A federal judge has reinstated New York’s June Democratic presidential primary, siding with Andrew Yang, the former candidate, who sued the state in federal court and called the recent decision to cancel the contest “authoritarian and illegal”.
The judge ruled Tuesday that the state had wrongfully removed the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, Yang and eight other former presidential candidates from the ballot.
The decision came after two Democrats on the state’s election commission cancelled the presidential primary last week, relying on a new budget provision allowing them to remove presidential candidates who suspended their campaigns. The move outraged Sanders supporters and other progressives who said New York, a Democratic bastion, was actively disenfranchising voters.
“It goes against what the party stands for,” said Heather Key, who volunteered for the Sanders campaign. “They’re always on the case about gerrymandering and cheating with the GOP. And yet here they are controlling whether we can vote for the president of our choosing.”
The US district judge Analisa Torres wrote that the state had deprived voters of their constitutional guarantee of freedom of association. New York voters, she said, weren’t just voting for a presidential candidate, but also for delegates who could influence the direction of the Democratic National Convention in August. (Sanders and Biden announced an agreement last month to let Sanders keep hundreds of delegates, and make sure the senator is represented at the Democratic national convention.)
“The removal of presidential contenders from the primary ballot not only deprived those candidates of the chance to garner votes for the Democratic party’s nomination … it deprived Democratic voters of the opportunity to elect delegates who could push their point of view in that forum.”
Election officials had argued that holding a largely symbolic presidential primary would be costly and put people’s health at risk during the coronavirus pandemic. In Wisconsin and Florida, poll workers and voters tested positive for Covid-19 after election day. “[T]he holding of a presidential primary could strain the system to the point of buckling,” Robert Brehm, the co-executive director of the New York State Board of Elections, wrote in a court filing.
But Torres noted that the state was encouraging voters to vote by mail and doubted that cancelling the presidential primary entirely would significantly stop the spread of Covid-19. (A spokesman for the New York State Board of Elections declined to comment on the ruling, saying lawyers were reviewing it.)
Before Tuesday’s decision, Sanders supporters said the cancellation amounted to a stunning episode of voter suppression from Democrats at a time when the party is making expanding voting rights a core part of its platform. “It’s an insult to us,” said Habiba Choudhary, who had been canvassing for the senator.
But New York has long placed severe restrictions on voting, despite its reputation as one of the most progressive states in the US. The state had one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the 2016 election.
Biden is unlikely to lose New York and its 29 electoral college votes in November. But not giving Sanders supporters the chance to cast even a symbolic vote for him would have left his supporters unmotivated to commit to organizing for Biden, said Melanie D’Arrigo, who is running in a Democratic congressional primary in June.
“Will those voters knock doors, will those voters make calls, will those voters advocate on behalf of Joe Biden? I don’t know,” she said.
Some voters, such as Key, had also considered not voting in the general election at all.
It’s possible the back and forth of the election commission could still cause confusion. The cancellation would have meant that 35 of New York’s 62 counties will have a reduction in the number of voters who have primaries, and seven counties wouldn’t have had a primary at all. Campaigns have been relying on text messaging and email campaigns to keep people informed.
“It’s uncanny how many people think the next election is in November now,” said Jabari Brisport, a Democrat who is running in a primary for a state senate seat in Brooklyn.
There’s more at stake than the presidential primary in New York. New York has become home to a wave of progressive politicians, most notable Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Brisport said botching the primary would make it harder to replicate that success.
“A lot of progressive challengers like myself see this a direct attempt to protect incumbents,” he said of the previously cancelled presidential primary.
With just a few months until the Democratic conventions, Rachel Himes, an organizer with the Democratic Socialists of America who canvassed for Sanders, said New York voters deserve to have their voices heard.
“The principle of democracy is such that even when it seems like the election is a foregone conclusion, everyone should be able to vote,” said Himes. “People don’t have investment in the process, and why would they?”
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