The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New York state cancels its primary, angering Sanders camp

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), right, endorses Joe Biden during a live stream earlier this month.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), right, endorses Joe Biden during a live stream earlier this month. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

Sen. Bernie Sanders’s campaign excoriated New York election officials Monday for canceling the state’s Democratic presidential primary, opening a new rift in a party trying to mend its divisions following a competitive fight for the nomination.

Although Sanders (I-Vt.) has suspended his campaign and endorsed former vice president Joe Biden, he has expressed a desire to remain on ballots in states with upcoming nominating contests. He hopes to continue amassing delegates to the party’s national convention to gain influence over the platform and other decisions.

That plan received a blow when Democratic commissioners on the state Board of Elections opted to remove Sanders from the New York ballot, thereby scrapping the June 23 primary. Senior Sanders adviser Jeff Weaver responded with a scathing statement on behalf of the senator’s campaign, calling the decision a “blow to American democracy” that should be rectified by the Democratic National Committee.

New York cancelled its Democratic presidential primary on April 27. The Post's Sean Sullivan explains why Bernie Sanders is outraged. (Video: The Washington Post)

“Just last week Vice President Biden warned the American people that President Trump could use the current crisis as an excuse to postpone the November election,” Weaver said in the statement, which Sanders promoted on Twitter. “Well, he now has a precedent thanks to New York state.”

Not so, an elections expert said. “This is a totally separate matter,” said Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at Common Cause, a nonprofit group that advocates for eased ballot access. “You’re comparing apples to oranges.”

Albert noted that Congress determines the timing of federal elections and that the president does not have the power to change that.

Weaver suggested that instead of terminating the primary, New York should have changed it to an entirely vote-by-mail system to alleviate safety concerns about voting during the coronavirus pandemic.

“If this is not remedied, New York should lose all its delegates to the 2020 Democratic National Convention and there should be a broader review by the Democratic Party of New York’s checkered pattern of voter disenfranchisement,” Weaver said.

Democratic National Committee spokesman David Bergstein said in a statement: “Any substantive change to a state’s first determining step in allocating delegates like this one will need to be reviewed by the DNC’s Rules and By-Laws Committee. Once the state party submits an updated delegate selection plan, the committee will review that plan and make a determination.”

Democratic election lawyer Marc Elias, however, noted on Twitter that the DNC does not set or cancel primaries.

A Biden campaign spokesman did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

The development marked at least a hiccup in the effort to smooth relations in the party. In the weeks since Sanders suspended his campaign, Democrats have largely rallied around Biden’s candidacy.

The New York election commissioners discussed the primary and the potential impact of the pandemic via videoconference Monday morning. They reviewed, among other things, a communication from the Sanders campaign urging the board to preserve his status on the ballot.

But the commissioners concluded that Sanders’s decision to suspend his campaign and support Biden effectively ended the competition — turning it into a “beauty contest,” in the words of Douglas Kellner, a co-chair of the board — and that his justification for wanting to remain on the ballot was insufficient. They supported a resolution that left Biden as the only remaining contender.

New York is one of a raft of states that decided to postpone its presidential primary amid concerns about the pandemic. Officials had put off the primary, originally slated for April 28, until June 23. Now, it will not happen at all.

“The two Democratic Commissioners removed all candidates from the ballot except Joe Biden,” John Conklin, the director of public information for the state elections board, said in an email. “By operation of law, N.Y. does not hold uncontested primaries. So their action de facto eliminates the Democratic presidential primary and Joe Biden is effectively the winner of the N.Y. primary.”

Sanders’s allies panned the move. “I’m amazed at this decision,” said Larry Cohen, chairman of the pro-Sanders group Our Revolution and a Maryland delegate to the Democratic convention. “It totally violates DNC rules. Many of us who do support the election of Joe Biden will nonetheless be forced to go to the credentials committee and challenge any delegation New York may send to the convention.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who supported Sanders in the primary, wrote on Twitter: “Primary results matters beyond who wins 1st place. Sen. Sanders explicitly stated that he intended on continuing to collect delegates in order to advance wage, healthcare, climate & other priorities into the platform at the convention. The @DNC should respond to this decision.”

“Unity isn’t a feeling, it’s a process,” she added.

David Weigel contributed to this report.