Editorial: Primary highlights need for election reform

Imagine if you owned a company and only 24 percent of your workers showed up to work every day

If one measures enthusiasm in the candidates, a renewed interest in the electoral process and a groundswell of opposition to the status quo in terms of voter turnout, then no one in New York should be doing back flips over the number of people who voted in Thursday’s party primaries.

Statewide, turnout for Democratic Party races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general was about 2-1/2 times the turnout from the statewide primaries four years ago, around 1.5 million people. That’s great, right? 1.5 million people!

Double the enthusiasm? Double the energy?

Until you realize the percentage doubled … to 24 percent.

That’s about one out of four eligible voters who took the time and effort on a rain-free, warm weekday in September to help decide their party’s standardbearer for the Nov. 6 general election.

Democrats were celebrating the turnout, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo touting it as the highest primary turnout in a non-presidential year in state history and others seeing it as a sign of renewed enthusiasm for the upcoming midterm congressional elections.

They’re celebrating 24 percent turnout.

Imagine if you owned a company and only 24 percent of your workers showed up to work every day. Or you owned a baseball team and you only sold 24 percent of the tickets for your games. How high does a balloon fly when it’s 24 percent full?

The turnout is not a reflection of Democrat vs. Republican. Voter turnout is a bipartisan, statewide problem that should concern officials from every political party.

Rather than celebrate, state officials from both major parties and all of the small parties need to view this as a call to action to do more to encourage voters to go to the polls.

We wrote an editorial the other day saying voters had no excuses for not voting in the primaries. Yet 76 percent of Democratic voters in the state managed to find one.

One problem, we suspect, was the hours in which polls were open.

In a handful of the state’s highest populated counties — generally in New York City, its suburbs and the Buffalo area — polls were open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. But in the remaining 49 of the state’s 62 counties, the polls didn’t open til noon — eliminating an entire bloc of potential voters. Sure, many people who didn’t vote probably could have done so in the hours available. But others probably stayed away because the polls were closed in the morning when they might have preferred voting on the way to work.

If the state wants more people to vote in primaries, it needs to expand voting hours to the times when people are most likely to go.

And while it certainly would have cost more to keep the polls open an extra six hours, the state and counties should deem it important enough to find the money.

Another issue that might have kept voters away was the fact that many people weren’t eligible to vote on Thursday because they weren’t enrolled in any of the parties that were hosting primaries.

Unless you were a registered Democrat, you didn’t have a statewide race to vote in.

Should New York state consider joining several other states in going to open primaries, in which all registered voters are eligible to vote regardless of party, in order to bring more voters into the fold?

We’re not fans of the idea because we believe members of each party should select their own candidates.

But open primaries do open up the electoral process to more potential voters who otherwise would be excluded, increasing the potential for higher voter turnout and therefore greater public participation in primary elections leading up to the general election.

A third issue that may have kept voters away was the fact that there were no congressional races on the ballot that might have enticed more people to the polls.

That’s because New York separates its federal and state/local primaries. Primaries for congressional seats were held in June. In presidential years, the state actually has three separate primary days.

Not only is holding separate primary elections costly, it forces some voters to have to vote twice within a couple of months and reduces the types of races that might bring voters to the polls. The dollar savings from combining primaries could help offset the cost to upstate counties and help them keep their polls open longer on primary day.

And of course, New York discourages voters by not adopting innovative changes to its elections, such as automatic voter registration (such as when you turn 18), same-day voter registration, no-excuse absentee voting, allowing people to change their party enrollment closer to the primaries (To change your party enrollment for Thursday’s primaries, you would have had to make the change last October.), early voting (holding elections on more than one day), lowering the voting age, and allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister.

Many states have adopted some or all of these measures to various degrees of success in boosting voter turnout.

New York has refused to adopt any of them. 

Sure, many people don’t vote for reasons that have nothing to do with convenience or access to the polls. But that doesn’t excuse the state from failing to try to make voting easier for the people who might be compelled to vote if it were just a tad more convenient.

Doubling voter turnout should be something to celebrate. But doubling voter turnout to 24 percent for statewide races certainly isn’t.

Democracy functions best when people are engaged in the electoral process.

New York needs to do more to encourage more people to exercise their right to vote. 

As we can see by Thursday’s turnout, it’s clearly not doing enough.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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