Want a True Blue Wave? Embrace Primaries

For the last two years I have heard from more disenchanted liberal New Yorkers than I can count. From complaints about “establishment” to refrains of “they’re all the same, they’re all corrupt, it doesn’t make a difference, this isn’t a real choice, their donors are the same, it’s all pre-determined, it doesn’t matter,” progressives love to bemoan the failures of the federal government, Albany, and the Democratic Party.

And then they don’t vote because “it doesn’t matter” — — when they vote once every four years in a presidential election, or maybe, just maybe, when they vote in the federal midterms.

To all of you claiming that their votes “don’t even matter,” you are correct. Unless you’re lucky enough to live in a toss-up swing district, your general election vote doesn’t do much. This is not because of some deep state conspiracy. It’s because you’re not voting when it counts. Your vote doesn’t “matter” because you don’t vote in primaries.

No election is predetermined, but many of them are decided in the primary. Just 8% of registered voters in NYC participated in the 2016 federal primary. 10% of registered voters in NYC participated in the state primary of the same year. That’s a mere 1 in every 10 New Yorkers who voted in the primaries, and an even smaller percentage who voted in the Democratic primaries, which in a blue city like New York are what really count. Statewide, participation rates are similarly dismal, especially for local elections. This means that candidates need to appeal to just a tiny percentage of their electorate for much if not all of their campaign. This minuscule group of primary voters in each party tends to stay relatively stable, which guarantees that year after year, candidates are preaching to the very same choir.

This plays out in one of two ways. In solid blue districts and in many statewide elections, races are straight up decided in the primary. Despite being a majority Democratic state, Republicans have controlled our state government for years precisely because because nobody pays attention to primaries. Eight Democrats in the state Senate gave control of the chamber to Republicans because they knew they could count on a tiny pool of primary voters each election cycle and that the larger group of general election voters wouldn’t notice. This group, the so called “Independent Democratic Conference,” only had the gall to openly ally themselves with the state GOP because primary turnout is so low and so consistent that they could coast to the general election with a safe D next to their names.

Because elected state officials can count on their same primary voters cycle after cycle, that means just a tiny percent of New York’s voters have any say at all in issues like housing, education, transportation — -all largely addressed at the state level. Ask anyone who has ever run for local office in New York City, and they will tell you they need just a few thousand Democratic “primary voters” to support them in order to win. This year, the Governor and New York Attorney General races will also be decided in the Democratic primary. If you want any input at all in either of those crucial elections, the state primary is your only chance.

Even on the federal level, any seat that leans blue or red is typically decided in the primary. In NYC especially, where most Congressional districts are solidly blue, the only way for voters to have any say in who represents them is by getting involved in the primary.

Even if you do live in a swing district for a federal race, the primary may still be more important than the general election. Primaries determine whether a race is even competitive: when nobody votes except the same pool of old school Dems, nobody runs, and nobody challenges the incumbent — who grows increasingly powerful term after term. Take New York’s 2nd congressional district on Long Island. Republican Peter King has been in office for 25 years. In all that time, he hasn’t had a serious Democratic challenger. In 2016, his Democratic party-backed challenger, DuWayne Gregory, barely raised any money, but easily won the democratic primary and then just as easily lost the general election. Candidates who barely campaign or raise money should not easily win primaries. But they do when the party machine is behind them and has their reliable primary voters on lockdown. This year, activist and young mom Liuba Grechen Shirley has raised more money and generated more excitement than any challenger to King in decades, but if she doesn’t win her primary, then King won’t face any competition in the general — -again.

That’s why if you want better choices and better government, the answer is not apathy and disengagement, nor is it “unity” which is often used to pressure progressives to support mainstream candidates. The answer is primaries. The “establishment” of both parties counts on low turnout just as much as they count on their regular primary voters. If you want a better party and better leaders, you need to vote every single time you get the opportunity.

Lucky for progressive New Yorkers, there are not one, but two primary elections coming up this summer.

Want to make sure we flip the House to check Trump’s authority? The federal primary is June 26th. You need to have been registered with a party by June 1st to vote in this primary. Mark your calendars, find a candidate, sign up for some get out the vote canvassing and make sure Democrats are putting their best and brightest forward.

Want a say on housing, public schools, the subway, and whether our state government will take on Trump? Think “Democrats” who conference with Republicans (aka 9 state senators) shouldn’t get re-elected? Have some thoughts on who the next Attorney General or Governor should be?

The New York state primary is September 13th — yes, it’s a Thursday this year. For new voters, the deadline to register to vote in this primary is August 19th, so get on that! If you want to change your party registration, however, it is too late for you to vote in this primary (welcome to New York’s “soft voter suppression”). But even if you can’t vote on September 13th, you can still find a candidate you like and start volunteering now. If you are already registered as a Democrat, then you’d better make sure to not pass up this opportunity to vote on the 13th and shape the future of New York State.

Our government will not fix itself and neither will the Democratic Party. Only we can do that — and the primaries are one of the best opportunities we have. It’s time to get to work.