Primary gridlock in Albany
People who live in Sullivan County and have an interest in politics know that in November, the contest for our congressional seat will be fought between Democrat Antonio Delgado and incumbent Republican John Faso. They know that because the primary took place in June and Delgado came in first among seven candidates and Faso had no opponents.
But Sullivan County voters don’t know if the Democratic candidate for state senate will be Pramilla Malick or Jen Metzger because the primary for state offices doesn’t take place until September 13. New York is the only state in the union to hold state and local primaries on separate dates.
So, how did this come to be? Until 2012 the primaries for state and federal elected offices were held on the same day in September, but the federal government took the state government to court, asserting that the states’ primary date was counter to federal election law. The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act says that members of the military and other overseas U.S. personnel must be able to obtain an absentee ballot at least 45 days before a federal election to ensure sufficient time for the ballots to be counted.
The presiding judge said it would be best if the state moved its primary to June to match it up with the federal election, but left open the possibility that the state could choose another date in July or August and have both primaries occur on the same date—which would be the logical and mature thing to do.
But lawmakers in Albany could not agree on a date, so the federal primary was moved to June and the state primary stayed where it was. An article on AM New York’s website (tinyurl.com/yctxhvbf) says, “Democrats favor moving the state primary to June, as well, while Republicans prefer moving both primary elections to August, arguing that a state primary in June would conflict with the end of the legislative session.”
In the meantime, voters and taxpayers in New York get stuck with the negative impacts of multiple primary election days. Making matters worse, primary and general elections for villages are held separately earlier in the year. As noted by Lori Benjamin, Republican commissioner on the Sullivan County Board of Elections, that means that all told in the year 2020, some members of the public could be asked to vote in as many as six primary and general elections.
And there are several negative impacts of asking voters to go to the polls so many times in a year, the first of which is cost. Estimates say New York State could save some $25 million a year by having the state and federal primaries on the same day, as all other 49 states do.
Another negative impact is decreased voter turnout. In fact, when some voters went to the polls in June in this district, they were surprised not to see a chance to vote for the state senate candidate.
The picture this year will be even more confusing for voters because the state primary will be held on September 13, a Thursday, because the traditional voting day, Tuesday, falls on Rosh Hashanah this year.
Earlier this year, Senate Democrats introduced legislation that would have consolidated primary election dates and also would have made other changes to voting and elections that many other states have already made. In advance of proposing the legislation they commissioned a survey of voters who did not participate in the 2016 election.
The survey found: “79% of respondents said they would be more likely to vote in an election if early voting was enacted; 76% of respondents said they would be more likely to vote in an election if no-excuse absentee voting was enacted; 81% of respondents who live in counties with voting hours from 12 noon to 9 p.m. on primary day said they would be more likely to vote in an election if voting hours were extended to 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.; 28% of respondents said they have missed an election because of work or school obligations.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said that he is in favor of consolidating the federal and state primary elections, and that he also favors other changes such as early voting. But his critics say that since 2011 he allowed or encouraged a handful of Senate Democrats known as the Independent Democratic Caucus (IDC) to side with Republicans, who have been opposed to many of the voting reforms he has proposed.
The IDC has now been dissolved, and there is some expectation that next year the Senate, Assembly and Governor’s office will all be controlled by Democrats. If that comes to be, there will no longer be a reason or an excuse to continue to the ridiculous practice of holding primaries on two separate dates and not taking action on other voter reforms.