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Five Elections -- For Whose Benefit?
Rochester, NY (February 16, 2012) -- It is hard enough to get Americans to vote in an election, much less five. But most New Yorkers will be asked to trudge to the polls five separate times in 2012, thanks, in part, to the dysfunction of our elected leaders. Under current plans being considered, New Yorkers will go to the polls on April 24th to vote in the Presidential primary (of course, it will largely be registered Republicans participating in that affair). In May, voters not residing in the “big five” school districts will vote on their local school budgets. On June 26th, there will likely be a primary solely for federal offices (US Senate and House). This unusual June primary was required by a change in federal law that makes New York’s traditional September primary inadequate for the new federal timing requirements. But New York nevertheless intends to hold its September primary for STATE offices (not subject to the federal law). And then, of course, there is the election in November.

Five separate elections. Five separate periods of campaign ads and mailers filling voters’ mailboxes. Five trips to the polls -- and for some people, not even the same polling place, since places are often consolidated in lower-turnout elections. Perhaps this is simply a vibrant democracy in action --or perhaps it is the result of politicians trying to have their cake and eat it too.

The June Primary
In an effort to protect the voting rights of Americans oversees, federal law now requires that states produce ballots for residents living abroad several weeks in advance of the November election. Because states generally need to build in time between the election and the printing of ballots (to account for possible recounts, certification, etc), the effective deadline for primaries under federal law is mid-summer. This precludes New York from holding its primary on its traditional September date. Applications for a waiver from the federal law were rejected: New York State will not get special treatment.

Logic would dictate that New York hold all its non-Presidential primaries on the same date -- presumably one that conforms to federal law. Some advocated for June 26th, but State Senate President Dean Skelos declared such a proposal “dead on arrival” in the State Senate. Why are some legislators opposed to holding a single primary for state and federal legislative offices? June happens to be a busy time for the state legislature. Keen to wrap up business before the Fourth of July, the month of June represents the home stretch of the legislative session as legislators hope to resolve the issues that have lingered. The last thing a legislator wants is to have a primary challenger roaming the streets of the district while the legislator is stuck in Albany, enduring the dysfunction New Yorkers have grown to abhor. It is the worst possible campaign situation for an incumbent legislator.

It increasingly appears that New York will split its legislative primaries: primaries for the US House and Senate will occur on the June 26th date while primaries for the State Assembly and Senate will occur on September 11th. Of course, candidates interested in seeking these offices still have to wait: district lines have not yet been approved by the state legislature.

Democracy in New York: The Elected Choose Their Voters
A previous Smugtown Beacon article described the proposed Assembly and Senate Districts for the Rochester area. Local incumbents would be strengthened under those plans -- a mild, but completely expected outrage when one permits legislators to draw their own district boundaries. What was less expected was the abominable 61st Senate District -- a territory that extends from the Buffalo suburbs eastward until it just nudges the western bank of the Genesee River.

The 61st has been opposed for two different, but legitimate reasons. Assemblyman David Gantt and others have observed that the district forces a significant section of the Rochester community (a predominantly African American part of it) into a district that will otherwise have a high percentage of rural and suburban whites. This district will clearly dilute the voting power of Rochester southwest residents and will also make it likely that their Senator lives just outside Buffalo rather than in their own community.

Additionally, the proposed 61st will include constituents dependent on SUNY Buffalo and on the University of Rochester. How will a State Senator justly represent both groups when they will likely compete with one another for state funds? With Rochester fresh off a loss in the first round of regional economic grants and the city still getting less support than Buffalo (per capita) from the state, this is not the best circumstance to experiment with cross-community legislative districts.

New York’s 1%: Challengers Who Defeat Incumbents
The result of New Yorkers five trips to the polls and the gerrymandered district lines is likely to be the continuation of a long-standing trend: the re-election of close to 99% of those state legislators who seek re-election. On top of these factors, this election year will bring a bitterly fought campaign for the presidency, as well as both houses of Congress (some of the potential House swing districts are right here in Western New York). Add to the mix the emergence of SuperPACs and the flood of money and attack ads they have unleashed and the election of 2012 could be one of the ugliest in the state’s history. Will voters relish the opportunity to make their voices heard over several different elections or will they instead grow weary of endless campaign after endless campaign, wondering why politics has to be so depressing?

Albany politicians will draw the lines and set the dates. The will also pay the consultants to develop the ads and the messages that determine the tone of this campaign. We already know how the lines and the dates appear to be shaping up -- is there still a chance they might run substantive, engaging campaigns?

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