Suprise! Closed Primaries Aren't the Same as Voter Suppression

Not being able to vote because you were registered improperly may be frustrating, but it's not actually voter suppression, and claiming it is detracts from the very real experience of disenfranchised voters.
Publish date:
April 21, 2016
voting rights, voting, 2016 Election

New York's primary on Tuesday was a hot, steaming mess. Thousands of people weren't able to vote, and the news over the course of the day was stuffed full of a growing list of problems at the polls, particularly for Democrats. We knew well in advance that there were going to be issues, but the situation on the ground was even worse than expected.

Which means, my friends, that we need to talk about the difference between voter suppression and things that are not voter suppression, because there was a whole lot of conflating going on, especially on the Sanders side. Not distinguishing between the two does a grave injustice to people who experience voter suppression across the U.S. — primarily people of color, low income people, and disabled people, especially those sitting at the intersections of these identities.

Voter suppression is a huge problem that we need to deal with. Inept, ridiculous, and outdated rules for the administration of primaries — decided on a state by state basis by state party committees — is also an issue that we need to address, but it's a separate issue.

And let's be clear here: Absolutely everyone deserves the right to vote, regardless of party affiliation, preferred candidate, or anything else. One person, one vote is supposed to be enshrined in the American landscape, and it's not, and it's unacceptable.

Let's talk voter suppression

Voter suppression involves activities initiated by state, regional, and local governments that deprive people of the right to vote, often transparently aimed at vulnerable populations, like Black voters who suddenly discover that their polling places have moved without notice or they've been stricken from the rolls.

Voter ID laws are a classic example, but so are purges (more about this in a moment), felon disenfranchisement laws, failure to provide accessible voting machines, lying to voters about their rights, abruptly changing polling hours and/or limiting early voting, gerrymandering, and refusing to provide translation services.

Many of these things happened in New York on Tuesday, and the most significant and obvious was purging. Ostensibly, registrars of voters use purging to keep voter rolls current, in part with the goal of reducing the risk of voter fraud — if people move out of an area, fail to vote in a set number of elections, or die, they're automatically removed from voting rolls. Voter fraud is actually super rare, but it's used as a smokescreen for many suppression tactics.

In New York, it became readily apparent that an overzealous purge had deprived a lot of people of voting rights, even though they should have been ineligible for purging. This actually isn't the first time this has been an issue (surprise!). In Ohio, voting rights advocates sued over purging practices, and in Florida, judges ruled that a purge was illegal, but the GOP went on with hinky doings anyway.

This is voter disenfranchisement. People were showing up to the polls to vote and finding that they had been struck from the rolls even though they shouldn't have been caught in purges, and they were forced to cast provisional ballots. The issue grew to be such a huge problem that Election Protection and other voter rights organizations started to get overwhelmed, as did state officials charged with voting rights enforcement, and New Yorkers actually filed an emergency lawsuit in an attempt to enforce their voting rights.

In Brooklyn, 125,000 voters were dropped from the rolls. This isn't just about the primary — remember, these are all people who also deserve the right to vote in the general election in November, and New York is a big state with a lot of delegates at stake. (Incidentally, for the general election in New York, registrations must be postmarked by October 14 and received by October 19 this year.)

Other voters arrived to find their polling places closed for "technical difficulties," with workers directing them elsewhere. In at least one case, a precinct opened two hours late, which is a serious problem for voters who don't have the ability to take much time off between work, caregiving obligations, navigating transit, and other issues.

Broken and malfunctioning equipment was another problem, with voters being told their ballots would be counted "later," which is not exactly encouraging. Others arrived only to find that their party affiliations had been switched or recorded incorrectly — and they had to fight, often unsuccessfully, to cast provisional ballots.

Uncoincidentally, these were an especially big problem in primarily Black voting precincts.

Already, voter rights advocates are taking to the courts to address the provisional ballot problem before election results are certified, as well they should be. For many voters, though, it's too late: They didn't know or understand their rights, or their rights were simply categorically denied. We'll never know precisely how many people intended to vote on Tuesday but weren't able to cast any kind of ballot, and that is an unacceptable travesty.

Let's talk things that are not voter suppression

The use of a closed primary — and the very early deadline for changing party affiliation (October 9, 2015 in this case) — was definitely a problem, but it wasn't designed to deprive people of the right to vote. What happened here in many cases was a failure to communicate on the part of both the state's Democratic Committee and the campaigns, and while it wasn't necessarily fair, and it sucked for a lot of voters, comparing it to voter suppression, which involves systemic legal abuse, is not cool.

Let's break down closed primaries a bit, since they're used in many states. Some state party committees believe, not unreasonably, that voters who aren't registered with them should not be allowed to play a role in nominating presidential, senatorial, congressional, and other candidates. While this isn't a popular opinion in some regions, parties count on support from their members, and independent fence sitters (like Bernie Sanders was until very recently) are frustrating for some parties.

If you want to play a role in party politics, officials argue, you need to actually buy in.

So they opt to close their primaries. The problem in New York is that the state has the earliest closing date for switching party affiliation in the country, which no one is going to argue is not a problem. Some voters definitely weren't aware of the deadline, confused it with the deadline for registering new voters (which was set at the much more reasonable date of March 25), didn't know which party they wanted to support, or, as demonstrated in some cases, actually did change their registration to declare a new affiliation, only to have it recorded incorrectly (this last would be voter suppression).

There's a lot of discussion about closed primaries and how they affect electoral outcomes, with a general consensus that the Sanders campaign tends to get hit harder in closed primaries because he appeals to independent voters. How much, though, is another question. Not all voters who express ardent support for a given candidate actually show up on primary days, exit polls aren't always reliable, and it's possible that in some closed primaries, the outcome wouldn't have mattered anyway, though obviously it has some bearing on delegate count.

So what would have happened in an open primary?

Clinton took the state by 58 percent of the vote, with 1,054,083 votes to Sanders' 763,469. As of April of this year, the New York Board of Elections reported that 2.5 million voters were registered without affiliation, which includes both left and right-leaning voters.

Had every single one of those voters (including the 233,051 designated as "inactive") put in a ballot for Sanders, yes, he would have taken the Democratic primary, pretty decisively and rather impressively. However, that would have required 100 percent turnout among independents (unlikely) and 100 percent left-leaning affiliation among independents (also highly unlikely). Sorry, folks, but Clinton won this one fair and square, just like basically every reasonable poll on Earth predicted.

Put simply: Many Sanders supporters are claiming that he would have won the election had the primary been open, and thus that the practice of running a closed primary is "voter suppression." It's not. It's a choice made by state parties — though the incredibly early deadline for switching party alignment is rather uncool. Uncool enough that it's actually been challenged in court, though the case was ultimately decided in favor of the earlier date.

But the thing is: Neither campaign, nor the state committee itself, chose to communicate really clearly about the deadline well in advance. By October of last year, both Sanders and Clinton knew they were running, though Sanders might have thought he'd never make it to New York. The Democratic Party certainly knew that they'd want representation in the primary, and wooing independent voters is a constant quest. Of note is the fact that the rise in nonpartisan/independent voter registrations is hitting Democrats particularly hard, with the party bleeding voters right and left.

Many nonpartisan voters tend to skew Millennial and white, though growing numbers of Black and Latina/o communities are also joining the independent side. It doesn't escape notice that these voters are also among Sanders' biggest block, which might be why the campaign and its supporters are so furious. Really, though, this was in a sense the campaign's own fault, because it didn't get hip to the fact that there was going to be a problem and take proactive steps to address it.

Ultimately, the chaos and confusion over New York's primary highlights the fact that, among many other things, the U.S. primary system should be consistent state-by-state. That should include abolishing caucuses, but also determining whether the system as a whole will be open or closed. States also need to have consistent voter registration and party affiliation change deadlines (e.g. one month away from the election), and they should be much closer to the election — like same-day registration, which increases voter turnout and participation.

Everyone loses out when people can't vote, but people can't vote for many different reasons. Some voters knew about New York's restrictive primary rules and didn't do anything about it, while others didn't know because no one reached out to tell them. That's a big failure, but it's not on par with voter ID laws, abruptly switching polling places, harassing voters, and other tactics used to deprive people of the right to vote on a systemic level.

Those squabbling over the closed primary are missing out on the bigger issue: The as-yet unknown number of voters who were properly registered and showed up at the polls, but weren't heard.

Photo: Michael Vadon/Creative Commons