Gov. Kathy Hochul is likely to soon sign the John R. Lewis Voting Rights of Act of New York, named for the civil-rights icon and framed as protection against the voter disenfranchisement said to be rife in less enlightened states. But the law is more hypocrisy than democracy. New York will, in fact, remain a leader in voter suppression — and Hochul is poised to benefit from it.
The bill’s sponsors promoted it in grandiose terms. “Today, we prohibited voter suppression in the state of New York. Today, we prohibited voter dilution in the state of New York,” said Assemblywoman Latrice Walker, a Brooklyn Democrat who sponsored the bill, which requires local governments said to have had a history of discrimination to obtain “pre-clearance” from the state attorney general before changing local election laws.
But New York is one of only nine states with completely closed primary elections — only those registered with a political party (which must be done long before the primary) may vote to choose a party nominee. In a state with more independent (unaffiliated) voters than Republicans, this excludes more than a million people.
Contrast this with the 15 states with open primaries, which allow voters to decide which party ballot to take on Election Day. That includes Georgia — which President Biden impugned for its allegedly Jim Crow voting laws. Those laws permitted Democrats to cross over last month and vote for Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp, President Donald Trump’s bête noire. Trump-backed ex-Sen. David Perdue lost big.
The same scenario may play out in Wisconsin and Arizona congressional races. Wisconsin permits Democrats and independents to vote in a Republican primary; Arizona allows independents to choose a party ballot. If Trump-endorsed candidates lose, it will be thanks to laws far more progressive than the incumbent-protection system enshrined by the preening legislators in the Empire State.
Hochul may put her pen to the new “voting rights” law, but she’s likely to benefit from the status quo that suppresses voter choice. A recent Siena College poll found that the accidental governor is viewed favorably by only 30% of independents — who might well prefer the more moderate Tom Suozzi, one of her primary opponents. The same dynamic is true on the Republican side, where the management-oriented Harry Wilson might appeal to independents or Democrats.
The closed-primary system matters greatly in New York City, where the moderate Eric Adams barely squeaked by the uber-progressive Maya Wiley. Again, the city’s independents, who far outnumber Republicans, were literally disenfranchised. And who wins the New York City Democratic primary these days is all but crowned mayor.
A real New York voting-rights law would require dramatic changes. For starters, let’s allow same-day party registration to increase participation in primaries. This year, voters wanting to change party affiliation had to do so by Feb. 14. Since then, courts have struck down the state’s congressional-district map, upending the primary process completely. New candidates have come forward, some incumbents have decided to run in new districts — and Bill de Blasio has thrown his hat into the congressional ring. Who could have guessed all this in February?
Better still, New York should follow the example of California, where a so-called jungle primary winnows the candidate field to the top two vote-getters, who then face off in November. Chicago and Boston choose their mayors the same way. The parties are still free to back candidates — but the full electorate is free to vote.
That’s democracy — not voter suppression.
Howard Husock is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.