Closed primaries are fine. New York’s closed primary is nuts.

Hundreds of New Yorkers who are registered to vote, but are not affiliated with a major political party, filed a lawsuit against their state yesterday challenging its system of closed party primaries. Most of these voters presumably wish to cast a ballot for Bernie Sanders, but did not change their partisan affiliation to Democratic before the deadline…which was October 9th of last year.

New York is one of eleven states with a closed primary, in which only registered members of the party in question are allowed to participate. Its deadline for changing partisan affiliation is the earliest in the country.

The New Yorkers in question will almost certainly lose their case, and the provisional ballots they cast today will almost certainly be thrown out. New York has rules about who can vote in its primary. Those rules don’t seem to discriminate against anyone based on a protected class such as race, gender or religion. It’s hard to see a legal reason for the system to be changed today, simply because left-leaning independents and members of minor parties who want to vote for Bernie Sanders didn’t register as Democrats early enough.

But that doesn’t mean that Sanders supporters don’t have a point when they note that New York’s partisan affiliation deadline is positively bonkers. While it may be fine in principle for a party to limit participation in its primaries to people who are actually members of that party, it’s ridiculous to expect New Yorkers to have just ~known better~ and followed rules they didn’t know existed six months before they mattered.

There’s a reason why there wasn’t a major fuss over previous closed primaries, which have already taken place in states like Arizona, Florida and Louisiana. It was common knowledge that restricting participation to registered Democrats would, on balance, help Hillary Clinton, but not too many people considered that a problem in principle. Problems only arose when tons of New Yorkers got energized to vote for Bernie Sanders only to realize that they had to have made arrangements to do so six months in advance, when the Democratic race looked like this:

In early October of last year, it was uncertain as to whether Bernie Sanders’s campaign was going to last past Nevada — let alone all the way to New York. He was at less than 25 percent in national polls, and was still playing the role of a protest candidate who just wanted to talk about economic inequality and political reform.

This message also happens to be most appealing to the people most likely to be affected by New York’s partisan affiliation deadline. As I wrote last month:

 [I]t’s worth remembering that when Sanders was considering entering this race, no one — I’d bet not even Sanders himself — thought he had a chance of winning anywhere outside of Vermont and maybe New Hampshire. He was best understood as a protest candidate — a vehicle for voters frustrated with the Democratic Party’s economic centrism to vent a little before casting their ballots for Hillary Clinton in November. If Sanders was lucky, he’d do well enough to force Clinton to move a bit in his direction on an issue here or there.

Bernie Sanders, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Bernie Sanders, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

However, it just so happens that there are a whole lot of those voters currently under the umbrella of the Democratic Party, and Sanders stumbled upon them. These are voters who, in a proportional representation system, would be casting their ballots for the Greens or the Social Democrats, but since they’re stuck in a majoritarian system they are forced to vote for the left-er of the two parties if they hope to gain representation. They would never be able to support Sanders as an independent, because it would amount to de-facto support for the Republican nominee. But they sure as hell can support him in a primary.

These voters usually aren’t comfortable identifying or registering as Democrats, in large part because they don’t feel that the median Democratic politician matches their ideological orientation, but they vote for Democratic candidates in nine out of ten presidential elections. This being the case, some of them are keen on shaping the party they vote for every November to more closely match their politics when given the chance — say, when Bernie Sanders runs a surprisingly competitive campaign to Hillary Clinton’s left.

And again, it doesn’t seem reasonable to lock these voters out of the nominating process before they even knew that their votes could matter.

As Ari Berman wrote in The Nation last week, New York’s partisan affiliation deadline is far from the only problem with its primary campaign rules. The state has no early voting, excuse-only absentee voting and its voter registration deadline (different from its partisan affiliation deadline) is over three weeks before Election Day. What’s more, the state is actually holding primaries on three different days this year — one for president, one for Congress and one for state and local offices. Each of those factors mean that fewer people will vote today than in a counterfactual where one of the bluest states in the country had early voting, no-excuse absentee voting and automatic or same-day voter registration for one day of primary elections.

As Ryan Cooper explains in The Week, you can actually draw a straight line from New York’s lack of competitiveness in statewide elections to its onerous voting procedures. New York has no reason to make voting easy because Democrats don’t need to run up the statewide popular vote. And party elites have an incentive to keep voting difficult because, as Cooper writes, “Mass participation from poor people with a list of expensive demands is not at all what they want. Local unions and other interest groups by nature have the same interest, so as to maximize their own electoral heft.”

So sure, closed primaries may be fine in theory. But New York’s closed primary is, in practice, incredibly difficult to defend as reasonable. If you find yourself arguing that them’s the rules, and Sanders supporters should just get over it, it might be wise to pause and reflect.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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