The New York Democratic primary election on Tuesday aroused a substantial amount of controversy, as numerous people discovered too late that they had missed the deadline to switch their party registration and hence be eligible to vote in New York's closed primary. It might be tempting to dismiss this as sour grapes from Bernie Sanders supporters who couldn't get their act together. But this would be wrong. There really are serious problems with New York's primary election system.
But the problem is not with New York's closed primary system per se. It's reasonable for parties to want their candidates to be chosen by the party's members. And it's particularly hard to have much patience with attacks on the closed primary from the subset of independent voters who see voting as an individualistic consumer choice and feel that identifying with a major party would be inconsistent with their personal brand, but believe they should also be able to help choose a party's candidate. It's everyone's right to consider themselves better than the sometimes ugly compromises partisan politics entails, of course, but you can't have it both ways.
New York's decision to have a closed primary is fine. But what's not defensible is how hard New York makes it to join a party. Its unnecessarily early deadlines unquestionably have the effect of disenfranchising voters.
If you were registered to vote, as most likely primary voters are, to change your party affiliation you had to act by October 9 — 193 days before the April 19 primary. No other state in the country has a deadline remotely that early. It is simply unrealistic to expect voters to be focusing on the primary elections that far in advance of the vote, particularly in a state that doesn't always play a significant role in choosing the nominee.
There is an acceptable potential range of deadlines for closed primary. I'm inclined to favor same-day registration, which certainly should be the national standard for general elections. But I can also understand arguments that a same-day deadline opens primaries to strategic manipulation from party opponents who want to assist what they perceive as a weaker candidate. New York's deadline for new voters — March 25 — is probably a little too early, but it's within a broadly acceptable democratic range. The October deadline for already registered voters, however, is far outside a defensible rage. And since Sanders can expect a higher relative level of support from unaffiliated voters, his supporters are right to be upset.
Some Clinton supporters might make a couple of responses, but they are either wrong or irrelevant.
The first line of defense can be that while New York's rules might have increase Clinton's margin of victory, she was going to win New York anyway, and getting a few more delegates wasn't going to be of much help to Sanders given Clinton's nearly insurmountable lead. Clinton supporters can also note that Sanders has benefited disproportionately from caucus contests, which are even less democratic and more exclusionary than New York's closed primary. Both of these points are true in and of themselves, and also beside the point. Republicans don't need vote suppression to win Texas's Electoral College or Senate elections, but that doesn't make vote suppression in Texas any less wrong. Anti-democratic procedures need to be changed irrespective of who they benefit and whether or not they're decisive in any particular contest.
The second potential response from Clinton supporters is even worse. The rules are the rules, some might argue, and if Sanders (or Trump) supporters couldn't figure them out, tough. Under no circumstances, however, should progressives make this argument. This is the kind of reasoning Republicans use to justify voter ID laws, restrictions on early voting, and other forms of vote suppression — if people can't figure out how to get a proper ID or make time on Election Day, why do they deserve to vote? But this is simply wrong. Voting is of huge importance collectively but any individual vote has almost no impact, so even mild disincentives can substantially reduce turnout. The state's job is to reduce as many barriers as possible, not to create impediments and tut-tut people who can't surmount them.
And the difficulty New Yorkers face if they want to switch their party registration was far from the only issue. There was also a voter purge in Brooklyn that has elicited outrage from local officials, along with many other issues. As The Nation's Ari Berman observes, "[p]olling places didn't open on time, voting machines malfunctioned, and voters showed up to find their names weren't on the rolls." The New York electoral system is a mess, designed to protect incumbents rather than facilitate voter participation.
There's nothing wrong with New York having a closed primary system. But it needs to make it easier for registered voters to switch parties. Both Clinton and Sanders supporters should be applying pressure in Albany to make the system more democratic and fair.