The problem with the second-place tie resulting from the Watertown mayoral primary isn’t that the state law pertaining to the city’s elections isn’t clear.
It is. The law spells out how the Jefferson County Board of Elections should proceed in certifying the winners of this non-partisan primary.
The problem is that Republican Commissioner Jude R. Seymour doesn’t want to follow the law. And being one of the agency’s two commissioners, this naturally creates an impasse. Sadly, his obstructionism will likely land this issue in court, which will incur legal expenses for taxpayers.
Democratic Commissioner Babette M. Hall understands what the law says and wants to adhere to it. She said that Allison I. Crossman, Cody J. Horbacz and Jeffrey M. Smith should all be named on the ballot for this fall’s general election. If only her common sense permeated through the remainder of this portion of county government.
But it doesn’t, so the Board of Elections can’t move forward. Ms. Hall and Mr. Seymour sent a letter July 5 to City Clerk Ann Saunders stating that they “are unable to reach an accord about which candidates ought to be certified.”
After counting absentee, affidavit and write-in votes July 1 at the Board of Elections office, Mr. Smith received the most votes — 837 — in the June 25 primary. But Mrs. Crossman and Mr. Horbacz each received 597 votes, a tie for second place.
Up until now, primaries in Watertown have narrowed the number of mayoral candidates to two when the race has been contested. After decades of following this process, it’s come to be accepted that the law intends there to be no more than two mayoral candidates in the general election.
However, this isn’t how the law reads. It declares: “The Board of Elections shall certify under the hand of its secretary or commissioners the names of the persons who received the largest and next largest number of votes for mayor …”
The law doesn’t limit the number of mayoral candidates to two. So if both Board of Election commissioners accepted the law at its word, they would certify Mrs. Crossman and Mr. Horbacz along with Mr. Smith as the primary winners. Simple enough; case closed.
But the board — and by the board, we mean Mr. Seymour — insists on complicating this matter. The letter sent to the city on July 5 further states: “We are at this impasse because the law, as written, did not account for the possibility of a tie. We would ask for your council, at minimum, to petition its state Legislature to adopt changes that would provide clear direction to the county Board of Elections in case of a future tie vote.”
To say that the law doesn’t “account for the possibility of a tie” is one way of looking at this situation. Ambiguity often leads to misguided conclusions when it comes to legal matters.
Another way of looking at it, however, is that the law doesn’t concern itself with the possibility of a tie. So why should the Board of Elections?
State election law regarding partisan elections has a clause that deals with how ties should be settled. So legislators in Albany believed that ties were problematic for partisan elections but not for Watertown’s non-partisan elections. Why should county Board of Elections commissioners question their judgment?
Mr. Seymour, who previously worked for the Watertown Daily Times, doesn’t want to find himself in the position of “interpreting” the law pertaining to the city’s elections; his sentiment is supported by Scott A. Gray, chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators. They want clarity from another source on how to move forward.
But they’re hung up on the issue of a tie because they presume that only two mayoral candidates should be placed on the ballot for the general election. This notion is itself an interpretation of the law. So Mr. Gray and Mr. Seymour want to know what the “intent” of the law is when it comes to a tie vote, and in the process they’re interpreting that perhaps only two candidates are allowed — a practice in which they supposedly don’t want to engage.
According to information from the website for the Jefferson County government, the local Board of Elections exists “for the purpose of administering orderly, timely and fair elections and all related activities. The office holds public elections for all federal, state, county, city and town races and for almost all of the villages in the county. The Jefferson County Board of Elections dates back to 1911. It consists of a bipartisan team of commissioners, two deputy commissioners, two voting machine technicians and two registration clerks.”
The commissioners serve two-year terms. Their appointments are made by county legislators based on the recommendations of the county Democratic and Republican parties. Ms. Hall and Mr. Seymour each will earn $56,453 for this year.
Mr. Seymour’s initial preference was to certify Mr. Smith as the sole primary winner. This would virtually guarantee the candidate a victory in November.
But seeing that Mr. Seymour is at loggerheads with Ms. Hall, the board stated that it may certify no one for the fall election. Its letter declares: “We do not anticipate resolving our disagreement without outside intervention. If left unattended, the commissioners will certify a general election ballot that has zero mayoral candidates — which seems antithetical to the law’s intent.”
That’s a gross understatement. To certify no one would be a violation of the law as would certifying one candidate. Three candidates meet the requirements stipulated in the election law — no interpreting necessary — so they should move on to the general election with the blessing of the two county commissioners.
County officials shouldn’t raise issues that the election law for Watertown doesn’t reference. They need to follow the law as it’s written and stop wasting people’s time with an irrelevant question. The election law calls for a competitive race, and the Jefferson County Board of Elections must do its job and certify the obvious primary winners to make this happen.