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New York State’s voting laws hurt anti-establishment candidates

Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have ridden waves of anti-establishment populism to polling numbers that few analysts would have predicted a few months ago. But worry not – the establishments of both the Democratic and Republican parties still have a few tricks up their sleeves. Among these are state voting laws, such as those in New York, that will successfully stifle voter turnout for both of these atypical presidential candidates.

This is possible because New York State has closed primaries, meaning that people can vote only for a member of the party in which they are enrolled in the primary elections. This seems fair; indeed, 11 states operate with closed primaries. But while other states with closed primaries have party enrollment change deadlines of 29 days before the primary (Florida), or 55 days before the primary (New Jersey), New York stands out with its deadline of a whopping 193 days before the primary election on April 19, 2016.

According to public records, there are over 2.75 million non-Republican, non-Democratic voters in New York State. The majority of these are non-affiliated voters (2.2 million) and Independents (430,000). It is completely reasonable to think that of these non-affiliated voters, some will be wooed and won over by Trump’s promise to “make America great again.” It’s also completely reasonable to think that some of the 430,000 Independents will want to vote for Sanders, the Independent senator from Vermont who is running on the Democratic ticket. As a matter of fact, in such an unconventional election, it’s likely that even some Republicans and Democrats will want to switch parties.

Here’s the good news: These voters still have time – the deadline is not until Oct. 9. Here’s the bad news: Of those nearly 3 million voters, few will have the opportunity to switch their enrollments to their new party of preference by the deadline.

There are a few reasons that hundreds of thousands of New York State voters won’t switch their party affiliations in time.

First, the deadline to switch one’s party enrollment to vote for the candidate of their choice in the primaries is a preposterous 396 days before the general election. In order for these voters to switch their party enrollments to vote for the candidate of their choice for the 2016 presidential elections in the New York State primaries, they will have to have picked that candidate 13 months before the election.

Many voters won’t be introduced or make up their minds on either of the Democratic candidates until after the first debate. By then, it will be too late. The first Democratic debate (many Americans’ first glimpse of Sanders on the issues) will be held on Oct. 13, four days after the party change deadline. Should Vice President Biden jump in the race in mid-October, these voters will be forbidden from voting for him.

But even more troubling than the absurdly early party change deadline is the way the New York State Board of Elections has gone about publicizing this information: by not mentioning it anywhere on its website, at all. Indeed, even if people know that there is a voter deadline and look to the board’s website for a date, they will find the information neither on the party enrollment change section of the site, nor on the voter registration deadlines page, which has dates only for the 2015 elections in New York. Indeed not only is the information omitted, but given that other voter registration deadlines are listed, voters may be fooled into thinking that the deadline is so far away that they need not worry about it. Wrong.

To come across this information, unaffiliated and Independent voters would have to chance upon page 160 of New York State’s 818-page 2015 Election Law document. Or they would have to call or email the Board of Elections. Some will, but most won’t. That’s because for many of these voters, the deadline is an unknown unknown. The deadline is so thoroughly omitted from the website that by the time voters are aware of the deadline, it will be long gone.

Given the layout of both the Republican and Democratic fields, this benefits establishment candidates such as Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, who would likely have attracted few of the 2.75 million non-Republican and non-Democratic voters. Sanders, himself an Independent, and Trump, who flirts with positions from across the spectrum, meanwhile, will be hurt by this deadline. The establishments win, and challengers to the establishment lose.

These may not be your candidates, but this is your democracy. The state Board of Elections should act immediately to contact the nearly 3 million voters that this deadline impacts, and to change the content of its website to clearly reflect all pertinent deadlines. The State Legislature should then act to substantially alter these outrageous deadlines for future elections. Voting is, after all, a right and responsibility of U.S. citizens, and a hallmark of democracy itself.

Peter Ryan, a U.S. Air Force veteran, is currently studying political science at Columbia University with a focus on American politics. He is a grass-roots volunteer for Bernie Sanders.