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GOP, Conservatives strategy helped defeat 3 ballot propositions

A voter stands at a privacy booth to

A voter stands at a privacy booth to fill out a ballot during the New York City elections on Nov. 2. Credit: Sipa USA via AP/ANTHONY BEHAR/SIPA USA

ALBANY — A coalition of Republicans and Conservatives executed a precisely timed and expensive strategy to defeat three of five statewide propositions on the November ballot, handing Democrats a rare defeat, according to records and interviews.

Three propositions involving voting expansion and redrawing of elections districts were rejected by voters and the number of absentee ballots yet to be counted won’t be enough to overturn the unofficial results on election night, state officials said.

The underdog effort against the propositions employed a strategic 13-day, $3.5 million TV and radio ad campaign by the state Conservative Party and a statewide tour by Republican officials, according to political leaders on both sides of the issue.

"It was the mouse that roared," said state Conservative Party chairman Gerard Kassar.

Proposition 1 would have changed the redistricting process to limit Republican power in redrawing election districts that Republicans had created in 2014 when they were in power as security for when they might be out of the majority. The first proposal would also assure that noncitizens are included in determining the size of election districts if Congress or the U.S. census were to end the practice. This is already in state law, but making it a constitutional amendment would have strengthened it against any future attempts in Albany or Washington to repeal it.

Proposition 1 also would have given constitutional protection for another state law against future changes made at the federal level or from a future State Legislature. That law requires prisoners be counted as residents of their last home address, not the prison in which they are incarcerated, in redistricting.

Proposition 3 would have allowed voters to register within 10 days of an election; and Proposition 4 would have expanded mail-in voting to allow absentee voting without having to provide a reason, such as being out of the county on Election Day.

Voters did approve Proposal 2, which gave New Yorkers the right to a healthful environment, and Proposal 5, which expanded the jurisdiction of a New York City claims court.

Of more than 2.7 million votes cast statewide, unofficial results on Nov. 2 showed Proposal 1 was trailing by 316,336 votes; Proposal 2 was trailing by 428,503 votes; and Proposal 4 was trailing by 360,231 votes.

The state Board of Elections said last week that there are still 207,666 mailed-in absentee ballots to be counted before the results will be final, but that count won’t be enough to overturn the count on Nov. 2 from ballots cast in early voting and on the traditional Election Day.

The margins also were large in Nassau and Suffolk counties:

Proposition 1 lost in Nassau by 49,892 votes. It lost in Suffolk by 84,853 votes. Proposition 3 lost in Nassau by 75,546 votes and lost in Suffolk by 96,586. Proposition 4 lost in Nassau by 64,744 votes and lost in Suffolk by 87,291.

The defeats ran counter to the 76% approval rate that statewide ballot propositions have received over the last 20 years. And it ran counter to the fact that the Democratic Party has a more than 2-1 voter enrollment advantage, holds every statewide office and controls the State Legislature.

There were "misplaced assumptions by advocates that their views were not controversial in deep blue state," said Gerald Benjamin, retired distinguished professor of political science at the SUNY New Paltz.

He also said good-government advocates — important in drawing attention to propositions — were divided in their view on the complex and "kitchen-sink character" of Proposition 1. Benjamin also said low turnout in an off-year election served the smaller and more energized Republican and Conservative parties.

"We never thought we could ever go toe-to-toe with the Democratic Party if we did it early," Kassar said in an interview. "In July, we concluded that we needed to make every effort possible to defeat each proposal."

The chairman contacted Ronald Lauder, a billionaire heir to Estee Lauder cosmetic empire and a major funder of conservative political causes. He was interested.

"That gave me enough incentive," Kassar said. "I wanted to put things together."

Lauder contributed $4 million in October, according to state Board of Elections records. State records show that the state Conservative Party in October spent $2.4 million to hire McLaughlin Media, one of New York’s biggest Republican political consultants, whose clients have included Donald Trump and Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who is now running for governor. Another $400,000 went to Harris Media, a digital media advertising and consulting firm based in Austin, Texas, according to state records.

The Conservative Party used its "housekeeping account" to quickly receive and spend the cash. Those accounts were created to help parties pay for administrative expenses, but have often been used in campaigns because there are few restrictions in how the cash is spent. The Democratic Party says the Conservative Party improperly used the housekeeping account to oppose the propositions.

State Republican chairman Nick Langworthy said, however, that Democrats need to look at themselves.

"There’s not a single Democrat politician that went out and did the things that we did," Langworthy said in an interview with Newsday. "We wanted to point out their propositions were bad policy … and nobody made the argument the other way."

Langworthy said he took the argument on the road and hit 40 counties in 10 days surrounded by local elected officials.

"This was an attempt by Democrats to put their thumb on the scale, permanently, and rig the system that Nancy Pelosi is trying to do in Washington," Langworthy said, referring to the Democratic House speaker.

Democratic voters also didn’t come out to the polls in the year in which there were no statewide or national elections.

"The turnout was dramatically lower," state Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs said. "It cost us."

He blamed the poor turnout on several factors including inflation, gas prices, what was then gridlock in Washington over Democratic President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill and "political exhaustion and relief after having gotten rid of Trump."

Triggering some of the statewide anger was the 2019 bail reform law that sought to reduce the number of people languishing in jail because they couldn’t raise bail. The law was amended in 2020 to reduce the types of crimes for which bail wouldn’t be required.

"You had a Republican electorate which was angry, they were motivated by the misinformation about bail reform, misinformation about the assessment and still angry that they think Donald Trump was robbed of an election," Jacobs said. "Anger motivates voters."

"Voters didn’t just say, ‘No,’ but ‘Hell, no!’" Langworthy said.

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