Almost as soon as former vice president Joe Biden was left as the only candidate still running in the Democratic primary, the celebration that typically follows a nomination victory was replaced by panic among Democrats and the liberal press: Would the party unify? Would Bernie Sanders supporters get behind Biden? Three weeks later, New York Democrats have effectively canceled the state’s Democratic primary, angering Sanders supporters and deepening the party rift Biden backers fear may hurt his chances in November.
When Sanders officially suspended his campaign on April 8, he made clear he would stay on the ballot in upcoming primary contests to accrue delegates and wield some influence over the party platform and rules come convention time. But before the month was even over, New York lawmakers slipped a provision into the state’s budget bill paving the way for the New York State Board of Elections’ unanimous vote last Monday to remove Sanders from the ballot. Co-chair Douglas Kellner called the primary “a beauty contest” that is “unnecessary and frivolous,” and cited health concerns around voting during a pandemic.
The decision elicited outrage from top Sanders advisers like Nina Turner, who charged it had a “chilling effect on democracy,” and Jeff Weaver, who called it a “blow to American democracy.” But it’s also infuriated rank-and-file Sanders backers, who told Jacobin they feel disrespected, silenced, and believe the decision will make the mission of defeating Trump in November more difficult.
Joseph Henderson was a Sanders delegate for New York’s 21st district, a rural area in the northern part of the state bordering Vermont. He estimates he spent hundreds of hours over the holidays driving around, organizing events, and gathering signatures in the dead of winter to be on the ballot, all of which has now been for naught.
“For a party that calls themselves the Democratic Party, they really don’t care for actual democracy,” he says.
Diana Klementowski first got involved in politics in 2000 because she “despised George W. Bush so much.” She supported Sanders in 2016 before campaigning for Hillary Clinton in Ohio for the general election, and decided to become a delegate this year.
“I did a lot,” she says. “As soon as you could start collecting petition signatures, I literally ran out the door, went to my car, drove down the road and started petitioning. I was darn determined.”
Klementowski says she spent three to four hours a day nearly every day for weeks collecting signatures, gathering more than 150 of the 500 her group of five needed. Apologizing at one point for using the word “damn” in describing her reaction to the latest news, Klementowski clearly found it difficult to hold back a sense of betrayal.
“They’re the only stupid state to do this,” she says. “I’m very, very, very angry.”
It was much the same for Toni Kennedy, a registered nurse and Democratic member of the Potsdam town council who was inspired to enter politics by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Kennedy, too, went door-to-door in the bitter cold of January gathering signatures to get on the ballot as a Sanders delegate.
“New York is one of the hardest states in the country to get on the ballot for,” she says. “So when you put a lot of work into getting on the ballot and you do everything you’re supposed to do, to just be removed without any say or consideration, it’s very undemocratic.”
Confirming the Worst Suspicions
It isn’t just potential delegates who feel let down. Zohar Gitlis, thirty-two, Henderson’s neighbor and a volunteer for the Sanders campaign, comes from a Democratic voting family and says she’s held a “pretty go with the flow, loyal Democratic mindset” for her entire voting life. After supporting Sanders in 2016, she door-knocked for Clinton that October due to her concern over Trump being elected. This year, she believes she spent somewhere close to ten hours a week on the campaign for a month and a half, including gathering signatures for ballot access phone-banking, and volunteering in New Hampshire.
“I did a door-to-door during a snowstorm one Saturday afternoon, asking for signatures,” she recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘This is great, ‘cause so many people are at home.’ But I definitely got a lot of ‘I can’t believe you’re out right now.’”
For Gitlis, the decision to cancel the primary has made it hard to envision eventually having one-on-one conversations with voters for the Biden campaign.
“I’m feeling more alienated than ever by the Democratic establishment, more completely taken for granted and disrespected,” she says. “This news definitely ignited that feeling, more than any of the other outrageous things that have happened in this election cycle, ‘cause I guess it was personal, ‘cause I’d gathered signatures.”
“It’s a slap in the face,” says Jay Bellanca, upstate co-chair of the New York Progressive Action Network, an affiliate of the Sanders-backed Our Revolution. Bellanca, who first got involved in politics working for Kirsten Gillibrand’s 2006 Congressional campaign, says the cancellation is already undermining party unity going into November.
“I’ve tried to bridge the gap between the Bernie people and the establishment, and every time, it just makes it so difficult when they do things like this,” he says. “The ‘DemExit’ thing has picked up steam again.”
It was a sentiment repeated again and again by Sanders supporters, who, while personally committed to defeating Trump in November, now fear it will be much harder to get others on board. Several recounted similar feelings among others in their social networks: that they were angry, feel the decision confirms their worst suspicions about the party, and that they can’t bring themselves to go the extra mile to elect Biden come November — some may even vote third party.
“I know a lot of people who have voted blue every election of their lives and knocked on doors for plenty of candidates they don’t like who are feeling particularly uninspired to do that this cycle,” says Gitlis.
“You’ve now caused the disunity that Trump would only dream of,” says Larry Cohen, Our Revolution board chair. “Those of us who are committed to beating Trump and electing Joe Biden president, this makes it harder.”
Others see more far-reaching consequences in the cancellation, with many Democratic voters fearing that Trump will use the pandemic as justification to cancel the election in November.
“New York has provided a precedent for this,” says Kennedy. “It only makes it easier for Trump to do it, to say he’s only doing what blue states have done.”
As it stands, the decision to cancel on the basis of health concerns makes little sense. For one thing, Cuomo has already pledged to give all registered voters the ability to vote absentee. And even with the cancelation of the presidential primary, most of the state’s residents will still be voting in June in an array of down-ballot races anyway.
The decision is also difficult to square with the party’s resistance toward earlier calls to delay primaries over the risk of magnifying the pandemic’s spread add suppressing voting. Illinois governor and Biden supporter J. B. Pritzker ignored the Chicago Board of Elections request to delay the state’s primary despite having urged people to stay home just days earlier, while Ohio’s Democratic Party challenged its Republican governor’s decision to postpone his, and the Democratic National Committee threatened states with losing delegates if they delayed their primaries too far in the future.
Meanwhile, Biden campaign staff and Biden himself repeatedly misinformed voters that it was safe to vote in person, arguing that elections were held during the Civil War and 1918 influenza, and reportedly insisting against delaying Wisconsin’s primary. Coronavirus cases and deaths have since been traced to all those elections.
It’s all left a sour taste in the mouths of supporters of Sanders, who, despite his loss, make up a significant chunk of the Democratic base, particularly its younger cohort. Biden is currently struggling with younger voters, a key part of Obama’s winning coalition, and who have been frustrated at Biden’s refusal to embrace elements of Sanders’s agenda. For them, the cancellation of New York’s primary seems just further proof that the party, for all its demands for unity, is bent on proving it can win without them.
“If they cut progressives out, I hope they don’t blame us if Biden loses the election,” says Kennedy.