Shortly after Bernie Sanders announced he was suspending his Presidential campaign, the New York Board of Elections voted to cancel the state’s presidential primary. Thousands of people, many of them Sanders supporters, voiced concerns about this move, causing the New York Board of Elections co-chair Douglas Kellner to state:
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. (NPR April 27, 2018)
Although Kellner cited public health concerns over coronavirus as the reason for canceling the presidential primary, congressional primaries that day are going forward as scheduled that day, which cast doubt upon his claim – in addition to the fact that Governor Cuomo had already issued an executive order requiring all New Yorkers who are eligible to vote to be able to get an absentee ballot and return it by mail, cutting down on the risk of exposure to the virus while voting.
The issue did not end with the Board of Elections’ decision, as shortly afterward former presidential candidate Andrew Yang announced that he was filing a lawsuit against the State of New York. Following Yang’s announcement, the New York Progressive Action Network (NYPAN) decided to join the lawsuit. As Kathryn Levy, a Sanders delegate and plaintiff in the lawsuit explains:
Our lawyers felt that the Yang lawsuit was not as strong as it needed to be and might be dismissed, very much prejudicing any effort of ours, so we decided to “intervene,” in other words join his lawsuit.
Why The Decision to Cancel The New York Presidential Primary Matters
The Board of Elections and its supporters have argued that the New York presidential primary is an unnecessary contest, particularly during a public health crisis, because the matter of who will be the Democratic nominee for the Presidential election has been decided now that all candidates other than Joe Biden have suspended their bids for the Presidency.
However, this decision was essentially undemocratic and showed contempt for Sanders delegates and supporters in particular. As quoted above, Kellner took the opportunity to call these citizens’ concerns about the democratic process a desire for a beauty contest, and he responded to voters’ emails asking him not to cancel the primary by quoting lyrics from the song “Woodstock.” These actions showed clear derision for those voters who exercised their rights to participate in democracy by contacting the Board of Elections to express their opinion.
The issue goes far beyond Kellner’s personal interactions with Sanders supporters, however. The decision to cancel the primary robs New Yorkers of their right to have a say.
While Sanders has suspended his campaign for president and endorsed Biden as the nominee, he specifically stated in his suspension announcement that he planned to remain on the ballot in all states so that all voters could exercise their right to vote and so that he could continue to collect delegates to bring to the convention. The number of delegates Sanders is able to amass has consequences for the future direction of the Democratic party. In 2016, Sanders had enough delegates to influence the party platform and internal policies, resulting in changes such as superdelegates being barred from voting on the first ballot at the convention. If New Yorkers aren’t allowed to cast their votes for President, the Sanders campaign could lose a significant number of delegates, severely limiting his ability to influence party policy. Among other things, this could result in superdelegates’ power being reinstated, which would give party insiders more power to override the will of voters in the next set of Presidential primaries in 2024.
Furthermore, this action is a slap in the face to grassroots activists who sacrificed time and energy to help ensure that Sanders qualified to be on the New York ballot in the first place. Sanders delegate and activist Simran Nanda describes how hard she worked:
On top of having a full-time job, I would wake up at 5 am several days a week and head out to catch the early morning Long Island Rail Road commuter rush and collect signatures and then start my work day around 9 am. In the evenings, I then stepped out again to collect signatures for a slate of delegates and Bernie Sanders. I remember one particular day when the snow was coming down on me and my hands were freezing from the below zero temperature, yet I refused to head home. Every night, I headed home exhausted around 9 or 10 pm, only to wake up and repeat the same the next day. I skipped meals and neglected my own health for a cause I believed was important to fight for.
If New York succeeds in canceling the presidential primary, the hundreds of passionate, committed volunteers who worked with Simran and Kathryn to get Bernie Sanders on the New York ballot will likely feel that all their efforts were for nothing; they could not only become demoralized, but stop being involved in political activism. That’s not good for democracy, especially when many of these volunteers are younger people who represent the future of the United States.
Next Steps in The Fight
On May 5, 2020, federal judge Analisa Torres ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in this case, ordering that the presidential primary be reinstated. This decision helped restore hope to shocked, heartbroken, and disappointed activists who were losing faith in most of the institutions that are supposed to protect democracy. However, the relief was short-lived as New York State filed an appeal. (Oral arguments for the next hearing began on May 15, 2020.)
This fight is far from over, and there are several actions readers can take if they want to support the legal battle:
NYPAN is actively seeking donations to help defray legal costs. If interested, you can donate any amount you wish here: http://nypan.org/contribute
You can also become a NYPAN member. NYPAN is active in many progressive causes, including this legal battle.
You can email or call state and local officials involved with this decision.
You can write letters to New York newspapers or submit op-eds to those papers
You can share informational articles like this one with your social networks such as Facebook and Twitter
We will continue to keep you updated as the lawsuit progresses.