As the surprisingly pivotal New York presidential primary draws closer, an upswell of voters have begun to organize against the State's closed primary system, which excludes 3.2 million independent voters, or about 27% of the voting public. For comparison, there are only 2.7 million registered Republicans state-wide.
A State bill introduced in late March would bust the closed primary wide open, permitting all registered New Yorkers to vote. Social media has been peppered with links to the legislation in recent days ("This is YUUUUGGGGEEE!!!"), and some have wondered if it could be passed in time for next Tuesday—a possibility that the bill's sponsor, Independent Assemblyman Fred Thiele, says is a very long shot.
"I don't have any illusions that we're going to get this done by next Tuesday," Thiele told us this afternoon. "There's obviously a lot of resistance in Albany, which is biased towards the two major parties. But I hope we can make 2016 the last closed primary in New York."
"It was amazing how many telephone calls and e-mails I got in the last few months complaining about not being able to participate," he added. "From unaffiliated voters, and also those who wanted to change their party to vote in this election. If you wanted to change your party you had to do that last October, when people weren't even thinking about it."
The closed primary, combined with New York's extremely early change-of-party deadline (October 9th, the earliest in the country), is likely to have an outsized impact on Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders supporters—polar opposites in many ways, but similar in that they're poised to buck the establishment with their votes, and are more likely to be unaffiliated. Bernie's camp was so concerned about the votes it might lose in New York, that the campaign released a PSA ahead of the October deadline, urging the non-affiliated to register as Democrats. (Unregistered voters had until March 25th to file their registrations.)
Advocates of closed primary elections argue that they prevent so-called "party crashing," or switching parties at the last minute and voting en-masse for an unpopular candidate in order to mess with the opposing frontrunner.
MSNBC points out that Sanders—who is currently trailing Hillary Clinton in New York according to some polls—lost all three primaries to date that barred independent voters. Of the remaining 17 primaries, nine are closed.
— Richard Godfrey (@SkeletonsRreal) April 12, 2016
"New York's primary is one of the most restrictive primaries in the country," said Jeremy Gruber, a spokesman for Open Primaries, on Tuesday. The non-partisan advocacy group is hosting a protest against New York's closed primary on Thursday afternoon, on the steps of City Hall. "We're not operating under the misconception that a few days before the primary we're going to push through legislation that's going to change it... but we're trying to shed light on the glaring dysfunction."
According to Open Primaries, about 50% of millennial voters consider themselves independent. "If we're not listening to what they are telling us we are dooming the country," Gruber said. The Independence Party of New York says that 37% of New York voters under the age of 30 are independent voters.
Arizona, which also has a closed primary, set an alarming example on March 22nd. Voters in the state's largest county waited on line for hours, in part because the number of polling stations had been reduced to just 60, from 200 in 2012. Then thousands of voters came forward with allegations that their voter registration had been mysteriously changed to independent, disqualifying them from voting. Arizona has since launched an investigation into potential voter fraud. New York voters—primarily Sanders supporters—have recently come forward with similar allegations, that their registration status had been switched, or was missing altogether (never mind those shady primary election reminder cards).
Susan Lerner, the executive director at Common Cause New York, told Think Progress this week that election reform bills go before the state every year, and always fail. That 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.”
Thiele made a similar case on Tuesday, urging voters to call up their local senators and assembly members. You can also click to endorse the legislation here, and come out to Open Primaries' rally on Thursday.
"I'm the only independent in the New York State legislature, I caucus with the Democrats, but I can't vote in the primary," Thiele said on Tuesday. For what it’s worth, he’d vote for Sanders if he could. "My heart and money is going to Bernie Sanders," he said. "I find him to be the only candidate that really has put a focus on the poison relationship between money and elections. All of the other issues aren't going to get a fair hearing until you do that first."