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NY AG's Office Fields Complaints; Others Criticize Closed Primary System

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On this presidential primary day, the New York Attorney General’s office has already received a higher number of calls and complaints than for past elections. And the office expects more given the state’s closed primary system. As WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne reports, good government groups want to see the system changed.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office has a hotline* open to help troubleshoot a range of issues and barriers encountered by voters at the polls for the primary. Lourdes Rosado is Civil Rights Bureau Chief with Schneiderman’s office.

“Our hotline opened up at 6 a.m. We’ve already fielded a bunch of calls,” says Rosado. “Later in the day we’ll have more information about what the subject matter was of the calls that we’ve received so far.”

As of mid-morning, she says the calls had come from New York City and Long Island and none from upstate, where polls didn’t open until noon.

“The volume is definitely up,” says Rosado. “We’ve received dozens of calls and we just actually accessed our email system and already saw 30 complaints from this morning so this is definitely an uptick from past primaries and elections.”

She says they do expect a number of complaints from voters who find they cannot vote in New York’s closed primary system.

“So I think we’re going to see a number of disappointed voters who thought they could vote in a certain primary and they couldn’t,” Rosado says.

Only voters registered as Democrats or Republicans can vote in the primary, and if voters wanted to change their party affiliation to one of these two parties, they had to have done so by October 9, 2015. Susan Lerner is executive director of Common Cause New York and says this is the earliest deadline in the country.

“First of all, we’re telling people, if you’re angry about this, you get to the polling place, you find you cannot vote, don’t yell at the poll workers. They didn’t create this system. The people who created this system are our state legislators,” says Lerner. “You should let your assemblymember and your state senator know that this is not acceptable. You don’t want New York to be the end of the line on election reform.”

She says Common Cause is advocating for change in the following way.

“We are one of 11 states that have a closed primary. We at Common Cause are not necessarily advocating for a completely open primary but there are a lot of steps along the way. There are 24 states that have something that’s somewhere between closed/shut, like we have in New York, and completely open, the way they do in California,” Lerner says. “Massachusetts, for instance, you have to be a registered Republican or a registered Democrat to vote in those primaries but if you’re an Independent or you are an unaffiliated voter, you don’t have any party registration, you can show up at the polling place on primary day and make a choice — I want to vote as a Republican. I want to vote as a Democrat.”

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

“New York’s onerous voter registration laws have contributed to it being really at the bottom of the barrel in terms of voter participation,” says Horner. “And when you create obstacles, not surprisingly, people don’t want to vote.”

He says special elections being held in certain districts will add to the confusion.

“By having special elections at the same time in those districts where there are special elections, everyone can vote,” says Horner. “So there’s basically going to need two ballots, and it’s pretty confusing in those areas.”

Special elections on primary day include for the Manhattan assembly seat formerly held by Sheldon Silver and the Senate seat on Long Island previously held by Dean Skelos. Both were convicted on corruption charges.

Rosado, with the attorney general’s office, mentions some issues that should be reported.

“We definitely want to hear from voters if they’re encountering any barriers to voting,” says Rosado. “So, for example, if there are any physical accessibility issues for people who have disabilities, if there are any language barriers. People are entitled to vote no matter what language they speak so we want to make sure that people are able to get materials and information in their native language.”

In addition, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara says special telephone numbers have been set up for complaints of possible violations of federal election laws for New York City and six Hudson Valley counties — Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Sullivan and Westchester. Bharara’s office has set up additional numbers for routine inquiries, such as concerning poll hours and where to vote. Polls close at 9 p.m.

*The Attorney General urges voters experiencing problems or issues at the polls to call the office’s hotline at 800-771-7755 or email civil.rights@ag.ny.gov at any time between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.

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