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Concerns Raised Over County Board's Handling of New Voter Challenges

by Chris Fuchs /
U.S. citizens vote in the presidential election at Carleton Middle School November 6, 2012 in Sterling Heights, Michigan. Bill Pugliano / Getty Images file

A state inquiry into allegations of voter intimidation and discrimination against 30 Chinese Americans in upstate New York has concluded that there were “several areas of concern” in how a county board of elections handled new voter challenges made in August by a town supervisor, the New York Attorney General’s Office told NBC News Wednesday.

As a result of the investigation, the Orange County Board of Elections will remove, by Thursday, the names of 17 voters who remained on a challenge list, according to an agreement signed by the two board commissioners and the state attorney general’s office.

READ: Resolution to Ensure Voting Rights Compliance in Deerpark, NY

The board will also inform the 17 voters in writing by Oct. 31 that the challenges against their voter registrations were “defective,” that they were taken off the challenge list, and that they can cast ballots on Election Day without “any additional restrictions or requirements not faced by other voters,” according to the agreement.

Originally, the voters were told to bring their passports to the polling site, which is not required by law, the agreement said.

The remaining 13, who had already been taken off the challenge list, must also be sent written notices saying challenges to their voter registrations were defective and that they too are eligible to vote Nov. 3, according to the agreement.

“My office is committed to ensuring equal access to the ballot box for all eligible voters regardless of race or national origin status, and regardless of whether or not they are students seeking to register from their college campuses,” New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said in a statement Thursday. “Today’s agreement will ensure that voters in Orange County are able to vote without fear of discrimination or harassment.”

 New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman speaks during a press conference on August 21, 2014 in New York. CARLO ALLEGRI / Reuters

The attorney general’s office began its investigation in September after receiving complaints about voter challenges submitted by Gary Spears, town supervisor of Deerpark in Orange County, who is up for reelection. In August, Spears filed challenges with the Orange County Board of Elections for 30 new voter registrations submitted in July by Chinese-American students attending Fei Tian College, a school in Deerpark affiliated with the Falun Gong religious movement banned in China.

Plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed Oct. 20 against Spears, which accuses him of voter discrimination and intimidation, said the town supervisor made public comments about 60 or 68 new voter registrations in Deerpark, a small town located 100 miles northwest of New York City, that were filed by people of Chinese descent. He also reportedly said there was concern about whether the voters were citizens, according to the lawsuit.

RELATED: Chinese-American Students File Lawsuit Alleging Voter Intimidation

In addition, Spears made the challenges because, on Facebook, some names were linked to addresses in California, he told the Times Herald-Record, a daily newspaper in upstate New York.

In response to the lawsuit, Spears told NBC News in an email Monday: "My only comment is the lawsuit has absolutely no merit. I filed a voter registration challenge on 30 voters registered in a single family home in the Town of Deerpark. All other allegations are false and fabricated by someone else."

The attorney general’s investigation found, however, that information provided in the challenges was misleading because Spears did not tell the Orange County Board of Elections that the address the students used for voter registration referred to a number of buildings collectively belonging to Fei Tian College, which includes a dormitory, according to the agreement.

Fei Tian College has said that even though its address is listed as a single-family home on tax records, it is well known to Deerpark officials that the house serves as a dormitory for the college's students, according to the Times Herald-Record and court papers.

Only later did the board find out there was more than one building on the campus, located on a large swath of land owned by Dragon Springs Buddhist Inc., an organization affiliated with the Falun Gong.

“Today’s agreement will ensure that voters in Orange County are able to vote without fear of discrimination or harassment.”

The attorney general’s inquiry also expressed concern over how the Orange County Board of Elections handled the challenges, which were directed at whether the new voters were U.S. citizens. According to the agreement, the challenges did not specify a reason for questioning the students’ citizenship and did not say, as required by New York election law, whether the reason for the challenges came from personal knowledge or was based on information provided by someone else.

Consequently, the challenges should have never gone through, bureau chief Kristen Clarke of the attorney general’s civil rights bureau told NBC News.

Nevertheless, the board reached out to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office to conduct an investigation into the students’ citizenship status and their place of residence, the agreement said. The sheriff’s office also contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which errantly reported that two of the Chinese Americans whose registrations were challenged were green-card holders, and not U.S. citizens, according to the attorney general’s office.

The sheriff's office attempted to interview the 30 students at the address listed on the voter registrations, but the investigator could not gain entry to the building, the agreement said. The director of Fei Tian College did, however, confirm to the investigator that the students attended the school.

As a result of the sheriff’s investigation, the Orange County Board of Elections cancelled the voter registrations of the two students whom ICE identified as green-card holders, the agreement said. Moreover, letters sent to the students by the board did not give them required notice and an opportunity for a hearing to challenge the cancellations, the agreement said.

The attorney general’s office also concluded that the board placed “undue burdens” on 17 Chinese-American students whose names were not in the ICE database by advising them to bring their passports to polling sites on Election Day to prove they are eligible to cast ballots, the agreement said. The law does not require passports or proof of identity to vote.

The attorney general’s office has given the Orange County Board of Elections one week from Oct. 28 to establish policies and procedures to make sure the board accepts only voter challenges that include all of the information required by New York election law, and that challenges that discriminate against voters based on national origin or race are rejected, according to the agreement.

In addition, monitors from the attorney general’s office will be stationed at polling sites in Deerpark to ensure compliance with civil rights laws and that no voter encounters discrimination on the basis of race or national origin, Clarke said.

Two candidates with ties to the Falun Gong and to Dragon Springs are running for office in Deerpark: one is Gail Rachlin, who is seeking a position on the Town Board; the other is Liam O'Neill, a former Town Board official who is challenging Spears, according to the Times Herald-Record. Both are Democrats. Spears is running under the Republican, Conservative, Independence and Reform parties.