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Holding an election during a pandemic is an unprecedented endeavor that requires thoughtful preparation and resource management. That’s why many states have postponed primary elections, and why those that haven’t have been roundly critiqued for forcing in-person voting without necessary safeguards amid the outbreak. Yet New York recently went a step further by actually cancelling its presidential primary.
The Bernie Sanders campaign had lobbied to remain on the ballot before the decision was made. The cancellation angered many election observers, with Sanders’ advisor Jeff Weaver calling it “a blow to American democracy”.
Daily Kos Elections’ Stephen Wolf called the cancelation senseless. ”New York’s down ballot primaries are still taking place the same day, [and] New York recently moved to waive the excuse requirement to vote absentee [and] mail absentee ballot applications to every registered voter,” he explained. “This will dampen down ballot turnout. One can’t help but see this as the New York Board of Elections trying to protect machine [Democrats] from insurgent progressive primary challengers.”
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez echoed that sentiment, tweeting, “no matter who you support, it is extremely dangerous that New York is establishing a precedent of cancelling elections citing COVID.” Stacey Abrams, who has endorsed Joe Biden, agreed: “NY’s decision to cancel its primary creates a false choice: asking voters to pick safety or participation in our democracy. This is wrong. Elections officials can hold safe, accessible elections, where voters cast ballots by mail or safely in person.”
There is obviously reason to be concerned about the safety of in-person voting amid this current crisis. Wisconsin proved as much, with the number of cases directly linked to in-person voting during its April 7th primary rising weekly. But the policies to crisis-proof our democracy exist and can be implemented. Robust early voting, universal vote-by-mail options and online voter registration, for example, are all proactive steps towards this end.
While former Vice President Joe Biden is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, presidential primaries remain significant. The delegates earned through the upcoming contests allocate influence over the eventual Democratic presidential platform. Weaver was correct to write, “given that the primary is months away, the proper response must be to make the election safe…rather than to eliminat[e] people’s right to vote completely.”
There’s something deeply — and sadly — ironic about such an anti-democratic action thwarting Bernie Sanders’ campaign to win delegates. After all, while much has rightfully been written about the “socialism” of his democratic socialism, the “democratic” portion of his platform is where he left a particularly indelible mark.
The Vermont Senator was the first major presidential candidate in history to endorse democracy vouchers, an innovative public campaign financing system currently used in Seattle. Under the program, every registered voter would receive vouchers to donate to eligible candidates’ campaigns.
And like so many, Sanders also understood that getting big money out of politics has little value if not paired with equal access to the franchise; he constantly pushed for an expansion of voting rights, even if it meant damaging his own electoral prospects in the process.
He stirred controversy by taking a firm stance against felon disenfranchisement, the odious Jim Crow-rooted provisions still on the books in states across the country. Indeed, Sanders was the only candidate throughout the 2020 cycle brave enough to fully defend voting rights for those currently incarcerated. Even when lambasted in the press, he remained steadfast in this democratic belief.
Sanders likewise articulated a visionary position on voter registration, promoting universal voter registration wherein every voter would be automatically registered upon turning eighteen years old. And he joined many of his colleagues advocating for statehood for Washington D.C., Electoral College reform, and independent redistricting commissions to end gerrymandering. So too did he articulate the benefits of ranked choice voting, something no other leading presidential candidate has ever done.
That the most progressive U.S. senator would stake out the most democratic positions is largely unsurprising. But Sanders went further than merely articulating bold policy; he also committed to prioritizing the issue if elected, a major signal to his base that democracy should be at the forefront of any leftwing agenda.
On December 28th, in Concord, New Hampshire at a Democracy Town Hall hosted by Equal Citizens and Open Democracy Action, Sanders was blunt: “It goes without saying” that democracy reform would lead his agenda.
Throughout 2019, my colleagues and I hosted these town halls with numerous presidential contenders. The goal was to provide candidates with the opportunity to discuss their democracy reform platforms in front of swing state voters and to push them to make reform part of their day-one agenda. We sent invitations to every candidate and Sanders was the only leading presidential candidate to accept our offer, which spoke loudly about how deeply he understood the importance of these issues. By using our event to dig into the topic and to commit to prioritize reform, he legitimized our efforts and those of reformers more broadly.
Sanders, of course, was not the only candidate to have a strong reform platform during the 2020 presidential cycle. Nor was he the only one to commit to prioritizing it. The majority of candidates — most prominently, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) —championed reform. But Sanders stood unique in just how far he was willing to push boundaries to solve our democracy crisis.
In a democracy that seems to be perpetually backsliding, boldness is scarce. Dreaming big — about 80 percent voter turnout, or a people-powered campaign finance system — can feel elusive, or worse, impossible. Yet, Sanders consistently took the solutions offered by democracy advocates to new heights, normalizing previously radical positions and injecting energy into the democracy reform movement.
New York’s decision to cancel its primary is incompatible with the democratic idealism of the Sanders campaign. Whether or not the Democratic National Committee intervenes to reverse course, one thing remains clear: As Biden now seeks to unify the Democratic Party, he should honor Sanders’ service by mimicking his commitment to reform — if not in exact policy substance, at least in its urgency and aggressiveness. For if ever there was a moment for bold, concrete policies to promote political equality, it’s during a campaign against a president who so miserably failed to deliver on his promise to “drain the swamp”.
Adam Eichen is the Campaigns Manager for Equal Citizens and co-author of Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want.