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Multiple NY primaries lead to low turnout

An empty room at a polling station for

An empty room at a polling station for the primary election in Dix Hills, June 28, 2016. Credit: Ed Betz

New York didn’t set out to hold as many political primaries as possible in one year.

It just seems that way. And voters don’t seem to like it, based on the small turnout in last week’s congressional contests.

Despite competitive primaries in crucial districts around New York, turnout was extremely low. On the eastern end of Long Island, about 9 percent of Democrats cast a ballot in the race between Anna Throne-Holst and Dave Calone. In New York’s 3rd Congressional District, which covers parts of Suffolk, Nassau and Queens counties, perhaps 11 percent will have cast a vote, once absentee ballots are counted.

One culprit for voters’ low interest, critics said: The congressional primaries were the lone contest on the ballot, as state lawmakers once again passed up a chance to combine them with state legislative races, which could have boosted participation — and saved $25 million in election expenses.

“This primary is just not going to get on your radar,” said Michael Dawidziak, a Bohemia-based political consultant who didn’t work for any candidates in the congressional primaries. The June primary is still new to New Yorkers, he said, and there were no other contests for other offices to spark interest. He was surprised turnout wasn’t even lower, closer to 5 percent.

“If you were going to do what makes sense, you’d move (all primaries) to June because that’s how it works in most of the country,” Dawidziak said. “Most of your primaries in the U.S. are held before summer.”

Not in New York, because state lawmakers can’t agree on when to hold a unified primary. The Assembly wants it in June; the Senate, in August.

The state has traditionally held primaries in September — a timetable designed to benefit incumbents, many analysts have said, because it provides just two months for a primary winner to regroup for the November election.

But in 2012, U.S. District Judge Gary Sharpe ordered New York to move its federal primary to June, to ensure that overseas and military ballots can be returned and counted. The Democrat-led state Assembly since has backed a proposal to move the legislative primaries to June to combine with congressional ones. But the Republican-led Senate has refused, instead proposing to hold all the primaries in August.

As a result, New York had a presidential primary in April, congressional primaries in June and will have legislative primaries in September.

New York’s “inane” system “only serves to depress turnout,” said Neal Rosenstein of the New York Public Interest Research Group, a government watchdog group. Those in powerful offices aren’t inclined to change a system that helped them get there.

“Unfortunately, Albany has refused to move the state primaries to the same date. As a result, there is even less coverage of federal races and less public participation,” Rosenstein said. “A cynic might say that less attention to these races serves the parties, incumbents and established candidates well.”

Count New York Mayor Bill de Blasio among the critics.

“Three — three primaries a year is crazy,” de Blasio said in a radio interview the day after the congressional primaries. “And if you combine that with the really bad election laws we have in this state — we don’t have vote by mail. We don’t have early voting. We don’t have same-day registration. We are one of the most backward states in the union actually . . . This is an intolerable situation. It’s not shocking that turnout is going down. It’s quite sad and in many ways cynical. And we have to change it.”

The mayor was responding specifically to the roughly 12 percent turnout in the Democratic primary to succeed Rep. Charles Rangel (D-Manhattan). There were plenty of hopefuls — nine candidates vied to succeed the retiring congressman. And with the district overwhelmingly Democratic, the primary — not the general election — was seen as determining the winner. Yet participation was paltry.

Along the same lines, Rep. Steve Israel’s (D-Huntington) decision not to run for re-election in New York’s 3rd Congressional District (which includes parts of Suffolk, Nassau and Queens counties) created an opportunity for five Democrats. Former Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi won the nomination by garnering 6,532 votes — 3.5 percent of the enrolled Democrats in the district.

In the 1st Congressional District, the primary between Throne-Holst and Calone will be decided by absentee ballots. With each hovering around 5,500 votes, the victor will capture the Democratic nomination by earning the support of 4 percent of the party enrollees in the district.

Assembly Democrats have said the answer is a unified primary — in June.

“It conforms with the federal primary date set by the court,” said Michael Whyland, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx). “It makes the most sense and it saves money — $25 million.”

Senate Republicans have opposed that idea. They note that Sharpe’s ruling gave leeway to set a unified primary in August and they said that a June primary is bad timing — given that the annual legislative session typically ends the third week of that month.

“We believe that holding a state legislative primary in June would interfere with the budget and end-of-session legislative business, the bulk of which is completed between March and June,” said Scott Reif, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport). “Forced with a choice between campaigning and being in Albany doing the people’s business, many legislators — especially New York City Democrats whose primary is often their only competitive election — would choose campaigning every time.”

Dawidziak finds the stalemate a little self-serving — for incumbents and party-backed nominees, regardless of party stripe.

“The reason they put it in September is that it made it much harder to supplant a party’s nominee,” Dawidziak said, noting the timetable forces insurgents to gather ballot petitions and campaign over the summer — when few voters are paying attention. Interest picks up only after Labor Day, he said, essentially making for a “one-week campaign.”

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