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New York is the first state to cancel a presidential primary over coronavirus concerns

New York has canceled its June 23 presidential primary, but congressional and state primaries will continue.

Voters cast their ballots during the 2018 midterm elections at the Tribeca Independence Primary School polling station in Manhattan.
Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

New York state has canceled its June 23 Democratic presidential primary, becoming the first state to do so over concerns about the coronavirus.

The decision came after a Monday vote by commissioners on the New York State Board of Elections. The decision will not impact primaries for congressional, state-level, and local races, which will be held the same day and largely conducted through absentee ballot.

With more than 288,045 confirmed coronavirus cases and 22,000 deaths, New York is the state hardest hit by the virus in the US. Already, the state had postponed its primary from April 28 to late June. Many other states have postponed their contests, but New York is the first to cancel its primary outright.

Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) firmly opposed canceling the primary. Even though Sanders recently suspended his bid for the Democratic nomination and endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden, he stood the chance to amass delegates from the primary — which could give him more leverage over the party’s platform and rules at the Democratic National Convention. New York has a large cache of delegates; 274 delegates were up for grabs.

The cancellation could hamper Sanders’s influence at the convention and add to existing distrust of the Democratic Party and its institutions from some of his supporters. Sanders’ campaign and groups supporting him put out statements Monday afternoon blasting the decision.

“Today’s decision by the State of New York Board of Elections is an outrage, a blow to American democracy, and must be overturned by the DNC,” said Sanders’ campaign senior advisor Jeff Weaver. “Give that the primary is months away, the proper response must be to make the election safe — such as going to all vote by mail — rather than eliminating people’s right to vote completely.”

The New York Board of Elections officials ultimately decided that with Biden already the presumptive Democratic nominee, the public health risks of holding an election outweighed the benefits of it continuing, according to the New York Times.

“What the Sanders campaign wanted is essentially a beauty contest that, given the situation with the public health emergency, seems to be unnecessary and, indeed, frivolous,” the board’s Democratic co-chair, Douglas Kellner, told the Times.

The Times reported the presidential primary was the only race on the ballot for about 20 counties in the state, meaning they now will have no election at all — and poll workers and voters in those counties can stay home.

States are pushing back their elections and expanding absentee ballots

No other state besides New York has yet canceled a primary election outright, but many are having to rethink how they hold elections in the midst of a pandemic.

Wisconsin has been the only state so far to proceed with an in-person election during the height of the outbreak in the US, causing an outcry from voters and voting rights advocates alike. Several dozen cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, have been linked to the state’s April 7 election, according to public health officials.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order on April 24 requiring the state board of elections to mail every New York resident an application for an absentee ballot, along with paid postage.

In addition to New York, 15 other states and Puerto Rico have pushed back the dates of their elections or switched to a vote-by-mail system with an extended deadline to get ballots in: Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Getting states more federal money to expand vote-by-mail ahead of November is one of the agenda items for Democrats in the next round of negotiations for a coronavirus relief package. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has suggested she’d like to see about $4 billion dedicated to vote-by-mail efforts.

Update: This post was updated with a statement from the Sanders campaign.