The System Is Rigged…But It Doesn’t Have To Be

I recently had the opportunity to join Keeler in the Morning for a lively discussion on the problems posed by party primaries in New York and the benefits to opening up the political process to allow unaffiliated voters to participate.  I advocated opening up the primary process, as is done in 41 other states, could help shift power away from party bosses and to the voters – particularly the 3.5 million New Yorkers not affiliated with a party.

Bill and I disagreed on air about the likely impact of an open primary process, and he followed up with an online post summarizing his views. While I always enjoy my interactions with Bill, his piece made a few assertions with which I don’t agree, so will take this opportunity to provide some clarification.

The reason for open primaries is a simple one – the state’s gerrymandered districts set up elections that will predictably be won by the party who holds the “safe seat.” This means that too often, the primary election is the de facto election.  Consider that less than 30 percent of general elections for state Legislature are competitive in New York state, meaning 7 out of every 10 representatives gets to office by being chosen by a party boss or simply winning a primary – elections that exclude those 3.5 million, and growing, independent New York voters.

Who runs in primary elections? Candidates that are typically hand-picked by party bosses with the greatest likelihood of winning in a low turnout primary – which is increasingly tilted towards candidates representing extreme positions within the Democratic or Republican parties. What does this lead to? Elected representatives selected by an extremely small part of the actual electorate.

I saw this myself when I ran for Congress as an independent candidate.  One of my learnings from that experience is that while the broken system needs fixing, the politics industry has no incentive to make the needed changes since the existing structure works to the benefit of those already in power- especially the two major parties.

Despite what some have suggested, I will not be a candidate again as I’m better suited to bring about change through the more difficult route of helping catalyze a reform movement from the bottom up such as we are seeking to do with Unite NY.

The Numbers Tell The Story

Make no mistake about it, turnout in primary elections is abysmal. One recent example is in Albany – our State Capital with nearly 100,000 voters. The incumbent mayor won her primary election this year with fewer than 4,000 votes. Sadly, this is the rule, not the exception. The reason people have checked out is simple – voters are smart and they don’t want to participate in a rigged game.

Contrary to what Bill had in his post, in New York the only parties still having statewide ballot access are Democrats, Republicans, Conservative and Working Families – a drop from nine parties recognized at the start of 2020.

According to the National Council of State Legislatures, there are 41 other US states with some form of an open primary process. We at Unite NY are not advocating for opening the primary process up to allow people enrolled in one political party to participate in the opposing party’s primary. Rather, we want unaffiliated voters (not enrolled in a party/independent), to choose the primary in which they want to participate.

The need to make this change is great, as there are currently more unaffiliated voters than there are people enrolled in the Republican, Conservative, and Working Families parties combined.

And not only is the need great, but it is popular as well. A recent poll done by acclaimed independent pollster John Zogby found voters overwhelmingly support political reform, including open primaries, with two thirds of those responding saying open primaries will bring needed change to the state’s political system and three in four voters (76%) agreeing that “open primaries should allow independent voters to have a say in which candidates advance to the general election.”

Closed Primaries Kill Moderate Candidates

The week after announcing the poll results, John appeared on the Keeler Show sharing commentary on voter attitudes about electoral reform, including open primary. I’m quite glad Bill asked John to join him on the show to discuss something he doesn’t agree with – too few folks these days are interested in a discussion on a topic they don’t support.

In the interview and blog post, Bill cites Ben Walsh winning the mayoralty in Syracuse as an independent and Byron Brown’s win in as Mayor of Buffalo as a write in candidate as reasons why we don’t need open primaries – but I’d draw a completely different conclusion from the same facts.

Our Unite NY organization and its forerunner supported Walsh twice, and the effort it took for his team to win election and reelection were monumental. The hurdles he was forced to endure, whether it was the petitioning process to get on the ballot, or the challenges to coalesce support and build winning campaigns, were far greater than those with entrenched party support. But he ran as an independent because he knew a true moderate candidate had dismal prospects for success in surviving the low voter turnout in either of the two major party primaries.

Likewise, Mayor Brown was forced to mount a write-in campaign after losing in a lightly attended primary because ballot access on an independent line is near impossible these days. Brown’s pragmatic positions resonated with the general electorate, but not the fringes who showed up in his party’s primary election.

We need more Ben Walsh’s and Byron Brown’s because they represent the same interests as the majority of the electorate by placing People over Party – an identity general election voters resonate with but simply doesn’t line up to win in the hyper partisan closed primary process we have in NYS.

Let’s open primaries and welcome people, not party bosses and political extremists, as the winning path to get the best candidates on the general election ballot.

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