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New Yorkers troop to the polls, yet again

New York voters are once again trooping to the polls this week. In what can only be described as maddeningly confusing, primaries for some of New York’s representatives will be voted on through August 23rd, the first primaries held during August in New York’s modern political history.

In June, primaries were held for Democratic and Republican candidates for statewide offices – Governor, Lt. Governor, Comptroller, and Attorney General, as well as for candidates for the state Assembly. This go round includes primaries for candidates running for the state Senate and to represent New York in the Congressional House of Representatives.

New York runs “closed primaries,” meaning that only voters enrolled in a political party can vote for that party’s primary candidates. Traditionally, primaries are low turnout affairs and that was the case in June. Given that at least some New York Democrats and Republicans who voted in June will assume that they’re done, it is widely expected that turnout will be even lower for the August vote.

And for voters in the Hudson Valley, this August vote adds even more confusion. When Antonio Delgado resigned from the House of Representatives to become New York’s Lt. Governor, state law required a special election to replace him.

So voters in Congressional District 19, the seat that Delgado held, will choose a replacement for the remainder of his term, through the end of the calendar year. That vote also is going on this week and into August 23rd. The candidates for that race feature Democratic Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan running against Republican County Executive Marc Molinaro. As mentioned the winner fills in Delgado’s seat through the end of the calendar year.

But due to redistricting, that seat’s boundaries shifted. At the same time as Ryan and Molinaro are running against each other to fill the seat that is vacant for the rest of the year, they are both running in different districts to be their respective party’s nominees for this November’s general election. Ryan is running for the Democratic nomination for a full term in the new 18th District, which encompasses a swath of the Hudson Valley, while Molinaro is seeking a full tern in the new 19th, which stretches west to include the cities of Binghamton and Ithaca. (There is a special election for an open Congressional seat in the Rochester area as well.)

New Yorkers can’t be faulted for failing to keep this all straight. The question is why is this the case?

The reason for two sets of primaries is the result of legal decisions that upended New York’s defective redistricting process. Under the state Constitution, after the census is conducted every ten years, a Redistricting Commission is supposed to draw the new political boundaries to reflect changes in the state’s population. A new approach was designed and advanced by then-Governor Cuomo and approved by voters in 2014.

Yet, there was a fatal flaw in New York’s redistricting program: The Commission was made up of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats. Many predicted partisan gridlock and sure enough the Commission could not agree on the new maps.

Instead they advanced two sets of maps – one drawn by Democrats and one by Republicans. Under the Constitution, the Legislature is required to vote on the plan. If they reject the Commission’s proposal, the Commission must react by drawing a second set of maps for legislative approval. The equally-divided Commission failed to advance a second set of maps. So, the Legislature – as seemingly allowed under the Constitution, drew its own maps, approved them, and Governor Hochul signed them into law.

The state’s courts, however, ruled that action impermissible, meaning that the Legislature should have waited for the second set of maps – even if the Commission didn’t or couldn’t act.

The courts threw out the Senate and Congressional maps drawn by the Legislature and then had an outside expert redraw new ones and moved those primaries to August to account for the delays while the cases moved through the courts.

The system for replacing elected representatives who do not finish their terms also stems from the Cuomo era. During that time, Governor Cuomo would often hold special elections (replacing elected officials who no longer served) as part of a negotiated deal with lawmakers. There were times when then-Governor Cuomo failed to call a special election for months in order apparently to secure some agreement with the legislative leaders. Such delays left voters without representation in either Albany or Washington.

To respond to that tactic, legislation was ultimately approved that requires the governor to set the date for a special election within ten days of an elected official leaving office – such as Lt. Governor Delgado did.

Those Cuomo era changes – to redistricting and special elections – are the root causes of the confusing situation some voters find themselves in today.

In addition to the flawed ethics system, these election changes call out for reform when lawmakers return to Albany: a new redistricting system that relies on an independent non-partisan commission and a primary election system that encourages maximum turnout, not one that requires voters to go to the polls during the dog days of August.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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