Time for NYS to open the primaries

Now that the New York State Senate is going back to work, it’s time to make several changes in the state’s political process. Let’s start with the how the primaries are operated.

New York is one of 25 states with closed primaries, which means that you must be affiliated with a party to vote in that party’s primary. Registered independents, which by all accounts helped decide the majority of political races in 2008, are shut out of the primaries. Meanwhile, 17 states have open primaries, which means that you can vote in just one party’s primary but you don’t have to belong to that party to vote. Eight states are classified as “other,” including New Hampshire, New Jersey and Massachusetts — all nearby states to New York — where Democrats and Republicans vote in their own primaries while independents choose one side and vote in the primary.

As it stands today, independents in New York are not allowed to vote in primaries. Re-read part of that sentence. “Independents in New York are not allowed to vote.” This is highly anti-democratic, un-American, and if I can find the right lawyer to help me, un-Constitutional.

What happened in the New York State Senate between June 8 and July 10 highlights the crippling effect that closed primaries have. With a closed primary, there is added emphasis on party loyalty. You can vote only if you’re registered to that party, so when the politician is elected (and in NY that means re-elected over and over until you resign, move into national politics or get caught having an affair) that politician is beholden to the party leaders. They are paralyzed. They cannot vote their conscience. They cannot vote for the normal constituents, the men and women back home who are struggling with bills to pay, layoffs of their friends and co-workers, kids to send to college and so on.

When Sen. Pedro Espada of the Bronx and another Democrat flipped affiliation to become Republican on June 8, the Senate came to a standstill. The balance of power had changed from 32-30 Democrat to 32-30 Republican. The Republicans, having long held power in the Senate, just as quickly lost it when Sen. Hiram Monserrate of Queens flipped back to the Democrats, making it 31-31. Stalemate. No business was conducted in the Senate chambers, except for a flurry of bills passed by Democrats in late June when a Republican senator passed through on his way to get some coffee.

On July 10, Espada agreed to re-join the Democrats and was immediately named majority leader. If these events had unfolded on an episode of “Survivor,” all the contestants would have voted Espada off the island. In the New York State Senate, however, he’s the majority leader.

One of the clear messages that New Yorkers must understand from all this is that with a tie in the Senate, nothing gets done. No one in the Senate can vote the way they want to or the way their constituents want them to. They are resigned to a tie, so don’t even bother going to work. Just hire a lawyer so you can get paid when the state comptroller threatens to hold back your paycheck. They are resigned to a tie simply because it’s 31 Democrats vs. 31 Republicans. Every vote? Every bill? Give me a break. Grow some you-know-whats.

With open primaries, registered independents would have more say in what sleazy politicians get to advance to the general primary. Perhaps then we could clean out some of the corruption that plagues New York politics.

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