Court: NY must release inactive voter list to poll workers


(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A federal judge has ruled that New York must provide local poll workers with the names of one million New Yorkers who registered to vote but are considered inactive by the state.

New York, like other states, can label a voter who appears to have moved “inactive.” Voters labeled inactive can cast a provisional ballot — called an affidavit ballot — that will be counted once the state verifies the voter. But left-leaning government reform group Common Cause says many poll workers are not familiar with that process, and the result is many inactive voters struggle to vote or are prevented from voting.

The group argued in a 2017 lawsuit that errors made by the Postal Service and other registries can lead to voters being wrongly declared inactive. The lawsuit claimed tens of thousands of New Yorkers were improperly labeled inactive even though they still live at the addresses where they’re registered.

The suit sought a court order to ensure the state does not infringe on the fundamental right to vote by improperly labeling voters as “inactive.” It asked the courts to ensure voters labeled improperly as inactive were restored to active status.

U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan’s Jan. 10 decision found New York’s refusal to provide lists of inactive voters at polling locations violates the Equal Protection Clause under the U.S. Constitution. The judge also found that the state violated the right to vote of three voters who were improperly labeled as inactive.

But the judge did not find the state violated the constitutional voting rights of inactive voters required to cast affidavit ballots. And the judge didn’t issue a plan to require that the state Board of Elections ensures all registered voters can vote even if they’re deemed inactive.

Still, Common Cause New York Executive Director Susan Lerner said the judge’s decision “shines a light” on the process that New York uses to label some voters as inactive. She said she hopes lawmakers will look at such issues this year.

For now, she said the judge’s decision means that poll workers at 2020 elections will have easy access to a list of inactive voters.

“For the poll workers, this is so much easier,” she said. “Right now what happens when someone isn’t on the active list, poll workers often don’t know what to do. They get confused, they send people to different places and they send people away. This simplifies it.”

New York state had argued that providing a list of inactive voters could “bog down the voting process,” according to the judge’s decision. The state Board of Elections didn’t immediately respond to request for comment Tuesday.

Voters can get off the inactive list by casting a valid affidavit ballot or sending a reply when county election boards notify them that they’re inactive. The state cancels the voter registration of inactive voters who fail to vote in two successive federal general elections.

The judge’s decision reflected concerns raised by Common Cause that the process to get off the inactive list is too time-consuming and burdensome.

“Inactive voters thus face delay even if all goes according to plan,” said the judge. “But the testimony of numerous voters reveals that New York’s poll workers do not uniformly follow this process, are confused about the affidavit-ballot process, and often give voters incorrect directions. Taken together, voters who do not appear on the active registry can spend significant amounts of time just getting the affidavit ballot to which they are entitled.”

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