As Usual, New York Primary is Uncompetitive and Undemocratic - Open Primaries
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New York Primary is Uncompetitive and Undemocratic

Posted by jesse shayne on September 26, 2017 at 9:55 AM

New York Primary is Uncompetitive and Undemocratic

By Open Primaries Intern Stephanie Geier 

On September 12, New York held its primary elections, and once again, a quarter of the state’s voting population -- the 3.2 million Independent and unaffiliated voters who refuse to join a party -- were barred from participating. Unsurprisingly, multiple seats went uncontested, with no Republican primary for the mayoral election.

In the race for mayor, incumbent Bill de Blasio easily won the Democratic primary with 75% of the vote. He’ll go on to face Republican candidate Nicole Malliotakis, who ran uncontested and thus advanced to the general election. Not a single incumbent New York City Council member lost their seat, and the majority of Republican NYC Council candidates ran unopposed. The three non-Democratic candidates for Public Advocate ran uncontested, and in the race for Manhattan DA, the incumbent won uncontested.

Uncompetitive elections are nothing new for New York. In 2016, about half of all State Senate seats were uncontested or virtually uncontested; and the State Assembly races was even less competitive, with 36% of seats going uncontested, and another 21% virtually uncontested.

There is a strong correlation between lack of competition in elections and rigid, exclusionary electoral codes. New York is home to some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country.

In addition to its tightly closed primaries, New York has the earliest change-of-party deadline in the US. In the last presidential primary, millions of New Yorkers couldn’t vote because they didn’t change their party before October -- more than 6 months before the primary.

With its exclusionary closed primaries and early change-of-party deadline, is it surprising that New York has one of the nation’s lowest voter turnout rates? New York had the fourth-lowest voter turnout in the 2016 presidential primaries, at just 21.09%.

A truly democratic system shouldn’t produce such abysmal voter turnout and lack of competition.

Closed primaries don't just limit competition in elections, but adversely impact the state’s overall politics. Under closed primary systems, candidates need only appeal to their party’s most partisan supporters -- not all of their constituents. Establishment candidates are easily propelled into general elections, and are less eager to negotiate and find common ground over issues in office if they only have to win a primary to essentially secure their seat. It’s no wonder that New Yorkers always complain about how nothing gets done in Albany.

New York’s legislature is also notorious for its corruption and well-oiled political machine. Incumbents who are planning to retire after their term will often step down a couple months before Election Day so that the party can choose their replacement instead of holding a primary. This trick completely removes the voters from having any impact on who their new representative will be If we started electing officials who were loyal to the people, and not their parties, would this be the case? Probably not.

After the last presidential primary, New York’s closed primaries have increasingly faced resistance from dissatisfied voters who are locked out of democracy. Last year, Open Primaries rallied at City Hall to draw attention to the issue. After the last presidential primary, the New York Board of Elections received tons of complaints from frustrated Independents who wanted to participate. Open primary bills have constantly been proposed before the state legislature. There was even a lawsuit challenging New York’s closed primaries -- though a Manhattan judge dismissed it.

Earlier this year, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman introduced the New York Votes Act, which would have expanded voting rights through measures like automatic voter registration. But this isn’t nearly enough, as it still leaves over 3.2 million voters locked out of democracy.

While open primaries legislation still has a ways to go, we did find a glimmer of hope in New York’s Reform Party, which opened its primaries to independent voters this year. The result was a 200% increase in participation in the Reform Party’s primary.

If New York is going to address its polarized, corrupt state of politics and move forward with effective public policy, we can’t ignore its closed primaries. An open primary system would not only propel third-party candidates to the stage in New York, but would increase competition within New York’s Democratic primaries -- where the vast majority of races are decided -- giving voters more options and producing more accountable politicians.

Look at California, another state where the Democratic Party controls the majority of seats, but, unlike New York, has an open primary system.

The open system fundamentally changed California’s legislature and paved the way for bipartisanship and negotiation. If New York wants more engaged voters, effective problem solving, and true democracy, it should follow in California’s footsteps.

Independent voter advocate Francis Barry once called New York the “worst state for independents, bar none.” There is a large degree of truth to this, and the state’s recent primaries only reaffirm it. It’s time to stop non-competitive primaries from becoming the norm in New York. If you’re a New Yorker, call your legislator today and tell them why you want open primaries.


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