Sunday, February 22, 2009

“They Don’t Vote”

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!



Anonymous said...

Oh yeah KT!!!You tell 'em!

Terence said...

The only regret I have about this post is that you didn't name the person who gave you that response. I believe anyone in the public eye, such as elected and party officials, should be ready and willing to be called on the carpet for anything they say about their jobs.

Anonymous said...

KT - interesting that you were not there but seem to know what happened but you left out some important facts:

1) Jeff Fonda VP of student council and President of Student Democratic Club and associate member of New Paltz Democratic committee district 9 was asked 3 TIMES if he had any issue with or had a problem with it being in June - The representative of the students stated that he did not and "that students did not turn out for caucus's." The representative of the students had no objection.

2) You are always asking for open government - having the caucus in June makes it more open since it leaves more time to meet candidates and have more open forums.

3) You have always asked that the Democrats not have the only voice so why does having another line on in the polls bother you? You seem to be getting what you’re asking for but now you don’t want it?

It doesn’t matter when the caucus is – have it whenever. It is up to Corrine Nyquist and the Executive committee, send them your concerns, they are open to listening and will do they will of the majority – Have it in September when the students are back that’s fine, they should have a voice and I support that.

Terence said...

Anonymous, if you could be bold and admit your name it would be appreciated. You don't have to sign up or anything, but we much appreciate people being brave enough to stand behind their words here. Thanks. As for your comments:

1 - Jeff Fonda is a very nice young man. However, despite his willingness to show up at meetings I would caution against giving much value to his opinion. College students are relatively unsophisticated as a rule when it comes to politics, and Jeff is no exception. Just because students don't know the value of having a caucus they can participate in doesn't mean it doesn't have value.

2 - I think long, drawn-out campaigns and open government are two different things. Governing is done by people after they are elected; campaigning happens beforehand. I can only judge a candidate by his or her words, while I can judge an elected official by actions as well. Since I pretty much assume that politicians will say anything to get - and stay - elected, I'd rather judge by actions.

3 - my read of KT's post didn't suggest that she is bothered by having an independent line on the polls. Rather, she was pointing out that, in addition to her own concerns, there are strategic disadvantages to an earlier caucus, such as the risk of a viable independent candidate manifesting.

Thanks again for participating in the conversation, and doing so in a civil manner. I'm big on putting my money where my mouth is, though, so I'm going to continue to ask you to admit your identity. I believe it's what sets this blog apart from others.

Steve Greenfield said...


Let's get real. In this town, getting the Democratic nod is the equivalent of winning the race -- so much so that of late it's become common for the Republicans to not even enter the race. That means if we are to have a long "campaign" season that allows us to really get to know the candidates, it has to be prior to the caucus. The real race is between any Democrats vying for the same job. That means the closer to the deadline the caucus is held, the more time we get to not only get to know our candidates, but to participate in democracy by helping them get selected (which is the equivalent of helping them to get elected).

In addition, who wants a long general election season, anyway? I pay these people to manage the business of the town, not to run for office. And given the small size of the district, if we can't form an opinion about our candidates in 60 days, then they, we, or both just aren't trying.

I also have two words for anyone who is uncertain about the proper role for students in our decision-making processes and community life and welfare: Ben Olsen. A lot of us advocated a circulator bus for years -- from concept to cost and route research, to lobbying our friendly town and village officials for funding and infrastructure, and we got nowhere. Then one day a student named Ben Olsen decided it had to happen, and he got the whole thing done, from business plan to coordinating with UCAT and the county, scoring the majority of the needed money from the college and SU, and then coming to us "permanent residents" with a finished plan that allowed us to ride for only fifty cents even though we're not SUNY students.

We need that bus. We can't just soak the students for our discounted bus rides and then cut them out of community affairs. We can, but it's undemocratic and unfair, not to mention rude.

Corrinne has a personal beef with student participation in New Paltz elections -- she's been open about that, and she should recuse herself from this decision. It's also a given that students won't be a significant influence at the caucus itself. So why not hold it when they're here? And getting us back to where I started, it's better for the rest of us, too. Keep the caucus in September.