your vote to count.
To find your correct polling site and ED, go to poll site address locator: www.vote.nyc.ny.us./pollingplaces or www.nyc.pollsitelocator.com.
If you received a voter information mailer, the gold box has your polling site address and your ED, which tells you which table to go to. Bring it with you when you go vote.
Or e-mail your complete home address to firstname.lastname@example.org and put the borough in which you reside in the subject line. They will send you an e-mail back telling you where to vote.
4) Vote early on Election Day. The polls open at 6am.
5) No candidate gear (T-shirt, hat, button, etc.) at the polls, except what you are holding in your hand. Candidate gear within 100 feet of a polling site is called electioneering and can result in you being asked to leave.
6) Handle voting problems wisely. Never leave the polling area without voting by some form or fashion.
If you are not found in the poll role book, vote by affidavit ballot or if the mechanical machine is broken down for more than 15 minutes, you can vote by emergency ballot, or request to vote on the BMD (ballot marking device) located in each poll site. Voting on the BMD is better than using an emergency ballot because a BMD vote is counted at the end of the Election Day.
Know that there will be two sets of books: a regular book (A-L and M-Z) plus a supplemental list for those whose registrations came in late. If you lost your vote by mistake on a voting machine, go to the Board of Elections in your borough and try to get a court order. Usually, the judge grants an order so that you can go back to your poll site and vote on the machine.