The question I have been asked most often by New York politicos in recent months is “Have you heard anything about when the primary is going to be?”
This is no insignificant inquiry. Whether the primary is in September, as voters are accustomed to it being, or whether it is moved to June—like last year’s congressional primary was—or even August, as some state Republicans have suggested, will have a considerable impact upon the outcome of the affected races.
Earlier this month The New York Times editorialized in favor of June on the basis of the New York City Board of Elections’ claim that it is incapable of orchestrating a runoff two weeks after the current primary date of Sept. 10—which it would be legally mandated to do in the likely event that no candidate in any of the three citywide races garners more than 40 percent of the vote.
What the Times omitted from its argument, however, is what the blog True News has pointed out and every insider knows: Moving up the primary would unfairly benefit the current front-runners.
In virtually every race in New York City, except for the mayoralty, the Staten Island borough presidency and a few City Council seats, the Democratic primary will decide who is elected in November. To change the electoral calendar dramatically this late in the season would derail so many of the candidates’ chances of becoming known by a public that has barely begun to pay attention to the 2013 election. In a host of cases across the five boroughs, accelerating the primary schedule is tantamount to anointing the candidate with the most money and the highest name recognition right now.
The Times is right to be skeptical about the BoE’s ability to stage the runoff in time, but the answer is not to coddle its incompetence at the expense of fairness. In 2009, and in every other citywide runoff before the onset of electronic voting—a device that was supposed to make things easier—the Board was able to meet the two-week turnaround. If tallying the primary results, reprogramming the scanners and printing new ballots is so onerous, perhaps the solution is to wheel out the old mechanical machines and return to a system that was less high tech but worked a helluva lot better.
In October of 2008 when the City Council extended term limits, several Council members offered the entirely specious justification for their vote not to return the issue to the public to decide, claiming it was not logistically possible to hold another referendum in time for the 2009 cycle. Of course, the real reason was that over 85 percent of New Yorkers disagreed with the brazen power grab, and there would have been no chance of a third term passing if it had gone back to the ballot.
That the BoE has the gumption to complain that it is unable to execute its sole purpose is not just unacceptable, it is appalling. Let us not compound this embarrassment by politicizing our electoral calendar to the benefit of those with the power to influence it.