By Sabina Mollot
On Primary Day, which this year was on September 10, voters living in the 74th Assembly District were left without a chance to vote — not that anyone bothered to tell them this.
A primary wasn’t held in the district due to a lack of contested races, a spokesperson for the Board of Elections told Town & Village, but with no warnings about a cancellation, some die-hards still went out to cast their votes. One voter, Stuyvesant Town resident Susan Schoenbaum, told Town & Village she ended up wandering through much of the complex — after seeing that her assigned polling site, 10 Stuyvesant Oval, was closed with no sign of activity. The usual white and blue “Vote Here” signs in English and Spanish that get placed near polling sites on election days were also nowhere to be found.
Schoenbaum said she had not received anything in the mail about a polling site change, and an online check later of where her polling site should have been, on the city Board of Elections website, also showed it as being 10 Oval.
After walking around a while, and asking contractors on site in a golf cart if they knew where she could vote — they didn’t — Schoenbaum popped into the Public Safety office. There, an employee told her the department had received word the primary had been postponed until November.
But Schoenbaum was doubtful. “You can’t have a primary the same day as a general election.”
Schoenbaum said she called Town & Village because the lack of publicly available information left her steamed.
“It makes me really mad because I’ve never missed a vote,” she said. However, she said her anger wasn’t directed at the Public Safety department, whose officers she frequently chats with. “She was being very helpful,” Schoenbaum said of the woman who helped her. “We had a nice talk about voting.
“All I know is,” she added, “if it happened to me, it happened to other people.”
Schoenbaum turned out to be correct about this, with another resident, Susan Steinberg, president of the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association, having had the same confusing experience. Surprisingly, she said, she hadn’t gotten complaints on her voicemail from neighbors who also didn’t get the nonexistent memo about the primary not taking place.
“It was crazy; I’m looking for my polling place and I’m looking at all the places I’ve ever voted and there was not one demarcation,” said Steinberg. She too turned to Public Safety for answers and was told by someone the primary was canceled.
“I’ve never heard of Primary Day canceled,” she said.
However, according to NYC Board of Elections Director of Communications Valerie Vasquez, it does happen, and pretty frequently at that. There were cancellations last year as well in certain districts, she said.
This year, she added, “It was a very small primary, just judicial races and in Queens, a special election, and in Staten Island, a race for D.A.” She added, “If there are no contested races, then there’s nothing on the ballot. We’re not going to open polling sites and ship machines and pay for poll workers.”
Vasquez said that voter information was mailed out in the beginning of August, including polling site locations, although there was no mention of if primaries would be locally canceled. She said this is because at that time, the BOE still didn’t know which districts would be having elections. “We’re still subject to court challenges of (candidates) getting on and off the ballot,” she said.
Vasquez then referred to the mailings which suggest that before heading out to their polling places, voters call the BOE to confirm if an election is in fact taking place. As for why voters aren’t warned in a later mailing if they’re not happening, Vasquez blamed the cost of the mailers.
“We only send it once,” she said. “It costs nearly $2 million to those mailings to 4.6 million voters.”
Mark Thompson, president of the Tilden Democratic Club and an alternate judicial delegate who lives in Stuy Town, told T&V that this year, an off-year with only local races for judges, judicial delegates and district leaders, cancellations “happened in a lot of different areas.”
He said he couldn’t remember the last time polling sites were closed locally, but echoed Vasquez’s sentiments, guessing, “I’m sure it saves a lot of money.” He wondered why the BOE couldn’t get out this particular bit of information, though, noting, “It’s technology” and that the lack of a primary has been known for weeks. He tried to get the word out on his own to fellow Tilden members via an email blast.
Unlike Schoenbaum, Thompson said he had gotten a notice about recent polling site changes, which he guessed was due to their being consolidated during a year with expected low voter turnout. However, even as a political club leader and alternate delegate, that was all he heard from the BOE.
“Nobody told anybody.”
On Thursday, September 10, added Thompson, “I had all these people calling me at six in the morning, ‘Where am I voting?’ I said, ‘We’re not voting. Not happening. No contests.’”
The 74th Assembly District covers the East Village, Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village, Union Square, Gramercy, Waterside, Kips Bay, Murray Hill, and Tudor City.
When a T&V reporter spoke with Schoenbaum, it was prior to the conversations with Thompson and Vasquez, although the possibility of a cancellation was raised considering there were no contested races.
But, Schoenbaum said at the time, even if there was a cancellation, she was still angry.
“That’s what’s called disenfranchisement,” she said. “When a community is just excluded from voting. I want my party to count how many people voted for Democratic candidates. It’s partially for your party to know you have many supporters who vote even if it’s a non-major primary election. It’s so you’re counted.”
T&V also reached out to CWCapital to ask about the confusion over Primary Day, but a spokesperson did not get back to us.
On the changing of certain polling sites, Vasquez said she wasn’t sure what the reason was in Stuyvesant Town, but noted that a top reason for relocations is accessibility to disabled voters. While some problems, she said “can be remedied,” by, for example, installing a ramp in front of a door, in in other cases, sometimes a door in an older building just isn’t wide enough to accommodate certain types of wheelchairs.
Another employee at the BOE’s Manhattan office told Town & Village that notices of the changed sites were definitely mailed out because he’s been on the receiving end of numerous complaints.
“We get a lot of outraged voters,” he said.
He recommended that if anyone is assigned a new polling place that seems too difficult to get to, that they vote via absentee ballot.