Jessie Fields' Address to Citizen's Union - Open Primaries
Blog Background

Updates From the Movement

Posted by jesse shayne on November 21, 2016 at 5:10 PM

Open Primaries Spokesperson Jessie Fields M.D. Addresses Electoral Reform in New York State

On November 18, 2016, Jessie Fields delivered the following address at the Citizen's Union symposium on electoral reform in New York State:

Good afternoon. Thank you to the Citizens Union for organizing today’s event.

Looking at the state of our political process and its relationship to the voters is so timely!

I serve on the Board of Directors of Open Primaries. I want to thank John Opdyke, President and founder of Open Primaries, Jeremy Gruber from Open Primaries, and Cathy Stewart of for their work and for being here today.

I am a medical doctor, a community organizer and a political activist, and throughout my years of activism it has been deeply important to me to work to bridge the ongoing racial, social and ideological divides in our society.

A towering leader who brought together a movement that inspired Americans of different races and walks of life was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1965, at the end of the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Dr. King spoke about the centrality of the right to vote. He said that the denial of the right to vote is at the very origins of “the root cause of racial segregation in the south.” Then he went on to discuss the populist movement in the post Civil War period, how poor black and white farmers were brought together. But, Dr. King explained, this alliance was destroyed by white Southern Bourbon elites, Jim Crow laws and violent intimidation.

The quest for a more perfect democracy continues to this day. I believe that the essence of voting rights and the core value of the fight for voting rights not only for Black people but for all people is that we all must have the right to vote in all phases of the election process no matter our race, our creed, color or party affiliation (or no party affiliation) and that no one should be required to join a political party as a pre-condition for voting.

It has never made sense to me that the political parties get to decide who can vote and who cannot vote, who is on the ballot and who is not on the ballot, who can appear in the televised debates and who does not appear in the debates and what and how issues are brought forward into the public dialogue.

To the basic question of how do we increase voter participation and make elections more competitive, my most basic answer is that having a system with no barriers to voting is a way to increase voter participation. That’s why I believe that nonpartisan elections in which all voters can vote in every round of voting is a crucial next step in increasing voter participation.

Allowing all registered voters to vote among all the candidates in the first round and then the top two vote getters going on to the general election creates more competitive elections. It is a simple equation here. Competitive elections give you a shot at increasing turnout.

While Michael Bloomberg served as mayor, there were several attempts to bring this reform to New York City. Bloomberg was first elected Mayor of New York City in 2001 with his margin of victory on the Independence Party line. After the election he kept his promise to the Independence Party to convene a charter revision commission on nonpartisan elections. After an attempt in 2002 that failed to put the question on the ballot, in 2003 the commission placed a referendum for nonpartisan elections on the ballot. As many people in this room know, it was an intense battle in which the political parties and almost all of the New York City political establishment vehemently opposed it. In a very low turnout election, the referendum lost with 31 percent voting in favor.

In New State there are 3.2 million independent, third party and unaffiliated voters who are shut out of voting in primaries. In the 2016 presidential primary in New York State only 19.7 percent of voters cast a ballot. Many voters who wanted to participate were disenfranchised.

Fifty percent of millennials and many young people in general are independents. Many of them worked on Senator Bernie Sanders campaign but when they went to the polls in New York State to vote for the candidate they had been canvassing, phone calling and petitioning for they were turned away and not allowed to vote.

Because of this experience open primaries went from an issue that most people in New York didn’t understand to one that young people who found themselves locked out were speaking out for. Sanders himself was forced to publicly address the issue.

Nationally the closed presidential primaries cost taxpayers a quarter of a billion dollars and excluded 26.3 million voters. This is the biggest form of voter suppression in the country!

I practice medicine and have, for many years, as a primary care physician in Harlem in the congressional district of Harlem, now numbered the 13th CD which includes parts of the Bronx. Since 1944 when a congressional district was placed in Harlem until now in November 2016, that is for the last 72 years, Harlem has had only two congressional representatives, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. who was the first congressman to represent Harlem (first elected in 1944) and Charles Rangel who was the Harlem congressman from 1971 to 2016. He just retired and the seat was won by Adriano Espaillat.

Whatever your view of these particular elected officials, it is an undeniable reality that a community that has the highest asthma rates in the country, some of the most entrenched poverty, and worsening access to truly affordable housing, among other issues, that this community has not had a way to demand accountability from those elected to serve it and has been politically marginalized by one-sided elections with low voter turnout.

Let me say a word on the question of nonpartisan elections and communities of color. One of the main arguments used against nonpartisan elections is the idea that nonpartisans disempower minority voters. This is a false argument.

Of the 26.3 million Americans that were shut out of voting in the 2016 presidential primary, it is estimated that there were 2 million African American independent voters who live in a closed primary state and were barred from the primary election.

Top two nonpartisan elections passed by the voters of California in 2010 have been good for minority voters and all California voters.

African-American representation in the legislature has increased significantly. Independents can now vote in all rounds, including the growing number of Latino and African American independents. After a robust nonpartisan public primary from which the top two vote getters were two women of color California is sending an African American woman, Kamala Harris to the United States Senate.

In New York elected office is won, almost always secured by winning the primary. It is not an accident that voter turnout, participation and competition in New York elections is so low.

Nonpartisan elections set a context for a whole new way of doing politics. If we really want to bring people together and increase voter participation, we have to dismantle the structures that keep them apart.

Thank you.

Be the first to comment