Saratoga County Election Commissioner Roger Scheira doesn’t recall an election when the phone rang as much as it did during New York’s presidential primaries on Tuesday.
“The phone rang off the hook for nine straight hours,” the Republican commissioner said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Usually, political party primaries are humdrum affairs for the faithful and hardcore party members with turnouts of 20 percent of less, but not this time.
With Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican Donald Trump both drawing new people into the voting process, there were more problems than usual with voters being turned away at polling places across the Capital Region.
There were people insisting they were registered to vote in the highly publicized and bitterly contested Republican and Democratic primaries even when they weren’t. And they received their usual election day calls from people unsure where to vote, or had moved since the last time they voted, which if not previously reported in many cases disqualifies them.
“Some people wanted to holler at us about what the law ought to be,” Schiera said. “Most people were pretty civil. They didn’t understand how New York does it.”
The voter turnout Tuesday for both parties was at or near record levels for a party primary, with a lot of voters turning out who weren’t accustomed to New York’s primary system, in which only people who are registered members of the party — and have been since October — can vote.
Many other states have open primary systems, in which people who are not enrolled in a party can vote in a primary. New York, however, has had a closed primary system for decades — though, as it turns out many people didn’t know it.
“For many independent voters, this was the first time they had wanted to vote in a primary, and they didn’t know it was a closed primary system,” said Robert Turner, a professor of government at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.
Those who defend a closed system say it prevents an organized outside effort from “highjacking” a party nomination, protecting the integrity of small parties that could be taken over by the larger parties.
State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman set up a voter hot line on Tuesday, and said Wednesday that if fielded more than 1,000 complaints. He said his office would be investigating voting irregularities in New York City and possibly other parts of the state.
“Yesterday, New Yorkers turned out in impressively high numbers to vote for the nominees in their respective parties. By most accounts, voters cast their ballots smoothly and successfully. However, I am deeply troubled by the volume and consistency of voting irregularities, both in public reports and direct complaints to my office’s voter hot line,” Schneiderman said in a statement.
But even with the limits on who can vote and allegations of irregularities, more than 2.6 million people were able to successfully cast their ballots.
In the Democratic race, just shy of 1.8 million votes were cast statewide, about 100,000 votes fewer than in 2008, a year when Clinton, President Obama and John Edwards were in a contentious Democratic primary.
In the Republican race among Trump, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, 853,539 votes were cast statewide, nearly 200,000 votes more than in 2008. It’s also triple the number of Republicans who voted in New York’s 2012 GOP primary, held after Mitt Romney had the nomination largely secured.
Trump on Tuesday won all local counties, finishing with below 50 percent of the vote only in Saratoga and Schenectady counties.
Local Democrats, on the other hand, preferred Sanders, even though Clinton carried the state as a whole by 58 percent to 42 percent.
Final but unofficial numbers from the state Board of Elections show Sanders, the senator from Vermont, carrying 49 of the state’s 62 counties. Clinton’s wins were in New York City, its closest suburban counties, and in the upstate counties with the largest cities.
“Hillary does well in diverse and urban communities, and Sanders does well in white rural communities,” Turner said. “Large parts of upstate look more like Vermont or Wyoming than they do like New York City.”
The problems with people wanting to vote in the primary even though they weren’t members of either party were exacerbated by a social media rumor that a judge was going to open New York primaries to all who wanted to vote.
There was a kernel of truth: A group called Election Justice USA had filed a lawsuit in federal court on Long Island, seeking an emergency order. The judge, however, denied the order.
Those who showed up at the polls without being a party member were turned away, or if they were insistent, given an affidavit ballot to be reviewed by the local Board of Elections later.
“It happened all over the state,” Turner said. “Both Sanders and Trump are very successful at reaching out to disaffected or independent voters.”
Jamie Duchessi, the Democratic election commissioner in Montgomery County, said that all the national attention the primaries received, along with Capital Region appearances by all five major candidates, contributed to voter interest and turnout, and that county also had problems with unenrolled voters coming to the polls. The Board of Elections fielded many calls from polling places where voters were insisting they could vote.
“Some were not able to vote at all, but we had some who voted by affidavit ballot,” he said. “In mast cases, it was the individual unaware of the process.”
Elections boards also heard complaints from a lot of people who expected to be able to vote at 6 a.m. — as they can in a general election — and were surprised to find out that New York state sets the voting hours for a primary at noon to 9 p.m.
Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.