hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues May 2024


Counties push back against election changes

Legal filings challenge New York shift to even-year voting


Participation gap

Turnout is sharply higher in New York’s even-year elections, which feature statewide and legislative races, than in odd-year elections that have only local contests. The figures
below show the number of votes cast in each year’s general election in area counties.

County                2020            2021            2022            2023
Columbia            35,793         22,126         29,957        20,858
Rensselaer         79,876         42,676        62,893        39,114
Saratoga            94,290          47,831        86,981        38,942
Warren                20,348        12,468        20,912         11,843
Washington         24,477        10,288        22,316          9,575

Source: County Boards of Elections


Contributing writer


At least six New York counties have gone to court in recent weeks to challenge a new state law that will require most local elections to be held in even-numbered years.

Supporters of the new law say it will increase voter participation in local elections by holding them at the same time as presidential and gubernatorial races, which normally attract much higher turnout. They argue the change will help to ensure that local officials represent a broader cross-section of the public.

“Every eligible New Yorker deserves the right to participate in the democratic process without unnecessary barriers,” Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul said a statement issued when she signed the legislation on Dec. 22.

But in court challenges filed in March and April, Rensselaer County and five others from around the state — Nassau, Rockland, Dutchess, Oneida and Onondaga — contend the new law was not properly enacted and violates home-rule protections in the state constitution.

“The Even Year Election Law is a blatant violation of Article IX of the New York State Constitution, which grants expansive home rule rights and powers to local governments, including the county,” Onondaga County claims in its challenge filed March 22 in state Supreme Court.

Among other objections, the counties say the new state law unconstitutionally usurps the authority of county charters. Around the state, 23 counties have charters that stipulate county elections must be held in odd-numbered years.

“The charter has been in place, at the voters’ behest, since 1967 and has guided generations of county leaders,” said Michael Polasek, assistant deputy majority leader of the Dutchess County Legislature, in a news release. “This episode serves as a frightening harbinger of a state government that blatantly disregards local control. If the state feels empowered to strike down one of the main pillars of our very foundational document, they will feel empowered to usurp local voters at every turn.”


Shifting the playing field?
Republicans, who have long dominated local elective offices in most upstate counties, have led opposition to the new law, and some see it as an effort by the heavily Democratic Legislature to further erode the GOP’s base of political power. In a statement issued after Hochul signed the legislation into law, state Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, dismissed the legislation’s promise of increased voter participation as “a total sham concocted to hide the Democrats’ goal of expanding one-party control to every level of government.”

The change could alter the political calculus in some local counties such as Columbia and Rensselaer, where Republicans still control the county governments despite population shifts in recent decades that have led to a Democratic edge in voter enrollment.

The new law mainly would affect races for town and county supervisors, county executives and county legislators. Mayors and other city officials, as well as county clerks, sheriffs and district attorneys, would continue to be elected in odd-numbered years unless supporters can win passage of a state constitutional amendment to change the election cycles of these offices.
In their court challenges, the counties contend the Legislature should have adopted the new law as a “special” or “general” law, which requires a two-thirds majority to pass, according to Democracy Docket, a website that reports on court cases related to elections.

Instead, the counties say, the even-year election law was adopted in the form of a law that applies to all counties, even though the five counties within New York City are exempt.
There is a possibility that the various counties’ court actions may be consolidated into a single legal challenge, according to Democracy Docket.

The New York State Association of Counties opposed the legislation when it was under consideration and continues to be skeptical of its premise.

Stephen Acquario, the association’s executive director, noted in a statement that the legislation “was enacted without any public hearings or local government input.” Counties opposed the new law “because it pre-empts our constitutional home rule authority to govern in the best interest of our communities, will mute local issues during national and statewide campaign years, will not reduce the costs of local elections, and may not prove to increase the number of votes for local races.”

The Association of Counties believes that “local voters should determine which years to hold local elections, not lawmakers in the state Capitol trying to fix a problem that did not exist in the first place,” Acquario added.


Transition to a new cycle
Under the new law, the change to even-year local elections will be phased in over the next four years for most town and county offices outside New York City. Elected positions with two-year terms would be on the ballot in 2025 for special one-time, one-year terms, and then would resume being filled for two-year terms beginning with the 2026 election.

Offices with four-year terms would be on the ballot in either 2025 or 2027 for special one-time, three-year terms.

The timing of elections would not be changed for offices that are not under state legislative control, such as judicial seats and elective positions in city governments. But Hochul has said she would support a constitutional amendment to change those elections to even years as well.
Numerous public interest groups supported the legislation, pointing to the higher turnout for elections held in even-numbered years.

“Robust, equitable turnout is a sign of a healthy democracy,” said Perry Grossman, director of the Voting Rights Project of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “By making it easier for all New Yorkers to participate in local elections, this law will not only increase the legitimacy of our state’s elections but bolster the accountability and responsiveness of our lawmakers. New Yorkers deserve representation that better reflects the will of the people.”

Betsy Gotbaum, executive director of Citizens Union, pointed to the low turnout in the November 2023 election as a sign of the need for change.

“Moving local elections to even-numbered years will engage more voters and make the electorate more representative of the population,” Gotbaum said in a news release.


Boosting voter participation
Warren County Democratic Chairwoman Lynne Boecher, who supports the change, pointed to the higher voter turnout figures in even-year elections.

“Getting someone out in a local election year is difficult,” Boecher said in a telephone interview. “I think consolidating it will make it easier for the voter.”

Hochul also pointed to turnout, noting that only 25 percent of the state’s voters cast ballots in 2021 — compared with 64 percent in 2020, the most recent presidential election year.
Figures from area counties show in a similar trend over the past two general elections:
• In Columbia County, 20,858 people voted in 2023, down from 29,957 in 2022.
• In Rensselaer County, 39,114 people voted in 2023, compared with 62,893 in 2022.
• In Saratoga County, 38,942 people voted in 2023 — less than half of the 86,981 who voted in 2022.
• In Warren County, 11,843 people voted in 2023 election, compared with d 20,912 in 2022.
• And in Washington County, 9,575 people voted in 2023, down from 22,316 in 2022.
But critics of the new law say turnout shouldn’t be the only consideration.

Warren County Republican Chairman Tim McNulty predicted local elections will get caught up in the partisanship and divisiveness of national politics.

“The local issues are going to become secondary to the state and national issues,” he said in a telephone interview.

McNulty, who also serves as a town councilman representing Queensbury’s 4th Ward, said the Queensbury Town Board passed a resolution opposing moving local elections to even-numbered years.

“Local candidates already have a hard time getting their issues out to the voters,” said Assemblyman Matt Simpson, R-Horicon, who voted against the legislation and, in early December, urged Hochul to veto it.

Running in the same year as state and national candidates will make that even more difficult, he said.

Moving local elections to even-numbered years also will make it more difficult for local and county candidates to raise campaign funds, becaue they’ll be competing with state and national candidates for the attention of local donors, he said.

But Boecher, the county Democratic chairwoman, countered that local elections already are influenced heavily by national partisanship.

“By consolidating these, there would be less confusion and more uniform design,” she said. “I think it would make it easier for the voters.”

The state Association of Counties contends the Legislature does not have the authority to move local elections to even-numbered years.

“Regardless of increased or decreased turnout, the legislation violates constitutionally protected home rule powers by pre-empting county charters, local laws, local referenda, and forcing short-term changes to the term of an elected official,” the organization stated in a resolution opposing the change.

The even-year election legislation passed the state Senate by a vote of 39-23, largely along party lines. Area state Sens. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, James Tedisco, R-Glenville, and Jake Ashby, R-Castleton, all voted against the legislation, while Sen. Michelle Hinchey, D-Saugerties, voted in favor.

The legislation passed the Assembly by a vote of 89-57. Area Assembly members Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, and John McDonald, D-Cohoes, split from the Democratic majority and voted against the legislation, as did Republican Assembly members Mary Beth Walsh of Ballston and Scott Bennett of Sand Lake. Assemblywoman Didi Barrett, D-Hudson, voted in favor.