State may be forced to change primary dates

Mary Perham

Elections next year could be more complicated and expensive if the state doesn’t soon comply with federal primary dates.

Steuben County Board of Elections commissioners Joe Welch and Veronica Olin recently warned county legislators a stalemate in the state Legislature, and a battle with federal elections officials could mean counties will have to hold four elections in 2012.

In Steuben, the extra election could cost the county and towns as much as $80,000, and limit the time the elections board has to prepare for other contests, the commissioners told the county Legislature’s Administration Committee.

Next year’s Presidential primary, which is held across the nation every four years, is slated for April 24. Other states also will hold a regular primary and General Election in line with a new federal law for military and overseas ballots.

But in New York, state officials have so far ignored a federal law moving the traditional primary date in September. The law provides a 45-day “turnaround” window for military and overseas voters to receive and cast their ballots.

The state’s Legislature’s squabble over the new primary date means counties may hold a federal primary for Congressional races, followed later by a second primary for state and local offices.

Olin and Welch said scheduling three primaries and a general election within the 45-day period makes it impossible to do other work required before the polls open.

Before each of the four elections, elections officials will have to locate and train more inspectors, prepare new ballots and test the electronic machines. They also will have to comply with the federal law, timelines for candidates and rules for voters.

Elections commissioners across the state support holding one primary in August, but other state leaders want to hold the only primary in June.

Welch and Olin said the August date is better because it’s closer to the time voters are used to primaries, and allows elections officials the time they need to prepare for each election.  

Rescheduling the primary to June also forces candidates to collect petitions much earlier in the spring, said state Sen. Tom O’Mara, R-Big Flats.

That could be a real hardship in upstate New York, where cold and snowy weather could make gathering signatures difficult, he said.

O’Mara, who chairs the state Senate’s Elections Committee, said the Democrat-led Assembly and GOP-based Republican Senate have not reached an agreement. A federal court also is expected to rule on the matter early next year, O’Mara said.

“I’m confident (the Senate will) come to resolution with the Assembly,” he said. “Hopefully before the federal court rules.”