News & Politics

‘Leave It Blank’ campaign gets 12% of the vote in NY Democratic presidential primary

In New York City, about 15% of Democratic primary voters did not vote for any of the three candidates on the ballot.

An organizer holds flyers promoting New York’s “Leave it Blank” campaign.

An organizer holds flyers promoting New York’s “Leave it Blank” campaign. Adam Gray/Getty Images

Even as President Joe Biden easily won Tuesday’s Democratic presidential primary vote in New York, supporters of the “Leave it Blank” campaign celebrated the number of apparent protest votes cast in the election. 

So far, the state Board of Elections has only released unofficial, preliminary results for the primary election. Those results show that Biden received 269,058 votes statewide, while Rep. Dean Phillips (who suspended his campaign in March) received 10,644 votes and author Marianne Williamson (who suspended her campaign in February but later unsuspended it) received 14,445 votes.

In addition, City & State has determined that roughly 39,000 ballots were cast for none of the three candidates. That means that Biden received about 79% of the total statewide vote, “blank” received about 12% of the vote, Williamson received about 4% and Phillips received 3%.

That total likely also includes votes that the state Board of Election counts as “void,” which include overvotes such as voting for more than one candidate or mismarked ballots like circling a candidate rather than filling in a bubble. New York City reports both blank and void votes as “unrecorded.” In 2020, the state Board counted all of those “unrecorded” votes as “blanks,” while it appeared to have reported them as “void” in 2016. Most of the rest of the state reports votes the same way as the state by making a distinction between a blank vote and a voided ballot.

In New York City, Biden received about 78% of the vote, while “blank” took 15%. In Brooklyn, about a quarter of all Democratic primary votes cast were blank ballots. The protest vote campaign did considerably worse in the suburbs; on Long Island, Biden received 87% of the vote and only 7% of Democratic primary voters submitted blank ballots.

The “Leave It Blank” campaign was organized by pro-Palestine activists inspired by the “Uncommitted” movements in other states, which seek to protest Biden’s continued support of Israeli military aid as it wages war in Gaza against Hamas and call for him to support a permanent ceasefire. Since New York has no “uncommitted” option, organizers called on voters to go to the polls and submit a blank ballot instead of voting for Biden, who is the de facto Democratic nominee for president.

Brittany Ramos DeBarros, a former Staten Island congressional candidate who helped organize the campaign, said that the nearly 40,000 blank votes cast a strong message.

“We were hoping to at least surpass what we consider the baseline of 1% to 3% (blank votes) on any given year in New York, and we're really proud to see that despite pouring rain and the many other barriers we faced on this campaign – around reporting infrastructure, budget and time – that nearly 40,000 New Yorkers were willing to show up and cast a blank ballot to send a message to Biden that we want an end to the genocide in Gaza,” she said.

DeBarros said that the campaign only got off the ground about three weeks ago and had a budget of about $2,500. “I haven't had a chance to check the numbers of what President Biden's spend has been in New York, but I imagine that it's considerably larger,” she said. 

The Leave It Blank campaign eventually attracted support from the Working Families Party, as well as various local branches of the Democratic Socialists of America. Other groups that joined the campaign included Jewish Voice for Peace, the Muslim Democratic Club of New York, New York Progressive Action Network and the New York Muslim Action Network.

The WFP was quick to tout the success of the campaign on Wednesday. “The astounding number of New Yorkers who left their ballots blank sends a powerful and urgent message to President Biden: voters want a permanent and immediate ceasefire, the safe return of hostages, and emergency humanitarian aid in Gaza,” WFP Co-Directors Jasmine Gripper and Ana María Archila said in a statement. 

Now that election day has come and gone, the campaign is currently reassessing its strategy. DeBarros said that there’s some interest among the groups that endorsed the Leave It Blank campaign in continuing to organize as a coalition. DeBarros said this could include endorsing local pro-Palestine candidates in the June primaries, though she cautioned that nothing has been decided yet.

Comparisons to years past

According to unofficial results and calculations, only 333,418 people turned out to vote in the Democratic presidential primary, far less than the nearly 1.8 million New Yorkers who cast a Democratic presidential primary vote in 2020. That year, the primary took place on the same day as the primaries for federal and state offices. This year, it was the only contest on the ballot on Tuesday, and Biden is already the de facto nominee for his party.

In 2020, the state recorded about 140,000 “blank” or “void” votes in the Democratic presidential primary, which represented a little under 8% of the total votes cast statewide for the presidential primary. It’s hard to make a one-to-one comparison to the 2020 totals because the ballots had other high-profile races for Congress or the state Legislature on the ballot that New Yorkers may have cast votes for while leaving the largely predetermined presidential race blank. Democrats had in fact tried to cancel the presidential primary in 2020 after nearly every major candidate other than Biden dropped out. The blanks four years ago may have been inflated by voters who came to the polls for other races. 

Still, the 12% rate of blanks for this year’s primary represents a marked increase compared to four years ago, when the rate of blanks may have been higher than usual. By raw numbers, though, there were far fewer blank votes this year despite the roughly month-long organizing effort compared to what were likely incidental blank votes in 2020.

The percentage of blank votes in the 2016 primary, which shared a day with only a handful of special elections in parts of the state, was much lower. According to the state Board of Elections, almost 2 million New Yorkers cast a vote in the Democratic presidential primary that year. Of those, roughly 17,000 were blank or void, which was less than 1% of the ballots cast. 

How we determined the number of blank ballots

The unofficial results released by the state Board of Elections only include ballots marked for one of the three presidential contenders, not blank ballots or voided ballots. However, City & State was able to indirectly calculate the blank ballots based on the reported number of votes for delegates to the Democratic National Convention. A state Board of Elections spokesperson confirmed to City & State that its approach to calculating the number of voter check-ins recorded in unofficial results based on votes for delegates was “reasonable.”

Here’s how we did it.

Each Democratic primary election ballot includes two sections: a vote for one of the three presidential candidates and a vote for a number of delegates to send to the Democratic National Convention. These candidates are all pledged to vote for Biden, and they are the ones who will formally nominate him at the convention this summer.

The number of delegates on the ballot varies by congressional district. For instance, voters in the 10th Congressional District, which spans western Brooklyn and lower Manhattan are asked to select 10 delegates to send to the convention. If a voter selects all 10 candidates, then their ballot will be recorded as 10 votes – one vote for each delegate. If they leave their ballot completely blank, then the ballot will be recorded as 10 blank votes. And if they select 5 delegates, then their ballot will be recorded as five blank votes plus one vote for each delegate that they select – for 10 votes in total. The upshot is that, no matter how many delegates they select, their ballot will be recorded as 10 votes for delegates.

Since the Board of Elections reports the total number of votes for delegates – including votes for no delegates – it is possible to determine how many ballots were cast. In the 10th Congressional District, there were a total of 245,710 votes cast for delegates. Since each ballot counts for 10 votes, the total number of ballots cast must be 24,571.

The Board of Elections reported that in the 10th Congressional District, Biden received 17,500 votes, while Williamson received 905 votes and Phillips received 578 votes. The total number of votes received by the three candidates is only 18,983 – far fewer than the 24,571 ballots that were cast in the district. The remaining 5,588 ballots must not have been marked for any of the three presidential candidates. In other words, they voted for “blank.” That means blank votes accounted for about 23% of the total vote in the district.

It’s possible to do this same calculation for each congressional district and county. For instance, the Queens portion of the 3rd Congressional District – former Rep. George Santos’ old stomping grounds – reported a total of 27,370 votes for delegates. On each ballot, voters were asked to select seven delegates. Dividing the total number of votes for delegates by the number of ballots produces the total ballots cast: 3,910. Biden received 3,275 votes, Williamson received 179 and Phillips received 217, resulting in a remainder of 239 blank votes.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that a state BOE spokesperson said that City & State’s method of determining preliminary voter check-in numbers is “reasonable.”  They did not opine on the method for calculating blank votes based on those preliminary check-in numbers.

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