Primary Voters Hold The Keys to The Kingdom

Edward C. Sullivan served in the New York State Assembly from 1977 to 2002.
Monday, February 25th, 2013

As we and other local media begin to focus sharply on this November’s municipal elections, New York Civic will bring you opinions and observations about various aspects of the election process. Contributors, including scholars, legislators and researchers, will offer essays and research material for further analysis and discussion by our readers.

The first of these articles comes from one of our regular contributors, former state Assemblyman, Edward C. Sullivan. Here, he explains the significance of primary voters in New York City, the importance campaigns place on this group and the influence they have on candidates and incumbent officeholders.


In the struggle to be elected to public office in New York City, the most important people to know are the primary voters in each party.

The primary voters are those who vote frequently in the Primary Elections, usually elections held in September to choose the nominees for the General Elections, held in November.

Since the Big Apple is pretty much a one party city, except in mayoral races, candidates who win the nomination in the Democratic Primary, in most legislative districts in the city, win the General Election.

Of New York City’s 51 Council seats, 81 seats in the State Legislature and 12 seats in Congress – 144 seats in all – the winners in well over 90% of the district contests are really decided in the Democratic Primaries rather than in the General Elections.

Therefore, the primary voters are important persons in the political lives of most New York City politicians. Any candidate for public office must know who the primary voters are and what issues concern them.

It’s easy to get a list of primary voters from the Board of Elections. That list is public information. With the list, the candidate can make their own list of the primary voters in a large building in the district, for example, and then go door to door within the building, knocking only on the doors of primary voters. There is no need to waste time chatting with people who ineligible to going to vote in the Democratic Primary anyway.

Similarly, campaign literature can be mailed only to primary voters, so that the candidate doesn’t waste time and postage mailing to non-primary voters.

In the elections for New York City public offices, where campaign expenditures are limited by law -- exempting Michael Bloomberg, of course -- this frugality of effort and money is important, and could make a big difference toward the end of the campaign. One candidate is physically exhausted and out of money; the other still has stamina because door to door campaigning was focused on primary voters, and postage money is still available because mailings were only sent to primary voters.

It is clearly better to be the latter of those two candidates, and dealing with primary voters is the key.

This week, somewhere the big city, there is a group of reformers meeting to discuss how angry they are at the failure of the Democratic Party to reform its procedures so that ordinary citizens can have some kind of impact on the process of governing. They are so mad that they are going to register as independent voters. That’s how mad they are.

But that is not a smart thing to do. That is the way to have no impact at all. The way to have impact is to register as Democrats and then vote in the Primary Election next September. Better than that, run a candidate in the Primary. Better than that, run yourself in the Primary.

There are religious leaders in New York who monitor the Primary votes of members of their congregation – not how they voted, but if they voted. At worship on the weekend after the Primary Election, they publicly chastise those who failed to vote and ask for an explanation. With this kind of organized pressure to vote in the Primary, they can tell the politicians they are lobbying: “Here is a list of my congregation members. You will note by the check marks how many of them voted on Primary Day. Now, here is what we want.”

It works. Politicians will pay careful attention to the leader of a congregation that organizes itself into a bloc of primary voters.



At worship on the weekend

At worship on the weekend after the Primary Election, they publicly chastise those who failed to vote and ask for an explanation. With this kind of organized pressure to vote in the Primary.

The upcoming mayoral election

I would like to congratulate NYCivic and Henry Stern on taking a stand against the NYU expansion plan. I really hope the courts do the right thing and allow for the next steps to be taken so State Assemblywoman Deborah Glick can knock this plan out. The City Council was wrong to approve of the building on park lands. I'm very disappointed that a largely Democratic body voted almost unanimously for it. And now that I know where to get a list of primary voters I think I will start my own 'Anyone but Christy Quinn for Mayor' campaign! I look forward to future articles about the election process. This is something we don't talk enough about.

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