Singing aloud to his favorite Dominican tune, a song by the musician El Torito, Francisco Arias pulls his taxi up to the curb of a store-lined street in Bushwick. He’s lived in the area since he left his native Dominican Republic 26 years ago. Like many of his neighbors, he learned to speak English on the job.
He became a citizen just in time to cast his first vote in an American presidential election for Bill Clinton. “I like Bill Clinton but I think Hillary will do a better job,” he said. “Trump, he’s crazy.”
Arias, who is 59 and wears a broad smile, said voting is a right he does not take for granted. So when the New York City Board of Elections mistakenly removed more than 120,000 Brooklyn voters from the rolls in the run-up to the New York presidential primary in April, Arias was frustrated. “The city made a big mistake and that’s not fair,” he said, “a lot of people were confused, especially with the election now. This election in November is very important to this country.”
Arias’s Bushwick neighborhood is one of the election districts that was hardest hit by the purge. According to an analysis by WNYC, the city’s public radio station, which used the state Freedom of Information Law, Hispanic voters were disproportionately purged from the rolls when compared to all other groups. New York has a hard enough time getting its Hispanic citizens to the polls, and the purge was a setback for those efforts.
Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez of New York’s 7th congressional district, said the purge fell heavily in her district, where thousands of voters in Bushwick, Williamsburg, Sunset Park, and East New York were turned away.
Michael Ryan, the Executive Director of the city Board of Elections, said that all eligible voters have since been reinstated. But the challenge is to let people know they are again eligible. Velazquez’s spokesperson, Alex Haurek, said the Congresswoman has held community meetings and will continue to push the city Board of Elections to inform voters that they are back on the rolls and eligible to vote.
It’s a big job.
Ryan concedes that the Brooklyn staff of the Board of Elections made a critical error in trying to remove ineligible people from the rolls. The purge, he explains, was in response to a city Department of Investigation report that cites the board’s failure to remove ineligible people from the rolls. The report was published in December of 2013. However, according the elections law, individual voters should not be removed from the rolls before the voter is first designated as inactive. A voter is classified as inactive only if the post office returns the annual notice, and then the voter does not participate in two consecutive federal elections.
The board is only supposed to send an “intent to cancel” notice to voters who are already on that inactive list. Ryan said the Brooklyn staff mistakenly skipped that step. While the election board does need to remove people from the voter rolls for valid reasons—like moves, deaths, or other issues such as felonies—the mistake of removing 120,000 voters was unprecedented.
City officials say the purge arrived against a backdrop of low voter participation in some neighborhoods. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams’ Communications Director, Stefan Ringel said he remains concerned about the voting registration system and electoral process in the borough in general. Ringel said civic outreach organizations are extremely important this election, to make sure Latino voters understand they are still part of the process.
Daniel Alschuler is the director of civic engagement for Make the Road New York, a nonprofit organization working to reach disenfranchised Hispanic voters in Brooklyn. Alschuler said the number of voters confused by the voting purge is staggering. “If you lose your right to vote on election day,” he said, “the perception is that it’s lost forever.”
He said New York State has been the target of criticisms for years over slow efforts for voting reforms. “Unfortunately, broader reforms have stalled over the years and continue, frankly, to stall,” he said. “We need same-day voter registration; we don’t have early voting; we don’t have no-fault absentee voting—all things that would make voting easier for all New Yorkers if they passed.” Alschuler said that is part of the reason New York ranks a bleak 49th in the nation for voter turnout, with just 29 percent of eligible voters casting ballots in the previous general election.
Alschuler said his immigrant rights organization will engage its 19,000 members as volunteers to register voters before November’s elections. “The stakes are high this year, more than any other presidential election,” he said. A series of community meetings will be held in Brooklyn in September to both inform voters about where to vote in November and how to advocate for voting reforms, he said, including help with Spanish and English translations at the polls.
Meanwhile, following April’s purge, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made $20 million available to the city Board of Elections for what he called ongoing vital reforms, including enhancing poll worker training and communicating clearly with voters.
Valerie Vazquez, Director of Communications for the city Board of Elections announced in August that New York City voters will receive a new personalized election mailer before November’s election. Vazquez said it is a simple and convenient information card, with personal information about how, when, and where to vote in 2016. Voting in New York City should be easy, Vazquez said, for all citizens.
On a steamy summer day, Arias parked his cab along Fulton Street to visit the son of an old friend. He walked past children talking to one another in Spanish as they splashed in the puddles of an open fire hydrant. He walked into a store called ChiChi sports and greeted a tattooed Estaban Santana on the other side of the counter. “I used to know Estaban’s father when he started his business from a pushcart on the sidewalk outside,” Arias said.
Santana owns ChiChi sports. He is 39 and moved to Brooklyn from the Dominican Republic with his five brothers and three sisters when they were young. Santana said he’s registered to vote.
“I only voted once—this guy Obama, yep,” he said. “I’m a little bit disappointed this election and I don’t know who to vote for right now. I’m kind of confused, but I hear: Go to the polls and vote.”
Estaban Santana’s cousin, Julio Santana, is 23 years old and is an American citizen. He works at a surgical center, prepping patients. He said he earns $17 an hour working full time and he thinks the government is taking too much out of his paycheck—$400 every two weeks.
Julio Santana said some of his family members were upset about the voting purge in Brooklyn and he said wasn’t sure he was going to vote. “I’ve never voted in an election,” he said. “I feel like I’m basically wasting my time, because I don’t really know about politics and stuff like that,” he said.
The Hispanic population in New York is the fourth-largest in the nation, according to Pew Research Center’s population data for 2014. However, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 American Community Survey, Hispanic eligible voters in New York have lower levels of education than do white, black, and Asian eligible voters in New York. For civic engagement organizers, the lack of education as a whole for New York Hispanic voters—some 24 percent of eligible Hispanic voters have not obtained a high school diploma—is part of the urgency to create opportunities for the Hispanic community, and to make sure their voices are heard.
For Arias, change isn’t happening fast enough. He has one son, who is now a father himself. Arias wants to be able to pay for his son to go to college. “I can’t help him because it’s very expensive, too expensive. I don’t have the money for college, you know.” But, he said, “We have to find a way. I would like to help him. It’s a very sad feeling, makes me sad.” Arias’ broad smile faded. He brightened a little, looking down Fulton Street, and said, “Young people have more opportunity. They don’t need to be on the street doing nothing, because they’re starting to help these kids get into college, so maybe, just maybe.”
Arias said he knows who he’s voting for. “But more important,” he said, “I’m taking my family with me to vote.”