Settlement discussions in Federal lawsuit over Board of Elections voter rolls purge drag into another election year

By LOUIS FLORES

In proceedings before U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, settlement negotiations are continuing between the parties involved in civil litigation to bring reforms to the New York City Board of Elections, according to a recent filing by Counsel for the good-government group Common Cause New York. The good-government group had commenced litigation to hold the Municipal elections authority accountable for reported purges to the voter rolls in the time leading up to the 2016 elections. The litigation was later joined by the U.S. Department of Justice and the New York State Attorney General's Office.

In the time leading up to the 2016 elections, officials with the Municipal elections authority reportedly cancelled over 100,000 voter registrations across New York City, according to an investigation by the State Attorney General's Office. Many of the voter registration cancellations took place in Brooklyn, but the State Attorney General Office's investigation also revealed that voter rolls also faced alteration in Queens. The Queens Borough Office of the New York City Board of Elections "obtained a subscription to Ancestry.com, a private website containing family history data, and used the website to determine whether voters had died," according to a document filed by the State Attorney General Office in the U.S. District Court's proceedings. Defendants to the Federal civil lawsuit face a deadline of 19 July to file answers to complaints by Intervenor agencies, or the Defendants may seek another extension of time to continue settlement negotiations. These settlement negotiations, a private affair, are taking place without any elected officials calling on the public to have any say in what election reforms should look like.

In New York City, control over the Municipal elections authority is divided between the two main political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. To some, the outcome of the 2016 national elections witnessed the unexpected win of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump over Democratic Party nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former First Lady. However, prior to the election, it was revealed that the Clinton presidential campaign committee had sought to legitimise Mr. Trump as a candidate, because Clinton campaign officials believed that he was a more fatally-flawed candidate than was the former First Lady, according to a report published by The New York Observer, which was made possible by documents obtained and publicly-released by the transparency Web site, WikiLeaks. In documents published by Wikileaks, it was revealed that senior Democratic Party officials began to coördinate with the Clinton campaign, presuming the former First Lady to be the party's nominee prior to the conclusion of the party's primary elections. This coördination disenfranchised voters from having a say in selecting their party's presidential nominee. In the aftermath of the bitter electioneering that took place in 2016, some activists sued the Democratic Party, alleging that Democratic National Committee officials, including U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), had engaged in "deceptive conduct, negligent misrepresentation and fraud" to benefit their preferred candidate, according to a report published by Newsweek.

Revelations that political insiders would promote candidates across political parties in order to benefit a preferred candidate has not become a major issue in New York, which experienced the purge in voter rolls at a time when left-of-center political organising has become resurgent. In Queens, one party official with great sway over the selection of appointments to the Queens Borough Office of the New York City Board of Elections is U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY), who serves as chair of the Queens Democratic County Committee. A representative of his office declined to comment for this report. In New York, government reform activists have accused county political committees of providing preferential assistance to incumbents as part of efforts to discourage insurgent candidates from running for public office.

In New York City, incumbents of the New York City Council have been working on their 2017 reëlection races without any expressed concern over last year's voter disenfranchisement. In Queens, for example, the office of Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley (D-Ridgewood) declined to respond to an interview request for this report about the controversies at the Municipal election authority. Councilmembers have oversight of New York City Board of Elections, including the power to approve by vote the Municipal elections authority's commissioners. Councilmember Crowley, a cousin of U.S. Rep. Crowley, faces an announced primary challenger, Robert Holden, a longtime Queens civic leader and a member of Queens Community Board 5, in this year's election cycle. Separately, the office of Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) also declined to comment about controversies at the Municipal election authority. Last week, Councilmember Van Bramer published a newsletter to his political supporters, announcing that his committee to reëlect had collected over 14 times the required petition signatures to secure his place on the reëlection ballot for his City Council seat. Councilmember Van Bramer achieved such a remarkable result after having marshaled over 150 volunteers in the petition collection drive, even though there has yet to be a conclusion reached in the Federal lawsuit to guarantee voters' franchise in New York City. Because of how county party committees and the Municipal elections authority allegedly provide assistance to incumbents, officials seeking reëlection would largely be unaffected if the enfranchisement of voters were not fully restored or reformed in some way before the primary or general elections scheduled for 2017. As reported by Progress Queens, Councilmember Van Bramer, a member of the Municipal legislature's Progressive Caucus, has opted out of the matching funds program of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, allowing large sums of campaign donations to flood into his committee to reëlect. So long as the election system only keeps working for insiders, the insiders are pleased.

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