New state election laws will make it easier for voters to cast their ballots. But life will get harder for prospective political challengers, party leaders and elections commissioners for upstate areas like Erie County.
A key change in the election law adopted this week by the New York State Legislature moves state primaries from September to June, to coincide with federal primaries. So everything else on the political calendar moves up, too, and that has prompted Erie County's party leaders to call emergency meetings on how to deal with sudden deadline crunches.
This year, more than 150 local town, city and county seats are up for election in Erie County.
Instead of prospective candidates waiting until the spring to declare their interest in running for office, they will have four weeks or less to decide on running, seek party backing and pull together a campaign team to begin circulating petitions by Feb. 26, the dead of winter. In addition, they'll have less time to gather and turn in the required signatures on their petitions.
"Until you’ve actually carried a petition in some rural areas, you don’t understand it," said Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas Langworthy. "This is a really arduous task. No consideration was given to upstate New York in this process. It is a greater burden for anyone running for office this year. Preparations that would normally take place over four to five months will now take place in five weeks."
It will be a significant burden for new candidates and also the political parties' volunteers.
"It’s a boon for incumbents because it puts a burden on any challenger and for the party to choose any challenger," said Republican Elections Commissioner Ralph Mohr.
And it isn't just the accelerated primary creating issues. So does early voting, another of the changes.
The county's two election commissioners have yet to figure out how to implement early voting for the general election in a way that doesn't expose them to potential voter fraud. Anyone who votes early must have their names struck from Election Day polling books to keep them from being able to vote again. But pulling together updated books for 837 polling districts in a day and a half seems nearly impossible at the moment, Mohr said.
The state has not yet certified the technology needed to make that happen, the commissioners said.
Then there's the unresolved matter of covering the costs of early voting.
"What we’re essentially doing is replacing one election day with eight," Mohr said.
Minority legislators Edward Rath III and Lynne Dixon said at Thursday's County Legislature meeting that the new election law could place an unfunded burden of up to $1 million on Erie County. Democratic Majority Leader April Baskin said that's a legitimate concern, but the benefits of immediately implementing the election law changes outweigh the drawbacks.
The Governor's Office contends the budget creates other local savings to offset local costs.
"The budget more than covers the cost of early voting by merging state and federal primaries to save counties $25 million and eliminating the internet tax advantage to ensure collection of sales taxes, delivering $390 million to local governments," said spokeswoman Dani Lever, in a statement.
The goal of the new election laws, which Gov. Cuomo is expected to sign, is to make it easier and more convenient for citizens to vote.
Among the key provisions that would take effect this year:
- End New York’s only-state-in-the-nation status with separate dates for federal and state primaries. The bill set for approval moves the state and congressional primaries to a single date in June.
- Require localities to open some polling sites 10 days before elections, including both weekends prior to Election Day in an effort to have New York join 34 other states that have early voting.
- Allow teens, starting at age 16, to preregister to vote, such as when they obtain their driver’s permit, so that they are automatically registered to vote when they turn 18.
The law also enacts business-related campaign finance reforms by limiting contributions from limited liability corporations. Other changes, such as allowing citizens to register to vote as late as Election Day, will require amendments to the state constitution and cannot occur within the next two years.
"I think what you’re seeing here is the will of people happening here," said Erie County Democratic Party Chairman and Elections Commissioner Jeremy Zellner. "None of this should be a real surprise to anybody because many people campaigned on this last year."
But he agrees that in terms of gearing up for elections this year, the pressure is on.
"We've got to get moving," he said.
Langworthy said many had been hopeful that the election law changes adopted this year would not go into effect until next year because there are no congressional races on the ballot and no reason why the September state primaries should be moved this year to align with the federal primary date in June.
He blamed New York City Democrats, who have comparatively few local races at stake this year, for rushing the timetable with complete disregard for the concerns of upstate and Western New York interests. He noted that some counties, like those in the Adirondacks where many residents are snowbirds, will be placed at an even greater disadvantage than Erie County, which has a mix of city, suburban and rural communities.
"This is all about the Democrats wanting to spike the football and wanting to put a win on the board," he said.
Zellner said anyone following last year's elections should have been able to see this coming and prepared accordingly.
"We're on it," he said, referring to new personnel hired by the party to get things organized quickly. "We'll be ready."
He acknowledged, however, that party leaders in towns, cities and villages are concerned about the favorable advantage given to incumbents in the current environment.
He added that the party anticipates completing endorsements for the Erie County Legislature, Buffalo Common Council and Buffalo comptroller's race by the second or third week in February.
James Battista, associate professor of political science at the University at Buffalo, said that while the immediate implementation of the new election laws may deter fence-sitters who are not committed to running, the rules changes should not keep any serious challengers from entering local and state races, though they may have to rely more on their parties for support.
"As a practical matter, if you are sufficiently on the fence that you're worried about having to get off your butt to get your petitions together, you’re probably not going to run," he said.