Commentary: Open up primary elections to all the voters in New York - Open Primaries
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Commentary: Open up primary elections to all the voters in New York

Posted by Jonathan Richter on June 07, 2018 at 12:44 PM

Commentary: Open up primary elections to all the voters in New York

Written by Jeremy Gruber for the Times Union

Like many progressive New York Democrats, I welcomed Cynthia Nixon's entry into the primary race for governor. If there's one thing that has brought New Yorkers together in recent years, it is our collective disgust at the calcified machine brand of politics that dominates our state at every level and reduces progressive change to a marketing slogan. Nixon entered the Democratic Party primary promising a bold departure from the policies and practices that, in her words, have made New York "the single most unequal state in the country."

Bold and comprehensive political revitalization (nonpartisan redistricting, strong ethics laws, and nonpartisan primaries) is why California is innovating at every level of policy and New York is stuck in political amber. So it was with much disappointment that I read her recent prescription for electoral change, focusing on early voting, automatic voter registration and changing the deadlines on party registration. Worthwhile changes to be sure but woefully inadequate and uninspired.

In 2016, New York became the poster child for electoral dysfunction around the country for one reason and one reason only — our broken primary election system. Over a quarter of all voters in our state — 3.2 million New Yorkers who are registered to vote but not enrolled in a party — are shut out of voting in closed primary elections. That's more voters than are registered in the entire state of Connecticut. We spend $25 million of taxpayer dollars every year on elections that shut out 3.2 million of our fellow citizens. It's the largest act of voter suppression in our state.

Why does it matter? New York districts are so uncompetitive — as a result of partisan gerrymandering — that 90 percent of elections are determined in the primary. By the time the general election comes around, most races have already been decided. New York is 41st among states in voter turnout not because voting is inconvenient but because our elections aren't meaningful. When real competition did manifest in the 2016 presidential primary and voters did attempt to come out in real numbers, they were outraged at what they found. No amount of tinkering around the edges of our electoral policies will absolve our political leaders of their responsibility for this ongoing injustice.

New York's political leaders know voters are tired of party bosses picking their candidates. They know they must appear to support reform in order to continue to be elected. So every major politician in our state has pulled a bait and switch, cloaking themselves in administrative changes to our state's electoral rules. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has labeled his proposal the "Democracy Agenda." Disgraced former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman labeled his proposal the "New York Votes Act." Mayor Bill de Blasio has his "Democracy NYC" agenda. All three "leaders" promoting the same group of election rule adjustments without any political commitment behind any of them and no real change to come.

Noticing a pattern?

Across the country, more and more voters are refusing to join a party. Forty-three percent of all registered voters — including 50 percent of millennial voters — are now independent. And their numbers are only continuing to grow. Shutting them out of voting is simply unsustainable and it's accelerating the hyper-partisanship we all abhor. That's why 70 percent of Americans — Republicans, Democrats, and independents — support open primaries that include all voters.

New Yorkers are looking for the type of bold leadership that has been so consistently lacking in our state. Calls for modest administrative improvements — for which every politician pontificates but somehow never get addressed by the Legislature — are insufficient and hollow.

If Nixon wants to distinguish herself from Cuomo and the rest of the New York state Democratic machine, she should take a chance, go beyond the politically correct, and advocate for the changes our state actually needs. That begins with primary elections that are open to every New Yorker.


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