BY KATHRYN LEVY | Who are we? We are citizens of New York State, political activists and deeply engaged voters, who care passionately about our democratic rights. We were among hundreds of volunteers who worked tirelessly through January of this year to gather the requisite signatures to place Bernie Sanders and his delegates on the New York State ballot, a process that is time consuming and difficult, particularly when competing with several other campaigns.
But we were fired up with a purpose — not just to get one candidate on one ballot, but to reinvigorate our democracy and use our dynamic movement to create a more just and humane society. We gathered signatures at dawn on freezing railroad platforms, we went door to door, we asked shoppers at supermarkets to pause for a moment as we tried to explain New York’s arcane and demanding ballot access rules.
Most of all, as people who believe in the democratic process, we followed those rules to the letter. In the end, we triumphed, gathering 65,000 signatures and meeting the delegate threshold in every congressional district, an achievement that none of the other campaigns came near. Thanks to that effort, all of Sanders’s 184 delegates qualified for the ballot.
We were of course deeply disappointed when Bernie suspended his bid for the presidency. But we appreciated his pledge to continue to collect delegates, not as some symbolic statement, but to meet the 25 percent delegate threshold required to appoint representatives to the Democratic Party’s Platform and Rules Committees. We hoped that the Democratic Party would not slip back to the pre-2016 rules, the bad old days of superdelegates and party bosses controlling most of the primary process.
At the very least, all of us imagined that we would be able to demonstrate with our vote how strong the progressive movement is, particularly in this state. Once the state and presidential primaries were combined, we also hoped to help “down-ballot” progressives whose candidacies would be aided by the large turnout of a presidential primary.
What none of us imagined was that the rules we played by would retroactively be changed, through language quietly slipped into the New York State budget in April. That language revoked long-established Democratic Party rules, and stipulated that a presidential candidate, even one who merely suspended his campaign, could be removed from the ballot, along with his delegates, without his permission. This is an unprecedented action in the midst of an election season.
No one announced that change to election law and no one has explained how the new language found its way into the budget. Perhaps Governor Cuomo did not insert the language himself. But anyone who knows how this state works, and understands the governor’s tremendous power here, knows that this would not have happened without his consent.
People ask us why this is important, why did thousands of us, from first-time volunteers to experienced elected officials, spend weeks trying to forestall the Board of Elections’ decision to cancel the presidential primary?
Our response should give pause to everyone who cares about democracy and the rule of law. We are living in a time when democratic norms are flouted every day by a president who is charged with upholding the law, a time of ever-increasing voter suppression and the worldwide spread of right-wing demagogues.
This is a moment when the Democratic Party should stand firmly on the side of basic voter rights and a clear adherence to election law. Instead, the governor and the Democratic representatives on the Board of Elections, Douglas Kellner and Andrew Spano, have blithely revoked long-standing precedent and disenfranchised millions of New Yorkers.
The COVID-19 crisis is used as an excuse for this outrageous cancelation of the presidential part of the June 23 primary, although the congressional and state primaries will go forward on that day as planned. But the state had already wisely decided to expand access to absentee voting for all New York residents, so that no voters need to choose between their safety and their vote.
Every state in this country, other than New York, is going forward with their presidential primary. New Yorkers should ask themselves why only this state has decided to completely disenfranchise its citizens, allowing them no voice in what some of us feel is the most consequential election of our lifetimes.
Should we accept the dangerous precedent that a governor can change laws in the middle of an election season? And if we do, how can we even pretend to have a vibrant, well-functioning democracy? How can we say to Donald Trump and the Republicans that they have to follow the law and behave in an ethical way, if we do not do the same? And how can we ensure that this doesn’t happen again, that whenever a governor or a president doesn’t like the possible outcome of an election, he can change the rules of that election?
Yes, we wanted to elect Bernie Sanders to the presidency. We continue to believe he would not only be the strongest candidate to defeat Trump, but that the progressive policies he has long championed are now more important than ever.
But we are much more than Bernie Sanders supporters. We are believers in democracy. What the governor and Board of Elections have done this past week is a body blow to democracy. It is dangerous and must be reversed.
We are calling on the citizens of this state and on the national Democratic Party to demand that reversal, not for the sake of Bernie Sanders, or for those represented by our organization, but for every single person in this state and country. We the people.
Levy, writing on behalf of the executive committee of New York Progressive Action Network, is NYPAN’s Long Island leader.