In the hopes that it’s not over for Bernie Sanders, his local volunteers are watching Erie County election workers this week review the affidavit ballots that were filled out on primary day by voters whose status to vote was unclear.
On April 20, it looked as though Sanders had done surprisingly well the previous day against Hillary Clinton in upstate New York’s most populous county. While the Democratic Party machinery cranked up for the former secretary of state, she mustered a morning-after lead of around 700 votes, less than 1 percent of the more than 100,000 votes cast. While she did well in the City of Buffalo, she clearly lost to Sanders in the county’s suburbs.
Since then, Clinton has been pulling away, both in Erie County’s ongoing vote count and in the primary battle nationwide. She won four of the five Democratic primaries in states that voted Tuesday and appears more likely than ever to clinch the party’s presidential nomination. Sanders, meanwhile, laid off hundreds of paid campaign workers this week but vowed to stay in the race.
After the Erie County Board of Elections tallied absentee ballots in recent days, Clinton’s lead grew to about 2,000.
A half-dozen Sanders believers watched Thursday as county workers reviewed the “affidavit” ballots that were completed by voters whose registrations or party affiliations were unclear when they showed up at polling places April 19. The primary voters were invited to cast a ballot anyway, pending a later decision on whether the vote could be tallied.
The county Board of Elections is reviewing, one by one, the eligibility of some 7,500 affidavit ballots filed by voters or would-be voters who hoped to make their mark in New York’s Republican or Democratic presidential primary. That’s nine times the number of affidavits recorded in last year’s general election and thousands more than recorded in the presidential primaries of 2008, the last time there was no sitting president in the race.
Both Sanders and Republican candidate Donald Trump generated huge interest here, as they have across the country by challenging their party’s establishments. Both drew more than 10,000 people each to their Buffalo-area rallies and inspired independent voters not enrolled in a political party.
Team Sanders hope the affidavit ballots allow them to flip the results and give Erie County to the senator from Vermont, said local organizer Brian Nowak. But that is a long shot, and the benefits will not be huge, acknowledged Nowak and Peter A. Reese, a Buffalo lawyer who often rebels against Democratic Party headquarters and supports Sanders.
A Sanders flip of the 26th congressional district, which slices into Niagara County, would likely give him just one more delegate. And he already won the 27th district, which takes in the Buffalo suburbs and counties to the east.
Still, a Sanders victory in Erie County would create a symbolic victory over Clinton and the Democratic Party command.
“Of course, we are trying to change the result,’’ Nowak said. “But we just want more transparency in the process.’’
Even if they don’t take the 26th, the Sanders team is using the ongoing primary count as a platform from which to launch changes to New York’s complex election laws, especially the provisions that worked against Sanders.
Nowak and others in the Sanders camp long for the days when any voter, regardless of party affiliation, can select a primary to vote in. With his appeal to independent voters, Sanders does better in “open primary’’ states. Advocates for open primaries argue, among other things, that all voters bear the expense of party primaries, so all voters should be allowed to vote in a primary.
Short of opening the primary system, the Sanders team hopes that New York lawmakers undo the law that requires voters who wish to vote in a party primary to enroll in that party months in advance — at least 25 days before the prior general election. To vote in his year’s primaries, voters had to change their enrollments about six months ahead of time, or back in October.
State Sen. Timothy Kennedy and Assemblyman Sean Ryan, both Buffalo Democrats, have sponsored bills in their houses to let voters change parties 25 days after filing the paperwork, no matter the time of year.
“You would think that in a democracy that the right thing to do is to make it as easy as possible to vote,” Nowak said. “Why is it that we have some of the most restrictive election laws in the country?”
Some Sanders supporters put out a call on social media to demonstrate against the current system by gathering outside the Board of Elections headquarters on West Eagle Street as the affidavit review began Thursday morning. But Nowak said the protest was not called for by the Sanders contingent that arrived around 10 a.m. The demonstration did not materialize.