Why Was New York's Presidential Primary Really Canceled?

The coronavirus pandemic provides cover for crass political maneuvering.

April 28th was the original date for New York State's primary election.

Last month Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that it would be postponed until June 23rd, but on Monday the state's Board of Elections removed Bernie Sanders from the ballot, effectively cancelling the presidential primary for New York voters.

Sanders had previously suspended his campaign but was staying on the ballot in remaining elections in order to increase his delegate count and his leverage in shaping the party's platform at the Democratic National Convention this summer. A similar strategy in 2016 helped Sanders to reduce the sway of unelected superdelegates on the party's nominating process. Unfortunately for voters who wanted to support that strategy, a state law signed earlier this year allowed the board to remove Sanders from the ballot.

The official reasoning is that the election process would undermine the state's efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit New York City harder than anywhere else in the country. Given the new infections that resulted from Wisconsin's primary election on April 7th, no one can blame officials for being concerned, but many had assumed that the state would simply shift to an exclusively mail-in ballot process.

A charitable interpretation would say that there wasn't enough time to coordinate such a large-scale task, but that's not the whole picture. Whatever the logistical challenges of providing safe voting access to the all of New York's voters, state officials have made it clear that this move also served to prevent an embarrassing result for their preferred candidate and to defend the party orthodoxy against the demands of the country's young progressive movement.

"What the Sanders campaign wanted is essentially a beauty contest that, given the situation with the public health emergency, seems to be unnecessary and, indeed, frivolous."

That was what Co-Chair Doug Kellner said during a live stream announcing the board's decision. It's unclear what he might have meant by the "beauty contest" comparison, though perhaps it was a reference to the fact that the candidate he prefers looks really bad right now. With an increasingly credible accusation of sexual assault leading the trending hashtags #DropOutBiden and #BidenDropOut on Twitter in recent days, establishment insiders who favor Joe Biden's candidacy have a vested interest in treating the nomination like it's already decided. Kellner voiced that sentiment bluntly, saying, "I think it's time for us to recognize that the presidential contest is over,"

But it's not over. It's very rare for a candidate to have clinched the nomination this early in the process. Joe Biden could easily make up a face-saving excuse to drop out and make way for a candidate without his baggage. He is currently several hundred pledged delegates short of a majority, with nearly half the states still waiting to vote—Ohio's mail-in primary is taking place today. But even assuming that he stays in the race, the final delegate count remains a key way to shape the policy conversation at the convention. While Biden has a distinct lead over Sanders—to the point where even a major scandal like the Tara Reade allegations is unlikely to change the outcome—holding the election in some form would have allowed for New York's voter's to be heard.

As senior Sanders campaign advisor Jeff Weaver put it, "While we understood that we did not have the votes to win the Democratic nomination our campaign was suspended, not ended, because people in every state should have the right to express their preference. What the Board of Elections is ignoring is that the primary process not only leads to a nominee but also the selection of delegates which helps determine the platform and rules of the Democratic Party,"

New York, with its young, left-leaning electorate, represented Bernie Sanders' best remaining chance of adding to his delegate count. Now the Board of Election has undermined that chance and ensured that New Yorkers won't get a say at all. With a critical election coming up in November, and the future of our nation resting on our ability to oust Donald Trump, they found a surefire way to reinforce young voters' sense of distrust and dissatisfaction with the Democratic party establishment.