PULASKI, NY — In school, at least when I was a student, one of the first things you learn about American democracy is the importance of voting. The idea that citizens have the right to be self-governed was the cornerstone political belief of our founding fathers and the fact that we have the ability to choose our political leaders is as important today as it was at the time of our country’s founding. The good news is that, even today, when Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on much, I think members of both parties would agree that the legitimacy of government depends on a system of voting that is fair, accessible and incorruptible.
Last week, during the first week of the 2019-20 legislative session, the Democratic majorities in both houses rushed through a package of election law bills that will fundamentally change voting rules in NYS. Time will tell whether these changes will end up benefiting one party over another or whether they will increase voter turnout or make voting more accessible as some of their sponsors contend. In the end, I voted against most of the bills for a variety of reasons and not necessarily always having to do with the bill’s impact on voting. The following is a discussion of one of the bills that will have a significant impact on the election calendar.
For a variety of reasons, in New York state we have had two dates for primary elections. Primary elections for federal offices were held in June and primary elections for state offices were held in September. Having two different primary elections dates is not ideal because it is confusing for voters and is an expensive mandate on localities who have to pay twice for hiring the poll workers, printing ballots, maintaining voting machine and other costs associated with conducting elections.
While there has been agreement that the primary dates should be consolidated, there has been disagreement over when that consolidated primary date should be. Most upstate and suburban legislators believe that the date should be in August, while NYC legislators preferred the June date. The bill passed last week by the Democratic majorities in both the Assembly and Senate sets the date for the 4th Tuesday in June.
While having primary election day in June is not in itself a problem, it is the work that goes into getting candidates on the ballot and the campaigning that has to take place before the primary date that makes the June primary date in my mind problematic. As anyone who has run for office knows, in order to be on the ballot, a candidate and/or his or her supporters needs to pass petitions collecting a certain amount of signatures depending on the office the candidate is seeking. For example, to get on the ballot for the Assembly, a candidate needs to collect a minimum of 500 signatures. These signatures can only be collected during a set period of time prior to the primary date. Having a June primary date will mean that candidates will start running in February and will have to collect signatures to get on the ballot mostly during the month of March. As any Upstater knows, getting out and about to collect signatures in the month of March will be difficult because of the limited amount of daylight and the likelihood of snow or slush. If the primary had been set for August, the period to get signatures would be in May when the weather is better and there is more daylight. Further, the state legislative calendar usually runs from January to June. If a state legislator is primaried they will have to make the decision of being in their district campaigning or being in Albany governing. Hopefully, they would choose governing because that’s what their constituents sent them to Albany to do. However, there will be strong motivation for a legislator to campaign if they think their seat is in jeopardy. If the primary date was in August, this issue would go away.
Other election law bills that passed last week include bills that allow for same-day registration of voters, early voting and pre-registration for 16 and 17 year-olds. Due to lack of space, I am unable to explain the issues with these bills however if you have any questions or comments about these bills or any other state issue, please contact my office by mail at 200 North Second Street, Fulton, New York 13069, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling (315) 598-5185.