What’s going on with the New York June 2020 primary ballot?

During less unusual times, the vast majority of New York voters go to the polls on election day (or before election day, now that we have early voting in New York City!) to cast their ballots. This year, due to the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis, Governor Andrew Cuomo relaxed the requirements on who can choose to vote absentee. As a result, many of us (myself included) requested a mail-in ballot for the June 23 primary election so we wouldn’t have to show up at a potentially crowded polling place, putting ourselves and poll workers at risk. Which means that we all found ourselves with a few extra days to look at our ballots and realize that they make no sense at all. I’ve gotten a number of questions about the New York presidential primary and the primary ballot specifically, so I figured it was high time I dusted off the ol’ blog for an explainer.

If you don’t want to read the whole thing, jump directly to:

Why are all the candidates and their delegates on the ballot?

When you unfold your ballot, the first thing you’ll probably notice is that, in addition to the eleven primary candidates listed, there’s also an entire section in which you’re supposed to vote for 6 to 8 primary delegates pledged to support one of the candidates. Unlike the primary candidates themselves, you probably haven’t heard of most of them, if any. And to make matters worse, delegates appear for only half of the eleven primary candidates! Given that all but one of the primary candidates have dropped out, you might wonder, what the hell is going on here?

Short version: You cast your vote for your candidate of choice by filling in the bubble next to their name. That vote goes toward both a statewide contest and a contest held within your congressional district. By giving you the option to vote for (or decline to vote for) the delegates who will represent your candidate if they win any delegates at a district level, New York is giving you the option to have a little more direct control over what happens at the convention. Sortof. It’s complicated. Your choice to vote for or against any of the delegates does nothing to influence which candidate wins in your state or district.

Long version: Here’s the top-line thing to know about presidential primaries (that you probably already know, but it bears repeating anyway) – unlike the presidential election, they’re not run by the government. Rather, they’re run by private state party organizations, who make the rules and decide who’s on the ballot, in concert with state governments, who in turn organize all the election logistics like ballot printing, poll worker training, etc. This may seem only incidental to the question at hand, but I bring it up to explain that each state has its own rules for how presidential primaries work. The national party (it should be noted that I’m only talking about the Democratic Party here; in case in wasn’t confusing enough, the Republican Party has entirely separate rules for how this all works) decides how many delegates each state can send to the national nominating convention (New York gets 320, 46 of which are unpledged “superdelegates” and are therefore irrelevant here), but how the states allocate those delegates is more or less entirely up to each individual state’s local party branch. This is how we wind up with a system where some states have caucuses and other states have primaries; this is also how we wind up with the oh-so-confusing New York primary ballot.

The New York State Board of Elections’ handy guide, The Presidential Primary Election in New York State: Summary of the Ballot Access Requirements, describes the presidential primary as “really a dual primary,” and I think that’s a helpful way to think of it. There’s a statewide primary, and then separately, each congressional district has its own mini primary. You cast your vote in both elections at the same time by filling in the little bubble next to the name of the candidate you want, but because of this “dual primary” setup, that vote counts twice. The statewide “sub-election” (which is not a technical term; I just made it up!) is fairly straightforward – when all the votes are counted, any delegates that are allocated on a statewide “at-large” basis are proportionally divided between any candidates who win at least 15% of the total vote across the entire state. Of New York State’s 320 delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee in August, 90 delegates are allocated in this way. However, we don’t get to (have to?) vote for these 90 at-large delegates individually – they’re chosen at the state party convention, which happens between the election and the DNC to formalize all of these intra-party primary results.

Another 184 delegates are nominated in the second half of this dual primary – the congressional district “sub-election.” Basically, each congressional district holds its own presidential primary, and sends a small number of delegates (6, 7, or 8 delegates depending on the district) to the DNC based on how that individual district voted, with no attention paid to the statewide totals. So if I were to cast a vote for, say, Joe Biden (just an example, not necessarily an expression of my personal political preferences!), that’s +1 vote for Biden statewide (discussed above), and also +1 vote for Biden in the much smaller district pool. If Biden comes in third statewide, he probably won’t get too many (if any) of the at-large delegates. But if I live in a very Biden-friendly neighborhood and he comes in first by a large margin within my congressional district, he could still pick up some or all of our district’s delegates, even if our preferences were far outvoted by the rest of the state. Like the at-large delegates, any delegates allocated at the congressional level are required to support the candidate to whom they’re “pledged.”

But here’s where things get confusing. Because statewide at-large delegates are chosen at the state convention, we don’t need to vote for them in the primary itself. But in New York State, we don’t have district-level conventions, so there’s no step of the process in which these delegates could be chosen for us. We’ve solved this problem by asking campaigns to nominate slates of pledged delegates, and then slapping them on the ballot alongside the candidates they’re pledged to support. Your vote for Biden’s delegates doesn’t actually cast a vote for Biden; if you left all of the delegate choices blank, it wouldn’t change or affect your separate vote for Biden in the candidate head-to-head poll question. By the same token, if you vote for Biden in the candidate head-to-head poll question but bubble in all seven of Bernie Sanders’ delegates, that’s still a single vote for Biden and zero votes for Sanders. But by allowing you to vote for delegates individually, you are given the chance to basically vote “thumbs up” (by voting for the delegate) or “thumbs down” (by declining to vote for the delegate) on the question of “will this person be a good advocate for my candidate at the DNC.”

To explain that a bit further, if one candidate sweeps the district and wins 100% of the vote, this approval/disapproval doesn’t matter at all, because all 6-8 of that candidates delegates will be sent to the convention no matter what. But if, say, one candidate wins 60% of the vote in your district and the other wins 40%, those 6-8 delegates will be proportionally allocated from two candidates’ lists. It is here that your approval/disapproval comes into play, because delegates are selected off each slate roughly in order of who got the most votes. This means that if one of the delegates for your chosen candidate is, for example, a local politician you vehemently dislike, you could decrease the likelihood of their being chosen to represent your candidate by voting for all of that candidate’s other delegates, and declining to vote for that one person. If you’re curious, the mathematical formula by which vote percentages are translated into actual human delegates can be found at Part II, Section B, Paragraph 7 of the 2020 Delegate Selection Plan of the New York State Democratic Committee.

If you made it through that whole explanation, you are probably left with two questions. (Well, hopefully two questions… if you have more, let me know and I’ll explain further!) Firstly, you may have clocked that I said delegates were allocated roughly in order of who gets the most votes, and you might be wondering why. Just in case this process wasn’t complicated enough, the NY Democratic party has a rule on the books that it needs to send an equal number of male and female delegates to the convention, so gender is also taken into account in selecting delegates. In practice, this means that even if all of the female delegates receive higher vote totals than all of the male delegates, some of the less popular male delegates will still be chosen over some of the more popular female delegates. There is a fairly confusing formula for this allocation process that’s not worth getting into here, but if you’re interested, it can be found at Part II, Section B, Paragraph 8 of our good friend, the 2020 Delegate Selection Plan. According to the official party rules, gender is assigned according to delegate self-identification, and delegate candidates can also chose to identify and be listed on the ballot as gender non-binary (NB instead of M or F). The rules specify that non-binary delegates should not be counted as either male or female, and therefore do not affect the gender division of the rest of the delegation.

At this point, I assume you are also wondering about why this even matters. The answer is that it probably doesn’t matter terribly much. In the pre-1968 world, where presidential candidates were really chosen by delegates to the convention and the few primary elections held were little more than very expensive, very formal public opinion polls, the delegates mattered a great deal. If your only say in your party’s presidential candidate came via the opinion of the delegates sent from your district, you’d probably want to make sure those delegates reflected your preferences. But in today’s world, where almost all the delegates are pledged to support a specific candidate, the actual individual delegates matter less than the candidates they’re required to support. (Of course, if the convention was contested and went on into multiple rounds of voting and the delegates were freed up to vote for whoever they as individuals wanted, my opinion might be different… but Biden’s clinched the nomination this year so that’s not going to happen.) In modern conventions, delegates also get to vote on the party platform, but generally speaking, campaigns won’t select delegates that don’t support their party platform policy goals. As such, you can safely assume that delegates pledged to your candidate of choice will advocate for and support at the convention anything your candidate supports. In other words, I hereby give you permission to spend exactly zero time researching individual delegate choices.

One final note: you may notice that some of the candidates do not have delegate slates listed on the ballot. On the very off chance that either of them hits the 15% threshold in a congressional district and acquires any delegates to send to the convention, the state party has given them permission to select their delegates after the fact. So much for the democratic process, I guess.

Given that Biden has numerically clinched the Democratic nomination, what should be taken into consideration when choosing who to vote for?

So now that you understand your ballot… who should you vote for? Specifically, should you vote for Biden, because he’s already won the damn thing and if he wins with an overwhelming mandate, that’s good optics? Or should you take advantage of Andrew Yang’s lawsuit to reinstate the primary with all the candidates on the ballot after it was previously cancelled, and vote for the candidate you wanted to support even though that candidate may have formally suspended their campaign?

Short version: We already know who’s going to win the nomination, so at this point in the process, your vote doesn’t do much in terms of picking the next nominee. But because delegate totals determine which candidates have the loudest voices when it comes time to draft the Democratic party platform, your vote can still have substantial impact on what the Democratic party formally stands for for the next for years.

Long version: At this point, Biden is the presumptive Democratic nominee because he has numerically clinched the nomination. In other words, he has already accumulated enough delegates to win the nomination on the first round of voting, when only pledged delegates are allowed to vote. Barring unforeseen circumstances, he’s the Democratic nominee for president, and no amount of voting for him or against him that New York can do will change that.

But nominating a presidential candidate is not the only thing that happens at the Democratic National Convention. At the DNC, the party also formally votes on its platform for the next four years, or formal set of ideals and beliefs that govern the party as a whole and guide their official policy stances until the next presidential nominating convention. This is where the Democrats formally decide what they stand for as a party, and while the platform is neither a binding document nor an official policy proposal, it’s a good indication of both the priorities of the newly nominated candidate, and of the party as a whole.

The “Standing Committee on the Platform” is made up of 25 Party Leaders and Elected Officials (PLEOs for short), plus 162 delegates divided up between the states and territories using the same formula used to decide how many delegates each state gets in the first place. So for example, New York has 274 non-superdelegate delegates, and that translates to 10 seats on the Platform Committee. Each state (plus DC, which counts as a state for convention purposes) has at least one seat, and each of the territories gets one seat worth .25 of a vote (meaning that even though the total number of seats on the Platform Committee is 162, the total number of votes to pass the newly drafted platform out of committee is 158.25). Only the people on the Platform Committee have direct say in what goes into the platform – much like a bill going through Congress, the platform gets drafted at the committee level and then, once it is passed out of committee, it gets voted on by all the delegates – so if you want to affect the party platform, getting a seat on the Platform Committee becomes very important. You can read more about how this all works (in formal legalistic language) in the Call for the 2020 Democratic National Convention.

But here’s where things get interesting (and also relevant to the question at hand). Delegates are chosen to sit on the Platform Committee in accordance with the proportion of delegates their presidential candidate got in each state. So for example, if Biden collected 50% of the delegates from New York, Sanders collected 40%, and Warren got 10%, 5 of New York’s seats on the Platform Committee would be filled by Biden delegates, 4 would be filled by Sanders delegates, and 1 would come from the Warren delegation.

At this point, Biden has already clinched the nomination. So when you cast your vote in the New York election, you can think about it as voting on which candidate’s ideals should have a voice on the Platform Committee.

A few more things to consider as you’re making your decision. Firstly, in order to win any statewide delegates, a candidate needs to win at least 15% of the vote statewide; by the same token, a candidate must win at least 15% of the vote within a congressional district to be eligible to receive any district-level delegates. Thus, if a candidate wins fewer than 15% of the vote, they stand zero chance of garnering a NY Platform Committee Seat.

You may also have heard the Sanders campaign talk about staying in the race to get to a magic 25% of delegates for platform-drafting purposes. Although 25% is still a minority and therefore can’t overrule a majority hellbent on passing a policy goal, the convention rules specify that 25% of delegates in any committee can vote to release a “minority report” to be introduced alongside the committee’s main report on the convention floor. Then, after both the official report (in this instance, the party platform) and the minority report (in this instance, an alternate platform drawn up by 25% of the membership on the Platform Committee) are read aloud and discussed, the entire floor of the convention can vote on either one, giving the minority report an equal chance to be adopted by the convention as the official report passed out of committee. Since that creates a whole procedural mess that nobody, including a vocal minority, really wants to deal with, a 25%-strong minority on the Platform Committee can use the threat of issuing a minority report to extract concessions out of the majority. If you think back to the 2016 convention, when the Sanders delegation was able to extract substantial policy compromises from the Clinton delegation, this is how they did it – by threatening to issue minority platform reports, and having the numbers on the committee to back up the threat. At the time of this writing, Sanders currently holds 31% of the delegates allocated so far.

And lastly, this is why it’s worth at least glancing over the delegates on your ballot – one of them might be your voice on the Platform Committee, so if there’s anyone you really dislike, it may be worth not voting for them so they don’t get chosen for this prestigious assignment!

Voter resources for anyone in New York State

Check your voter registration here.

Find information on the people running for federal office at the League of Women Voters’ Vote411 site.

Did you know that you have until June 23 to mail your ballots? This year, absentee ballots must be postmarked on or before June 23 to be counted. This is a change from previous years, when they had to be received by election day in order to be valid.

Voter resources and information for anyone in New York City specifically

Check your early vote and election day polling sites here. This will let you preview your sample ballot, but it only works for addresses within the five boroughs of New York City, and does not verify your voter registration.

Wondering what’ll happen if you don’t get your ballot in time? Check out this tweet from the NYC Board of Elections that seems to imply that even if you request (or fill out and mail in!) an absentee ballot, you can still vote in person and that will override your absentee vote.

If you live in a part of Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx that has a judicial election, check out City Limitsrundown of all the judicial candidates. I would also recommend checking out the ratings from the Judiciary Committee of the LGBT Bar Association of New York.

If you live in Bushwick and want to know what the hell happened to your City Council special election, check out Cuomo’s Executive Order No. 202.24, in which he unceremoniously cancelled our City Council election with no explanation, leaving us with no representation in the City Council until November. The seat was vacated when our previous city councilor, Rafael J. Espinal, left the City Council to take a job as the executive director of the Freelancers Union back in January.

Queens, you have a borough president primary! If you want more information on the candidates, check out this voter guide from the Queens Daily Eagle. But also, I’m going to be that guy who plugs my own work. If you want more information about what local officials actually do, check out this voter guide I wrote back before the 2017 municipal election explaining how our city government is structured, and the roles of the various municipal offices – mayor, public advocate, comptroller, city councilor, and yes, borough president. It also includes a brief explanation of the job of the district attorney (which is the job your previous borough president moved on to), even though that’s not technically a municipal office.

Finally, if you’re feeling like this is all too complicated and local elections don’t really matter anyway, check out this rundown from City & State of all the police reform bills passed through the New York State legislature. At the time of this writing, Cuomo hasn’t quite signed all of them yet, but… NONE of them would have passed if not for the fact that we flipped the New York State Senate from Republican control to Democratic control back in 2018. LOCAL ELECTIONS MATTER, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Happy voting!


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