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What Does Thursday's 'Remarkable' Primary Voter Turnout Mean For New York?

Walking into vote at PS 163 on West 97th Street
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Walking into vote at PS 163 on West 97th Street Scott Heins

Poll sites in multiple districts ran out of ballots, long lines to vote snaked around blocks in Brooklyn and elsewhere, and an untold number of people once again found their names inexplicably missing from the voter rolls. But when the results came in on Thursday, it quickly became clear that New Yorkers had managed to do the unthinkable: They turned out en masse for a primary election.

"It's off the charts," said Blaire Horner, the executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, adding that the "remarkable" turnout is almost definitely the highest in the state's primary history. "I haven't seen anything like it."

All told, a record-shattering 1.5 million votes were cast in the gubernatorial primary, nearly three times the number of ballots counted in 2014 and, in some districts, more than those tallied during the presidential primary. The brunt of that surge came in New York City, where 855,087 residents made it to the polls, compared to less than 500,000 in last year's mayoral primary.

For the statewide offices, at least, the shockingly high turnout translated into not-so-shocking outcomes: Governor Andrew Cuomo easily won a third term, and his picks for Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General—Kathy Hochul and Tish James, respectively—both managed to slip past insurgent challengers. On Friday, the governor's campaign touted the "historic primary victory," noting that he'd captured more votes than any other gubernatorial candidate in history, while describing the collapse of the recently-disbanded Independent Democratic Caucus as "rearranging deck chairs."

But Cuomo's ultimately decisive win also came after fending off a serious progressive challenge from actor and activist Cynthia Nixon. The governor, who did not leave his mansion in Albany on Thursday night, campaigned accordingly, dumping more than half of his $31 million war chest into the contest, and looking the other way as his inner circle mounted a sleazy and widely discredited attack against Nixon in the race's final days.

While the backlash to those decisions may not have cost him at the polls, some observers are already raising questions about whether the ugly race could hamper his rumored presidential ambitions. At the very least, experts say that crediting yesterday's record turnout to the success of the Cuomo machine's mobilization efforts would seem to be an oversimplification.

"You can't really just attribute it to his spending, because Nixon got more votes this time than Cuomo got last time," noted Horner. "It's clearly about something else going on within the Democratic party. It's a fired up base."

Only time will tell whether yesterday's surge in turnout augers a decisive blue wave in the midterm elections on November 6th. "I assume what's driving that [primary turnout] is the Democratic party is charged up because of President Trump," Horner said, adding that it's hard to say whether that same energy will carry over into November.

Progressive groups, meanwhile, are holding up Thursday's resounding victories among anti-IDC senators as evidence of a leftward shift in the party's base. Speaking from Jessica Ramos' packed victory party on Thursday night, No IDC co-founder Susan Kang pointed to anger at the so-called "turncoat Democrats" as one reason for the high turnout, adding, "The level of grassroots swell and progressive victory is definitely unprecedented."

"Last night's surge in turnout is a testament to contested and competitive elections," echoed Alex Camarda, Senior Policy Advisor for good government group Reinvent Albany. "When voters have real choices, they turn out."

But perhaps the most significant takeaway from yesterday's primary is that the bar for record-breaking, expectation-shattering turnout in New York remains stubbornly low. As Susan Lerner, the always on-brand executive director of Common Cause NY notes, a majority of eligible voters still did not vote in yesterday's primary, and an untold number of those who tried found their registrations mysteriously changed, if not entirely purged. Despite recent pushes from voter advocacy groups, the state maintains some of the most restrictive voter laws in the country.

"It is worth pointing out that we managed to pull primary turnout rate from horrible to merely bad," she said. "We've still got a ways to go and the reforms we advocate for—like automatic voter registration—are still badly needed."

For now, New Yorkers can only hope that a reelected Governor Cuomo, combined with a newly-energized state Senate, can take steps to transform impressive turnout from the exception to the rule.

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