Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1946 Fri, 15 Dec 2017 10:24:29 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Open Primaries and Overcoming the Racial Divide the Parties Prop Up http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7275:open-primaries-and-overcoming-the-racial-divide-the-parties-prop-up http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7275:open-primaries-and-overcoming-the-racial-divide-the-parties-prop-up city hall statue

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


Today the dominance of the two major parties has frozen the country’s political development along a racial divide: the Republican Party uses law and order, tax cuts and anti-immigrant rhetoric to capture white voters, and the Democratic Party depends on high black voter turnout to win elections, while failing to address the ongoing inequality between people of color and white people. Pollster Cornell Belcher has found that 63% of black people feel taken for granted by the Democratic Party. The current highly partisan political environment is producing both government dysfunction and a general sense of dread that the county is moving backward.

The American people have been so manipulated and divided by politicians and our political process so over-determined by two-party control that for ordinary people of good will to meaningfully come together requires a wholesale break from politics as usual. We should not confuse multiracial solidarity—when people of different races come together to fight for a common goal—with the dynamic of political party constituency groups such as African-American, Latino, LGBT people, and women making demands within the Democratic Party and fighting each other for the attention and resources of the party and its elected officials.  

I recently had a conversation with a close friend whose history is very different from my own.  We agreed that perhaps the most dangerous effect of the current political environment is that people of different races are being pushed further and further apart. My friend Nancy, who is white, grew up under segregation in the 1950s in small towns all over northeast Arkansas. As a child, she "experienced and witnessed and joined the fight for integration in the South.” Fifty miles from her home and 20 years earlier, the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union was formed, a federation of tenant farmers that united black and white sharecroppers to reform the system of sharecropping and improve the lives of all its members. Women played a key role in the development of this organization. As we talked about this, Nancy said to me, “I think this history is good to have in our tool box. I certainly will not forget where I come from. This history is important to me because I witnessed the fight for integration in the South.”

I grew up in the black community of south Philadelphia in the 1960s. My grandmother, Adell Chandler, owned and operated a large soul food restaurant that was open 24 hours a day and was a pillar of the cultural and social life of the community. She was a supporter of the civil rights movement and she encouraged me to become a doctor. I dreamed of becoming a doctor who could be a role model and help transform the conditions of the black poor.  

I remember hearing Dr. King’s voice on the radio. It was his unbending stance for nonviolence, his courage, his willingness to sacrifice his life, his humble yet soaring commitment to fight against poverty, racism, and war that inspired people of all colors to take a stand. When Dr. King asked people to come to Selma to march for voting rights for African-Americans, Americans from across the country responded.

Nancy and I are both independents who are activists in the progressive wing of the independent political movement founded jointly by Dr. Lenora Fulani—who ran for president as an independent and in 1988 became the first woman and African-American to appear on the presidential ballot in all 50 states—and Jackie Salit, the author of Independents Rising and the president of Independent Voting, the country’s largest network of independent voter activists.  These two women are working to build multiracial solidarity by creating independent tools to revitalize American democracy and transform our political culture to one of inclusion and opportunity for all.

Multiracial solidarity stretches throughout American history from the founding of the country in which black soldiers fought alongside white soldiers in the Revolutionary War, to the anti-slavery movement of black and white abolitionists who worked together and built the Underground Railroad. And examples from the Civil War, when Union officers like Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Robert Gould Shaw led regiments of black soldiers, many of whom were recently emancipated slaves (Shaw died fighting alongside his black troops).

A little-known demonstration that preceded the modern civil rights movement was led in January 1939 by Owen Whitfield, an African-American preacher and organizer of the Southern Tenant Farmer’s Union. He led the Missouri Sharecropper Roadside Demonstration, where black and white homeless sharecropping families camped out on the side of the road in the dead of winter as a means of getting the government’s attention to the vast poverty and injustice for tenants who were pushed off the land by planters. In the face of the segregated south they stayed together and though the public demonstration was crushed by the state police, it remains an inspiring example of poor people crossing the racial divide to stand in solidarity and demand justice.

Today in most states there is a political divide between the Democratic and Republican parties that corresponds to a racial divide in which people live in segregated communities.

A recent New York Times article on the obstacles to getting the governor, the mayor and the state Legislature to agree on a plan to invest in New York City's badly aging subway noted: "The future of the nation's busiest subway system, which has become engulfed in crisis, could well depend on New York State lawmakers…who live hundreds of miles from the city.”

The distance between New York City and much of the rest of the state is not only geographic, it is also a racial divide that is sustained by the parties. Though people of color live throughout New York State and New York City is racially and economically diverse, downstate New York City where more people of color live is dominated by the Democratic Party and upstate New York, where fewer people of color live, is dominated by the Republican Party. This arrangement maintains the parties’ duopoly control and both parties have carefully protected it, including through gerrymandering of districts.  

In a closed primary state like New York, where party insiders control the process of voting, only party members are allowed to vote in the corresponding primaries. Over 3 million “independent” voters are excluded from primary voting as a result. Of those, 35% are millennial voters, 33% are Asian voters, 20% are Latino voters and 18% are African-American. Under these exclusionary, partisan elections, the New York State Legislature has proven itself to be one of the most dysfunctional and corrupt state governments in the country.

This November, New Yorkers will have an opportunity that only comes around every 20 years: to vote “yes” on a constitutional convention, through a ballot referendum question on Election Day, and break free of the constraints to begin a process that puts reforms such as open primaries in the New York State Constitution.

In contrast, California has nonpartisan open primaries, passed by the voters in 2010. The impact has been significant. People of color are winning some local elections in majority white districts and California is leading the nation in passing effective government reforms. Moreover, under its open system two women - one African-American and one Latino -- faced off in the general election for a U.S. Senate seat in 2016. Kamala Harris, the African-American of the two, won to become the junior senator from California.

Americans can only truly come together if we can build a democratic process that empowers all voters outside the framework of a political party. Nonpartisan structural reform such as open primaries provides that opportunity.

Forty-three percent of American voters now self-identify as independents and many people, no matter how they identify, want the chance to vote and to participate in politics in new ways. The government dysfunction we see in Washington will not be reformed from within the parties. The future of our democracy depends on the American people carrying it forward. Those stepping outside the parties are leading the way to build bridges rather than walls.

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Dr. Jessie Fields is a Harlem based physician, an organizer with the New York City Independence Clubs and a board member of Open Primaries, which advocates for nonpartisan election reform.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Open Primaries and Overcoming the Racial Divide the Parties Prop Up Wed, 01 Nov 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Closed Primaries are Less Inclusive than Soviet Era Politics http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6442:closed-primaries-are-less-inclusive-than-soviet-era-politics http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6442:closed-primaries-are-less-inclusive-than-soviet-era-politics  

kaminsky voting april 2016

State Senator Kaminsky voting


I grew up in a country where most elections were fixed, voting made no difference, and the political process was a dull affair run by a party whose politics were as odious as its leaders. In that country I was able to live and vote without joining the aforementioned party, although I had to withstand poll workers knocking on my door until I exercised my civic right and duty.

This past March, living in a country that prides itself on its democracy, I had to join a party in order to exercise my right to vote. What communists never forced me to do, the world’s oldest democracy did. In fact, I was lucky that I could vote at all. The 27% of registered New York voters not aligned with the Democrats or the Republicans who wished to vote but did not meet the change-of-party deadline six months ahead of the state’s closed primaries had no such luck.

It may go without saying that no one knocked on my door to remind me to exercise my civic duty.

Closed primaries are one of the most damaging aspects of a regulatory scheme that breeds civic apathy. “For members only” is the principle on which these taxpayer-funded primaries operate -- as if they were club elections whose outcomes mattered to members only, and not to all American citizens. But even if you are willing to become a member, obscure deadlines and procedures, which neither party nor the government makes any meaningful effort to explain to the public, will likely put that option out of reach.

And what if one wishes to vote Democratic in the presidential primary, Republican in the congressional primary, and for some other party in the state primary? Not such an unlikely scenario, considering, for instance, the 2095 Bernie Sanders write-ins in the New Hampshire Republican primary and the fact that 7% of voters in the Ohio Republican primary were Democrats. But even short of this type of movement, why should an “unaffiliated” voter not be able to choose a party primary to vote in? Why not allow someone registered with one party to decide that there’s a candidate of another party who really speaks to them?

What if your favorite candidate utters an insult that makes you doubt his or her fitness for public service a week before the primary (not unheard of), and your second choice belongs to a different party? The list of “what ifs” could go on, though all have the same answer: party affiliation in closed primary states can easily become a forced marriage the main benefit of which is best described with the term coined by the disgruntled 2008 Hillary Clinton supporters: PUMA -- Party Unity, My...you get it.

The cost is shutting millions out of elections, perpetuating the political establishment’s grip on our civic life, and voting for our affiliations at the expense of our best interests and convictions. If that is the price we pay for party unity, should we be surprised that party politics is becoming the butt of the joke and an object of scorn to an increasing number of Americans, much as it was to my countrypeople in the last days of the Soviet Union? We would be well-advised to learn from the past mistakes of parties, where civic life was replaced with a party line, lest we suffer similar consequences. As for closed primaries, I say, open them up!

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Gennady Yusim grew up in the Ukraine. He is currently a Programming & Outreach Librarian at Queens Library.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Closed Primaries are Less Inclusive than Soviet Era Politics Mon, 18 Jul 2016 04:00:00 +0000
New York Primaries are Closed, Repetitive and Costly http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6438:new-york-primaries-are-closed-repetitive-and-costly http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6438:new-york-primaries-are-closed-repetitive-and-costly cuomo voting 2015 machine

Gov. Cuomo votes in 2015 (photo via Governor's Office)


In April, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump won the Democratic and Republican New York presidential primaries, respectively. New York has a well-publicized and worsening voter turnout problem, and approximately one in four registered New York voters could have no say in the presidential primary outcomes even if they wanted to - other than by changing their party affiliation more than a year prior.

New York is one of only nine states in the country, as of 2016, in which both major parties run closed primaries, meaning that voting in the Democratic primary is only open to registered Democrats and voting in the Republican primary is only open to registered Republicans. Closed party primaries are closed to unaffiliated registered voters - often referred to as independents - and to voters registered with smaller parties like the Green Party.

According to the New York State Board of Elections, as of April 1 there are 11,726,842 registered voters in New York (this figure includes both active and inactive voters). Of those voters, 2,485,475 are unaffiliated with a party, and 717,182 are registered with parties outside the two major political parties (Conservative, Green, Libertarian, Working Families, Independence, etc. - people regularly register with the Independence Party incorrectly thinking they are registering as “independent,” or unaffiliated). There are almost as many unaffiliated registered voters in New York as there are registered Republicans (2.7 million). There are 5.8 million registered Democrats across the state.

Despite not being allowed to vote in party primary elections, unaffiliated voters, along with registered Democrats and Republicans and “third party” voters, foot the bill for the administration of those elections. In New York, the cost of a primary election in 2016 is $25 million, which amounts to the fourth most expensive primary election in the country, and this cost to taxpayers is not limited to presidential primaries; New York Congressional primaries and local and state legislative primaries cost $25 million each. In 2016, New York is holding three different primary days (presidential in April, congressional in June, and state/local in September).

New York’s closed primary system and the costs associated with it - both monetary and democratic - have resulted in calls for change.

New York State Assemblymember Michael Cusick, a Democrat who represents part of Staten Island, introduced legislation earlier this year that would consolidate all non-presidential primaries to a single election day (Assembly bill A09108). Currently, U.S. Congressional primaries and state and local primaries are held on two separate days, costing the state $50 million, about half of which could be saved by consolidating. In February, the Democrat-controlled Assembly passed the bill, which would move all non-presidential primaries to the fourth Tuesday in June, the current date of congressional primaries. In the Republican-led state Senate, however, the bill was not taken up.

Some state senators are hesitant to support legislation that would require them to prepare for an election while they are still working in the capital - the state legislative session runs from January to mid-June. Currently, senators and Assembly members have the summer of election years to prepare for their September primaries as needed (state legislators serve two-year terms).

A bill almost identical to Assemblymember Cusick’s was introduced to the state Senate by Republican Sen. Fred Ashkar, who represents the Binghamton area (Senate bill S6604). But, Ashkar’s bill would assign the third Tuesday in August as the singular election day for all non-presidential New York primary elections rather than the fourth Tuesday in June. The bill, introduced in January and passed by the Senate in March, would still save taxpayers money by consolidating election days but because it calls for an August election day, it would allow state legislators to avoid the conflict between working and campaigning. Yet, Ashkar’s bill has no chance in the Assembly because Democrats see it as an effort to suppress the vote, given the late August date, when people are even less likely than usual to be paying attention to politics or in town to vote.

While either consolidation of the congressional and state/local primaries would save taxpayers money, without opening up the primaries voters registered as unaffiliated would remain unable to vote until the November general elections.

Assemblymember Fred Thiele of Long Island is unaffiliated with a political party. Thiele introduced legislation (Assembly bill A9661) in March that would allow unaffiliated voters to vote in primary elections. Many voters were hoping that the bill would be passed in time for this year’s presidential primary; however, election day came and went as the bill sat in committee.

This year’s presidential primaries were notably frustrating for many New York voters. While unaffiliated New York voters are ordinarily unable to vote in their state’s closed party primaries, thousands of voters found themselves unable to vote despite having registered in one of the two major parties. With one day remaining before the April 19 primaries, voter advocacy group Election Justice USA filed a lawsuit in New York federal court on behalf of thousands of voters.

According to Election Justice USA, the lawsuit represented both voters whose party affiliation had been inexplicably changed to unaffiliated and voters who had been left off of voter rolls.The group’s goal was to secure an emergency declaratory judgement, which would open New York’s Democratic primary to voters registered as unaffiliated and Republican. The judgement was deferred and the primary remained closed.

Jerry Skurnik, partner at Prime New York, a consultancy, specializes in providing political candidates with demographic information on New York voters. He believes that open elections have benefits for less partisan candidates.

“Most of the talk this year had to do with the presidential primary, and it was sort of an exception in that a lot of young people who were unaffiliated were vehemently for [Bernie] Sanders, but I think in general, [open primaries] would probably help more moderate candidates and less partisan Democrats,” Skurnik said in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette.

While less strict partisanship might be one potential benefit of opening primary elections, Skurnik also points out that there is a question of fairness that should be considered when discussing open primaries.

“[A closed primary] allows people who are supporters of the Democratic or Republican party to pick the candidates. It doesn’t allow people who really aren’t loyal or committed Democrats or Republicans to have a say in who’s going to be the party nominee. There’s an argument -- why should someone who votes for Democrats for office 25 percent of the time have any say in picking a Democratic candidate?”

This question of fairness is not limited to the role of unaffiliated voters in the Democratic and Republican primaries. While much smaller than the Democratic and Republican parties, third parties have active registered voters, and opening presidential primaries to allow any voter to vote in any primary regardless of party affiliation could be detrimental to these minor parties.

Minor parties, according are Skurnik, “are really ideological parties.”

“They stand for something, so why should the conservative who’s unaffiliated have a right to vote in the primary for the Green Party -- someone who’s in favor of fracking. Because they’re unaffiliated, should they be allowed to vote in the Green Party or vice versa? Should someone who’s pro-choice, should they be allowed to help pick the Conservative Party candidate because they’re unaffiliated?”

While they tend to be actively engaged in politics, voters registered with minor parties don’t make up a large portion of the electorate in New York. For example, there are 50,000 voters registered with the Working Families Party across New York according to Skurnik, and while unaffiliated New York voters are more numerous than “third party” voters, their political tendencies are more difficult to determine. However, there is one observable pattern shared among unaffiliated voters.

“We may not know where [unaffiliated voters] lean politically, but we do know they vote less often than people who registered in a party,” Skurnik said. “A higher percentage of Democrats and a higher percentage of Republicans and even a higher percentage of minor party registrants vote in general elections than unaffiliated voters. So a larger proportion of unaffiliated voters are less active, more apathetic.”

Across the country, 43 percent of all registered voters are registered as unaffiliated. According to Open Primaries, an advocacy group that advocates for the establishment of open primaries in all 50 states, there are approximately 26 million registered voters closed out of voting in major party primary elections across the country. Currently, there are 14 states in which both major parties run open presidential primaries.

The total cost of running elections in all closed primary states is $300 million. This figure only includes closed primaries run by the state -- caucuses, while also exclusionary to unaffiliated voters, do not cost taxpayers anything in the states in which they are held. This is because caucuses are paid for by the parties themselves. Some question why states pay for and implement closed primary elections at all given that they are controlled by the parties. (For the recent presidential primaries in New York, Democratic voters voted not just for a nominee, but also for delegates to the party convention; Republicans voted only for a nominee, their New York delegates to the RNC are chosen at a party meeting.)

One alternative to the closed primary system is the system employed by California for its presidential primary elections, which is something of a hybrid. In California, parties can choose between running a closed primary or a modified closed primary in which the party can choose to allow “no party preference” (NPP) voters, otherwise known as independent or unaffiliated voters, to vote in their primaries. In this year’s California presidential primary held on June 7, the Republican Party chose to run a closed primary, excluding NPP voters and allowing only registered Republicans to vote. The Democratic Party chose to run a modified closed primary, allowing both registered Democrats and NPP voters to vote in the Democratic primary.

California not only runs a modified closed presidential primary, but it also joins Washington and Nebraska in running a “top two” open primary system for all non-presidential primary elections. In the “top two” system, all qualified candidates are listed on the ballot; all voters, irrespective of party affiliation, can vote for whichever candidate they prefer; and the top two vote-getters, irrespective of party affiliation, move on to the general election. This system often results in two candidates of the same party opposing each other in the general election.

This system is also known as a nonpartisan primary, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg - a Democrat turned Republican turned independent - once unsuccessfully advocated for its establishment in New York during his mayoral tenure. In New York City, Democrats hold an even more stark registration advantage than across the state: there are just over 3 million registered Democrats in New York City and just about 460,000 registered Republicans. Meanwhile, there are more than 785,700 registered New York City voters not affiliated with a party.

While Bloomberg’s efforts failed in 2003, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, recently supported the implementation of nonpartisan primaries in a 2014 New York Times op-ed.

Within the op-ed, Senator Schumer not only called for nonpartisan primaries in New York, but for nonpartisan primaries all across the United States.

“We need a national movement to adopt the “top-two” primary (also known as an open primary), in which all voters, regardless of party registration, can vote and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, then enter a runoff,” Schumer wrote. “This would prevent a hard-right or hard-left candidate from gaining office with the support of just a sliver of the voters of the vastly diminished primary electorate; to finish in the top two, candidates from either party would have to reach out to the broad middle.”

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by Libby Wetzler for Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

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New York Primaries are Closed, Repetitive and Costly Thu, 14 Jul 2016 04:00:00 +0000