No names on ballot in 2 Suffolk primaries

This May 3, 2010 file photo shows a This May 3, 2010 file photo shows a "vote here" sign near a polling place open for early voting. Photo Credit: AP

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Call them the phantom primaries.

For the first time in Suffolk elections history, there will be two primaries on Tuesday with no candidate names on the ballot.

In the Conservative Party primary for Southampton Town supervisor, the ballot line will simply state "Opportunity to Ballot" with an open space in which Conservative voters can write in any name they want.

In East Hampton, Republicans, who did not even field a candidate to run against Democratic supervisor candidate Larry Cantwell, also have an Opportunity to Ballot, aimed at giving Cantwell a cross-endorsement even though he earlier rejected the idea.

An "OTB," as election officials informally call them, typically involves a candidate petitioning for the right to wage a write-in campaign for another party's nomination against that party's designated candidate, who is listed on the ballot.

Like any primary, voting is restricted to party members, but those voters can write in any name, regardless of the candidate's party affiliation.

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"In a county where we have cross-endorsements for every countywide office, it's refreshing to see a blank ballot -- it's the purest expression of democracy," said Paul Sabatino, a former Suffolk chief deputy county executive.

OTBs are unpredictable because turnouts are usually extremely low, typically from a dozen votes to a 100 or so.

"If you get 10 friends to write in your name, you could become a major party candidate," Legis. Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk) said.

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The Southampton contest came about after former Town Supervisor Linda Kabot, a Republican making a comeback bid, tried to get the Conservative ballot line and circulated nominating petitions among minor-party voters.

Conservative officials refused to authorize her to run on their line and named Howard Heckman III as their candidate. But Kabot knocked out Heckman's petitions because he and a number of Conservatives had earlier signed her petition, making them ineligible to sign any others. Conservatives cried foul, but Kabot then filed an OTB so she could wage a write-in campaign, with no apparent foe.

Conservative officials now are rallying around their own write-in contender, Phil Keith, a Harvard graduate, Vietnam War veteran and retired corporate executive.

Town Conservative chairman James Malone said Kabot ruined town finances as supervisor in 2008-09. "It's the difference between Nancy Pelosi and Ronald Reagan," he said.

Kabot says she inherited the fiscal woes when she took over. She said the Conservatives' move will only help Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, an Independence Party member who runs with Democratic backing, win re-election.

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Malone said he has done three mailings for Keith and that the party will work to get out the vote on Tuesday. However, Kabot has shown she can get votes: Two years ago, she ran a write-in campaign against Throne-Holst that unexpectedly pulled more than 3,800 votes, though Kabot lost. If Kabot can win the Conservative line, it will make her far more competitive in November.

In East Hampton, Republicans early this year held discussions with Schneiderman and later with Cantwell about a cross-endorsement, but both demurred. Later, an OTB petition was circulated by local Republicans aimed at giving Cantwell the nomination anyway.

Cantwell has written the county Board of Elections to decline the nomination pre-emptively, but election officials say that letter has no effect. Cantwell can avoid having his name appear on the November GOP ballot by not formally accepting the write-in nomination, officials said. Having Cantwell's name at the top of the GOP ticket could help the rest of the Republican slate by avoiding a vacant spot that could send voters to another party's ballot line.

Of course, local Republicans could surprise everyone. The beauty of a write-in is that voters could pick someone else entirely.

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