Posted by Russell Daniels on
Commentary: Primary process should be opened to unaffiliated voters
written by Fred W. Thiele Jr for Times Union
There are 213 members of the New York Assembly. I am the only one who is not a member of one of the two major parties. That means that, like my colleagues, I can vote on legislation that will affect the daily life of every New Yorker, but I couldn't vote in New York's presidential primary election in 2016.
In 2016, New York became the national poster child for electoral exclusion when the 3.2 million New Yorkers who were not members of a major party were shut out of the presidential primary. Those numbers have only continued to grow to close to 3.5 million today — 27 percent of all registered voters. Once again, they will be shut out of one of the most competitive presidential primary elections in state history in 2020.
For all the election reforms in New York this year, our closed primary election system continues to deny unaffiliated, independent voters the right to participate in New York party primaries.
The antiquated idea that our primary elections are simply private party nominating contests ignores two fundamental truths.
First, primary elections in New York are publicly supported events — run by public employees, administered in public buildings and tallied on publicly owned machines. They differ from the general election in one key respect: They allow both major political parties to act as gatekeepers to exclude millions of New Yorkers.
Second, New York's general elections have become increasingly uncompetitive. Close to 35 percent of races are uncontested, and only 8 percent of general election races are considered competitive. That means many of the important choices are taking place in our primary elections.
That's why 38 states have some form of open primary. New York's completely closed primary is the exception, not the rule. I have sponsored legislation that would permit unaffiliated voters to participate in the presidential party primary of their choice, while not allowing party members to "cross over" and cause mischief for an opposing party by voting in their primary.
True independent voters are the deciding factor in almost every general election. Both parties should send a clear message to New York's independent voters that they value their participation, rather than demanding party membership if they want to vote.
New York's Democratic Party leadership recently passed rules changes to allow independents to participate in the 2020 presidential primary if they join the party at least 28 days before the primary. A positive step forward, but we can do more by involving unaffiliated voters.
As New York's Democratic and Republican parties set the rules for the 2020 presidential primary elections, they could — and should — open up the primary process and let every unaffiliated New Yorker vote. The Supreme Court has ruled that political parties can allow independents to participate in primary elections without legislative approval.
In 2016, the Democratic Party opened their presidential primaries to independents in Oklahoma, South Dakota, Nebraska, California and Alaska. So did the Republican Party in Alaska. In Florida, another closed primary state, the Democratic Party is openly considering just such an approach after the largest chapter in the state — Miami-Dade — passed a resolution for open primaries last month. It will be debated at their state convention this October.
All of us should have a voice in the nomination of candidates and in the election of candidates. The way to do that is with open primaries. Letting every voter vote should not be controversial. There's still time to open the 2020 presidential primaries in New York. 3.5 million voters are waiting.