Seismic change to the state’s closed primary system isn’t on the horizon, despite the recent surges in voter complaints to boards of elections and in rejected affidavit ballots cast by voters who weren’t enrolled in the proper political party, experts said.
New York is one of 11 states with a closed primary, meaning only registered Democrats may vote for Democratic candidates and Republicans for Republicans.
The system was created by the state in 1911, “and it’s been closed ever since,” said election law expert Jerry Goldfeder.
“We believe that enrollees of a party should make the decision as who the nominees are for the party,” he said of the founding principle, adding that there’s not enough political will to do things differently.
The restrictions rankled supporters of populist presidential contenders Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump who had missed the Oct. 9, 2015, deadline to switch their affiliations to Democrat or Republican to be able to participate in the April 19 primary.
“It’s a rigged system,” said Ina Bransome, 72, of Rockaway Beach, a Green Party member who volunteered for but couldn’t vote for Democrat Sanders. “The establishment Democrats have worked hard to keep control over the process.”
Trump’s daughter and son were in the same boat. They were enrolled as “blank” and didn’t register as Republicans in time to support their father at the ballot box. The daughter, Ivanka Trump, at a CNN town hall last month called the process “onerous.”
On primary day, many ineligible voters came to the polls either unaware of or despite the election law.
In Nassau and Suffolk counties, nearly 87 percent of provisional paper ballots cast weren’t counted. County officials attributed the large number of affidavit ballots to votes cast by those who missed the deadline to change parties.
New York City had a similar scenario with less than 27 percent of the affidavit ballots tallied.
Michael J. Ryan, executive director of the city Board of Election, at a meeting last month, said poll workers encountered “voters that did not necessarily understand the closed primary process in New York” and “voters that were not registered in the particular party for which they were attempting to vote.”
State Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor), sponsor of a bill to permit registered voters who aren’t enrolled in a party to vote in a presidential primary, acknowledged an uphill battle for change.
“You have to be in it for the long haul,” he said. “We’re certainly building a lot of support for it, but I certainly would admit that we’re not there yet in New York State.”
He criticized the current system as archaic and fit only for the political environment that enabled Tammany Hall.
“It was designed to benefit the interests of party leaders and party insiders who want to be able to pick their candidates and control the process,” he said.
A bill he has co-sponsored to move the deadline for party-switching closer to the primary has a much better shot, he said.
James Gardner, the interim dean of the University at Buffalo Law School, said angry voters shouldn’t blame state officials.
“The decision of whether to open or close a primary and to what degree is up to the political parties,” he said.
Gardner said the system is based on a democratic theory that “this is the right way to produce the most accountable political system.”