The New York State Board of Elections removed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) from the primary election ballot on Monday, disappointing Sanders and activists who called on the board to give New Yorkers a chance to cast votes for him.
Although Sanders withdrew from the presidential primary earlier this month and endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden shortly afterward, he insisted that he would remain on the ballot in states that have yet to vote.
Sanders and his allies want to accumulate enough convention delegates to be able to influence the Democratic Party platform and rules. The Biden campaign has indicated that it is open to working with Sanders on a compromise over convention delegates.
But a provision in New York’s new budget empowered the state’s board of elections to remove presidential candidates who have suspended their campaigns, prompting Sanders partisans to scramble to preserve his ballot berth.
They did not end up prevailing on the board’s two Democrats, co-chair Douglas Kellner and commissioner Andrew Spano, who voted unanimously to remove Sanders. The state’s June 23 presidential primary is now canceled.
“Their decision is bad. It’s bad for the Democratic party and it’s bad for democracy,” said former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, a co-chair of Sanders’ 2020 bid. “It has a chilling effect on democracy as we know it, because the ability of the people to weigh in was stripped from them before they had an opportunity to cast a ballot.”
Sanders allies have also warned that preventing him from accumulating delegates could hinder efforts to unify the party behind Biden, who is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
“Today’s decision by the State of New York Board of Elections is an outrage, a blow to American democracy, and must be overturned by the DNC,” Sanders’ senior adviser Jeff Weaver said in a statement on Monday afternoon.
In a livestreamed Monday video meeting, Kellner acknowledged the outpouring of feedback he had received from Sanders supporters in recent days. He estimated that he received thousands of emails from people who wanted to keep the Vermont senator on the ballot.
He nonetheless considers Sanders’ suspension of his campaign to be the only relevant consideration when it comes to interpretation of the statute. He also argued that the standard for holding an election is higher during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What the Sanders supporters want is essentially a beauty contest that given the situation with the public health emergency that exists now seems to be unnecessary and indeed frivolous,” he said.
Although New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has issued an executive order allowing every voter in the state to cast an absentee ballot and is sending voters an absentee ballot application, Spano also cited concerns about how holding an additional election would undermine public health. New York is due to hold its congressional and state legislative primary elections on June 23 anyway, but the cancelation of the presidential primary means that some 20 counties in the state won’t have to administer any contest at all.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that we should minimize the number of people on the ballot, minimize the election for the protection of everybody, but give the opportunity to vote in the actual elections for candidates and not have anyone on the ballot just for the purpose of issues at a convention,” Spano said.
Weaver expressed concern that the commissioners’ citation of the pandemic could embolden Trump to make the same argument to justify postponing the November general election.
“Just last week Vice President Biden warned the American people that President Trump could use the current crisis as an excuse to postpone the November election,” Weaver said. “Well, he now has a precedent thanks to New York state.”
Many Sanders supporters in New York and across the country only became aware of the little-known provision enabling his removal tucked into the New York budget that became law in early April when HuffPost reported on low-key efforts to keep him on the ballot last Tuesday. The board had been planning to meet about Sanders’ removal the following day, but delayed the meeting until Monday.
In the intervening days, Sanders’ allies and, eventually, Sanders himself publicly argued that keeping the senator on the ballot was key to assuring support for Biden from the Democratic Party’s progressive wing.
Malcolm Seymour, an attorney for Sanders’ campaign, submitted a letter on Sunday to the board of elections disputing the legal grounds for Sanders’ removal.
Unfortunately for Sanders, Kellner noted on Monday that Seymour’s letter contained a significant error. Seymour claimed that because the New York budget became law on April 13, days after Sanders suspended his campaign, it should not apply to Sanders retroactively. In fact, though, the budget became law on April 3, days before Sanders ended his bid.
Kellner did not try to refute Seymour’s point, however, that the text of the New York election statute merely said that the board “may” remove candidates who have ended their bid, not that it must do so.
In addition, neither Kellner nor Spano addressed the fact that the vast majority of the state would still be voting in primaries on June 23 anyway. In response to the novel coronavirus pandemic in late March, Cuomo postponed the presidential primary from April 28 to June 23, the day when state residents will vote in congressional and state legislative primaries.
Larry Cohen, chairman of the board of Our Revolution, a progressive group that emerged from Sanders’ 2016 bid, described himself as “shocked” by the board’s decision. He blamed Cuomo for the inclusion of the provision enabling Sanders’ removal from the ballot in the state budget. (Cuomo’s office has denied that the budget provision was politically motivated.)
“This is Cuomo trying to be the party boss who goes to the party convention with 284 delegates in his pocket,” Cohen said. ”Whatever support he built for himself for his handling of the pandemic is definitely eroding.”
Other critics of the decision noted that taking Sanders off of the top of the ballot could hurt progressive candidates running in congressional and legislative races.
Zohran Mamdani, a Queens housing counselor and member of the Democratic Socialists of America, claimed the ruling aimed to stymie primary challengers like him. He is seeking to unseat state Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas, a mainstream liberal.
“They took Bernie Sanders off the ballot because they want us to go away,” he tweeted. “We’re not going anywhere.”
New York Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs, a Cuomo ally, disputed the suggestion that taking the presidential candidates off the ballot was designed to hurt down-ballot progressive challengers.
On the contrary, he said, “I tend to think a larger-turnout primary would have benefited the establishment.”
Jacobs conceded that without a presidential primary, turnout in the state is likely to be lower. From a public health perspective, he considers that one of the benefits of the decision since it means that counties across the state do not have to open every polling place. (While New Yorkers can cast absentee ballots by mail, they would still be free to appear in person, necessitating the operation of in-person poll locations.)
Sanders’ removal from the ballot in delegate-rich New York undermines his effort to accumulate convention delegates. If he collects enough delegates for his allies to win one-quarter of the seats on the Democratic convention’s three influential committees ― those addressing rules and bylaws, the party platform and convention credentials ― they can submit a minority report to the convention floor. These Sanders partisans might try to ensure a more progressive party platform or make permanent a rule change in effect during the 2020 primary that disempowered the party insiders and elected officials known as “superdelegates.”
Sanders’ campaign is still fighting for control of another swath of disputed delegates. Normally, candidates who are no longer running can hold on to their share of the two-thirds of delegates awarded based on their primary performance in each congressional district, but are not eligible to keep statewide delegates they’ve won.
In the interest of fostering goodwill with Sanders’ progressive base, however, the Biden campaign has agreed to negotiate with Sanders over how to divvy up the one-third of convention delegates awarded based on statewide primary and caucus results.
The Biden campaign declined to comment on New York’s removal of Sanders from the ballot.
Sanders’ allies and left-wing activists quickly voiced their displeasure with the ruling on social media.
Former Sanders campaign press aide Joe Calvello tweeted that it was “disgraceful.”
Melissa Byrne, the former New York grassroots director for Sanders’ 2020 run, warned that it would hurt Biden’s candidacy. “Trump will get reelected if Cuomo gets away with stunts like this,” she tweeted. “I guess Cuomo is team Trump.”
More significantly, there are signs that Sanders allies with influence over party deliberations now plan to carry on a fight over the validity of New York’s entire convention delegation.
The Democratic National Committee has confirmed to HuffPost that the state must get approval from the DNC for how it plans to allocate its convention delegates in the absence of a primary or caucus.
Cohen, a member of the DNC, insists that Sanders’ removal is a violation of rules that the DNC adopted in August 2018 following the recommendations of the Unity and Reform Commission on which Cohen served. He plans to do everything in his power to challenge efforts to allot delegates without a primary, including through discussions with colleagues on the convention’s credentials committee.
“The fallout [from the New York ruling] is going to be really bad,” he predicted. “It’s not good in terms of building unity. People in New York and across the country are going to be furious.”