What Is The Democratic State Convention?

The Democratic State Convention is similar to the Democratic National Convention, which occurs during presidential election years – but this is just for New York. For decades, the State Democratic Party conducted nearly all of its official business during these conventions, including determining who would be the Democratic nominee for statewide offices. If you go on NYTimes.com and search the archives for the term “Democratic State Convention,” you’ll find articles going as far back as 1865! Thanks to inventions like the telephone and the Internet, the party is no longer reliant on gathering all members of the Democratic State Committee together in one place to conduct its business. But the convention still plays a central role in Democratic politics – particularly for aspiring candidates.

The delegates for this convention will have a busy several days passing resolutions for the governance of the party on matters ranging from establishing rules to endorsing policies, listening to speeches from prospective candidates, and finally voting to nominate Democratic candidates for the statewide offices of Governor, Comptroller, and Attorney General, and the federal offices of United States Senator. A candidate is not the official Democratic nominee just because he or she wins the vote at the convention. Any candidate who receives 25% of the votes at the convention will still be a candidate in the Democratic primary on September 14. A particularly determined candidate can also go through the petition process to have his or her name added to the ballot. But there is no doubt a strong showing at the convention bodes well for the organizing skill of a campaign.

How Many Registered Democrats Are On The Upper West Side?

At first glance, this seems like an easy question to answer. After all, the New York State and New York City Board of Elections regularly publish statistics on who is registered to vote. But looking more closely into it, the real question becomes how we define the Upper West Side. After all, many elected officials’ districts only contain a piece of the Upper West Side, and it’s not like the Boards of Elections list whether a particular Democrat shops at Zabar’s or Fairway.

As of last November, the 6th City Council District, represented by Gale Brewer contains 75,113 active registered Democrats, out of a total active voter list of 109,703 (68% Democrats). But that seems too low, since Council Members Inez Dickens and Melissa Mark-Viverito also represent portions of our neighborhood. We can’t go by Congressional district, unless we want to start claiming such landmarks as Wall Street, Times Square, and the Brooklyn Bridge as “Upper West Side by proxy,” since they’re represented by consummate Upper West Sider Jerry Nadler.

The 67th Assembly District, represented by Linda Rosenthal, has 59,366 active registered Democrats out of a total of 87,354 active voters (also 68% Democrats.) Add to that the 61,390 active registered Democrats in the 69th Assembly District (a phenomenal 77% Democrats), represented by Danny O’Donnell, and you get 120,756 as the best approximation.

Of course, some would say the real test of a Democrat is not whether they register but whether they come out and vote… and vote for Democrats! The 67th and 69th Assembly Districts combined for 107,892 votes for the Obama-Biden ticket on the Democratic line in 2008 – not too shabby! In 2010, 55,602 Upper West Siders cast their ballot for Andrew Cuomo for Governor. But in 2009, only 19,560 Upper West Siders pulled a lever for Bill Thompson for Mayor.

The moral of the story: we may be doing great in registration, but it’s up to us to turn those potential voters into solid, Democratic votes come Election Day!

Why Do We Hold Primaries?

The primary elections are when a club like Community Free Democrats is often busiest, working to get out the vote for the candidates we endorsed. Certainly, primaries are great political theater. The presidential contest in 2008 was nothing short of epic, and every progressive New Yorker has their own story of hardscrabble election contests fought on the streets of New York to make sure the best possible Democrat found their way onto the ballot to face off against the Republican. It may seem surprising, then, that year after year we read stories about voter turnout for primaries declining. It might also be surprising – and confusing – to hear talk of considering “non-partisan primaries” considered by the New York City Charter Commission.

So let’s get back to basics – why do we have primaries in the first place?

In the 1880s, New York State instituted a major reform to allow any candidate who gathered the requisite signatures on a petition to be on the ballot, alongside candidates who were nominated by a major party. This reform helped ensure a candidate could take their case directly to the people and sidestep the shady deals required to deal with Tammany Hall and other patronage machines. But problems remained. For one thing, the reforms in New York did not spread to all the states. For another, the Democratic candidate might be a true champion on the party’s issues, or else might be a stooge for Tammany Hall while the true liberal Democrat was campaigning without his party’s label.

In the period of 1908-1912, holding direct elections for nominees of a party – the primary system we know today – became one of the chief reform aims of politicians in the progressive movement. The idea was that the more you allowed direct participation with voters, the better the defense against corruption and cronyism. Keep in mind that “progressive” in those days didn’t automatically translate to “Democrat.” The most famous progressive at the time was President Theodore Roosevelt – a Republican – and in the three-way race for president in 1912, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Republican William Howard Taft, and “Progressive Party” Theodore Roosevelt all embraced progressive election reforms to one extent or another. The goal was to give reformers – those most likely to be on the outs with the political machines – a fighting chance not only to be their party’s nominee, but to drag the party along with them towards the future of more direct democracy for America.

With this history, it’s no wonder primary elections are where upstart challengers still have a fighting chance to establish their credentials and force a debate on the Democratic Party’s priorities and principles. Without a primary in New York, Ed Koch might have been Governor instead of Mario Cuomo. Without a primary in West Virginia in 1960, John F. Kennedy might have never convinced Democrats he could win an election despite anti-Catholic bigotry. So as we approach September 14, and you’re talking with one of the folks who sit out the primary thinking their vote won’t matter – you can tell them that one vote has, can, and will continue to make a difference in choosing the Democrats we want representing us come November!

Why Petition?

June can mean that first day at the beach, the roar of a crowd at a baseball game, the swelter of an onslaught of humidity, or the joy of the last day of school. But for stalwart Democrats, June usually means one thing: petition season is here! But why do we petition to get our candidates on the ballot in New York State?

The political scene in 1880 was dominated by the legendary political machine of Tammany Hall and marked by some outrageous scandals, both of which called into question the fairness and validity of elections. Prompted by the scandals, New York instituted two major reforms.

The first was the use of the so-called “Australian ballot,” a uniform paper ballot provided at public expense with all the candidates listed and designed to avoid bias and any possibility that someone could figure out how a particular voter had cast his (and at the time, it was regrettably just “his”) ballot.

The second allowed two different ways for a candidate to be put on the ballot: be nominated by a political party, which had been the only option prior to this reform, or collect an adequate number of signatures of registered voters on a petition. This meant that a candidate without the backing of a machine could get onto the ballot by taking his or her case directly to the people.

That’s still the kernel of the system we have today. So remember that while you’re sweating in the sun at a street fair or mustering up the courage to engage your neighbor in a discussion about politics. You’re participating in a proud democratic (small “d”) tradition!

Statewide candidates for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, and Comptroller were put onto the ballot at the New York State Democratic Convention, but the other candidates whom CFD has endorsed must earn their spot on the ballot the old-fashioned way – and you’re a big part of that process! So come help out with our petitioning this summer.