Voter confusion blamed for low primary turnout

Voters at Mattituck Jr. Senior High School in Voters at Mattituck Jr. Senior High School in Mattituck. (June 26, 2012) Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

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ALBANY - Voter turnout for Tuesday's primaries was abysmal across New York, with roughly 5 percent participation in the lone statewide contest -- probably the worst in recent memory.

Congressional primaries that same day didn't do much better. New York City Democratic primaries drew in the low double-digits, a so-called hot race in western New York drew 10 percent and a Nassau County GOP congressional primary attracted only 7 percent.

In the aftermath, good government groups are pointing fingers at state legislators, who are blaming each other.

"It was a fiasco on so many levels," said Barbara Bartoletti of the New York chapter of the League of Women Voters.

In the one statewide contest Tuesday, roughly 140,000 Republicans -- about 5 percent -- cast votes in the primary that made Manhattan attorney Wendy Long the party's choice to take on Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

Bartoletti said that was "the lowest we've seen in" recent decades for a statewide contest.

Watchdogs blamed the low name recognition of the three candidates, who included Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos; a lack of advertising; and "voter confusion" over the state's multiple primaries this year.

New York traditionally held primaries in September for both federal and state offices. But it was forced to move up its federal primary to comply with new laws to ensure that military ballots from overseas arrive in time. Trouble was, the state legislature couldn't agree on a date for combining congressional and legislative contests.

The Democratic-led Assembly preferred June, to avoid prime vacation time and school closings. The Republican-controlled Senate wanted August, suggesting June would clash with the end of the legislative session.

A federal judge stepped in and slated the congressional primaries for June 26. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) called for holding state and federal primaries that day. But Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) didn't budge.

As a result, the state legislative primaries will again occur in September.

And as another result, state and local officials will spend an estimated $30 million extra on elections this year, Bartoletti said. She said the multiple primaries -- Republicans held a presidential primary in April -- confused voters and tamped down turnout.

"The legislative inaction was bad for voters and bad for municipalities," Bartoletti said. She said only the political parties benefited because party loyalists control the outcomes in low-turnout contests.

"Why the low turnout? Two words: Sheldon Silver," said Scott Reif, a Skelos spokesman. "Senate Republicans offered a compromise that would have held both the state legislative and congressional primaries on a single day in August. Not only would the speaker not meet us halfway, he refused to even negotiate."

Silver spokesman Michael Whyland countered that "Good government groups, advocates for the disabled and most editorial boards all agreed a June primary date was a common sense solution. That is the one month in the summer when people are present and we know schools will be available" to serve as voting precincts.

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