The New York State Board of Elections has taken the unprecedented step of cancelling the Democratic presidential primary in New York. A provision added to an appropriations bill recently signed by the state’s governor, Andrew Coumo gives the democratic members of the Board of Elections power to remove candidates from the ballot who have suspended their campaigns.
While Bernie Sanders has endorsed Joe Biden, he had planned to stay in the race and accrue delegates in order to have a greater impact on the Democratic party platform.
The decision to remove Sanders from the ballot has infuriated Sanders supporters and drawn criticism from others across the democratic party’s political spectrum.
While this decision was ostensibly made to protect voters from the coronavirus, it is hard to see how it will do so other than by reducing turnout and sowing confusion among New York voters. In person congressional primaries will still be held the same day, June 23rd. This move will doubtlessly hurt progressive candidates whose supporters would turn out in greater numbers if their prefered presidential candidate was on the ballot.
A recent article in the Intercept details various ways New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, an outspokenly centrist Democrat, has used the pandemic to consolidate his executive branch political power. In addition to the presidential primary, Cuomo has cancelled six local special elections, some with strong progressive challengers, and has raised the threshold for ballot access. He has also leveraged budget shortfalls created by the pandemic, pushing the state legislature to give him unilateral control over the state’s budget.
Douglas Kellner who along with Andy Spano, the other democrat on the election board, voted to remove the candidates from the ballot, likened the election to a beauty contest, further angering many New York voters who have been disenfranchised from their right to vote for a presidential candidate. While Sanders is the most prominent of the 10 presidential candidates removed from the ballot, Andrew Yang has taken the step of filing a lawsuit against the State Board of Elections demanding the candidates be put back on the ballot.
The lawsuit states that the boards move “denies voters due process and denies voters the right to vote.” It goes on to say that it will have the effect of “suppressing voter turnout as voters will have less incentive to vote if they cannot cast a vote for the highest office in the land, and thereby negatively impact challenger candidates.”
Sanders campaign lawyers sent the State Board of Elections a letter asking that he remain on the ballot. The letter noted that Sanders was “concerned that his removal from the ballot would undermine efforts to unify the Democratic Party” and that “His involuntary erasure from the ballot, on grounds of a law that was not in effect when he announced his campaign’s limited suspension, would sow needless strife and distrust, impeding Senator Sanders’ efforts to unify the Democratic Party in advance of November elections.”
Stacey Abrams, who has been discussed as a possible running mate for Biden, also spoke out against the election’s cancellation, saying “NY’s decision to cancel its primary creates a false choice: asking voters to pick safety or participation in our democracy. This is wrong. Elections officials can hold safe, accessible elections, where voters cast ballots by mail or safely in person.”
A clear solution to the problem of holding in person elections during a pandemic is to switch to an absentee ballot only system. And New York has expanded access to absentee voting by removing a provision that required voters to provide a valid reason for not being able to vote in person. All registered voters will be mailed an application to vote absentee. This is still a step short of simply mailing ballots to registered voters and in person polling locations will still be open.
Neither Biden nor his campaign have directly addressed the New York election’s cancellation. However, on Thursday morning his campaign and the Sanders campaign issued a joint memo stating that “While Senator Sanders is no longer actively seeking the nomination, the Biden campaign feels strongly that it is in the best interest of the party and the effort to defeat Donald Trump in November to come to an agreement regarding these issues that will ensure representation of Sanders supporters and delegate candidates, both on the floor and in committees.”
The memo did mention New York saying “if the state remains eligible for delegates, the campaigns are committed to working together to ensure representation for Senator Sanders in the New York delegation.”
While this is likely seen as a welcome overture from the Biden camp by some Sanders supporters, it does not address the issue of turnout in down ballot races. It also does not address the disenfranchisement of millions of progressive voters in a presidential election.
In addition, many have questioned whether this could set a bad precedent. Sander’s surrogate Jeff Weaver, echoing other commentators, suggested that cancelling New York’s election could give President Trump the impetus to suspend the general election in November if in-person voting is still unsafe due to the coronavirus pandemic.
If you think that the New York presidential primary should continue, here is a petition asking Governor Cuomo and the New York State Board of Elections to put Sanders back on the ballot and allow the election to continue as planned on June, 23rd.