NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union, New York Civil Liberties Union, and the law firm Latham & Watkins LLP took legal action seeking to ensure New Yorkers are better able to register to vote in the November election.
The groups filed a preliminary injunction in their existing lawsuit, League of Women Voters v. Board of Elections, on July 28, 2020, challenging the state’s 25-day voter registration cutoff.
They are asking the court to block the state Board of Elections from enforcing the 25-day cutoff, in turn ensuring New Yorkers who register at least 10 days before the election will be able to cast a ballot in November, the latest deadline currently allowed under the state Constitution and reserved for a small subset of voters.
“The 25-day deadline arbitrarily cuts off New Yorkers from casting a ballot just as the stakes of an election are greatest and clearest to many voters,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU. “Because of New York’s voter registration cutoff, many thousands of constitutionally-eligible voters are denied their say in our democracy. This November’s election is one of the most important in our lifetimes, and it is more urgent than ever that no New Yorker is needlessly barred from participating.”
For the June primary this year, the 25-day registration cutoff fell on Friday, May 29, the first day of major protests following the killing of George Floyd. That day the NYPD pepper sprayed protesters and elected officials at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn.
The protests soon became the defining feature of the election, as tens of thousands statewide marched every day until the election, calling for an end to police impunity and a reckoning with systemic racism. While there were some voter registration efforts during the protests, unfortunately, most of those voters were denied the opportunity to cast a ballot in June’s primary election.
“There is so much ground to make up in getting people registered before November, and we need all the tools possible to make sure people can participate in the election,” said Perry Grossman, senior staff attorney at the NYCLU. “The people who are impacted the most by arbitrary deadlines and voting barriers are young voters and voters from communities of color, and this easy solution can help bring so many people from these groups into the democratic process.”
The registration cutoff was set in an amendment to New York’s voter laws in May 1991 — before the widespread adoption of the Internet, cell phones, or laptop computers, when the voter rolls were maintained in binders full of paper “buff cards,” instead of digital databases.
In the 30 years since the cutoff was created, technological advancements have made the 25-day cutoff unnecessary. Adopting modern technology and eliminating obstacles to registration would promote voter turnout and maximize participation during the period where voter interest, candidate outreach, and political advertising are reaching their peak.
“Voter registration can be made more efficient and fair by removing obstacles such as these arbitrary deadlines,” said Adriel Cepeda Derieux, an attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.
Despite significant increases in week-to-week voter registration in the lead-up to the 2016 election, New York’s voter registration numbers have plummeted in the last two years. In total, over 100,000 more people had registered to vote in June 2016 than did in June 2020.
In the 2016 presidential election, 93,649 New Yorkers were unable to vote because they registered after the deadline. In a U.S. Census Bureau survey of New Yorkers who were not registered to vote in the 2016 federal elections, 13 percent of respondents indicated that they were not registered because they missed the registration deadline. This year, the coronavirus risks exacerbate the problem.
At the time of the November 2016 election, New York ranked 47th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in the percentage of citizens registered to vote.
The lawsuit was originally brought on behalf of Brooklyn resident Nicholas Dinnerstein, originally from New York, who moved to Brooklyn in 2018 after spending several years away in Massachusetts and then California. He was unaware of the registration cut-off date and learned that he would be unable to vote. Along with the League of Women Voters of New York, an organization whose mission is to increase voter registration and participation, Dinnerstein brought the lawsuit to vindicate his own voting rights and the rights of thousands of people disenfranchised by the cutoff.