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Jefferson County Board of Elections calls city’s law outdated

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On Thursday afternoon, Republican Election Commissioner Jerry O. Eaton was in his shirt sleeves, his tie knotted and held in place by his trademark vest, as he pored over Board of Elections reports from the past nine decades, trying to figure out why, exactly, the city of Watertown’s election law is so confusing.

The law, enacted by the state Legislature in 1920 and amended in 1922 and 1993, is woefully outdated, according to Mr. Eaton and Democratic Commissioner Babette M. Hall.

And they are not the first Board of Elections officials to say so.

In a 1979 Syracuse Herald American article, Jefferson County Board of Elections Chief Clerk William L. Milton called the law “antiquated and not definitive.”

Mr. Eaton’s comments Thursday were a variation on a theme.

“Antiquated and archaic,” he called it.

Board officials are frustrated in part because a ballot error caught last week by Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham sent them scrambling to reorder and resend hundreds of regular and absentee ballots mere days before the primary election for City Council candidates. But the problem goes much deeper than that.

“This law is 93 years old. There are very few laws that go unchanged for that long, even in the state Legislature,” Mr. Eaton said.

The law predates absentee voting in the state of New York, Mr. Eaton said, and certain provisions in the law make absentee voting difficult if not impossible.

This year, the board sent out absentee ballots on Aug. 8, 32 days before the election.

According to the state law that is specific to Watertown, however, there could have been a change in candidates as late as one week prior to the election, thereby invalidating all the absentee ballots that had been sent out previously and creating huge headaches for board officials.

In addition, the law was designed in the days prior to electronic voting and should be updated to reflect the use of optical scan voting machines.

The Board of Elections is left in the awkward position of trying to comply with a law that is totally different from every other voting regulation that it follows.

And, to make matters worse, Mr. Eaton and Ms. Hall said, the city has been incommunicative at best as they’ve tried to work through the complex language of the law.

Until 2006, the city maintained the lever voting machines used in the primary election and paid the city election inspectors for the primary election. The last city council primary was in 2005.

In 2006, the state turned over the management of all aspects of the city’s nonpartisan primary election to the county.

Mr. Eaton and Ms. Hall, who did not become commissioners until after the county took over the primary, said they reached out to the city several times to try to better understand the law. No meetings took place, and they were given only an incomplete version of the law. And their requests for the 1922 and 1993 amendments from the city were met by silence, they said.

Mr. Graham did try to meet with them, said Mr. Eaton, though he and Ms. Hall determined that because the mayor was involved in the political debate, it would not have been appropriate.

As an elected official, he was “not necessarily the person we needed to deal with,” Mr. Eaton said.

Mr. Graham said that the law does not need to be the subject of continuing controversy and that if the election commissioners have any issues with the law, they should bring them to the attention of city government.

He added that the city’s nonpartisan primary election law, an outgrowth of the Progressive Era of political and social reform, may be foreign to the election commissioners, who are political appointees.

“I think the system’s worked well for us,” Mr. Graham said. “You’ll never see another one created because the parties won’t allow it.”

Indeed, there is only one other city in the state of New York that has a nonpartisan city election. It is Sherrill, in Oneida County. But in Sherrill, the city runs the election, not the county Board of Elections. Sherrill also has a much smaller population: 3,070 in 2010, compared with Watertown’s 27,131 in the same year.

Joking last week that he “saved the primary election,” Mr. Graham pointed out that the Board of Elections had printed and distributed ballots that instructed voters to select any four of the six candidates running for two open seats this November. The ballots should have said “Vote for any TWO,” Mr. Graham wrote on his blog.

Board officials acknowledged that the mayor was correct in his assertion and promptly fixed the error.

But now that the primary is behind them, they say that they want to see the law re-examined and updated so it is less confusing for the voters.

“There should be no ambiguity when it comes to people’s right to vote. ... That’s a very dangerous thing,” Mr. Eaton said.

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