National News

Only in New York: Where Primary Day Comes Twice a Year

Posted June 26, 2018 12:39 a.m. EDT

As New Yorkers go to the polls for the congressional primary Tuesday, the ballots they cast will have a dubious distinction: Their state is the only one in the nation that is holding separate state and federal primary elections in this tumultuous political year.

How and why did that happen?

The practice dates to 2012, when the federal government won a lawsuit compelling New York to move its federal primary elections to the fourth Tuesday in June from September, when they had been held simultaneously with state primaries. The federal government asked for the change because it contended that a September primary did not leave enough time for military and overseas voters to get absentee ballots for the general election.

State lawmakers then could have moved the state primary election from September to June so that they would again line up. Although Democrats favored the switch, Republicans in Albany balked, arguing that because the state legislative session runs through the end of June, they would have no time in their districts to campaign.

New York’s bifurcated primaries, however, have caused the state to spend millions of dollars more; at the same time, having two separate primaries can also suppress voter interest, election law experts and state officials say.

“It adds to voter confusion and it reduces turnout,” said Jerry H. Goldfeder, an election lawyer and an adjunct professor at Fordham University School of Law. “Until the Legislature sees fit to enact a rational election calendar, we are stuck with two different primaries.”

The system would also seem to favor incumbents. James Felton Keith, a Democrat who is challenging Rep. Adriano Espaillat in the Tuesday primary, said in a phone interview that special-interest groups and advocates have done a good job at trying to rally voters to the polls.

But some of the most powerful groups, he said, were more focused on state-oriented issues and saved their firepower for the state primary in September.

“If you are a state-based group, you are not inclined to work as hard in June as you are in September,” he said, adding that aligning the two primaries would give candidates “maximum impact.”

Jonathan Lewis, a Democrat who is challenging Rep. Eliot L. Engel, wooed voters Monday evening as they disembarked from a Metro-North train at the Fleetwood train station in Westchester County. He said many voters seemed unaware of the June 26 primary. “The two separate dates causes some hesitancy in voters’ minds about when to vote,” he said, “and that’s certainly not ideal for participation in a democracy.”

A survey of Ballotpedia, the Green Papers and the National Conference of State Legislatures — organizations that track election dates — revealed that New York is alone in holding separate congressional and state primaries this year.

But at least a few other states occasionally split their primaries as well. In recent years, for example, both California and North Carolina have held separate primaries.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York has for years criticized the Legislature for not voting to consolidate the primaries. In a statement Monday, Richard Azzopardi, Cuomo’s spokesman, said “the governor has been very clear that the status quo is wasteful, expensive and only leads to confusion and lower voter turnout. He’s long sought a unified primary date, which the Legislature hasn’t been able to agree on.”

Holding a separate primary is costly given the logistics of overseeing a statewide election. According to the New York State Board of Elections, the primary Tuesday will cost about $10 million, which covers ballots, Election Day materials, inspector pay, poll site rentals, moving costs for voting machines, staff and mailings.

By contrast, a general election runs about $25 million, said John Conklin, a spokesman for the Board of Elections.

“If you combine the federal primary with the state and local primary, you would save some money — there’s no question. But I don’t think you can say that it would save the entire cost of the separate election,” he said, explaining that there would still be some duplicate expenses relating to ballots, additional machines and mailings.

Goldfeder and others say that moving the state primaries to June would capture the focus of voters before they leave for summer vacations. “People are paying attention and it doesn’t coincide with the start of school,” he said.

As for which party was put at a disadvantage by split primaries, Goldfeder said the jury was out. “It does hurt voter turnout, but I don’t think it favors one party over another,” he said. “It’s like trying to prove a negative.”