Judge Reverses New York’s Historic Decision

The coronavirus won’t keep New Yorkers from casting their ballot in the presidential primary after all. New York State officially decided in April to cancel their June 23 presidential primary election over public health fears from the coronavirus—and former Vice President Joe Biden’s status as the last candidate standing. But a federal judge officially overturned the cancellation Tuesday, ruling that canceling the primary would infringe on candidates, delegates, and voters’ rights. “Protecting the public from the spread of COVID-19 is an important state interest,” U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres wrote in her ruling. “But the Court is not convinced that canceling the presidential primary would meaningfully advance that interest—at least not to the degree as would justify the burdensome impingement on Plaintiffs’ and Plaintiff-Intervenors’ rights.”

New York’s Board of Elections officially moved to cancel the primary after Senator Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign and left Biden as the de facto Democratic nominee, using a state law allowing the board to remove candidates who have ended their campaigns from the ballot and leaving Biden unopposed. The move marked the first time a state had canceled a presidential primary entirely due to the coronavirus, rather than merely postponing it. (Down-ballot races were still scheduled to go on as planned, but the presidential race was the only primary race in 20 of the state’s 62 counties.) “The more we can do to reduce the risk factor of running the primary, the smarter I think that it is,” New York Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs told the New York Times at the time, while the Board of Election’s Democratic co-chair, Douglas A. Kellner, described holding a Biden-Sanders face-off to the Times as “essentially a beauty contest that, given the situation with the public health emergency, seems to be unnecessary and, indeed, frivolous.”

Onetime 2020 candidate Andrew Yang vehemently disagreed, filing a lawsuit with state delegates and New York voters in response arguing that it was unconstitutional for New York to shut down the democratic process entirely. “Losing delegates, and losing the right to vote, is quite simply an outrage that is illegal and will cause irreparable harm to Plaintiff and New York voters,” the lawsuit argued. “It will cause candidates like Yang and the Plaintiff delegates to lose influence at the party’s convention, and the possibility, even if remote, of winning the nomination to be the candidate for President.” The lawsuit also pointed out that canceling the presidential race would hurt down-ballot candidates in races still scheduled to go on as planned, as there is “less incentive to vote if [voters] cannot cast a vote for the highest office in the land.” Furthermore, counties without these down-ballot races, whose primary elections will be canceled entirely as a result of the move, are largely located upstate and far from the areas of New York hardest hit by COVID-19, undercutting the public health argument at the heart of the cancellation. “It is widely known that in these districts where these counties where there are no down-ballot elections, the threat of the coronavirus is less prevalent,” the lawsuit notes.

Sanders, who intends to amass delegates to influence the Democratic platform at the convention even if he won’t become the nominee, also strongly opposed New York’s decision to cancel the primary, with his campaign decrying the move as an “outrage” and a “blow to American democracy.” Suggesting the decision could be used as a “precedent” by President Donald Trump to postpone the November general election, Sanders campaign adviser Jeff Weaver wrote in a statement that the primary cancellation meant New York had “clearly violated its approved delegate selection plan.” “No one asked New York to cancel the election. … And our campaign communicated that we wanted to remain on the ballot,” Weaver said. “Given that the primary is months away, the proper response must be to make the election safe—such as going to all vote by mail—rather than to eliminating people’s right to vote completely.”

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