Voter Suppression in New York

April 4, 2017

We are living in a tumultuous moment for voting and elections. In New York, voter turnout is at record lows, and our voting systems are among the most outdated in the nation. At our highest level of government, the President has made unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud. Across the country, state legislators are using voter fraud as a pretext to introduce bills that curtail the right and ability to vote. Yet this moment is only the most recent chapter in a long history of voter suppression in the United States, a saga that touches many northern states - including New York.

For instance, it might be surprising for many New Yorkers to know that boroughs of New York City were covered by the Voting Rights Act. The history of voter suppression in New York stretches back to when state lawmakers first removed property ownership as a voting requirement for white men. Black men, however, were not included in this expansion of voting rights, as they still had to own property to cast a ballot. The State also gave counties the power to strip people convicted of “infamous crimes” of the right to vote, a tactic which intentionally and disproportionately targets black men. 

In 1846, a majority of New York State residents voted against an amendment to the state constitution that would have granted black men, regardless of property ownership, the right to vote. Then in 1870, the federal government passed the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving all men, regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude”, the right to vote. However, as we know today, that right only existed on paper. New York ratified the 15th Amendment in April 1869, only to rescind it in January 1870, and did not ratify it again until 1970

The next great push to disenfranchise New Yorkers was a response to an influx of immigration in New York City.  According to Slate, “one early-20th-century law required that voters in the state’s largest cities reregister every year, a cumbersome mandate imposed under the pretext that urban voters’ frequent changes of address opened the door to voter fraud,” a measure that feels familiar today.   

In a 1908 election, city officials sought to suppress the Jewish immigrant vote by holding voter registration on Saturdays and on the holiday of Yom Kippur, when observant Jews refrained from activities like writing.

In 1921, New York State passed a law requiring an English literacy test to vote. The people most disenfranchised by the legislation were the members of New York City’s growing Puerto Rican community. Although they were American citizens by birth, many were recent arrivals who were not fluent in English.  

In 1958, Jose Camacho, a Puerto Rican-born Bronx grocer who was fluent in Spanish but not English, sued over New York’s literacy test, albeit unsuccessfully, as he believed that as an American citizen he should be able to vote regardless of what language he spoke. According to the New York Times, “His effort was supported by the American Jewish Congress, which said Yiddish speakers were also affected.”

While New York was not subject to the original Voting Rights Act of 1965, New Yorkers were experiencing discrimination tactics similar to those used by communities across the South. Five years after the federal Voting Rights Act passed, in 1970, Congress voted to expand the reach of the Act “to include any part of the country that met the criteria,” not just Southern states. As a result, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan became subject to the Act, for using “a test or device to discourage voters” and having low voter registration rates (in all three boroughs, “fewer than half of the voting-age people were registered or voted in 1968”). Section four of the Act required that changes to voting procedures in all three counties receive federal approval before being enacted.

Notably, the Voting Rights Act has been used twice to prevent changes in voting in New York City. In 1981, a panel of federal judges ruled to postpone a primary election because of changes to City Council district lines and poll sites that were made without the necessary federal pre-clearance.  And in 1989, advocates successfully argued that 300,000 voters had been wrongfully purged from the voter rolls and needed to be reinstated.

Unfortunately, in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the requirement for federal pre-clearance. On April 19th, 2016, many New Yorkers went to the polls to cast a ballot in the presidential primary, only to discover that their names had been removed from the voter rolls. The NYC Board of Elections acknowledged that over 100,000 registered voters had been mistakenly removed from the rolls. WNYC revealed that Hispanic voters were disproportionately affected. Common Cause New York filed a lawsuit which was joined by the Department of Justice in January 2017. Had the Supreme Court decided in 2013 to leave the pre-clearance mandate in place, the voter purge might not have happened.

Given this history, we believe it’s time for New Yorkers to demand real election reform that will protect our right to vote. This year, the Vote Better NY coalition is calling on Albany to pass a bill, proposed by State Assembly Member Latrice Walker, which would require state level pre-clearance of changes to voting procedures. Learn more about our platform at VoteBetterNY.org and join the effort by signing the petition for reform.