The men and women who make up one of Bernie Sanders’ best political assets in New York are doing just about everything to help him except one: vote.
The Working Families Party, a nearly two-decade-old political force in the Empire State, has sprung into action on behalf of Sanders, the independent-turned-Democratic presidential hopeful. But only registered Democrats can vote in Tuesday's primary, shutting out the nearly 50,000 Working Families members.
Though their ranks are minuscule compared with the state's 5.8 million Democrats, Sanders' inability to count on support at the polls from them or others outside the Democratic Party underscores the reality that a core source of his strength throughout the nomination battle, independent liberals, can’t vote for him in dozens of states, including New York.
In this unexpectedly drawn-out Democratic primary in which delegates are awarded proportionally, a few thousand votes here or there could help Sanders snatch a handful of delegates from front-runner Hillary Clinton. Sanders’ campaign has said its current strategy to win the nomination is to come within striking distance of Clinton in pledged delegates and persuade the so-called superdelegates, party leaders and elected officials who can back the candidate of their choosing and who largely support Clinton, to switch allegiances.
The urgency of Sanders’ challenge was apparent Wednesday evening at a rally in downtown Manhattan where the senator from Vermont drew 27,000 supporters, the latest in a string of “yuge” rallies scheduled in the run-up to New York’s most consequential Democratic presidential primary in decades.
One of the first speakers reminded the audience that New York’s primary was closed to all but registered Democrats, prompting boos across Washington Square Park. Sanders himself raised the issue at the conclusion of his more than hourlong speech, acknowledging a “tough race for us.”
“We have a system here in New York where independents can’t get involved in the Democratic primary, where young people who have not previously registered and want to register today can't do it,” Sanders said from the foot of park’s signature arch, the Empire State Building gleaming in blue and green behind him.
Still, Sanders predicted a “surprise for the establishment.”
“If we have a large voter turnout on Tuesday, we are going to win this thing,” he said, echoing predictions he’s made in other states.
Johanna Weiss of Brooklyn, who arrived at the Sanders rally more than six hours before he took the stage, said she switched her registration to the Democratic Party just before the October deadline. She said she only learned about the need to do so because of her engagement with the Sanders campaign online through social media.
“I was very active with the campaign on Facebook, so I was lucky enough to have stuff coming up in my feed all the time. And I’m always reminding family members – get out there, switch if you need to switch,” she said.
“Back in the fall and the late summer, a lot of people didn’t know who Bernie Sanders was,” she said, adding that media coverage of his candidacy only became widespread after similar voter deadlines had passed.
“I still don’t necessarily consider myself a Democrat,” she added, saying she’d vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein in November if Sanders isn’t the Democratic nominee. “I still have some qualms with the Democratic establishment.”
Hurley Graham of Queens, who also attended the rally and is registered as a Libertarian, said that by the time he learned he had to switch parties to participate in the Democratic primary, it was too late.
“It certainly is a handicap for a lot of voters,” he said, blaming Democratic leaders in New York who overwhelmingly support Clinton, a state resident for the last 16 years. “Whatever they’re going to do to handicap [Sanders], they’ll do.”
On Thursday, dozens of voters at City Hall protested the state’s closed primary system, which one speaker called the “largest act of voter suppression in the state of New York.” Taxpayers should not fund such elections in which millions of voters are ineligible to participate, said John Opdycke, president of the group Open Primaries.
Jackie Salit, president of IndependentVoting.org and campaign manager for former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s campaigns related to the Independence Party, held up a full-page newspaper ad from the state Board of Elections that noted that Tuesday’s primaries were open only to registered Democrats and Republicans, but said no similar voter education effort was made ahead of registration deadlines months before.
She said she’s glad Sanders is speaking out about the issue now.
“I would like him to be more vocal, not just about the consequences in any particular race but about the systemic problems that exist and that do affect a major portion of the constituency that is drawn to him,” she said. “To conduct voter suppression against people on the basis of their identity is both shameful and illegal. To conduct voter suppression against people on the basis of political choices that they’re making, i.e., to be independent and not be affiliated with a party, is just straight up un-American.”
The Clinton campaign has said she has performed best in elections in which the greatest number of voters participate, not Sanders. Clinton won 17 of the first 21 states where turnout exceeded 7% of eligible voters, campaign manager Robbie Mook wrote in a memo on the eve of last week’s Wisconsin primary.
Clinton won open primaries in Ohio, Illinois and Missouri but lost them in Michigan and Wisconsin, among others.
Whether a presidential nominating contest is open or closed varies by state and by party. In California, for example, only registered Republicans can participate in the GOP presidential primary. Unaffiliated voters can cast ballots in the Democratic primary, but members of the Green or Libertarian parties, for instance, may not.
But all voters will be able to vote in congressional and other down-ballot races under California's top-two system.
New York Assemblyman Fred Thiele, the Assembly's only independent lawmaker, has introduced legislation to implement the same system in New York.
“New York state has some of the most archaic voter laws in the entire country,” he said. “If you want to vote in New York, you really have to want to; and even if you want to vote, sometimes they won't let you.”
The Working Families Party has joined with independent unions who also back Sanders to hold rallies throughout the state, register new voters (who had until a few weeks ago to sign up) and knock on doors, said Bill Lipton, the party’s state director.
“Tens of thousands of people have shown up to these rallies, which is indicative of huge momentum,” he said. “The volunteer energy from young people especially is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
And even if its members can’t support Sanders, he said, the Working Families endorsement is an important signal to progressive Democrats.
“We’re the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for progressives,” he said.