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Big Changes From The New York State Democratic Party

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Since being elected to the Democratic State Committee in 2016, I have worked to bring the reform energy which has been so successful in NYC to the State Party organization. Alongside others dedicated to improving our political process, I’m happy to be a part of true headway in opening up the Democratic Party.

If you’ve taken a (Real) Politics 101 workshop, you know that the accessibility of the Parties and their leadership are critical to our democracy (if you haven’t, sign up to get notified about the next one at benjaminyee.com/contact). Because New York is dominated by a single Party — the Democrats — this accessibility is even more important to the functioning of our democracy.

The political establishment knows this, too. That’s why despite being “blue” and “progressive”, New York has some of the oldest and most regressive Party registration rules in the country. It is also home to some of the most controlling and machine style politics. Changing the rules which enable this faces as much opposition, and requires as much political finesse, as passing any legislation which affects the power of vested interests.

One of the biggest ways the Party controls participation of voters is through the Party Registration Deadline.

It also tightly controls how Party leadership, who are elected by registered Party members, vote.

Both of these things changed yesterday. Below is a comprehensive analysis of what changed and what it all means. And here is the full livestream of the meeting.

Party Registration Deadlines

What changed?

The New York Democratic State Committee unanimously voted to change the Democratic Party registration deadlines for the 2020 Presidential Primary.

Before: If you were already registered to vote, a request to change to Democrat from another Party or unaffiliated would not take place until after the next general election.

That is, if you wanted to vote in the 2020 Democratic Primary for President in April, you would have to update your register before the 2019 November election. Because the last chance to submit a registration for a November election is in October, that means 6 months in advance of the Primary. For the State/local Primaries which are in June (and for which we’ll likely not know any Primary candidates until AFTER the new year), that’s 8 months in Advance.

Now: For the April 2020 Presidential Primary ONLY, the Party registration deadline has been moved:

  • Changing from another Party: 60 days
  • Changing from unaffiliated becomes the same as a new voter registration: 25 days

These deadlines DO NOT apply for the June Primaries. You must change 60 days before the April Presidential Primary in order for it to take effect; 60 days before the June Primary will not suffice.

These deadlines will revert to the original ones after the 2020 Presidential Primary.

Want to register or update your registration? You have several options at the Board of Elections website. You can do it:

  1. Online at the DMV website if you have state ID
  2. At your local Board of Elections
  3. Order a form from the BoE website (free to mail back)
  4. Print and mail a form from the BoE website

What it means

First, it’s important to say New York is a closed Primary State. That means you cannot vote in any Party’s Primary unless you are registered with that Party. Registration deadlines determine how close to Primary you can join the Party and therefore effects who can vote.

Political Parties and State Law set registration dates for various reasons. To have enough time to process changes before elections, to prevent “Party raiding” and to control outcomes. The last of which is often thought but rarely mentioned. Let’s talk about it first.

Incumbent politicians don’t want to lose elections. As a result, it’s safer to keep voters the same every election — if they elected you last time, they are the people most likely to elect you again. Because of the Constitution, it’s relatively hard for the government to blatantly prevent people from registering to vote.

Also because of the Constitution, political Parties (which are “semi-private” organizations) have a lot of discretion in setting their own registration rules for Primaries (basically anything that’s not overtly discriminatory). In places where one Party dominates, Primaries are the most important election. That makes manipulating the electorate through Party rules easy and legal.

Placing Party registration deadlines far away from Primaries makes it hard to register Party voters while Primary candidates are campaigning. Imagine if the first time you liked a Primary candidate enough to vote, you found out you had to register before they even announced they were running? This is a common experience for New Yorkers, many of whom do not initially affiliate with a Political Party.

In fact, in the case of New York, placing the Party Registration Deadline before the previous general election all but guarantees that voters must register for the next Primary before anyone’s running for it. Normally politicians don’t start openly campaigning for their election until it’s the next one up; this system would ask them to campaign while an entirely different set of elections is receiving all the attention if they want people to register for their Primary. This gives incumbents a huge advantage by ensuring they always see the competition (i.e. new voters) coming.

This doesn’t mean that Party Registration deadlines have no defensible purpose. There is, of course, the logistical issue of updating the voter rolls so you know who can vote, but only in a closed-primary system. What about open-primaries?

The most common concern of an “open-primary”, in which anyone can vote in any Primary, is that members of one party will decide “raiding” another Party’s election to vote for a bad candidate is better than voting in their own Primary. So, in this case, with short registration deadlines, Republicans will, spur of the moment, change to Democrat to elect the worst candidate.

While there’s some evidence this has had an effect in some instances, New York’s rules were beyond the pale for four reasons:

First and most obviously, the roughly 20 States with open or semi-open primaries haven’t collapsed in anarchy (except California). Fears of openness are overblown.

Second, Primary voters in New York are already savvy enough to register with a Party. Therefore, people thinking of Party raiding are aware of the current system. If they’ve been a Republican or Conservative for years, they probably know enough to have undertaken raiding all along. It’s unlikely a change in Democratic Party rules affects their day to day calculus on where to vote. In New York City, many conservative voters are already “Democrats” because the primary dynamics are pretty static.

Third, while it’s possible that with large fields and narrow margins raiders can make a difference as noted, those margins would have to be pretty narrow. And those raiders really fired up for their favorite “bad” candidate. This is because raiders are up against actual campaigns. An uncoordinated effort to sink charismatic, successful Democratic candidates would run into the problem that they’d probably have good campaigns. Especially compared to weak candidates. If “strong” candidates can’t clear the margin of votes Party raiders represent, maybe they’re not so strong.

Finally, an open and concerted raiding campaign MIGHT make a difference, but we’ll see it a mile away. As other State have proven, Our democracy and legislators should be able to cope with it. In any event, they’re certainly not coping well with the current rules as voter participation in New York ranks 43rd out of 50.

This change in Party enrollment is a dramatic step forward to a more open Democratic Party and more open democratic process in New York State despite its limited and temporary application. Hopefully, this will serve as a demonstration that reasonable registration deadlines will not lead to the sky falling and these rules will be put in law by the State Legislature, or re-adopted and expanded to the local Primary schedule by the Party.

Democratic State Chair Jay Jacobs said it best: “It’s a new day”.

Voting on the State Committee

What Changed?

The New York Democratic State Committee took its first electronic vote.

Before: Virtually all votes were are conducted by voice in which people shout “Aye” or “Nay”. This allowed the meeting chair to make a subjective decision of who was loudest. Rarely a vote by division was used, asking people to separate to create a visual indication of support. In either case, these methods failed to account for the weighted vote of each member based on the number of Democratic voters they represent (a topic for another time). What’s more, because of the lack of Roll Call votes, it was almost impossible to find out how State Committee members voted on anything — a terrible lack of transparency for voters.

Now: For the first time the Democratic State Committee voted electronically, allowing a full person-by-person tally to be taken in seconds. While we still hold votes by voice, this new system removes a major impediment to fair votes at the hands of tyrannical chairs and creates a record of individual member votes on the most contentious issues.

What it means

Progress is built on a number of incremental steps which push the boundaries. Electronic voting is one of them. In the face of recent and sustained pressure from State Committee members and organizers, as well as increased attention from the press and embarrassing live-streaming of consistently mishandled and authoritarian meetings (all available at facebook.com/BenYeeNY/videos), as well as threats of legal action, the State Party leadership has slowly been letting in a trickle of reforms.

Some of these have been in the form of resolutions, many of which would have been blocked just a few years ago. Some have been in the form of appropriations directed by the State Committee, such as resources given to the challenger of rogue Democrat Simcha Felder. One of the biggest was the appointment of a new Chair who is better versed and more willing to abide by legal parliamentary procedure than any before him. Still others have been in the form of rules changes, one of the most impactful of which made its debut at this meeting.

In all instances, passing of these resolutions and changes has been extremely difficult because voting is once again tightly controlled by Party Rules. Up until now, voice votes gave the determination of passage or defeat to the Chair, generally a member of the reigning establishment opposed to change.

Efforts to count votes properly were always stymied by the complexity and the semi-reasonable argument that “it takes to long” as it requires tallying the positions of 400 people/proxies and then applying proper weighting to each. Often those willing to undergo a roll call vote for their issue only succeeded in making enemies of those who weren’t.

This dynamic has been upended by electronic voting; taking the discretion over votes from the Chair and returning it to the membership where it belongs. All in all, this State Committee meeting represents another step forward in the ongoing march towards a stronger democracy in New York State.

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