The idea of moving New York’s local elections, now held in November of each odd-numbered year, to the general election dates of even-numbered years, is both intriguing and complex. The obvious consequences demand extensive consideration, and its potential unintended effects require even more.
Yet a proposal to make that big change was red-hot as the Albany legislative session rushed to a close, with state Democratic Party chairman Jay Jacobs pushing for passage. However, as opposition grew over the weekend, Jacobs seems to be abandoning the plan. Good.
Comprehensive redesigns of the state’s political system demand more thought than that, and New Yorkers deserve more respect than that.
How complicated is the issue?
Imagine what you’d find at the polls, the first year this change took effect. A ballot as long as Santa’s list of naughty or nice politicians, including president, in even years divisible by four, or governor, attorney general and state comptroller in House midterms. U.S. Senate races would get tucked in there too. Then there are judicial races, countywide races for executives, sheriffs, clerks, district attorneys, comptrollers and legislators that could be on the list. Add to all that town contests for supervisors, clerks, receivers of taxes, boards of trustees and highway superintendents.
Would turnout be higher if nearly all the elections (villages, judges and New York City local elections are excluded) came in even years, as Jacobs and the sponsors claim? There definitely would be more people voting. Nationally, research indicates that shifting mayoral elections to presidential years results in an 18.5 percentage point jump in turnout, while changing to November of a midterm election yields an 8.7-point average increase.
But would the issues driving county and local elections get the attention they deserve? And would voters complete the extensive ballots, or would more quit halfway through?
Experts can address these questions with evidence. Hearing from them is worthwhile. Other states are experimenting with such changes. Their results are worth considering.
Voting should be easy and accessible, and stacking most races on the same day certainly consolidates poll trips.
But beyond riding on separate issues, these races are conducted by district. House, State Senate, Assembly, county and town lines vary, not to mention town and county legislative districts.
The different ballot combinations could be unwieldy. Do local election boards have the staffing and technical expertise to handle the various calculations?
Yet the idea of getting more voters in the booth for local elections, and potentially saving money by eliminating odd-year balloting, is attractive. Are there alternative ways to do that?
With an election coming, Democrats can run on a promise to push election consolidation. Perhaps the state constitution should be amended, which would require letting voters decide. For now, this is too complicated to rush, and the strategy is too cynical to entertain.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.