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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  • McCheeseFist

    So vote for the independent candidate for president next year… Bernie Sanders.

  • twarrior3dc

    The deadline for new voter registrations was March 25th.

  • SJ Rzeminski

    What about those Democrats who move to the city after October. Do you allow them to register and if you so, aren’t you granting them special privileges while denying it to others; or are these people who moved to New York after October disenfranchised? As I see it, it is can of worms and ordinary Democrats lose.

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  • emjayay

    Depending on how hard it is to change. If it was barrier-free, like on the internet, a lot of people in the case of a candidate like Sanders would.

  • MC Planck

    The deadline should be the start of the primary. Anything else allows for shenanigans, like crossing party lines to vote for loser candidates.

  • David Honig

    This clearly misses the point entirely. The argument that people didn’t know about Bernie and therefore couldn’t register is actually the reason for New York’s rule. The Democratic Party wants people who are Democrats, no matter who is running in a particular race, to select its nominees.

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  • beef4bonds

    North Carolina has the same system. Those who are registered as Dem or GOP vote in their respective primaries. Unaffiliated voters can pick ether party. The Libertarians are also recognized as a party, though I don’t know if they let unaffiliated voters into their primary.

  • The parties make their own rules for primaries. There’s nothing in the constitution about them. Personally I like the open election where parties are not so much a factor. Louisiana does this. The party set-up often creates a system in which your only say is in the dominant party’s primary because they basically run unopposed in the general. That sucks.

    But for the presidential primary: I understand the frustration of independents in NY and elsewhere, but at the same time an open primary system (like in Texas) allows people to create havoc in the another party. Let’s say the Democratic nomination was a done deal now and Democrats went in and voted just to fuck up the Republicans. Some states’ rules allow that and I don’t think it’s okay.

    The current system sucks and needs reform but if the only reason someone is voicing concern is because the rules benefit another candidate but would be fine with them otherwise then that’s bullshit. The time to push for reform is between elections when it’s not clear whether the changes will benefit or hinder any particular candidate.

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  • JaneE

    CA has a semi-open (semi-closed?) primary. The political parties get to decide if non-partisan (no party preference) voters can vote in their primary. The GOP says registered GOP voters only, the Democrats will let non-partisan voters participate. And then all those people who thought they were registering as independents, when they actually registered for the American Independent Party. At least the same registration deadline applies to picking your party and voting in the election.

    One of my neighbors was a registered Libertarian who changed to no party preference so he could vote for Trump. We thought he would have a stroke when he found out that wouldn’t work, but he did have time to re-register again.

  • emjayay

    Back in the Middle Ages when I registered to vote, registering as a Democrat did not really represent a lot of my political ideology. But I knew from multiple sources – maybe Civics class, maybe what my father said, maybe what friends said, who knows, probably all of those – that if I registered as Peace and Freedom (remember that one?) or Independent, etc. I would never have a meaningful vote in a primary. So I registered as a Democrat.

    How did a lot of people not know this? Or more likely they did, and they didn’t want to identify as a D or R and didn’t care about primaries. Well, not until their boy joined a party of convenience after four decades of being a one-man Socialist party member. Well, too fucking bad.

    Excuse me while I break out my violin.

  • The point of having a closed primary is to restrict participation in a party’s inner workings to those people who have expressed a commitment to register with the party.

    Put bluntly, as I said above, if you want to get a voice in who the Republicans nominate as their candidates, register as a member of their party. Same with the Dems, Greens, Libertarians, Socialist Workers and every other party.

    Make it a 30 day restriction (which is reasonable and accommodating) and very, very few people will go to the bother of changing their registrations en masse just to fuck with other party’s nominations. Not enough to affect the results significantly anyway.

  • timncguy

    again, then what is the point of having the closed primary? It’s not about processing paperwork. It’s about keeping other parties from changing registrations en mass to mess with each others process.

  • stealthfighter

    The idea behind the October date is to prevent cross-party mischief; i.e., large numbers of registered Republicans changing registration shortly before a primary to artificially bolster support for a weak Democratic candidate. Truth be told I think this threat is akin to the claims of massive voter fraud necessitating onerous voter ID requirements; it’s a virtually nonexistent problem, but that is the basis for the rule.

  • I don’t have a problem with closed primaries at all. In fact, I think all of ’em should be (1) primaries and (2) closed to participation only for registered party members. You want to decide who gets to be Democratic nominees for public office, be a member of the goddamned party. You want to decide on the Republicans, be a member of their goddamned party. You want to vote on who the Greens or Libertarians will nominate? Register with them. If you want to be a “none of the above” voter, you don’t get to decide who is nominated by any party.

    I am opposed to caucuses. And I think state delegate nominating conventions in lieu of primaries are anachronistic and antithetical to democracy.

    That all said, yes, New York’s registration rules are ridiculous. October to change party affiliation for a primary held in April is nuts. 30 days would suffice, honestly. Same with their stupid primary schedule which will drive down participation. And they ought to have early voting and mail-in voting.

  • How about 30 days? That seems reasonable, and plenty of time for the state to process the paperwork and input the data in their systems.

  • timncguy

    From your post:

    “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.”

    So, this seems similar to the Sanders campaign filing a complaint with the DNC about the Victory Fund that has also been debunked as frivolous.

    At this point it appears the Sanders campaign is just trying to score PR points w/ Hail Mary passes that have no merit.

  • timncguy

    What do you think the deadline for changing your registration should be? What’s the point of a “closed” primary if you can change your registration right up to election day?

  • stealthfighter

    I’ve always been registered as a Democrat, I’ve always voted in Democratic primaries, and I’ve always been of the opinion that primaries should be limited to voters who feel a strong enough affinity toward a party to register as a member of that party; i.e., ALL primaries should be closed. If you truly don’t identify with either party and feel strongly enough about that to register as ‘unaffiliated’ then being excluded from participating in the primary is one consequence of that choice. So yes, them’s the rules and get over it.

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