Andrew Yang risks New York lives for a symbolic primary

This is what happens when dilettantes start to play with politics.

Andrew Yang filed the lawsuit that got the New York democratic presidential primary back on.

Andrew Yang filed the lawsuit that got the New York democratic presidential primary back on. Andrew Cline/Shutterstock

Some politicians and government officials approach politics and policymaking with a focus on making tangible improvements in the lives of their constituents. 

And then some politicians are like Andrew Yang – and President Donald Trump, Herman Cain, Ben Carson and Marianne Williamson. Vainglorious dilettantes without prior experience in public office, these rich, uninformed celebrities and business executives have run for the presidency and been showered with undeserved media attention and online activist adulation. Sharing debate stages with experienced statesmen and women, they either degrade the discourse or – as in the case of Yang, a former startup executive and failed Democratic presidential candidate – redirect it towards their idiosyncratic signature proposal. 

Trump’s victory and subsequent mishandling of nearly every aspect of the new coronavirus pandemic demonstrate the deadly consequences of entrusting an unserious candidate with the power to save lives, or to ruin them. But Trump is not the only novelty candidate from New York willing to endanger residents of his home state: Yang is too. And he very well might succeed. 

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres ordered the New York State Board of Elections to hold New York’s Democratic presidential primary on June 23. The suit was filed by Yang and a handful of New Yorkers who had filed to serve as delegates for Yang or for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont at the Democratic National Convention.

Some explanation is in order: The primary was originally scheduled for April 28. A month beforehand, however, Gov. Andrew Cuomo moved the primary to June 23, the day of New York’s state legislative and congressional primaries, because New York’s COVID-19 outbreak was still expected to be severe in late April. Gathering often elderly voters and poll workers indoors could spread the virus. By late March, when Cuomo made the move, the second-tier candidates had already dropped out – including Yang, who exited the race on Feb. 11. 

Subsequently, former Vice President Joe Biden continued racking up primary victories, prompting all of his remaining competitors for the Democratic presidential nomination to cease campaigning. Reports from Wisconsin show more than 50 COVID-19 patients likely contracted the virus by participating in their state’s April 7 election. Although that’s actually not as bad an outcome as some feared, New York has more than three times the population and 37 times as many confirmed coronavirus cases, so it could mean passing the infection to hundreds of New Yorkers, who of course can in turn infect others. So, citing public health and safety concerns, the Democratic members of the Board of Elections voted late last month to cancel the ceremonial presidential primary. 

By this point, you may be understandably confused: If all of Biden’s opponents have dropped out, with the primary’s result a foregone conclusion and the Democratic nominee already determined, what difference does canceling the primary make? In a normal election year, candidates can stop campaigning and remain on state primary ballots for which they qualified. This is largely symbolic, but if a candidate obtains 25% or more of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention, as Sanders did last time, he or she can appoint members of the committees that write the party platform and shape elements of the convention. That’s why Yang and some Sanders supporters are suing. 

This is not a good reason, however, under the circumstances. Yang has no chance at all of getting anywhere near 25%. Sanders may have a chance, as he has more than 25% of delegates won thus far. But his share of delegates has been below that threshold in the combined primary results of the contests held since he dropped out of the running for the nomination on April 8. “According to the DNC’s 2020 delegate selection rules, any candidate who is no longer running loses the statewide delegates they have won,” FiveThirtyEight explains. “Without those statewide delegates, it would be nearly impossible for Sanders to clear the 25 percent delegate threshold needed to secure a spot on convention committees.”

In addition, it is quite likely that there won’t be a Democratic National Convention this summer, as the coronavirus is expected to make such large gatherings unsafeuntil there is a vaccine, likely in 2021 at the earliest. The convention already has been postponed, from July to August, and some commentators are already urging the party to cancel it

You’d think, from the way Yang’s lawyer called canceling the New York primary “an extremely dangerous precedent” and Sanders’ campaign manager saying Torres’ decision “restored basic democracy,” that canceling primaries with only one candidate running was a dramatic departure from standard practice. In fact, not holding primaries when there is only one candidate is quite normal. The only difference is that usually applies only to races where the only candidate running is also the only one on the ballot. There won’t be a Republican presidential primary in New York this year because no one is running against Donald Trump for New York’s delegates. While the vast majority of New York voters will have a congressional or state primary on June 23, there are 20 counties that won’t hold congressional or state primaries this June because they have no races with more than one candidate on the ballot. 

The Democratic presidential primary falls into an atypical category, in which there are other candidates on the ballot but none who are actively campaigning against the frontrunner. New York state technically canceled the primary by removing candidates who dropped out, which is legal, but the Sanders and Yang camps argue that they only “suspended” their campaigns and they want to stay on the ballot.

But why is it necessary to endanger New Yorkers so that Yang or Sanders supporters can cast a purely symbolic vote? 

The best answer is the state could just hold the primary by mail, thus eliminating the risk of transmitting the virus. In theory, that would be the best solution. But the Cuomo administration believes it lacks the authority under existing law to switch to an all-mail voting system for the June primary, so it has instead ordered the Board of Elections to send voters forms to request absentee ballots

Unfortunately, local subsidiaries – especially the New York City Board of Elections – are, in the words of The New York Times editorial board, “rife with incompetence.” It’s likely that many voters won’t receive their request forms for absentee ballots or won’t receive the ballots themselves. That’s why, for contested state and congressional primaries, there will also be in-person voting as a backup option. 

So, to recap: There is no contested Democratic presidential primary, and holding this vote will not determine the party’s nominee. There won’t even necessarily be a means of influencing the party’s platform or its convention programming, as there may be no convention. There is a public health risk associated with holding the primary, and yet Yang – a Manhattan resident and Schenectady native who demonstrated no particular interest in New York politics until now, unless you count musing about running for mayor of New York City – is attempting to force the state to put its citizens at risk. 

While the Sanders camp has a more substantive reason to fight for delegates than Yang does, they may be overestimating the importance of the party platform. The political science literature tends to find that party platforms have little effect on presidential candidates’ positions. 

Members of Congress do tend to vote in accordance with their party’s platform. But that may be correlation rather than causation, because the platform reflects what the voters, activists and elected officials in the party believe. And voters and activists have other means of influencing members of Congress – calls and emails, petitions and rallies, support for primary challengers – than a nonbinding official party-wide document. 

At least Sanders fans have a coherent worldview that they are promoting within the Democratic Party and an understandable concern that lower turnout without a presidential contest on the ballot in June will harm progressive insurgent candidates in congressional and state races. 

The same cannot be said for Yang or his supporters. Whereas Sanders has dedicated a life in public service to fighting for equality, Yang is a tech executive who ran a gimmicky campaign based on a peculiar obsession with giving each American $1,000 per month. Yang’s answer to almost any question, including how he’d fight climate change, was the universal basic income, which would cost $3.9 trillion per year

Yang’s panglossian ideology is arguably libertarian: He frames the federal government’s response to climate change as financially enabling individuals to relocate – never mind that $12,000 per year doesn’t buy much high ground to live on in his own city. Compared to existing social welfare programs, a universal basic income is regressive, as it gives to rich and poor alike. One of the idea’s proponents was right-wing economist Milton Friedman

During his campaign, in a cheesy and possibly illegal stunt, Yang promised to pay 10 voters $1,000 per month in campaign funds – supposedly to prove the virtues of a universal basic income. His latest effort to grab attention is perhaps a fitting coda to the Yang campaign. 

This is just more proof – as if any were needed after Trump – that “outsider” candidates who run to promote their personal brand or idiosyncratic ideas usually leave politics worse for their involvement. 

The Sanders team probably suspects that harming down-ballot progressives is seen as a benefit of canceling the primary by New York’s Democratic establishment. The election commissioners were appointed by Cuomo, who is a moderate allied with Biden. 

But the answer to that is reforming state election law, starting with the state Board of Elections and its local counterparts, to make them professional, bureaucratic agencies with nonpolitical appointees at the helm and to expand voting rights, including perhaps permanently switching to vote-by-mail. 

Sanders campaign adviser Jeff Weaver has called on the state Legislature to pass a law enabling an all vote-by-mail primary, The New York Times reports, to use it as a “testing ground for an all-vote-by-mail system in New York state.” This is a better option than canceling the primary altogether, and a much safer alternative than forcing an in-person primary. If New York’s overwhelmingly Democratic congressional delegation is going to push for a federal vote-by-mail law to protect the safety of voters this November, shouldn’t New York state start the switch to vote-by-mail right away? But if the Sanders campaign disagrees with the Cuomo administration’s reading of whether that’s allowable under the state constitution, it should make that legal argument, not just try to force a primary that may have to be held in person.

Insurgent down-ballot candidates are being more harmed by COVID-19’s interference with their ability to campaign than they are by the primary’s cancellation. As Sanders himself did early in his career, they might just have to try again next time until they win. 

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