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The decision to cancel the state’s Democratic presidential primary during the coronavirus pandemic was necessary, officials say. But election observers are worried that cancelling could set a dangerous precedent.
The New York Board of Elections cancelled the state’s Democratic presidential primary on Monday, saying they didn’t want to move forward because of the health risks of holding an election during the coronavirus pandemic. Primary elections, which had already been postponed from April 28 to June 23, will still be held for congressional and state-level races.
The move prompted an immediate outcry from supporters of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who suspended his campaign on April 8 but hoped to remain on the ballot so that he could continue to amass delegates. Jeff Weaver, a senior advisor to the Sanders campaign, issued a statement following the decision, calling it “an outrage” and “a blow to American democracy” that should be overturned by the Democratic National Committee. "While we understood that we did not have the votes to win the Democratic nomination our campaign was suspended, not ended, because people in every state should have the right to express their preference,” Weaver said. “What the Board of Elections is ignoring is that the primary process not only leads to a nominee but also the selection of delegates which helps determine the platform and rules of the Democratic Party.”
Officials cited a state law enacted on April 3 that allows election administrators to remove a candidate from the ballot if they suspend their campaign—but Weaver said the state went too far, arguing that “no one asked” the state to cancel the election and that the “proper response” to prevent the spread of coronavirus would be to implement universal mail-in voting.
The state elections board disagreed, with Democratic Co-Chairman Douglas Kellner pointing out that Sanders has already endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive nominee. “What the Sanders campaign wanted is essentially a beauty contest that, given the situation with the public health emergency, seems to be unnecessary and, indeed, frivolous,” he said.
The decision received support from other New York officials, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who said he would not “second guess” the board, adding that he knows there are “a lot of election employees…who are nervous about conducting elections.” The move was also backed by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who endorsed Sanders in February. On Monday, de Blasio said that he considers the primary to be a done deal. “I think that matter is closed,” he said. “So I think keeping the election activity to a minimum in this environment makes sense.”
Already, some progressive groups are promising to fight cancellation and will dispute the assignment of all the state’s delegates to Biden. Our Revolution, a political action organization that spun out of Sanders campaign, released a statement Monday saying that they would challenge the state’s decision. “We will not stand by and allow New York Democrats to be denied the opportunity to influence their party and its platform at the convention in August,” said Larry Cohen, the group’s chair, vowing to “challenge any delegates that New York sends to the convention.”
In the Sanders campaign, Weaver also offered a dire take on the implications of cancelling the primary. “Just last week Vice President Biden warned the American people that President Trump could use the current crisis as an excuse to postpone the November election,” he said. “Well, he now has a precedent thanks to New York state.”
But that is “like comparing apples to oranges,” said Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at Common Cause, a voting and election fairness advocacy organization. “Those are two completely different things,” she said. “The presidential election date, according to the Constitution, is set by Congress. Congress has never delegated that duty to the president, even in an emergency.”
New York is the first state to cancel its presidential primary, as most other states with impending elections have chosen to postpone or take measures to expand vote by mail systems. The decision in New York came after a disastrous primary experience in Wisconsin, where the state held an in-person election on April 7. Long lines outside polling places, inadequate protections for election workers, and a rash of confirmed Covid cases a few days later all put election officials in other parts of the country on edge.
In 42 out of the 62 counties in New York, election workers will still have to show up to the polls in June because the ballots there include candidates for some congressional offices and state positions.
Some elected officials said that New York could have taken a different approach, rather than cancelling the election. Last week, Cuomo issued an executive order requiring state election officials to send postage-paid applications for a vote-by-mail ballot to all eligible voters. But some argued that wasn’t a true embrace of moving to vote by mail, as it still put the onus on voters to submit an application for an absentee ballot. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an early ally of Sanders, said the decision to cancel the presidential primary was “not informed by public health” because the state is still holding elections for other seats. “This decision does not change the fact that people will still be going outside to vote,” she said. “If [New York] doesn’t want to risk possibly millions of [people] voting in-person, we need to mail everyone a ballot. Not an application for one.”
Universal vote-by-mail isn’t, nor should it be, the only option, said Albert, who has been working with state and local leaders to help them explore all the ways by which voters could safely cast their ballots, including changing in-person voting procedures and ballot drop-boxes. An election conducted entirely by mail risks disenfranchising people experiencing homelessness, people with disabilities who need a guide to walk them through their ballot, and people who live on Native lands that don’t have an address or regular mail service, among others. “There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution,” she said. “Expanding vote by mail is a great idea, but it can’t be the only thing you do … we need fail-safes. It is an all-hands-on-deck issue.”
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.