‘Nothing short of revolutionary’: Change to election law quietly nationalizes local elections, expert warns

As New Yorkers were preparing to celebrate Christmas, Governor Kathy Hochul quietly signed a Democrat-backed bill that will nationalize and “likely upend” local elections, according to an election attorney who is shocked by how few know it even happened.

“It really hasn’t even gotten the attention within New York that I would have thought it would have gotten, because again, this is a monumental change to the electorate,” New York Republican election attorney Joe Burns told Fox News Digital.

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The outlet reports:

Just days before Christmas, Democratic New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a Democrat-backed bill that moved town, village and county elections to even-numbered years, alongside higher-profile gubernatorial and even presidential elections.

The new law will likely upend local elections as they are expected to be drowned out by massive campaigns for state and federal offices, and local candidates might turn their attention to national issues instead of hyper-local campaign platforms, Burns explained to Fox News Digital. 

According to Burns, “It’s nothing short of revolutionary.”

Republicans in New York’s Onondaga County are pushing back.

Located in the center of the Empire State, and home to Syracuse, Onondaga Republicans authorized in a vote the use of $100,000 in county funds to launch a lawsuit against New York State. Those drastic changes, they argue, violate local rules.

“We will authorize County Executive Ryan McMahon to pursue legal action opposing New York state’s latest overreach against the county’s constitutional and chartered independence,” Republican Onondaga County Legislature Chairman Timothy Burtis said, according to Spectrum News. “The new law is a bold attempt to dismantle Onondaga County’s legal independence without due process.”

Onondaga County is planning to bring a lawsuit against New York state challenging a new law that moves local elections to even years. https://t.co/aXumQm0tgS — Spectrum News 1 BUF (@SPECNews1BUF) February 14, 2024

Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon said the law violates their charter, Spectrum News reports.

“There is explicit language in the bill that makes it crystal clear that county charters and local laws do not supersede what we’re doing with this legislation but even that’s besides the point,” he explained. “County charters and county laws never supersede state law.”

“That’s really the big issue,” Burns told Fox News Digital. “The state constitution provides tremendous protections for how they organize themselves. Meaning, that the state simply can’t come in and require that these local offices – county executives, county legislators – require that they truncate their terms, require that they then elect the officers on even years.”

But according to the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. James Skoufis (D-Cornwall), that’s “baloney.”

“The lawsuit’s baloney,” he told Spectrum News. “It’s as if they’re taking taxpayer funds in Onondaga County and lighting them on fire.”

Skoufis says the bill is all about voter turnout.

“Right now, turnout in these local odd-year elections for town and county offices is often 20-30%. It’s abysmal,” he explained. “The even-year elections for president and governor, you can see as high as 70, almost 80%.”

Legal analyst Don Chesworth, a partner at Tully Rinckey, believes there’s enough merit to Onondaga’s argument to warrant it being heard in a courtroom.

“They may determine that this law is in conflict with the Constitution of the state and the only way to really make this change is to change the state Constitution,” he told Spectrum News.

The issue may need to go to the state’s highest court for resolution, the attorney said, noting the length of litigation and the potentially enormous legal fees.

The county executives need to foot that bill, Skoufis stated.

“You want to advance your political agenda, don’t put your hands in the taxpayers’ pocket,” he said. “Use your own campaign funds to do it.”

Burns, meanwhile, “sent a letter to Onondaga County Legislature last week, before money was officially set aside for the lawsuit,” according to Fox News Digital, “arguing that the ‘radical change’ is ‘bad for our local governments, and bad for democracy.'”

“In this era of angry, hyperpartisan politics, is this what New York really needs? Will it strengthen our democracy? Will it improve our system of self-government?” he wrote. “No, no, and no.”

“This new law, forcing these counties to elect their officials on even years, violates Article IX of the state constitution, which includes the local government bill of rights,” Burns told Fox News Digital.

The attorney believes the lawsuit has “a very high likelihood of success.” Other counties, he predicted, adding that other New York counties “may figure, ‘let them go forward. Hopefully, they’ll be successful.'”

“And then that would apply to similar county governments, specifically counties with a charter like in Onondaga County,” he said.

“The law moved county and town elections but does not affect elections such as city, district attorney or sheriff, as those are governed by the state’s constitution,” Fox News Digital reports. “Burns said that the massive election change has likely received little local and national attention as the law does not affect New York City.”

“What’s the media capital of not just New York, but probably the world? New York City,” Burns explained. “Well, guess what? What do they have in New York City? They have city offices. Meaning, they’re not affected.”

Outside the cities, Burns argued, candidates for local government will be forced to focus on national issues, rather than those affecting their communities, such as infrastructure or ensuring snow trucks will be out clearing the roads during a storm.

In his letter supporting the planned lawsuit, Burns noted the financial demands the change will put on local candidates.

“Under this new law, elections for offices such as town clerk, town highway superintendent, and county legislator would appear on the same General Election ballot as races for Congress, U.S. Senate, and President. Candidates in these races for local office – races where candidates might raise and spend as little as a couple thousand dollars in an entire campaign cycle – will be forced to compete with candidates in multimillion-dollar contests for voters’ attention,” he wrote. “Local concerns will be silent; local politics will be nationalized.”