New York officials canceled the state’s Democratic presidential primary Monday, prompting an immediate backlash from the campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders and his legion of progressive supporters who had hoped to amass convention delegates and help shape the party’s platform in August.
In making the decision against holding a primary, which had been scheduled for June 23, the Democratic chair of the New York State Board of Elections called the primary “essentially a beauty contest” that the state could ill afford in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
The vote followed a decision this month by Sanders to suspend his presidential campaign, effectively conceding the Democratic nomination to former Vice President Joe Biden.
Sanders had expressed a desire to remain on the ballot, however, and his supporters had launched an email, phone and Twitter campaign to persuade the elections board to go forward with the primary, calling its cancellation an affront to Democracy.
On Monday, his campaign released a statement, calling the decision “an outrage, a blow to American democracy” and accused the state party of having a “checkered pattern of voter disenfranchisement.”
“Today’s decision by the State of New York Board of Elections is an outrage, a blow to American democracy, and must be overturned by the DNC,” said Jeff Weaver, a senior adviser to the Sanders campaign. “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. Well, he now has a precedent thanks to New York state.”
Officials said they had struggled with the decision but they ultimately concluded that the risk of spreading coronavirus was too great to justify holding an election with no real meaning.
Because of the board’s decision, voters in about 20 counties that had no other contests on their ballot will have no need to go to the polls. The board’s Democratic co-chairman, Douglas A. Kellner, said he had read thousands of emails from Sanders supporters urging the board to go forward before making his decision to vote against holding the primary, but ultimately decided that it was time to acknowledge that the primary served no significant purpose.
“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,” Kellner said.
In a letter to the board Sunday, Sanders’ campaign had urged the board to keep him on the ballot and hold a primary in the interest of party unity, and the Sanders-aligned group Our Revolution had cautioned against the presidential primary’s cancellation.
“Suppressing the Sanders vote in New York will again lead to attacks on the party across the nation and harm the volunteer effort that our group and others are building for Joe Biden,” the group’s chair, Larry Cohen, said before the vote, suggesting he would challenge the New York delegation on the floor of the convention.
Following the vote, the group said on Twitter that it plans to continue the pressure with a text campaign.
With the decision, made during a telephone meeting by the two Democrats on the election board, New York became the first state to cancel its presidential primary, only the latest major development in the shifting national electoral landscape. In response to the coronavirus epidemic, 16 states have postponed their primaries and many have taken measures to encourage voting by mail.
Despite arrangements to encourage absentee voting, polling places are expected to remain open in about 42 counties for down-ballot races.
Andrew J. Spano, the other board member who voted in the unanimous decision, said the chance a primary could spread coronavirus to both the public and poll workers counterbalanced the wishes of Sanders’ supporters.
Spano, a former Westchester County executive, said he had only reached a conclusion on how to vote Monday morning, following what he described as a roller coaster weekend, but ultimately concluded, “We should minimize the risk.”
Asked about the decision at his daily coronavirus briefing in Albany, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he would not “second guess” the board.
“I know there are a lot of election employees, employees of boards of elections, who are nervous about conducting elections. But I’ll leave it up to the Board of Elections,” Cuomo said.
Some progressives had expressed worries that canceling the election would reduce turnout, particularly among younger voters, and affect down-ballot candidates running as challengers against sitting incumbents.
One of them was Jamaal Bowman, a middle school principal in the Bronx who is challenging Rep. Eliot Engel in the 16th congressional district race.
“I’m worried that this could depress turnout among younger voters in my primary challenge,” Bowman said in a statement Monday. “This is terrible for our democracy and our party. My heart goes out to all the organizers who were part of the Bernie campaign and movement.”
Others, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York’s 14th Congressional District, criticized the decision to cancel the presidential primary while still holding down-ballot elections without an expansion of vote by mail.
“It is completely wrong for the BOE to cancel New York’s presidential primary,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter. She added: “If N.Y. doesn’t want to risk possibly millions of people voting in-person, we need to mail everyone a ballot. Not an application for one.”
Kellner said their decision was in keeping with a New York law adopted April 3 providing that candidates should be removed from ballots if they suspend or terminate their campaigns.
“Obviously the intent of the Legislature was not to have a primary election where there is no real contest,” said Kellner, a New York City lawyer who voted in favor of scrapping the primary.
Elections officials had said it cost more than $300,000 for a medium-sized county to hold a primary — an amount that does not include sending prestamped absentee ballot applications to voters — estimating that the cost savings of not holding a primary would range in the millions of dollars.
The chairman of the state Democratic Party, Jay Jacobs, had supported the move, saying that he had actively pushed to cancel the presidential primary in the state, while still holding the congressional, state Senate, Assembly and other local races.
“The more we can do to reduce the risk factor of running the primary, the smarter I think that it is,” Jacobs said.
Sanders’ campaign argued that the law permitting the Board of Elections to determine who has withdrawn from a campaign should not apply to him because it was too new.
“Sen. Sanders wishes to remain on the ballot and is concerned that his removal from the ballot would undermine efforts to unify the Democratic Party in advance of the general election,” said the letter, written by Malcolm Seymour, a lawyer for the Sanders campaign.
Sanders had said he was suspending his campaign April 8, and he subsequently endorsed Biden. In doing so, however, he expressed a desire to remain on ballots and collect delegates in an effort to leverage his influence to push the party platform to better reflect his progressive positions.
The Republican presidential primary in New York had already been called off in February when no other candidates other than President Donald Trump qualified for the ballot.
Officials in Connecticut had also pushed for calling off that state’s primary, which has been rescheduled to Aug. 11.
Consequences for canceling the Democratic presidential primary in New York, however, are uncertain at the moment.
David Bergstein, a spokesman from the DNC, said the rules committee would review once the New York state party “submits an updated delegate selection plan.”
Jacobs said he was not sure what it would mean for the state’s delegate count at the convention.
“The DNC has been very clear: The DNC does not want to do anything that looks like we’re being unfair,” Jacobs said. “And we’re not being unfair, we’re just reacting to a global pandemic which happens to be centered in New York at the time.”
He added, “In a situation like this, lives have to trump politics, no pun intended.”