State Election Reforms Spur Local Political Parties to Action

Voting booths at Pierson Middle-High School. file photo

Friends and neighbors of candidates for local town office in East Hampton and Southampton will begin getting knocks on their doors to sign nominating petitions starting February 26, far ahead of the usual summer-into-fall timeframe that applied before this year.

That’s because a package of election reforms passed this year by the New York State Legislature and signed by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo on January 24 has consolidated all primary elections — federal, state and local — to the fourth Tuesday in June, the 24th. That means local political committees, regardless of affiliation, must now file nominating petitions by April 4 instead of in July.

“All committees, I imagine, are doing the same thing we are — needing to pick candidates immediately,” Cate Rogers, the chairwoman of the East Hampton Democratic Committee, said in a recent phone interview. “I am thrilled about the election reforms. While they made them effective this year, which made us have to move quickly, I’m very happy about it for our voter base.”

Party officials said the consolidation of primary elections will help reduce “voter fatigue,” caused by repeated calls to voters to turn out for multiple elections before the general election in November.

Manny Vilar, the chairman of the East Hampton Republican Committee, agreed that the changes are positive.

“I think it will make it easier for people to vote, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “Democracy works best when you have participation.”

However, Mr. Vilar — who was chosen by his Republican peers in December as Amos Goodman’s successor in the wake of an investigation into the alleged validity of signatures on petitions filed by Mr. Goodman last year — also said he wished the state’s election reforms did not go into effect so soon.

“It would have been nice if we had a few months to get ourselves organized and configured the way I would have liked it, because every chairman has their own view,” said Mr. Vilar, who has run for town board and supervisor posts in East Hampton. “That said, we’re fortunate. We have some really, really good committee members, and we have a tremendous amount of interest in this election cycle and in the party itself, so I think we’ll be fine. We’ll have a bang-up ticket and we’ll get a couple of seats and get the majority back.”

In addition to the consolidation of primary election dates, the state also established early voting rules. Now, during a nine-day period before any general, primary, run-off primary or special election, polling places are required to be open for eight hours on weekdays and five hours on weekends and holidays, with evening hours on at least two of those days.

County boards of election must now automatically transfer voter enrollment when a resident moves from one county to another. Additionally, “pre-registration” has been established to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to sign up to become automatically placed on voter rolls when they turn 18.

“The whole idea of election reform was to facilitate making it easier for people to vote,” Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said this week. “New York State, because of some of the arcane election laws we had, had some of the lowest voter turnout in the country. We’d fallen behind. These are things that will make it easier for people to vote.”

A prospective reform is a new “no questions asked” policy for those wishing to receive an absentee ballot. Currently, only those who expected to be away from their home county on the day of the election, or who were ill or disabled, may receive an absentee ballot. The new rule, a proposed amendment to the state constitution, would allow anyone who wants to vote by absentee ballot to do so. This change, passed by the legislature in January, must be passed again in a second consecutive legislative session and then go before New York State voters in a referendum.

The state legislature also passed a constitutional amendment to allow same-day voter registration, a practice already in place in 17 other states and in Washington, D.C., and to remove the provision mandating that voters register at least 10 days before an election. This, too, must be passed during a second legislative session and go before voters in a referendum.

The legislature also passed a reform that has taken effect that Mr. Thiele dubbed “closing the LLC loophole.” It extends the $5,000 campaign contribution limit for corporations to also include limited liability corporations — which were previously treated as individual donors — and requires the disclosure of individuals with special interests. That was a loophole, Mr. Thiele said, that made it hard to determine the identities of actual donors and allowed campaign finance limits to be evaded.

“Money is part of politics,” he said. “If there’s going to be money involved, there also needs to be transparency.” The new rules “will help limit the influence of money.”

In Southampton Town, Gordon Herr, who chairs the local Democratic committee, agreed with his East Hampton counterpart that the election reforms “are all good” but that they have had the effect of “accelerating everything.” His committee has also been vigorously screening candidates leading up to its nominating convention on Wednesday.

“We have to get candidates earlier,” Mr. Herr said. “We’re lucky in that we are the major party in the town and people want to run on our line. We have lots of people who have been calling us. It’s been productive. We have more candidates than offices that are available, so that’s good. It’s just a bit rushed, is all.”

Mr. Herr’s Republican counterpart, David Betts, said the Southampton Town GOP “is ahead of the game.” Ultimately, he said, the earlier primary will give them more campaign time.

“I wasn’t waiting until May to start looking for candidates,” he said this week. “We’ve been looking since last July. We’re on board, we have a couple of screenings coming up. We have a convention on the 20th and we’ll have a full slate. The acceleration of the timeline is just an administrative thing, and is not a big deal for us.”

He also agreed the reforms are positive. “The easier it becomes to vote, I think that people will take more interest in it. It’s less cumbersome,” he said.

Representatives of the local Independence Party could not be reached for comment.

The East Hampton Democratic Committee has been holding candidate screenings over the last few weeks; among those who have asked to be screened are three sitting town board members whose terms are up this year, Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc, Councilwoman Sylvia Overby and Councilman David Lys. The committee’s nominating convention will be on February 13.

The East Hampton Republican Committee on Monday announced it will begin screening candidates for town offices on Saturday and Sunday at the American Legion Hall in Amagansett from 2 to 4 p.m. both days. The East Hampton GOP nominating convention will be on February 15.