States typically do not cancel their primaries after every candidate but one drops out. Democrats held their regularly scheduled primaries in 2000 and 2004 even after opponents of eventual nominees Al Gore and John Kerry left the race. Republicans held their primaries in 2000, 2008, 2012 and 2016 after their eventual nominees were effectively unopposed. New York’s decision is unprecedented in modern history.
The transparently flimsy excuse made the decision even more unpalatable. The state board of elections cited the coronavirus pandemic as a reason not to hold an apparently useless election, but the election will still go forward — largely through absentee ballots — because many other races are on the ballot the same day. Public health is not served by taking away voters’ choices.
The decision also violates the Democratic Party’s rules for selecting delegates to the national convention. Those rules require each state to submit a plan for the selection of delegates, and only delegates selected via that plan can be validly seated. New York’s plan established that delegates would be selected via the primary, with different numbers of delegates allocated according to the vote in each of the state’s 27 congressional districts in addition to a certain number awarded via the statewide vote. If there is no primary, there presumably can be no delegates — unless the state awards all the delegates to former vice president Joe Biden since he is, by their fiat, the only candidate on the ballot.
This possible outcome points to what could be the real reason behind the power play. New York sends 274 pledged delegates to the Democratic convention, the second-most of any state. Convention delegates vote on important matters such as the party’s platform and the vice-presidential nominee, on which Sanders supporters would likely have very different views than Biden backers. Sanders would likely have won a large number of New York delegates since Democrats award delegates to any candidate who gets 15 percent of the vote. Giving all the delegates to Biden would seriously weaken the influence of the party’s left wing.
Sanders explicitly said he wanted to remain on state ballots despite his decision to suspend his campaign so that he could amass delegates dedicated to progressive causes and thereby influence the party’s course. That’s clearly something the Biden campaign is worried about, as many polls have shown that policies supported by Sanders and his backers are unpopular with swing voters. Reducing the number of delegates from Sanders’s camp would theoretically let them craft a more centrist platform and help them in the general election against President Trump. Many Sanders supporters might even think Biden’s campaign was behind New York’s decision.
The decision could also boost Trump, who has been courting Sanders voters via tweet, saying that the Democratic establishment is again fixing the race to ensure Sanders’s defeat. This gives him something concrete to point to. It also insulates Trump from the charge Biden levied against him last week that he intends to postpone the November election. Trump has denied he wants to do that, and now he can say that it’s the Democratic establishment that wants to cheat to maintain power. This is an unforced error that gives Trump a new talking point.
Biden should call for the party to undo that error immediately. He should issue a statement demanding that New York’s Democrats reinstate the primary and keep Sanders’s name on the ballot. This would help him as he continues to try to unite the party for the fall campaign and also head off a new talking point for Trump. The longer that he does not do this, the more it will appear that he is behind New York’s undemocratic putsch.
Biden says he’s running the restore America’s soul. Regular, free and democratic elections are at the heart of that soul. If Biden can’t stand up for democracy within his own party, how can Americans trust him to stand up for it at all?