Open primaries long overdue in New York - Open Primaries
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Open primaries long overdue in New York

Posted by Russell Daniels on January 20, 2021 at 1:39 PM

Open primaries long overdue in New York

written by John Opdycke & Jeremy Gruber for TimesUnion

New York lawmakers approved a series of electoral reforms over the last two years, including early voting and consolidation of primary elections. Most recently, they made another smart upgrade: automatic voter registration.

Here’s a prediction. Automatic registration will increase the voter rolls in New York by millions, and the vast majority of them will be independent voters. That’s a problem, because New York’s political system is among the most hostile to independents in the country. How that friction resolves itself will help determine whether New York becomes an example of how democracy can work, or continue to wallow at the bottom of the pack.

New York has some of the lowest voting rates in the country. It was ranked 30th in voter turnout for the 2020 general election. That rate plummets much further in the state’s primary elections. In the 2020 presidential primaries, turnout was 5.5 percent in New York, the sixth lowest in the country. Think about that: In one of the most important elections in our lifetime, 5 percent of New Yorkers chose the state’s nominees for the two major parties. Keep that in mind next time you hear about a New York candidate or ballot measure winning with a large percentage of the vote.

That’s in large part because New York is one of only nine states that hold taxpayer-funded primaries that only allow Democrats and Republicans to participate. Independent and third party voters are disenfranchised. That’s significant when you consider that in 2020, independent voter registration surpassed Republican registration in New York. While the Republican Party loses voters, and third parties stagnate, independent voters have become the second largest group of voters in our state — just more than 3 million, or 22 percent of all voters. The number of independent voters in New York has increased by almost 1 million voters in the last 20 years. Yet they can’t vote in primary elections.

That’s a big problem. Less than 30 percent of general elections for state Legislature are competitive in New York state; 70 percent of elections are actually decided in the primaries that millions of voters are excluded from, a number that continues to rise.

How will New York’s political establishment respond to a substantial increase in the number of independent voters? It’s one thing to shut out independent voters from publicly funded primary elections when their numbers are small. It’s another thing to block their participation when they will soon be — thanks to automatic voter registration — the largest group of voters in New York.

Don’t expect change to come easily. Legislation introduced to enact open primaries has languished in Albany for a decade without so much as a public hearing. Primary reform has been absent from every package of reform legislation considered during Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tenure. The state Democratic Party, which counts “fair and open elections” as one of its key platform tenets, has refused to even consider voluntarily opening its primary to independent voters, quashing a resolution on the idea at its 2018 convention without so much as a debate. New York courts have dismissed multiple legal challenges to the current closed system.

The recent reforms passed in Albany are positive and long overdue. Automatic voter registration has the potential to help increase voter turnout. But if our political leaders do not find ways to fully enfranchise independent voters, these upgrades will be for naught. The increase in the number of independent voters, which will accelerate once automatic registration takes effect, demands that we boldly rethink the rules of the political game.

John Opdycke is president and Jeremy Gruber is senior vice president of Open Primaries, a national election reform organization. They are the co-authors of “The Next Great Migration: The Rise of Independent Voters.”

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published this page in Open Primaries in the News 2021-01-20 13:39:53 -0500