Remember when Ben Carson was the frontrunner in the Republican presidential primary? Or when Bernie Sanders consistently failed to poll above 30 percent against Hillary Clinton? Or when Nate Silver assured us that Trump’s collapse was inevitable?
All this described the state of the presidential race about six months ago—around the same time that voters in New York faced an October 8 deadline to declare their party affiliations, a requirement for anyone intending to participate in the state’s closed primaries on April 19.
A lot has happened since that deadline last year, including the October resignation of then–House Speaker John Boehner, three major terrorist attacks in Europe and in the United States, and the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Unchanged though, remains the fact that next week’s New York primaries will be closed, meaning that only registered Democrats and Republicans may vote in their respective parties’ contests. This means that the 3 million or so voters registered outside the two major parties will be effectively disenfranchised from Tuesday’s elections. Among them are some surprisingly influential figures, as was widely reported last week, including Trump’s children and even his lawyer. But while the world’s tiniest violin may be playing for the Trump family, a crescendo of complaints is mounting from the many voters who now realize that they, too, will be locked out of the voting booths.
The state’s board of elections has reported a flood of calls by voters confused and outraged at the rules—“pissed off,” as one election official put it—about their registration status. And Ivanka Trump has become a voting-rights advocate overnight, slamming New York’s registration rules as “onerous” at a Republican town hall earlier this week. Meanwhile, a number of democracy groups have called for New York to open its primaries, holding a small rally in front of New York City Hall on Thursday.
First-time voters have a bigger cushion: They had until March 25 to register and declare their party affiliations. But anyone banking on same-day registration, available in 11 other states, will be out of luck.
The standard defense of closed primaries is that they fend off the political dirty trick known as “party crashing”—the practice of voters registered with one party voting in the other party’s primary as a backdoor way to elevate a candidate perceived as unelectable. But with 5.2 million and 2.5 million voters registered with the Democratic and Republican parties respectively, that kind of manipulation would only work if thousands of voters conspired to “crash the party” in advance. Besides, GOP enthusiasm for the radioactive Trump makes party crashing look redundant this time.
The paradox of New York’s strict primary rules is that the state also boasts one of the nation’s most liberal general election ballot systems. Through a little-known practice called “fusion” voting, New York allows multiple parties to endorse the same candidate and list them on the ballot multiple times. Also known as cross-nominating, fusion voting encourages participation by voters registered with minor parties. Once ubiquitous in the 19th century, when third parties flourished, the practice fell out of favor as larger parties attempted to snuff out insurgent candidates who threatened their stature. Today, only seven states, including New York, allow fusion voting.
Why, then, are the state’s primary rules so strict? The answer, say election experts, is that both fusion voting and closed primaries tend to protect minor parties. In New York, groups like the Working Families Party, the Conservative Party of New York State, and the Green Party enjoy much greater influence there than in other states. Those three parties boast more than 215,000 active registrants between them. The Working Families Party, a progressive organization that has backed Bernie Sanders and championed New York’s new paid family leave law, even has its own state assemblywoman. But with significantly fewer registered voters than the Democratic or Republican parties, these parties may be more vulnerable to manipulation via party crashing.
All this may be useful in protecting the parties at the state level, where factions like the Working Families Party have considerable influence in Albany. Yet in this year’s federal election, New Yorkers are clamoring to make their voices heard in the two major parties’ contests. But come Tuesday, countless New Yorkers—the Trump family and millions of others—will be denied that chance.