New York’s Upcoming Primary Is ‘Closed Shut’ To Certain Voters

Democratic presidential candidates and New Yorkers, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., are facing off in New York’s presidential primary on April 19. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/WILFREDO LEE
Democratic presidential candidates and New Yorkers, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., are facing off in New York’s presidential primary on April 19. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/WILFREDO LEE

Devin Cannon’s voter registration has been marked “independent” for as long as she can remember. This means she’s never been allowed to vote in a major party presidential primary election in New York, which operates on a closed primary system.

But this year, she wanted to change.

“I truly did not feel that I belonged in either party,” she told ThinkProgress via email. “And suddenly Bernie Sanders came along.”

I hung up feeling completely defeated and confused and honestly just started crying.

Cannon knew she had to switch her party affiliation to Democrat if she wanted to vote for Sanders, the independent U.S. senator from Vermont who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. She also knew that she had to change her party by October 9, 2015 — more than six months before the election happened. New York’s October deadline is the earliest change-of-party deadline in America.

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Not wanting to miss her chance, Cannon said she mailed a change-of-party form to the Monroe County Board of Elections in August. But when she checked on the status of her registration last month, she was told her form wasn’t received until late October. She would be ineligible to vote for Sanders in the spring.

“I hung up feeling completely defeated and confused and honestly just started crying,” Cannon said.

Cannon’s situation is most likely a product of human error — the registration may have gotten lost in the mail, for example. Monroe County Board of Elections commissioner Thomas Ferrarese said it’s unlikely her form got backlogged or lost. “We’re very sensitive about processing everything on time,” he said.

Mistake or otherwise, experts say New York’s strict closed primary rules — which state that only registered Democrats can vote for Democratic presidential candidates, and only registered Republicans can vote for Republicans — coupled with its uniquely early change-of-party deadline will prevent more people than Cannon from voting for their preferred candidate.

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And in an election year driven by widespread appeal for non-establishment candidates, the fallout from the muddled process may be greater than ever.

Expecting Problems On Election Day

Cannon probably isn’t the only New Yorker who will experience problems on April 19, the state’s upcoming Election Day. More than 3 million people — about 27 percent of the state’s voters — were registered outside the Republican and Democratic parties as of April. In a presidential campaign marked by popular non-establishment candidates and high independent voter turnout, those voters could swing the primary results significantly.

Susan Lerner, the executive director at Common Cause New York, says it’s likely at least some of those people will get turned away at the polls due to confusion about the early change-of-party deadline.

“We think that there are going to be some number of people who are going to show up at polling places on April 19 expecting to be able to vote because they’re registered, and they won’t be able to,” Lerner told ThinkProgress. “People don’t understand that they have to register very far in advance.”

We think that there are going to be some number of people who are going to show up at polling places … and they won’t be able to [vote].

There are a number of reasons why some New York voters might get confused, and think they’re able to vote when they aren’t, Lerner said. For one, voters might just not know about the strict process — they may think New York has open primaries, or same-day voter registration, like other states.

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“They’ll think that New York, like other states, has same-day registration or an open primary,” she said. “And we’re not even close to open … I like to say we have a closed-shut primary system.”

In addition, some registered voters who switched parties after the October 9 deadline may not have received clear confirmations that their party change would not count for the presidential primary election. Thomas Connolly, the deputy director of public information at the New York State Board of Elections, told ThinkProgress that individual counties are in charge of sending out confirmation notices to voters, and there’s no state law mandating what those notices should say.

Many voters have already expressed frustration and confusion about the change-of-party deadline, Connolly said. He said he’s been getting “dozens” of voter complaints about this every day — far more than usual.

“A lot of people have called and complained and criticized us for not doing more to publicize this deadline,” he said. “But there’s only so much we can do with the resources we have. The public information office is literally two people.”

Rosemarie Clouston, who manages the voter hotline at Election Protection, told ThinkProgress she’s also received complaints from registered independents in New York who want to be able to vote in the primaries.

“It’s not new for this election, but unfortunately folks are trying to vote in this election, getting caught up by the law, and are not able to vote for the people they wanted to vote for in these primaries because of this,” she said.

Why Is The System Like This?

The October 9 deadline to change parties only impacts New Yorkers who were already registered to vote beforehand. New, previously unregistered voters had until March 25 to file registrations, and they could choose whichever party they wanted.

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But in other states, the process for all voters — registered or not — is a bit more flexible. At least 16 states have completely open primaries, where anyone is allowed to vote in the presidential nominating contest, regardless of party affiliation. Ten states have semi-open primaries, where party-affiliated voters are restricted to their party’s primary but independent voters can choose which nominating contest they’d like to vote in.

They have the power base, and what they seek to do is preserve their power base.

The main argument for open primaries is that they’re more accessible. The main argument against them is that they’re subject to so-called “party crashing,” when people from another party conspire to manipulate the contest and vote en masse for a bad or unelectable candidate.

Party crashing doesn’t happen much for large parties like Democrats and Republicans. But in New York, where smaller parties like Green and Working Families have actual influence in the state, a closed primary may protect them from outside manipulation.

“That’s kind of part of why the closed process is there — it doesn’t allow the larger parties to steal minor parties’ nominations,” Ferrarese said. “I think that’s a safeguard that protects the minor parties that a lot of people don’t realize.”

Lerner, however, said she believes the state’s closed primary system allows political parties, not voters, to be the “dominant force” of elections in the state.

“The closed primary system means that all election administration and election law is determined in terms of what is best for the two major political parties and the people that run the parties,” she said.

As for why New York has such an early change-of-party deadline, Lerner said she believes the political parties want longtime, faithful voters.

“They don’t see it as advantageous to have extraneous voters suddenly joining their party to suddenly vote in a primary,” she said. “They have the power base, and what they seek to do is preserve their power base.”

Bad News For Sanders, Trump

When it comes to New York’s fast-approaching presidential primary election, Lerner said potential voters from both parties would likely be impacted by New York’s strict election rules. But she said that people voting for “the two non-establishment candidates” — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and billionaire Donald Trump — would bear the brunt of the confusion. That’s because voters for those candidates were more likely to have been previously unaffiliated with a political party, or more likely to have wanted to switch parties to vote for their preferred candidate.

Sanders supporters even set up a page back in October raising the alarm about the change-of-party deadline for independents and voters registered with more liberal factions like the Green Party or the Liberal Party.

So far, it seems true that non-establishment candidates like Trump and Sanders tend to do better in open primaries, where people can vote in whichever party’s primary they choose.

I’ve yet to come across [a voter registration] that’s been maliciously changed. There’s always been a legitimate reason.

In the current Republican battle between Trump and Sen. Tex Cruz (R-TX), Trump has done better in open primary contests while Cruz has done better in closed contests, according to a Fox News analysis. And the New York Times reported that Sanders’ statewide victories have been “fueled by his large vote margins among independents,” who may be restricted from voting in closed primaries.

And when it comes to New York’s complicated voting laws, Sanders supporters seem to be the ones complaining most loudly. Allegations of fraud and willful manipulation of voter registrations in New York have been widespread on the Sanders for President Reddit page, where voters have been posting personal stories of sketchy dealings with their local board of elections.

State Board of Elections official Thomas Connolly told ThinkProgress he’s been receiving complaints about alleged manipulations of voter registrations, particularly from Sanders supporters. But he said that each one he’s followed up on has been because a mistake on the voter’s part — usually because they didn’t fully understand New York’s complicated election law.

“It really comes down to simply a lack of awareness of the sometimes convoluted nature of New York State election law,” he said. “I’ve yet to come across [a voter registration] that’s been maliciously changed. There’s always been a legitimate reason.”

Fighting For Change, But Going Nowhere

What Connolly said he most wants to convey to frustrated voters is this: He understands, even sympathizes, which their concerns. But he’s not in charge of what the law says.

“I understand that people aren’t happy,” he said. “People aren’t happy that New York State has a closed primary. People aren’t happy that the deadline is so long, and they say it’s unconstitutional, and I say listen, you’re not the first person to think this.”

I get it. But again, you’re yelling at the wrong person.

“I get it,” he added. “But again, you’re yelling at the wrong person.”

If you’re unhappy with New York’s election law, the right people to yell at are in the state Legislature. And as it turns out, Lerner has been yelling at the state Legislature for years — though to little avail. Every session, she said, there are bills to reform elections, bills to move the deadline to change party registrations, and bills to make primaries more open. But they always fail, every time.

The frustration in Lerner’s voice was palpable. She seemed defeated — she doubted that the growing popularity of independent candidates like Sanders and Trump would motivate people to lobby for more accessible elections in New York. But, she said, if people really do want to change the laws, they have to call their legislators — not the board of elections.

“If people actually started to complain to people who could change it, maybe that would work,” she said. “Embarrassing the legislators by having outraged voters actually calling their legislators, rather than the board of elections, might actually start to make a difference.”