New York's 'extremely unusual' primary process depresses voter turnout

When it comes to voting in New York's state and local primaries, the statement "I normally don't vote" applies to a great majority of millions of voting-age residents.

The turnout in 2016's state primaries topped out at around 11 percent, likely at least partially thanks to New York's tradition of holding federal, state, and presidential primaries on different days.

Holding federal and state primaries on two different days months apart as New York does is not common practice in this country.

"No, it's extremely unusual," said David Birdsell, the dean of Baruch College's School of Public Affairs.

More than two months after 89 percent of New Yorkers chose not to vote in the state's federal primary, Birdsell said he expects a similar lack of participation in the state and local primary election on September 13, which is not even a Tuesday.

"And who thinks about going to your polling place on a Thursday?" Birdsell said.

The primary decides the Democratic nominees for both governor and attorney general as well as other offices.

"We know that you have higher participation in elections when polling places are predictable, open during predictable hours, open on predictable days," Birdsell said, "and when you can get all your work done in primary voting on a single day."

New York violates all of those rules for a variety of reasons, contributing to some of the consistently lowest voter turnouts in the United States.

"Our state election laws are very badly out of date and very badly in need of reform," Birdsell said.

These scattered primaries may seem designed to benefit incumbents, but he said that isn't necessarily the strategy—although it does happen more often than not.

However, Birdsell argues that in an age of waning party power, thanks to social media, a perceived incumbent advantage may no longer hold true. Instead, the candidate best able to rally a base of supporters to venture out and cast their votes is favored.

"It almost certainly depresses turnout," Birdsell said. "It makes it hard even for people who are paying close attention to politics to know when the candidates they want to vote for are actually standing for office."