Brooklyn NAACP Sues New York State, NYC Boards of Elections

The Brooklyn chapter of the NAACP filed a lawsuit in federal court late Tuesday against both the New York State and New York City Boards of Elections, alleging the agencies were violating the U.S. Constitution when they prohibited groups from offering support – and refreshments – to voters waiting in lines at poll sites.

Lawyers for the civil-rights organization pointed to a passage of state election law, dating back more than a century, that criminalizes the act of providing food or water to people waiting in line to vote and is known as the “Line-Warming Ban.”

“The Line Warming Ban needlessly criminalizes the provision of such support,” the complaint states, arguing that it blocks entities like the Brooklyn NAACP, “from engaging in the protected expressive conduct of celebrating our democracy and the determination of voters willing to wait in long lines to exercise their right to vote.”

Neither the city or state Board of Elections responded yet to a request for comment.

The lawsuit is similar to one filed in Georgia this spring over a similarly restrictive law which civil-rights organizations decried as an effort to disenfranchise voters of color. The case in New York, however, alleges this state’s election law violates the right to freedom of speech and is asking the court to prevent it from being enforced.

“Just because we’re not in the south and just because there’s not some evil, partisan person trying to prevent a particular group of people from voting, you can still have antiquated laws on the books that prevent people from participating in the franchise,” said L. Joy Williams, president of the Brooklyn NAACP.

In previous elections, the organization has engaged in non-partisan activities to encourage voter turnout, including providing water and snacks to voters stuck in some of the longest poll site lines in the city. Under current law, those actions were illegal and could have resulted in a misdemeanor charge, a sanction critics say could undermine support for voters participating in their democracy.

The issue of long lines at poll sites is well-established over multiple elections. Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, voters waited for hours in the midst of a pandemic, to cast their ballots at early-voting and election day poll sites across the city. Gothamist / WNYC reported that the city BOE knowingly assigned a disproportionate number of voters to poll sites across the city, with more than 120,000 voters assigned to a single site in Manhattan.

Election officials took steps to address the lines ahead of the primary election in June, adding more early-voting sites and expanding the hours for early voting. But election-reform advocates say this piecemeal approach was not enough to address the larger systemic problems with election administration in the state.

In addition to this lawsuit, Williams said her organization was pushing for passage of state legislation that would restore preclearance protections for New York voters that were struck down from the federal Voting Rights Act in 2013 after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder. Preclearance means that the U.S. Attorney General or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia must approve any changes to elections held in certain jurisdictions, like moving a polling place or printing new voting materials with multiple languages.

“New York’s election laws are full of archaic, inefficient, and voter suppressive provisions,” said Perry Grossman, a voting-rights attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, which is not affiliated with this case but is part of the Let NY Vote Coalition, an effort to modernize elections and expand access to the ballot box.

Some of those same concerns are detailed in a report released last week by the Brennan Center for Justice which detailed the structural obstacles to election administration in New York City, including the organization of the board itself, with 10 commissioners who act without accountability to the voting public.

There is reason for optimism among proponents of election reform as the Democrat-controlled Senate has passed a raft of legislation to expand access to the ballot in New York, including early voting and automatic voter registration, and state lawmakers have signaled they want to do more.

All of these issues are expected to be scrutinized again next Tuesday at a State Senate hearing on election administration and reform in New York, the last in a series of hearings held this summer to gather input from voters about their experiences trying to vote.

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