Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York, best known for pulling a fire alarm in the Capitol, has made voting rights a signature issue. A member of the uber-progressive “Squad” led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bowman has even engaged in a hunger strike and been arrested while protesting the Senate’s failure to suspend the filibuster rule to pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, which effectively would have federalized state voter laws. Following his arrest, Bowman insisted that he would “do it again and again and again” and promised to do “everything in my power to bring attention to the crisis we are in and ensure our democracy functions in a manner that represents the people.” For all his preening, however, Bowman stands to benefit from New York State’s especially restrictive voter-registration laws in his own hotly contested primary this June.

Bowman’s polarizing politics have drawn a serious challenger into the Democratic primary field: moderate Westchester County executive George Latimer, whose entry into the race was prompted, in part, by Bowman’s anti-Zionism. The Squad member notably supported a House resolution calling for a Gaza ceasefire within days of Hamas’s attacks on Israel and conspicuously boycotted Israel president Isaac Hertzog’s address to Congress. In response, major Jewish groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and even the left-leaning J Street, withdrew their endorsements of Bowman. AIPAC now supports Latimer’s campaign.

But Bowman’s opponents have had to race against time, and the constraints of New York’s voting laws, to improve Latimer’s chances by expanding the pool of primary voters, especially Jewish independents. While New York’s Democratic primary isn’t until June 25, the state set a February 14 deadline for voters to choose or change their political party—four months before the election. That’s the earliest deadline in the country, according to John Opdyke of the group Open Primaries, and it especially hurts Latimer, who had not announced his campaign until late December.

New York State talks a big game on voting rights but makes it hard for voters to switch their partisan affiliation. Governor Kathy Hochul signed a state version of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act in 2022, which prohibited such liberal shibboleths as “acts of intimidation, deception, or obstruction that impact the ability of New Yorkers to access their right to vote.” That law did not, however, ease the state’s party-affiliation policies, which are more restrictive than those of much-maligned Georgia, an “open primary” state that lets independents choose either party’s primary ballot on Election Day.

New York’s restrictive policies prompted the Teach Action Fund, a Jewish group whose mission includes tax support for religious schools, to organize a whirlwind campaign, called Westchester Unites, to enroll Jewish voters as Democrats. It was no easy task, but the effort contributed to some 1,400 16th district Independents and 840 Republicans enrolling as Democrats. Those may seem like small numbers, but Ocasio-Cortez won her 2018 election over incumbent Joe Crowley by just 4,136 votes. The Westchester Unites effort, while fruitful, required a heavy lift: apprising voters of an election’s importance months ahead of its date. Teach Action reports that it had to pay to open a campaign headquarters, send 77,629 pieces of mail, send 24,876 text messages, and recruit volunteers to knock on 1,178 district doors. That required a $1.6 million campaign to convince 2,400 voters to change their enrollment status—or some $666 per voter.

If you expected Jamaal Bowman to be pleased by more voters being drawn into the Democratic primary process, forget it: his campaign characterized the Westchester Unites effort as “Republican interference.” Such sentiments are in keeping with his selective ideas about voting rights. In 2022, Bowman was silent as New York Democrats tried to redraw the state’s congressional district map, only to be blocked by the state’s highest court. Indeed, Bowman may stand to benefit from a more modest gerrymander this year, as Albany Democrats have redrawn his 16th district to add majority-black Coop City in the Bronx, a change that may favor the incumbent.

One might say that Bowman, a former middle school principal who once included fugitive cop-killer Assata Shakur on his school’s Wall of Honor, may have been saved by the bell: the early partisan-enrollment date. Teach Action’s Dan Mitzner claimed that his group “had a lot of momentum” before the February 14 deadline and would likely have brought many more into the pool of primary voters were it not for the early deadline. Voters, he said, were also “frustrated” that they had to print out, fill out, and mail in a form to change party, in a state where one can renew a driver’s license online.

While Bowman may gain from the status quo, a progressive who truly opposed voting restrictions would vocally denounce New York’s cumbersome partisan-registration rules. It’s little surprise, however, that Jamaal Bowman does not want more voter participation. After all, he’s the guy who pulled a fire alarm at the Capitol—to stop a vote.

Photo by Jeenah Moon/Getty Images


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