Colby Hamilton, Writer, WNYC News
Colby Hamilton is a general assignment reporter. He originally joined WNYC as a political blogger. He's a proud graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
It is a matter of fact: next year, New Yorkers will be going to the primary voting booth earlier than the September date than they’ve become accustomed to.
It is a matter of not if, but, specifically, when.
The man in whose hands our state’s primary date rests is Federal Judge Gary Sharpe. And from reports of the hearing he held last week, it doesn’t sound like he’s too excited with the task. Had New York State complied with a federal law that was meant to ensure military service members overseas were given enough time to vote, we wouldn’t be in this situation.
But we are, and Judge Share is currently collecting the final argumentsbefore making a ruling by December 27. In a number of documents provided to Judge Sharpe, stakeholders made their cases for the two different dates being pushed by Republicans and Democrats—an August primary or a June primary, respectively.
The Case for June
One of the documents, a letter from Speaker Sheldon Silveron behalf of the Assembly made waves earlier this week, made waves over the Speaker’s suggestion that the state could be headed for three primaries next year—President, Congress and New York State legislature:
The Assembly feels so strongly regarding the utter disruptiveness of an August primary that should this Court order one, we would then, as a last resort, be compelled to advocate for a separate state and local primary for September.
Silver, like most Democrats, is pushing Sharpe to approve a June primary. They argue that an August primary would result in unacceptably low voter turnout, as well a host of logistical issues. Besides, the thinking goes, New York had a June primary until 1974.
“The Assembly views a June primary as not only ensuring higher voter participation but also as the most effective way to ensure full and meaningful compliance with all aspects of the MOVE Act,” Silver said in his letter.
Election Officials Weigh In
The heads of the bipartisan New York State Election Commissioners’ Association appear to agree. In a declaration for the court, Laura Costello, a Madison County Democrat, and Jerry Eaton, a Jefferson County Republican, wrote from the point of view of those who “have the ultimate responsibility” for enacting whatever gets decided [see below].
“While an August Primary date may work on paper, experience has shown that a late primary will likely produce late primary certifications that would still preclude our ability to get our military and special federal voters their general election ballots in a timely fashion,” the statement said.
Costello and Eaton point to the problems raised by litigation by candidates and others over election results, as well as the complications of actually putting together a final ballot, as reason enough to choose a June primary to ensure compliance with the federal law. They also say the state could expect to pay an additional $50 million if a separate federal primary were imposed (with the traditional September primary still happening for state and local candidates).
While not arguing for a specific date, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office also suggested a June primary would make the most amount of sense.
“[T]here is a widely held view--among elected officials of both major political parties and public interests groups--that an August primary date could significantly disrupt election operations in a manner that could be avoided by holding the primary in June,” Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Dvorin wrote Judge Sharpe on December 6 [see below].
The Case for August
Senate Republicans are arguing against an August date, saying a June date means candidates circulating petitions to get on the ballot will be doing it at the end of the winter—not an ideal time to be standing outside for long periods of time. More importantly, though, Senate Republicans are concerned about holding a primary at the very tail-end of the legislative session.
“It is vital that the legislative session which finishes at the end of June be permitted to close in an orderly and productive manner,” the Senate Republicans said in a brief. “Members should not be forced, for no practical purpose, to have to weigh their elected responsibilities as members against the need for political presence in their districts. To that end a primary election, if any, should be held in August as opposed to June.”
There’s another reason an August date may be more likely: we’ve just started to run out of time. In reports from the hearing last week in Albany, Judge Sharpe seemed inclined to set a date in August. But according to Gerald Benjamin of SUNY New Paltz, all of this hand wringing may be for not.
Three Men In A Room
Benjamin noted that Judge Sharpe is uncomfortable with setting the date, preferring the state to take the matters into its own hands. If enough pressure is put on them, Benjamin believes they will.
“The judge is doing what Federal judges do, which is building sufficient pressure and credibility that he’ll get an outcome from the political branches,” Benjamin said.
He went on to speculate that Governor Andrew Cuomo, Speaker Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos likely made headway on the issue that’s overshadowing the primary date case: redistricting.
“In that closed room, the conversations were not limited to the income tax deal,” Benjamin said.
In this theory, the Three Men In A Room have already hammered out the framework for a compromise on redistricting—both to keep the Governor from having to veto whatever deal the lawmakers come to, as well as a date that both chambers can accept. Then, as they’ve shown themselves capable of doing, they will set their own date, before Judge Sharpe’s quasi-deadline of December 27.
“This triumvirate has demonstrated the ability to act fast, as you just saw,” Benjamin said.
They better work fast. They have ten days before a reluctant Judge Sharpe makes the decision for them.