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NY's Party Enrollment Deadline Saga Somehow Just Got More Confusing

Dashed Arrow Scott Heins / Gothamist

Last week, the New York State Democratic Party voted unanimously to make one crucial change to the state’s archaic election law. In a nod to the party’s emboldened progressive wing, state committee members backed changing the party enrollment date for the 2020 presidential primary, potentially allowing many more non-Democrats to register into the party much closer to election time.

The state party supported shifting the party switch deadline to 60 days before the primary and allowing voters unaffiliated with a party—the many independents who make up voting rolls—to register as Democrats 25 days before the April 28th, 2020 primary.

In past election cycles, unaffiliated voters have been locked out of primaries if they didn’t register into a party nearly a year from election day, a lag time that is worse than just about every state in America.

But the long-anticipated date change to New York law may run into one major snag: the State Board of Elections does not believe it can be enforced.

“The consensus at the State Board is that there still must be legislation to implement the deadline for enrollment in a political party,” Cheryl Couser, the deputy director of public information at the State BOE, said in a statement.

Elections law experts consulted by Gothamist agreed with the BOE’s interpretation of the law, though they were sympathetic with the aims of the state party.

“All enrollment days, party changes—everything is set by state statute,” said Ali Najmi, a New York City election lawyer. “That’s an act of the legislature and the governor [to change the law].”

Election law reformers and progressives have long fought to alter state law, only to run up against a Republican-controlled State Senate uninterested in election reforms and a Democratic governor in Andrew Cuomo, who has not exactly made good government issues his top priority. After Democrats took control of the State Senate and a wave of new lawmakers entered Albany, Democrats moved quickly to pass new laws, enacting early voting, same day registration, and consolidating federal and state primaries into a single day.

Missing in that flurry of early legislation was any change to the party enrollment deadline. Longer-tenured lawmakers have been leery of passing any laws that could threaten incumbents: a rash of new primary voters presents an element of unpredictability. Some Democrats and third parties also fret about “party raiding,” the practice of voters ideologically unaligned with a particular political party simply enrolling to make mischief in a primary. (As New York grows more Democratic and the number of registered Republicans shrinks, this is less of a challenge for the Democratic Party.)

In lieu of legislation, the State Democratic Party—more energized by rank-and-file progressives than it has been in the past—moved in late May to alter an election law they believed they had power over, since the change would only apply to the Democratic presidential primary.

This is a crucial point—and could potentially confuse voters currently unaffiliated with a political party and looking to switch to the Democratic Party.

After the April presidential primary, voters will again head to the polls in June to vote in federal and state primaries. Were the State Party’s rule change to go into effect, it would not impact the June elections. An unaffiliated voter who registered as a Democrat in March to vote in the April 2020 primary would be out of luck in June, locked out of state and federal primaries.

Ben Yee, a state committee member from Manhattan and a former candidate for public advocate, said the state party’s resolution only covered the presidential primary because committee members believed they did not have legal authority over state and federal primaries set for June 2020. Presidential primary rules are governed by the Democratic National Committee in consultation with state party organizations.

“The BOE will hopefully do what the state party wants because I do think it’s possible for them to enact it before the presidential primary,” Yee said. “The core precedent implies that the party should control its own registration deadline in a presidential election scenario.”

But if the BOE believes only legislation can force a change in the party enrollment deadline, workers there are unlikely to comply with the state party’s resolution and voters could be left in limbo.

Another issue with last week’s resolution, election law experts argue, is that there is no effective and practical way for the BOE to track whether a voter has enrolled as a Democrat to just vote in the presidential primary and not in any others.

Democrats in the Assembly and State Senate have broadly agreed that the party enrollment deadline should be changed. The question remains when that date should be. Zellnor Myrie, the chair of the Senate’s elections committee, previously told Gothamist he supported moving the party switch deadline. He declined to comment on the state party’s resolution.

In the meantime, Democrats have focused on trying to implement other reforms, like automatically registering voters when they interact with state government agencies.

Assemblymember Charles Lavine, the chair of the Assembly’s elections committee, said his chamber had yet to meet to discuss the state party’s resolution. He agreed any change would have to go through the legislature.

“While the proposal represents a constructive concept, this is a legislative matter that must be considered in our Assembly conference in order to reach a consensus that will benefit all New Yorkers,” Lavine said.

[UPDATE] On Saturday evening, after this story was published, Kelleigh McKenzie, a member of the NYS Democratic Committee and executive committee, sent us this statement:

It is disappointing to hear the State BOE refer to the new State Party rule as an attempt to change the party enrollment deadline or alter elections law. This is a clear misreading of the rule, which does not change any deadlines but instead opens up the 2020 Democratic Presidential Primary to voters who are in the process of applying to join the party, but are not yet officially enrolled as Democrats.

Political parties have the legal authority to decide who gets to vote in their primaries. The Reform Party recently used this power when it made a rule to allow unaffiliated voters to take part in its primary. There have been cases in New York where political parties had to take legal action to ensure BOE compliance with the party rules they adopted.

Under the new State Party rule, unaffiliated voters who submit an application to become a Democrat at least 25 days before the presidential primary, and voters who apply to switch to Democrat from another party at least 60 days before, will get to vote in the presidential primary. The official party enrollment status of these voters will not be affected by this rule.

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