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New Yorkers go to the polls – some of them anyway

Congressional, state Senate, and state Assembly primaries are being held Tuesday June 25th. Not all districts have primaries, but some do, and, in those cases the primary winner likely will be the candidate who prevails in November’s general election. 

Primaries are important in American elections. In fact, in many places primaries have become more important than general elections in determining the winner, especially in congressional and state legislative elections where one party typically dominates. Due to a combination of the natural partisan divides (rural areas tend to be more Republican, urban areas more Democratic, and the suburbs “purple”) and partisan gerrymandering, the number of competitive seats for Congress and state legislatures has declined since the 1970s. Most are “safe” seats—reliably Republican or Democratic. As a result, primaries—when voter participation is typically lowest—are increasingly determinative of the general election outcome. 

How low can voter participation be in primaries? In a state like New York, turnout can be miniscule. A review of the four most recent gubernatorial elections sheds some light. Democrats have had four gubernatorial primaries in the last 20 years, with the highest turnout 24 percent in 2018. On the Republican side, there have been only two primaries for governor over the past two decades, with the highest turnout at 16 percent in 2010. 

In only one election did both major parties have gubernatorial primaries and that was in 2022. In that election 1.1 million voters cast their ballots. To put that in some context, there are over 13 million registered voters in New York. Thus, roughly 10 percent of all registered voters selected the two major party candidates that the rest of us had to choose from. 

Under New York law only those who are enrolled in a political party can vote in that party’s primary. Not all states have adopted that approach. There are five types of primary systems. New York’s primaries are considered “closed,” meaning only party enrollees can vote; the primaries are “closed” to all others. There are nine other states that have such “closed” systems. Some states have primaries that are considered “partially closed.” In those states, political parties are allowed to decide whether to allow unaffiliated voters or voters not registered with the party to participate in their nominating contests. There are nine states that have such systems. 

Some states are considered “partially open.” These states permit voters to cross party lines, but their ballot choice may be regarded as a form of registration—essentially meaning that by casting a primary ballot the voter is registering in the political party in which they chose to vote. Four states have a form of this system. 

The fourth category allows unaffiliated voters to participate in any party primary they choose but does not allow voters who are registered with one party to vote in another party’s primary. There are seven states that allow unaffiliated voters to participate in any primary. 

The last category is the obvious one: Some states allow any voter to vote in any primary. These states are considered to have “open primaries. In an open primary, voters choose the party in which to cast a primary vote, but this decision is private and does not register the voter with that party.

Here in New York, given the miniscule voter participation in primaries it makes sense to reexamine how the state conducts its political business. New York’s Constitution has long held that elections are to be run jointly by the two major political parties. 

But does that system make sense in the current political environment? 

Clearly, primary voter participation rates in New York are dismal. Add to that the below the national average turnout in the general election—in which all voters can participate—and the upshot is that when it comes to voting, New York ranks in the bottom third of the nation. 

In New York unaffiliated voter registrations—sometimes called “blanks” because the party enrollment part of their voter registration forms are not filled in—has seen the biggest growth over the past 20 years. In 2006, 5.5 million voters registered as Democrats. In 2022, that number had risen by more than one million to 6.5 million—or an 18 percent increase. Republicans saw their registrations drop during that period. In 2006, 3.1 million New Yorkers registered as Republicans; by 2022, only 2.9 million had. 

However, “unaffiliated” voters saw their numbers jump from 2.3 million in 2006 to nearly 3.1 million in 2022, a whopping 30 percent increase. 

Yet, despite their numbers and their incredible growth, they are “second class” voters. They have no representation in elections administration, and they cannot vote in primaries. When Election Day rolls around they are simply left to choose among the candidates blessed by the political parties. 

It doesn’t have to be that way. As mentioned earlier, there are other primary models to choose from. And the administration of elections could be wrestled from the hands of the two major parties and handed to independent elections professionals. 

This week, a small number of New Yorkers will choose Congressional and state Legislative candidates for the general election. From now until November, it is our opportunity to press our representatives to make New York’s elections more open and accountable to all voters.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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