Judge restores NY Democratic presidential primary

May 6, 2020

A federal judge says the New York Democratic presidential primary must take place June 23 because canceling it would be unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres ruled after lawyers for withdrawn candidates Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang argued they would otherwise be deprived of proper representation at the Democratic convention.

Torres said there was enough time before the primary to plan how to carry it out safely. She acknowledged that the reason it was canceled — to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — was an important state interest but said she was unconvinced it justified infringing rights, especially since every voter can use an absentee ballot. She noted that no other state had canceled its primary.

Torres wrote that removing presidential contenders from the primary ballot diminished delegates’ influence on the party’s platform and their ability to react to unexpected convention developments.

It also “deprived Democratic voters of the opportunity to elect delegates who could push their point of view in that forum," she said. “The loss of these First Amendment rights is a heavy hardship."

The Democratic members of the state’s Board of Elections voted last week to cancel the presidential primary even though New York still planned to hold its congressional and state-level primaries June 23.

They cited fears the coronavirus could spread among an extra 1.5 million voters who would show up for an election in which former Vice President Joe Biden already has been endorsed by the major candidates he had faced.

The fact that the primary was going to occur on June 23 anyway because of other contested races, including a number of congressional primaries, led Torres to question on Monday why the primary wasn't canceled entirely if safety was such a concern.

Asked for reaction, New York State Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs said, “We are reviewing it.”

Jacobs had called holding the primary “unnecessary” with the suspension of Sanders’ campaign and said reduced turnout could reduce the need for many poll workers.

State board of elections spokesman John Conklin said, “No comment at this time. Our lawyers are reviewing the decision.”

Biden’s campaign declined to comment. The campaign has kept its distance from the situation, not wanting to become embroiled in a new fight over nearly 300 delegates to the summer convention and saying the campaign didn’t ask for the primary to be scrapped.

Biden became the presumptive nominee when Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign last month, but Sanders had made clear that he wanted to continue collecting delegates from remaining primaries, including in New York, to maximize his influence over the party platform and other decisions at the Democratic convention this summer.

Sanders’ allies celebrated the ruling.

“Credit to Andrew Yang and all the grassroots groups that have been carrying on the fight for democracy in New York,” said Larry Cohen, who chairs Our Revolution, the grassroots organization spun out of Sanders’ 2016 White House bid.

“Vote-by-mail is the answer to the pandemic,” Cohen continued, “Not canceling the presidential primary when more than 80% of Democrats have other elections the same day.”

Sanders' representatives, in a statement forwarded by attorney Arthur Schwartz, who argued before Torres, called the decision “an extraordinary victory for the democratic process here in New York, a state much in need of something to cheer about."

Attorney Jeff Kurzon, representing Yang and Congressional candidate Jonathan Herzog, said he was thankful that the judge upheld the laws and protected the right to vote.

“We are fired up and up and ready to go vote on June 23!" he wrote in an email.