March 08 2017

Civil Rights Groups Threaten to Sue New York Over Voting Rights Violations (NBC News)


Asian-American and Latino civil rights groups are among those threatening to sue New York state over allegations that its Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) failed to send voter registration applications it received to local election boards.

In a letter sent Tuesday to the New York State Board of Elections and DMV, the groups accused the DMV of flouting a federal law requiring that citizens be able to register to vote whenever they apply for, renew, or change their address on a driver’s license or state-issued identification card.

Members of the New York police guard an entrance at a polling station as voting opened for the New York primary elections in Manhattan, New York City on April 19, 2016. ANDREW KELLY / Reuters

They also allege the DMV violated the Voting Rights Act by offering Google Translate as its only option to render voter registration information on its website in English into other languages.

Federal law requires voting materials and assistance in parts of New York be available in languages including Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Bengali, according to a statement from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

The letter gives the state 90 days to comply with the laws or possibly face litigation.

“New Yorkers who either register to vote or update their voter information at a DMV office are routinely told they are not on the rolls when they go to the polls,” James Hong, interim executive director at MinKwon Center for Community Action, said in a statement. “This amounts to disenfranchisement and our state must do more to make sure the voices of all its citizens are heard.”

The letter’s signatories include AALDEF, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, Demos, and Project Vote. It was written on behalf of Asian-American and Latino community groups, including the MinKwon Center, Chhaya Community Development Corporation, Voto Latino, and the Hispanic Federation.

State Board of Elections spokesman John Conklin told NBC News they hadn't received a copy of the letter yet.

"But generally we don't comment on pending or potential litigation," he added in an email.

RELATED: Advocates Call for Voting Reform Following Reported New York Primary Irregularities

The DMV offered a similar response.

"While DMV doesn’t comment on pending litigation, we remain committed to expanding opportunities for more New Yorkers to register to vote," DMV spokesman Joseph Morrissey told NBC News in an email.

An excerpt of a letter sent to the New York State Board of Elections detailing alleged violations of the Voter Rights Act and the National Voter Registration Act.

The “motor voter” law, also known as the National Voter Registration Act, was signed in 1993 by former President Bill Clinton to enable citizens to sign up to vote through state departments of motor vehicles. The New York State DMV is required to transmit voter registration data it collects within 10 and sometimes five days to election officials, according to AALDEF.

But the letter alleges that the DMV “systematically fails to process voter registration applications or transmit them to state and county elections officials within the time limits required.”

It cited as an example a Columbia University graduate student from Ohio who went to a DMV office in Brooklyn, New York, to apply for an enhanced driver’s license. He also brought with him a completed voter registration application, the letter said.


But on Election Day in 2015, his name was not on the voter roll, causing him to cast an affidavit ballot, according to the letter. Such ballots are examined by elections officials at a later time to determine if they should count.

Roughly two out of three complaints recorded by the New York State attorney general’s office in last year’s presidential primary involved problems with voter registration, according to a report published by the New York attorney general's office.

An excerpt of a report by the New York State attorney general's office detailing obstructions to voting in the state's 2016 presidential primaries.

The letter also claims the state is not providing sufficient language assistance through the DMV website. While the MyDMV portal is available in English, it does not offer adequate translations in Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Bengali, all languages covered for certain New York counties under the Voting Rights Act, the letter said.

Instead, a link on the portal permits users to view some information on the DMV website through Google Translate, the letter said.

This, the groups argue, provides translations that are “so inaccurate and confusing that they are incomprehensible” to limited English proficient native speakers. They allege that the DMV’s online portal is depriving the rights of those seeking to register to vote, the letter said.


“Combining the problems with getting voter registration applications from the DMV to appropriate elections officials with the ineffective translation of voter registration materials, it’s no wonder New York has such low rates of Latino voter participation,” José Perez, deputy general counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF, said in a statement.

RELATED: Department of Justice Files to Join Lawsuit over Brooklyn Voter Purge

Voter snafus plagued last year’s presidential primary in New York. A voter protection hotline set up by the state attorney general’s office during the April election received 1,500 calls — 10 times higher than any previous election.

New York City’s Board of Elections also came under fire for purging more than 117,000 voters, including Asians and Latinos, from voter rolls because they hadn't cast ballots in past elections.

The Department of Justice announced in January that it had filed a motion to join a private lawsuit brought in November against the board.

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