By Martin Babinec Jun 28, 2022 at 5:00 am
Imagine standing outside a restaurant and watching people from all walks of life enjoy a fine meal, then having the waiter walk outside and hand you the check. You’d be taken aback. Outraged for being charged for something you weren’t invited to, or able to participate in.
But that’s exactly what’s happening with the primary process in New York. Unaffiliated voters like me — and 3.5 million other New Yorkers — are on the sidewalk holding the bill while New York’s politicians stage not one, but two summer primary elections allowing entrenched political parties to choose their candidates while freezing out independent voices.
Not only are unaffiliated voters cut out of the process, our tax dollars help pick up the tab for elections we can’t even vote in. In a state where “pay to play” politics is sadly all too common; this is literally the opposite. This is pay but can’t play.
Let’s put in perspective exactly what I’m talking about. New York is one of only nine states in the country with a completely closed primary process. This means that for a voter to participate in a primary, he or she has to be enrolled in a party. Forty-one other states offer some version of an open primary, allowing independent voters to have input into who shows up on the November general election ballot — an important threshold as illustrated by the fact that only 10% of all eligible voters cast ballots that effectively decided 83% of Congress.
Thanks to the politically motivated actions by former Gov. Cuomo and approved by the New York State Legislature as part of an emergency 2020 COVID relief bill, New York now only has four recognized parties in the state (Democrat, Republican, Conservative, Working Families). That leaves 3.5 million people (and growing) who are not enrolled in any party at all. In New York, unaffiliated voters outnumber the Republican, Conservative and Working Families parties combined.
Further aggravating the frustration is that we independent voters still have to pay the skyrocketing costs of primaries because our elected leaders cannot do their jobs. New York has two primary dates this year because politicians violated the process for drawing district lines mandated by our state Constitution.
It started with New York’s supposedly “independent” redistricting commission that, thanks to partisan gridlock between the two major parties, just stopped doing its job. That led to egregious gerrymandering by Democrats that was quickly followed by the state’s highest court throwing out these partisan lines and forcing new, more fair boundaries to be drawn by a court-appointed special master. However, this happened so late in the game, the state will now hold two separate primaries, one on June 28, and another in August.
This failure won’t be cheap. Recent media reports peg the cost of having the second primary will add an additional $750,000 for just Albany and Saratoga counties. Extrapolate that statewide and it’s likely to be in the tens of millions of wasted taxpayer dollars as the result of our inept Legislature putting party interests ahead of voters.
What about the organizations that oversee our elections? Our state and local Boards of Elections are taxpayer-funded, partisan organizations that select only people registered as Democrats or Republicans to fill these roles. So, while our tax dollars fund these agencies, independent voters, the second largest block of voters in the state have no representation on state or local boards of elections. That, my friends, is the very definition of taxation without representation.
We clearly need changes that will give independent voices a say at the ballot box and with local boards of elections, because things are only going to get worse starting in 2024. That’s when New York State starts contributing taxpayer funds directly into candidate campaigns, something that Unite NY’s Voter Empowerment Index found 80% of voters are against. You can bet that the additional tax dollars flowing into these campaign accounts will not be going to independent candidates, but rather to major party politicians and their fat-cat consultants who will fight like hell to maintain the status quo, because it benefits them more than the voters.
I ran for Congress as an independent in 2016 and saw firsthand how hard it is for voices like mine to be heard outside the two parties. That’s why I’ve been fighting so hard to elevate not only pathways for independent candidates, but more importantly, to help bring attention to how New York’s electoral system puts interests of the major parties ahead of what’s best for voters and our state.
It’s time to dump tea in the harbor and tell our elected representatives we want a government that works for all of us, not just those who happen to be enrolled in a major party.
Babinec is founder of Unite NY.