Separate NY, federal primaries cost millions
By Chris McKenna
February 01, 2014 - 2:00 AM
Holding separate state and federal primaries in New York in 2012 due to partisan fighting wasted millions of taxpayer dollars — including about $260,000 in Orange County alone.
Yet that may be what happens again this year, because of a continued impasse in the state Legislature about when to hold both elections.
The Democratic-controlled Assembly voted 126-11 on Jan. 13 to move primaries for state and local offices from September to late June to coincide with a court-imposed date for New York's primaries for U.S. Senate and congressional seats. Twenty-six Republicans joined Democrats in support of the bill.
But the proposal is languishing in the state Senate. The Republicans and Democratic allies who run that chamber argue that state primaries would disrupt legislative business if held in June. They would prefer to move state and federal primaries to August instead.
Supporters of the Assembly bill contend that holding two primaries instead of one on even-numbered years wastes $50 million each time, although a spokesman for the state Board of Elections said the estimated toll falls between $35 million and $50 million.
Locally, Orange County residents paid the highest price for split primaries in 2012 — about $262,000 for federal races in June and $426,000 for state primaries in September. Had the two elections been held on the same date, most of the $262,000 cost could have been avoided, said Sue Bahren, Orange County's Democratic elections commissioner.
The excess cost came to about $52,000 in Ulster County and $8,000 in Sullivan County, which had state and local primaries in only about 11 of 63 election districts that year, according to election commissioners in those counties.
New York's primary elections got separated in 2012 because of a U.S. District Court ruling that backed up New York's federal primary date to June but left the state primary in September.
The ruling aimed to comply with a 2009 federal law by allowing more time for service members and other overseas New Yorkers to mail absentee ballots.
State Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk, a freshman Democrat who represents part of Ulster County, has helped lead the push for a June primary, upping the pressure this week with a new bill that would force the state to repay counties and municipalities for a second primary if that occurs.
"If the Senate's coalition leadership refuses to act, then we should not force taxpayers and local governments to pay for another wasteful mandate," Tkaczyk, D-Duanesburg, said in a statement Wednesday.
Asked about consolidating primaries in June, state Sen. John Bonacic, R-C-Mount Hope, issued a statement Thursday saying that holding elections then would cause "significant problems" because it would require candidates to file petitions weeks before many legislative votes are taken in Albany — votes that might inspire challengers.
"Three-quarters of the floor votes a senator took in 2012 came after the ability for a potential challenger to get a major party line under this law," Bonacic said, referring to the June primary bill.
"If there was a public outcry over what was passed by the Legislature, or how an individual member voted, there is no way for anyone to get on the ballot to challenge them."
He also said it "would force members to be collecting designating petitions during the budget season when they should be focused on working to produce an on-time budget."
Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a good-government group that supports June primaries, points out that New York held primaries in June for decades without any noticeable interference with legislative work.
And she rejected the Senate Republicans' notion of holding state and federal primaries in August, saying that would fall during summer vacations and therefore limit turnout.
"We are very concerned that an August primary takes our already abysmal turnout numbers and brings them down," she said