NY election officials sound alarm about activists knocking on doors to police voting rolls

The complaints have cropped up around New York for weeks: strangers appear on a voter's doorstep to question his or her voting address and — in some cases — make alarming accusations.

In one encounter on Aug. 27, a rattled Glens Falls resident told authorities two women informed her she had committed a felony by being registered to vote in two places. What actually happened was that she had switched her voting address when she moved to Warren County from Saratoga County in 2022, but state records still showed her purged registration in Saratoga.

In another encounter, a Cornwall voter told the Orange County Board of Elections last week that someone claiming to work for the county board came to his home and asked him to "correct something" about his registration. He was left with a survey to complete, but oddly, no address where he was supposed to send it.

The state Board of Elections sounded the alarm last week, warning New Yorkers that people posing as county election workers had been confronting voters at their homes and falsely claiming they committed crimes because of how their names appeared in a statewide voter database.

“We are extremely alarmed by these actions," Raymond Riley III, the state board's co-executive director, said in a statement then. "These individuals are impersonating government officials in an effort to intimidate voters based on inaccurate and misleading information.”

A voter casts his ballot on Election Day at Living Christ Church polling station in South Nyack Nov. 5, 2019.
A voter casts his ballot on Election Day at Living Christ Church polling station in South Nyack Nov. 5, 2019.

The leader of a two-year-old grassroots group later confirmed in an interview that its members have visited voters at home as part of their research into alleged "anomalies" in New York's voting rolls. She defended their right to verify registration data and insists she no one from her group has pretended to be a government employee.

"Absolutely not," Marly Hornik, executive director of New York Citizens Audit, told the USA Today Network on Tuesday. "We are researchers who use lawful methods."

Hornik said her group started doing field work after state officials failed to act on its allegations about duplicate registrations and more. She found it suspicious that the state issued its alert shortly after New York Citizens Audit filed a complaint with the state Division of Election Law Enforcement on Aug. 14.

The state board didn't name New York Citizens Audit or any other suspected organizer in its warning.

Where has this happened?

Voters in 13 of New York's 62 counties have reported being approached at home about their registrations, according to the state Board of Elections. Those counties span much of the state: Albany, Chautauqua, Jefferson, Onondaga, Ontario, Orange, Putnam, Saratoga, Schenectady, Steuben, Suffolk, Warren and Washington.

How the visitors represented themselves seems to have varied, or is uncertain in some accounts.

Putnam County election commissioners say they've gotten complaints from four upset voters. One has lived in Putnam since 2000 but is still listed in voting records as "purged" at his former Westchester County address. The two visitors who questioned him didn't pose as election workers and acknowledged they weren't when asked.

Voters cast their ballots in primary elections at the Nepperhan Community Center in Yonkers, N.Y. June 23, 2020. Despite the number of people who voted early by absentee ballot, election workers at the site said turnout was heavier than usual, which they attributed to the fact that there were fewer polling sites than usual throughout the city due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Ontario County, someone asked to be let into an apartment complex to question a tenant for what he said was an "election integrity project," A.J. Magnan, a county elections commissioner, told the USA Today Network. The building manager turned away the visitor and reported the incident.

Accounts of the Aug. 27 encounter in Warren County differed slightly. Election officials say the visitors claimed to be Washington County election workers. Undersheriff Terry Comeau said the voter may have assumed they were election workers — without being told that — because they had database information and wore some sort of identification tags.

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Either way, William VanNess, Warren County's GOP election commissioner, told the USA Today Network that the voter had done nothing wrong. VanNess said he feared that harassing encounters like hers might discourage people from voting.

"We want people to vote," he said. "We work exceptionally hard to do that."

What is New York Citizens Audit concerned about?

Hornik's group has scoured state and county voting rolls and reported numerous flaws that it claimed could allow fraudulent voting, including what it said were nearly 1.5 million "counterfeit registrations" as of December 2022.

State election officials have distributed a two-page response to what it calls New York Citizens Audit's "false claims." It notes, for example, that voters who move from one county to another are listed in records at both places but are purged — and unable to vote — at the prior address.

"The examples listed in the group's report showed voters moving through the normal transfer process," it read. "Most were purged in one county and active in another."

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New York Citizens Audit says it has 2,000 members and has petitioned for the state to audit its voting rolls. Its members have been going to town meetings to distribute copies of their group's research and ask local boards to pass a resolution in support of their cause.

At least three Putnam towns have been approached this year, with one — Patterson — passing a resolution in April. Adriana Wise made her group's pitch to the Carmel Town Board on Aug. 2, and explained the ongoing home visits.

“There is a canvas part of it," she told the board, "where members of the New York Citizens Audit are actually going door to door to a randomly selected limited list of people from every county, trying to find out whether they moved within the county or across different counties, and whether there would be a legitimate reason for them to have multiple records into the state Board of Elections voter roll.”

Hornik said her group wants a thorough investigation — a line-by-line analysis of individual registrations — rather than general responses to her group's claims.

"What we are interested in is, are our elections following the law?" Hornik said.

Chris McKenna covers government and politics for The Journal News and USA Today Network. Reach him at cmckenna@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: NY voter registration activists have election officials sounding alarm