Port Chester is preparing for its second trustee election under the unusual cumulative voting method – the product of a long legal battle with the Department of Justice over Hispanics’ voting rights.
And things are getting contentious, again.
In March 2013 voters will fill all six trustee seats at once, rather than two per year as they did before the successful Department of Justice lawsuit. This time, unlike the landmark 2010 election, the mayor’s seat will be up at the same time.
That’s triggering questions over logistics. Under a consent decree, Port Chester agreed to allow early voting the week leading up to the trustee election. As those early voters cast ballots for trustee this time, should they be able to cast a vote for mayor also? Or should they come back on Election Day?
The village board is very much divided. Democrats Dan Brakewood and Mayor Dennis Pilla say the extension of early voting would make the election less costly, less cumbersome and more in line with fair voting. Conservative Trustees Sam Terenzi and Bart Didden and Republican Joseph Kenner are opposed.
Didden, who had a noteworthy role in the DOJ’s effort to prove its discrimination case, said early voting for mayor was “not within our authority” because state election law doesn’t authorize it. He rejected an accusation that he wanted to limit early voting because it appeals to Democrats and minority candidates.
“I’m not going to expand the madness of this whole DOJ case that I don’t agree with,” Didden said during a late-night discussion at the Nov. 5 meeting. Didden challenged Pilla unsuccessfully for mayor last year.
Attorney Randolph McLaughlin, a Pace Law School professor who represented plaintiff Cesar Ruiz in the lawsuit, said early voting for mayor makes sense and that a federal judge has the power to approve it.
“Otherwise it could lead to confusion at the polls,” McLaughlin said. “If a voter has to come out to vote for trustees early, and then again to vote for the mayor on a separate occasion, this could especially be deleterious for minority voters, Hispanic voters especially, who have a lower turnout rate.”
The DOJ successfully argued that the old system prevented Hispanics from full participation in the at-large trustee elections. The DOJ argued for a ward system, in which Hispanic voters could have a majority district. Instead the judge allowed Port Chester to adopt cumulative voting.
Under the system, each voter gets six votes to cast – one for each trustee seat, as before. But now they can put all six votes toward one candidate or distribute them in any combination among several. Port Chester became the first community in New York to use that system and the first to use early voting. The case did not affect the mayoral elections, which are held every two years.
The board will continue its discussion Monday night. It’s also determining which voting machines to use – optical scan machines or the old lever machines. The lever machines need to be big enough for a mega-ballot, listing the trustee candidates six times, and then under multiple party lines, plus the mayoral candidates. Port Chester borrowed larger machines from Nassau County for the special trustee election in June 2010. It wasn’t clear as of the last board meeting whether those would be available for the standard village Election Day in March.