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Selecting for the Extremes

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eye on the news

Selecting for the Extremes

The Empire State’s closed-primary system robs independent voters of a political voice and rewards the parties’ most ideological candidates. May 4, 2022
New York
Politics and law

We may see an outbreak of democracy in New York, thanks to the Court of Appeals’ decision to throw out state Democrats’ gerrymandered congressional district map. But while the shotgun marriages between Staten Island and Park Slope and between Westchester and Suffolk Counties have been called off, New York still has a long way to go before its elections are truly democratic. That’s because the Empire State remains one of only nine states with completely closed primary elections.

It may sound fair and logical to permit only registered Democrats or Republicans to vote in their respective parties’ primary elections, but in practice this limits voter choice and selects for candidates whose views tend to their party’s extreme wing. Closed primaries also mean that independents—those not enrolled in either party—are the most clearly excluded voters. New York now has more unaffiliated voters (2.75 million) than enrolled Republicans (2.74 million).

Voters who want to join a party or switch parties to have a say in a contested primary are out of luck. One can’t simply walk up and switch party affiliation on primary election day. New York election law requires such changes to be made by February 15, more than four months before the primary. That’s well before the campaign begins in earnest and the views of candidates become clear. It can even be before we know who will be on the ballot, as in the case of disgraced former lieutenant governor Brian Benjamin.

As a practical matter, New York’s closed-primary system means that, for instance, moderate Republicans who might want to vote for Tom Suozzi, the former Nassau County executive and self-described “common sense Democrat,” will not have that choice. It means that Republican candidates Rob Astorino and former Westchester County executive and congressman Lee Zeldin have no immediate interest in appealing to centrist Democrats or independents, who are locked out of the process. The nature of the primary electorate will only serve to push Governor Kathy Hochul further to the left of her party and the state as a whole. The process excludes what political scientists call the “median voter”—those in the broad middle of the political spectrum, who may find themselves without a centrist choice in November. The push toward party extremes caused by the closed-primary system came uncomfortably close to making Bill DeBlasio acolyte Maya Wiley mayor of New York instead of Eric Adams. By contrast, neighboring New Jersey lets independents vote in party primaries, along with such supposedly voter-repressive states as Georgia, Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama.

Closed primaries once made good sense. Party leaders gathered in proverbial smoked-filled rooms to nominate candidates and tickets that would appeal to a broad range of voters. But in today’s system, candidates are on their own. The backing of party conventions means little compared with name recognition or fundraising ability. The closed-primary system is long past its sell-by date, and New Yorkers are worse off for it.

Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

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