Voters going to the polls on Primary Day next Tuesday may need a baseball scorecard to figure out who's who on the ballot.
No fewer than 48 candidates are running in 21 races for supervisor, town council, highway superintendent and other positions in five Long Island towns and the cities of Long Beach and Glen Cove.
The contenders include longtime incumbents such as Smithtown Supervisor Patrick Vecchio, Huntington Supervisor Frank Petrone and Huntington Highway Superintendent William Naughton.
Political observers say the profusion of primaries indicates a sharp decline in party discipline. Decades ago, omnipotent party bosses would have avoided primaries by simply stamping out intraparty dissent, they say.
But these days, few municipalities have term limits, so ambitious newcomers view primaries as their only chance to unseat entrenched incumbents, observers say.
"Long Island's politics have changed over the past generation," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University's National Center for Suburban Studies. "Political parties no longer hold as much absolute power as they once did, which means that people are freer to challenge for offices that the leaders once wouldn't have allowed.
"Also, you have a generation of leaders who have been in office for a very long time, and younger people or newer people -- some from diverse communities or different ideologies -- don't want to wait any longer before they get their shot at the apple."
This year's primaries feature high-profile races in Smithtown, where Vecchio must defeat Republican Councilman Robert Creighton to keep the seat he has held for 36 years, and in Huntington, where Naughton's 26-year tenure is being challenged by two fellow Democrats: town parks and recreation director Don McKay, and Kevin Orelli, owner of a site-improvement contracting company.
Some familiar names are seeking political comebacks or trying to extend their careers in new jobs.
In Riverhead, former 11-term Assemb. I. William Bianchi is one of three candidates competing for the Independence Party nod; he also has the Democratic line in the November election.
Term-limited county Legis. Lynne Nowick (R-St. James) is running in a Republican primary to unseat one of two Smithtown Town councilmen, Thomas McCarthy or Kevin Malloy.
But most candidates are little-known activists seeking a greater voice within their parties.
"There's a lot of wannabes," said Stanley B. Klein, a political science professor at LIU Post in Brookville. "It shows that the parties are not as strong as they used to be, and so there's dissent."
This month's primaries are the first since enrollment records showed that Suffolk Democrats outnumber Republicans, ending decades of GOP dominance. Nassau Democrats surpassed Republicans in 2008.
But Levy said both parties are fighting over a shrinking base of loyalists, as new voters increasingly shun political affiliation.
In June, 800 new Suffolk voters registered as "blanks," meaning they declined to join a party, compared with 924 who enrolled as Democrats and 394 who registered with the GOP.
"It's good news for the Democrats that their base of potential voters has expanded," Levy said, "but the reality is that members of the two major parties are becoming less and less of the overall electorate."