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Voter Suppression, New York Style

City Journal

September 26, 2023

New York governor Kathy Hochul is preening about her Democratic Party’s commitment to democracy, in the form of legislation she just signed authorizing mail-in voting. Republicans are suing to stop the idea out of concern about voter fraud. As Hochul sees it, they are continuing a national GOP voter suppression effort “against marginalized communities . . . under the pretense of maintaining election integrity.”

Good reasons exist to be concerned about mail-in voting—not least the loss it portends for civic gathering and discussion at the polls on Election Day, an historic rite already undermined by early voting. But Hochul’s comments are most notable for their hypocrisy.

Few states make it harder than New York to participate in primary elections, which so often determine who will hold office. It took just 15,000 votes in a primary victory, for example, to launch the career of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The Democratic mayoral primary in New York City almost always determines who will be the city’s next leader, barring well-funded outliers like Michael Bloomberg, who switched from Democrat to Republican to win in 2001 (he eventually switched to Independent and finally, after leaving office, back to Democrat in 2018).

New York is one of only seven states with a completely “closed” primary system. Republicans cannot cross over to vote in a Democratic primary (and vice versa), and nonaffiliated independents may not vote in either party’s primary. These voters make up 23 percent of the state’s 13 million registered voters—greater than the number of registered Republicans. Per the state Board of Elections, New York City is home to 1.04 million non-affiliated voters, twice as many as there are Republicans. These are the truly disenfranchised. To make voter participation even more onerous, those who wish to change parties for a June primary election must do so by February 14.

New York is truly an outlier when it comes to primary elections. Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia—frequent targets of Democratic charges of voter suppression—join Vermont, Wisconsin, and Hawaii in having open primaries. Texas has them, too.

If we are truly concerned about polarization and extremism in our politics, we should permit independents, who are far more likely to be swing voters, to moderate the choices of both parties. I’m a case in point. With the February deadline looming, I’m on the fence between parties, needing to decide whether to vote in a Democratic primary involving “squad” member Jamaal Bowman, my current congressman, and the Republican presidential primary, which could, by the time New York votes, be a close race.

Even incremental changes, such as moving New York’s February deadline closer to the primary, would be a step in the right direction. So, too, would be opening primaries not to voters of any party (a fully open primary system) but to independents, who could choose either ballot on primary day.

As much as Governor Hochul revels in claims that Republicans want to suppress voting, she and the state legislature are the ones who continue to do just that.