A Nation Engaged: New York City Voter Roll Meltdown Part of Larger Problem "We can't keep updated lists. It's just impossible to do that," says Michael Ryan, executive director of the New York City Board Of Elections.
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Why Voter Rolls Can Be A Mess

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Why Voter Rolls Can Be A Mess

Why Voter Rolls Can Be A Mess

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Part of running a fair election is keeping an accurate list of who is eligible to vote. In a lot of states, that's been a difficult task. Take New York - the voting roles in the state's recent presidential primary suffered a spectacular meltdown. This week, NPR and some member stations are talking about voting as part of our project A Nation Engaged. Brigid Bergin of member station WNYC explains why what happened in New York is also a national problem.

BRIGID BERGIN, BYLINE: On a dreary Tuesday afternoon after the chaotic presidential primary, a local crowd packed into the City Board of Elections' weekly meeting.

LISA BERRY: Nobody seems to care that their vote was lost.

ELIOT CROWN: This is a shameful event in New York City history - shameful.

SONDRA RAMIREZ: I and my brothers and sisters are entitled to the right to vote.

(APPLAUSE)

BERGIN: That Lisa Berry, Eliot Crown and Sondra Ramirez, just some of the voters who showed up to vent. Before the primary, the board purged more than 120,000 voters from its roles in Brooklyn. Executive Director Michael Ryan admits that was a mistake.

MICHAEL RYAN: We have, contrary to popular opinion, a transparent process.

(LAUGHTER)

BERGIN: Speaking from the City Board of Elections office, Ryan says they're still putting together the pieces.

RYAN: What we've now located is a disk at the Brooklyn office that contained a listing of all of the individuals that were purged on either June the 18th, 2015, or July the 5th, 2015.

BERGIN: That disc is a CD-ROM with two Excel spreadsheets. The election board does need to remove people from the voter roles for perfectly good reasons all the time - moves, deaths, other eligibility issues. But on those two dates last year, Ryan says, purges were done incorrectly. Now the board is returning all those voters to the roles for a federal primary later this month. Still, Ryan says the problem is bigger than this purge.

RYAN: We can't keep updated lists. It's just impossible to do that.

BERGIN: Impossible because the onus is on local election officials to keep their lists accurate. There's no national voter database. Ryan says even sources that are supposed to be reliable, like the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Postal Service, contain errors.

RYAN: We have a transient metropolis and the transient society, in general, in the United States. And the boards of elections - not just the New York City Board of Elections, but all over the country - don't have the ability to track people's movements.

BERGIN: A 2012 study by the Pew Center on the States found that 24 million voter registrations were wrong or invalid. That's one in every eight voters across the country. That means lots of voting role problems. In a system so complicated, breakdowns like these can be an opportunity, says Jonathan Brater. He's with the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan institute that works at voting issues.

JONATHAN BRATER: When there are these moments where people are paying attention, that is the time to think about making systemic changes to our election system to make it work.

BERGIN: For now, major changes are not in the works. State and city officials are still trying to figure out what exactly happened in the run-up to the April primary. And the board of elections will be tested again soon. New York has three more elections this year. For NPR News, I'm Brigid Bergin in New York.

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