Charles Greene was excited to vote last June at Garret A. Morgan Public School 132 in the Bronx, where he had attended kindergarten through fourth grade. He had passed out fliers for his preferred Assembly candidate, Chantel Jackson, and saw voting at the school as a “homecoming” of sorts.

Greene, 52, had voted at the school for more than a decade. It was where he cast a ballot after he turned 18. He’d been moved once to vote at Morris High School (now the Morris Campus), and was then reassigned again back to Morgan. 

But when voting in the Democratic presidential primary — where his ballot also included candidates for Congress and state Assembly — he discovered he was in the wrong polling place.

“I got there and it was a 15-minute dilemma,” Greene said. Disappointed, he filled out an affidavit after a poll worker directed him to do so. 

Unknown to Greene, his affidavit was likely disqualified, under a state rule that compels election officials to toss entire ballots after the election, if voters cast affidavits at polling locations to which they weren’t assigned. 

“If that had happened, that makes me feel so, so horrible… this is my contribution to my community,” Greene said. “If it didn’t go through, I almost feel like they took something away from me.”

‘Wrong Church’ Rule

Greene may have been one of nearly 14,000 New York voters disenfranchised because of the rule, known as “wrong church.” The scope of the ballots disqualified because of this provision is only starting to come to light, based on data from the 2020 general elections in November.

Bronx voters like Greene were most affected by the “wrong church” rule. One out of 185 ballots were tossed in the borough on account of the rule, compared to 1 in 325 citywide. 

“It’s voter suppression,” said former Assemblymember Michael Blake (D-The Bronx), whose district saw the most affidavits thrown out on the basis of the “wrong church” rule in the 2020 general election. “If we have anger about what’s going on in Georgia and Texas and Florida, we need the same anger here in the Bronx and across New York.”

Across the state, more than 13,800 registered voters who filled out affidavits in the 2020 general election at poll sites in their home counties had their ballots disqualified in this way, a report by the voting-rights nonprofit VoteEarlyNY found. That number is larger than the margin by which President Joe Biden defeated former President Donald Trump in Georgia in 2020.

‘If we have anger about what’s going on in Georgia and Texas and Florida, we need the same anger here in the Bronx and across New York.’

“Wrong church”  is the most prevalent reason for disqualified affidavits in the state among registered voters — accounting for half of ballots tossed — and in each of New York’s counties. 

“There’s no good reason to throw out the entire ballot other than to punish the voter or to police this system of these single-site assignments,” said Jarret Berg, VoteEarlyNY’s co-founder and voting rights counsel, who co-authored the report. “It certainly distorts the will of the electorate to have thousands of these thrown out. And then in a close contest, it could impact the outcome. It undermines our democracy.”

The city Board of Elections assigns every voter a polling place, but showing up at the right one isn’t straightforward.

If voters choose to vote early starting June 12, they likely have to go to a spot that’s different from where they must go on Primary Day, June 22. And voters who opt to cast an absentee ballot can drop it off at any poll site or BOE office, as an alternative to mailing it.

An Uneven Impact

New York City, home to over 40% of the state’s electorate, was disproportionately affected by the “wrong church” rule: Some 69% of New York voters whose ballots were disqualified lived in one of the five boroughs. That amounts to 9,481 city residents. 

The problem was the worst in the Bronx and Manhattan, where 27% of disqualified affidavit ballots cast by registered voters were nixed due to “wrong church.” In Queens, the rate was 26% and in Brooklyn, 21%.

In densely populated areas like New York City, assigned polling sites can be in counterintuitive places: perhaps two sites are down the block from one another, but in different legislative districts. 

Sometimes the closest polling site to a voter’s home may not be what’s assigned to them. That means while a voter might be in the unassigned poll site, they might be standing in a place where they could vote, for example, for mayor and comptroller in a citywide race.

A sticker near Yankee Stadium in The Bronx encourages voting, Aug. 17, 2020. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The poll workers, by law, are supposed to direct registered voters who show up at the wrong polling location to the proper, assigned site. A spokesperson for the city BOE says it trains poll workers to do just that. 

But that didn’t happen for Greene — and Berg doubts that’s happening much in general. It’s likely voters are casting their affidavit ballots in good faith, believing their votes will be counted.

“At no point in that exchange, we believe, is the poll worker saying to the voter, ‘You’re in the wrong place, here, fill out this ballot, and by the way, the entire thing will be void,’” Berg said. “It’s not worth the paper and ink it’s printed on because the entire thing will be void. No voter would take that and say, ‘Oh, great, that sounds like a good idea.’”

Even if voters are directed to another site, they may not have the time, because of work or other obligations, to head to the right place after already standing in line for a while.

While the state Board of Elections must notify voters who had their ballots disqualified, voters don’t have an opportunity to fix their affidavits in the same way that mismarked absentee ballots can be cured

Pandemic Added to Confusion

Not all New Yorkers were equally affected by the “wrong church” rule: Areas with a greater share of non-white residents were hit harder. VoteEarlyNY found that more voters were affected in the hardest hit Assembly Districts — the 79th AD in The Bronx, where Greene lives, and the 24th AD in Queens — than in all of Staten Island. 

Blake said he heard most from Concourse Village residents, who had their usual polling place in a community center closed due to COVID-19. Their early voting site was at a courthouse, but for day-of voting, their site was at a school several blocks away, which naturally sowed confusion.

“Anytime you have rules like this, where these technical, procedural things are allowed to thwart the exercise of your fundamental right, you’re essentially silencing the people impacted by that rule,” Berg said. “Once you look at the disproportionate impact now…communities that already tend to be marginalized are further marginalized by this rule.”

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The reasons for this, Berg said, can be gleaned from what was found in Arizona, which has a similar law on the books. In 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Ninth Circuit struck down the law after finding it had a discriminatory impact on communities that were majority non-white. The U.S. Supreme Court is now reviewing the case. 

This was thanks to frequent poll location changes and poll site placements that puzzled voters. For instance, a polling place could be close to a voter’s house but across the district line. 

One of the reasons for the discriminatory impact of the law in Arizona — high levels of renters — rings particularly true in New York City, where two-thirds of residents are tenants. In the Bronx, more than 80% of residents are renters. Many residents move frequently, making it likely their polling places change frequently, too.

Pray for Reform

Laura Wood, New York City’s chief democracy officer in charge of outreach for the upcoming election, wants the state’s election laws to be reformed — but says that in the meantime, registered voters can prepare.

“I urge all New Yorkers to double-check their assigned poll site and make a plan to vote in June,” she said. “The upcoming New York City primaries are too important to miss.”

New York could adopt certain policies and laws that would help mitigate disenfranchisement of registered voters who lose their vote at the hands of the “wrong church” rule.

A bill introduced in the state legislature would allow a portion of the ballot to count if the voter votes in their county. The votes for any federally held or citywide offices, like mayor, would count, while any votes for, say, an Assembly candidate in the wrong district, would be tossed.

“We should count all the valid votes, you know, all the valid offices that they’re entitled to vote for,” said Assemblymember Robert Carroll (D-Brooklyn), who sponsored the bill in the lower chamber, where it hasn’t yet moved. The Senate passed the bill Thursday.

State Assemblymember Robert Carroll (D-Brooklyn) speaks during a 2018 news conference. Credit: Screengrab/New York State Assembly

Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn), the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, pointed out that with polling sites and election districts changing often, notifications don’t always reach voters. 

“Our election laws should, wherever possible, stand on the side of qualified voters seeking to cast their ballots,” he said in a statement.

Eventually, implementing an on-demand voting system — where voters show up at any poll site in their county and poll workers produce a correct ballot for them — could also decrease the number of affidavits rejected because of “wrong church.” 

A potentially more immediate pathway to reducing the problem from the start would be expanding vote by mail, some advocates say. 

In the fall, New York voters across the state will vote on a ballot measure to decide whether to allow no-excuse absentee ballots, which eliminates the polling site — assigned or otherwise— from the equation. If the measure passes, New Yorkers will no longer need to cite an approved reason to request an absentee ballot.

Greene is considering voting by mail in the upcoming election in June. He just wants to make sure his vote counts.