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United States of America v. State of New York et al

January 27, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gary L. Sharpe Chief Judge


I. Introduction

Nothing is more critical to a vibrant democratic society than citizen participation in government through the act of voting. It is unconscionable to send men and women overseas to preserve our democracy while simultaneously disenfranchising them while they are gone. To some extent, that is precisely what New York has done. Having had ample opportunity to correct the problem, it has failed to find the political will to do so. While matters of comity ordinarily counsel federal courts to refrain from becoming embroiled in state election schemes, New York has left the court no choice. If federally-guaranteed voting rights are to be protected, the court must act.

The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) of 1986, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1973ff to 1973ff-7, as amended by the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act, Pub. L. No. 111-84, subtitle H, §§ 575-589, 123 Stat. 2190, 2318-2335 (2009) protects the federally-guaranteed voting rights of New York's military and overseas voters. Since at least 2010, New York has recognized that its voting laws are not compliant with UOCAVA's federal mandate. Accordingly, the State entered a Consent Decree on October 19, 2010. (See Dkt. No. 9.) Among other things, it agreed to amend its law to ensure future compliance with UOCAVA and agreed to take certain steps to correct UOCAVA violations. (See Consent Decree Terms, id.) Furthermore, the State transmitted additional absentee ballots after October 1, 2010-that were unknown to the court at the time it entered the Decree-which constituted additional UOCAVA violations that fell beyond the scope of the relief ordered in the Consent Decree. (See id.)

Now pending is the United States' motion seeking permanent and supplemental relief to ensure New York's primary election date complies with UOCAVA and to address the additional violations found subsequent to the Decree. (See Dkt. No. 16.) For the reasons that follow, the motion is granted.

II. Background

On October 12, 2010, the United States filed this action to remedy violations of UOCAVA. UOCAVA guarantees active duty members of the uniformed services (and their spouses and dependents), and United States citizens residing overseas, the right "to vote by absentee ballot in general, special, primary, and runoff elections for Federal office." 42 U.S.C. § 1973ff-1(a)(1). New York is responsible for complying with UOCAVA and ensuring that validly-requested absentee ballots are sent to UOCAVA voters in accordance with its terms. 42 U.S.C. §§ 1973ff-1 & 1973ff-6(6).

New York's statutorily-prescribed non-presidential federal primary election date prevents it from complying with UOCAVA's ballot transmission deadline of forty-five (45) days prior to a federal general election. On August 27, 2010, the Secretary of Defense granted New York a hardship waiver for the November 2, 2010 federal general election on that basis. The waiver exempted New York from complying with UOCAVA's ballot transmission deadline of September 18, 2010. Thus, the waiver extended New York's UOCAVA ballot transmission deadline until October 1, 2010. The waiver was granted based in part upon New York's representations that all ballots would be transmitted by October 1, 2010.

However, New York failed to transmit all UOCAVA ballots by October 1, 2010, prompting the United States to contact State officials. During these communications, New York represented that at least thirteen (13) counties transmitted UOCAVA ballots after October 1, 2010, but stated that all UOCAVA ballots had been transmitted no later than October 10, 2010.

On October 19, 2010, and based on these representations, this court entered the Decree to remedy these UOCAVA violations. (See Dkt. No. 9.) The Decree required New York to accept as valid all UOCAVA ballots that were properly executed and postmarked or showing a date of endorsement of receipt by another agency of the United States government by November 1, 2010, and that were received by New York's election officials by November 24, 2010 and otherwise valid. The Decree left open the issue of additional relief should New York fail to take necessary measures to ensure future UOCAVA compliance. The Decree also contemplated supplemental relief should additional UOCAVA violations be discovered.

III. Discussion

A. Primary Election Date

Determining an UOCAVA-complaint date for New York's 2012 primary election requires consideration of a multitude of positions, all of which were presented by New York. While the Election Commissioners' Association (ECA), the State Senate, which was granted amicus status, and the State Assembly*fn1 expressed their views, the Governor did not take a position.

Specifically, the ECA and State Assembly urge the court to move the September Primary to the fourth Tuesday in June in order to reliably meet the mandates of UOCOVA. The ECA contends that an August primary election does not provide sufficient time to deal with the foreseeable obstacles in certifying a primary election result or the ballot. Thus, ECA claims that an August election would potentially disenfranchise military and overseas voters.

On the other hand, the State Senate seeks an August primary date because it would be the least disruptive to the current, and long-standing, September primary system. In so arguing, the Senate urges the court to consider the economic implications of the primary date, the hardship of candidates to obtain signatures in the winter months, and that June is at the end of the legislative session. More specifically, the Senate points out that a June primary would force its members to have to weigh their elected responsibilities against the need for political presence in their district.

Having considered the parties submissions, and considering their contentions with care, the court concludes that the fourth Tuesday in June for the non-presidential primary is in the best interest of the State. However, this decision by no means precludes New York from reconciling their differences and selecting a different date, so long as the new date fully complies with UOCAVA. The court fully recognizes that a permanent primary date is best left to New York, but has acted as it must to preserve federally protected voting rights.

B. Additional UOCAVA violations

Following the entry of the Decree, the court has been informed that at least thirty-six (36) of New York's sixty-two (62) counties transmitted UOCAVA ballots after October 1, 2010. Furthermore, at least thirteen (13) counties transmitted UOCAVA ballots after the October 10, 2010, transmission date stipulated in the Decree. Since there appears to be no dispute on the subsequent violations, the court grants the relief sought by the United States to determine the extent of the UOCAVA violations and the proposed remedy to rectify those violations.

IV. Conclusion

WHEREFORE, for the foregoing reasons, it is hereby ORDERED that the United States' motion for permanent and supplemental relief (Dkt. ...

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