Staving off election chaos By MICHAEL BENJAMIN Last Updated: 12:43 AM, November 30, 2011 Election-year chaos looms, now that the Defense Department has declined to grant New York another waiver from the federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act.
The MOVE law requires the mailing of absentee ballots to overseas military personnel and other voters 45 days before the November general election. That means election officials must know who’s on the ballot by then — which means the primaries (and any recounts and legal challenges) must be over.
In practice, that means the primary must take place no later than Aug. 18 — yet New York’s been holding it in September for years.
Without a waiver from the law, it’s hard to see the state beating the US Justice Department’s lawsuit to force an early primary.
Predictably, the Board of Elections has suggested holding a separate congressional primary — on top of the presidential primary and the “normal” one for local offices in September. With the general election and school-budget votes in May, that makes for five “Election Days” — a profoundly bad and costly idea. (New York City just blew $17.2 million on an off-year general election that drew 150,000 voters.)
US District Judge Gary Sharpe has scheduled oral arguments for Dec. 12. But the Legislature shouldn’t wait; it should reconvene this month to pass legislation moving Primary Day (for all offices, except the presidential primary) to June, July or August.
Before 1974, we held party primaries in June. Good-government groups and Assembly Democrats favor a June primary, arguing that too many people are on vacation in the summer.
Senate Republicans have filed a court brief endorsing an August primary. That’s not as unreasonable as it seems, because of the unsettled redistricting landscape.
A redistricting plan might not be unveiled until January and enacted in February. So would-be candidates couldn’t start the petitioning process to get on the ballot until February —but would have to finish quickly to make a June primary, a scenario that gives a clear edge to incumbents.
Even meeting that time-frame requires the Legislature and Gov. Cuomo to agree on and enact a redistricting plan next month. Given Cuomo’s repeated vow to veto any “partisan” redistricting, that seems unlikely. And redistricting might yet get snarled in the state-budget battle.
There are other potential complications: The Justice Department has 60 days to review any plan for Voting Rights Act compliance, plus a group has filed a federal lawsuit asking the courts to assume control of the redistricting process.
Perhaps the Assembly and Senate can compromise on July?
This mess should open the door to important election-law reforms. Lowering the minimum number of petition signatures to 350 to qualify for an Assembly primary, 800 for the Senate and 1,000 for Congress would encourage challengers to run. Early voting, which has raised voter participation in Ohio, Florida and other states, also should be enacted.
Above all else, Cuomo and lawmakers need to get their priorities straight: Protecting the voting rights of all New Yorkers, including service members and others living abroad — not nonpartisan redistricting — is paramount in avoiding election-year chaos.
Michael Benjamin
Read a related article here.