It’s understandable that the two commissioners in the Jefferson County Board of Elections wish to prevent the chaos that consumed the city of Watertown’s mayoral primary last year from reoccurring.
However, their proposed solution is far more complicated than what’s needed to avoid further problems. All the election commissioners have to do is follow the law as it’s written.
Democratic Commissioner Babette M. Hall and Republican Commissioner Jude R. Seymour recently wrote a letter to city officials. The letters recommended action to “address an outstanding issue from our last election” so that the city and county can bypass “protracted disagreements that diminish voters’ confidence in the result and their willingness to participate.”
During the June 25 mayoral primary, Jeffrey M. Smith came in first place with 837 votes. Allison I. Crossman and Cody J. Horbacz tied for second with 597 apiece.
Tradition held that only two mayoral candidates should advance to the general election. But this isn’t how the state law pertaining to the city’s non-partisan election reads.
Drafted in 1920 and revised in 1993, the law 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 …”
When it comes to determining first and second place, the language in the law focuses on the number of votes cast for individual candidates. And, as demonstrated by the primary results, it’s entirely possible for more than one candidate to receive a specific number of votes. So obviously the law allows for more than two mayoral candidates to be placed on the general election ballot.
The controversy that erupted this past summer could have been avoided if both election commissioners had simply adhered to the law. But Mr. Seymour decided that his personal interpretation of this law should prevail, despite the fact that it’s not his job to offer such an interpretation.
He insisted on applying a rule that doesn’t exist. He falsely claimed that the purpose of the mayoral primary is to narrow the field of candidates to two, so he refused to certify the election results. He then called for a court to issue a ruling on his opinion.
City resident Samuel S. Thomas filed an Article 78 proceeding in state Supreme Court in mid-July. This allows an individual with standing to object to an action taken by a government entity.
State Supreme Court Judge James P. McClusky clearly spelled out to Mr. Seymour that he was completely wrong about how the law should be interpreted. He ruled that Mrs. Crossman and Mr. Horbacz should proceed to the general election along with Mr. Smith.
So in the rare likelihood that a tie occurs in a future mayoral primary, Ms. Hall and Mr. Seymour must do their job and follow the law. It doesn’t concern itself with ties, so neither should the commissioners. The law needs to be applied according to how it’s written, not based on how Mr. Seymour wishes it were written.
Judge McClusky’s ruling provides a solid rationale for allowing more than two mayoral primary candidates to be placed on the general election ballot. This sets a legal precedent for any future questions.
The election commissioners, therefore, need to recommit themselves to carrying out their duties. If either of them can’t stick to this plan, perhaps a change in county personnel is what’s needed to ensure voter confidence rather than a revision of the city’s election law.