I have written before about my Democrat dilemma, regarding how conflicted I am with my party registration and the lack of progressive politics in this town despite a Democratic monopoly in our elected leadership. Another chapter has been added to this saga.
“They don’t vote” is the response I received from a few of our elected leaders (Democrats, of course) when I questioned the Democratic Committee’s proposed plan to hold the town caucus in June this year when many college students are likely to be out of town and will be deprived of an opportunity to participate. Up for grabs are Town Supervisor, two board seats, and the highway superintendent job. The state board of elections sets the schedule as to when a caucus or primary can be held, typically the earliest day is in June. New York State and New York City both hold their primaries in September.
Call me crazy but systematic disenfranchisement of a significant portion of the electorate is not cool. There are other demographic groups who are not here all year. We have many senior citizens who spend quite a bit of the year down south. I know a couple people who work here at the college weekdays but are in the city with spouses or significant others on the weekends. Are days of residence a requirement for voting? College students, or anyone for that matter, are allowed to register at their New Paltz address if: they are a U.S. citizen, are 18 years old, live at their present address at least thirty days, are not in jail, and do not claim the right to vote anywhere else. Would the committee dare hold the caucus in the summer when families are away on vacation or in the winter when the seniors are gone? I don’t think so.
Good governments set election dates at a time when it can be reasonably sure that the entire electorate is available to vote. This is why many countries hold their elections on weekends, or they make it a required holiday, always, not just on presidential years. In 2001, the village voted to move their elections to May, avoiding an unsuccessful attempt to move them from March to June. (Smile about the gadfly in this New Paltz Times article about student’s influence on New Paltz politics.) Two college students ran for village board last year, meaning we would have a college student on the village board right now if Pete Healey had not decided to run, so don’t tell me college students aren’t paying attention, they are participating already.
Another compelling reason for later primaries or caucuses is our leaders can stay focused on governing, not on getting re-elected. Shorter campaign seasons mean incumbents are not concentrating on/distracted by campaigning for as long a period of time.
However, and this really perplexes me because of who is advocating for the early caucus, there is an incumbents’ advantage to a late caucus. Independent nominating petitions can be sought five weeks after the start date for a petition or caucus of a major party. By holding a caucus before the independent petitions are filed, which would be sometime mid-August if the caucus is in June, the party opens themselves up to attack. By waiting, the party gets their candidates, and due to the proximity to the general election, that is pretty much the end of it. By holding the caucus earlier, if there are disgruntled losers, be they Democrats or unaffiliated candidates who tried to get nominations and failed to do so, there is still time to get an independent line and mount a major campaign against the Democrats by using the whole five-week petitioning period as an early campaign.
Holding the caucus in June is a strange risk to take after last year’s filing fiasco which resulted in a write-in campaign where the candidate that got the nod, but not his name on the ballot, very nearly lost. Maybe it is concern that holding a September caucus leaves a deadline for filing that is awfully close? This should not be a problem with a competent filer.
Despite my thoughts that shaking things up with the party with a viable independent attack sounds perhaps just what this town needs, I can not get past the disenfranchisement of the college students. Bottom line, I can not be party to (don’t pardon the pun) a timeline that ensures the students who are here ten months out of the year, but chose to go home or away in the summer, can’t vote. To say “They don’t vote”, is what sociologists call blaming the victim. The onus is on the leadership to set up a system where all voters have the opportunity to vote and are incentivized to participate. Neither occurs with a June caucus.
The discussion about the timing of the caucus occurred at the last Democratic committee meeting, which I was unable to attend. Lesson learned: the gadfly can't miss these meetings! But the gadfly’s plate is quite full… so, please, if you are a registered Democrat and feel the caucus should be held when we can be reasonably sure the electorate is in town, start coming to the meetings which are now being held twice a month, the first Monday and second Thursday at Village Hall. We need more gadflies!