Keep ‘off-year’ elections off-year


More than a dozen people are running for president of the United States this year and next — and nearly as many are seeking to replace embattled U.S. Rep. George Santos in Congress. And while final decisions in those races are 12 months away, much closer to home, Long Island voters are heading to the polls Nov. 8, to decide on a number of races spanning town boards and administrations as well as county legislatures.
It’s what we call an “off-year” election — an election that takes place outside more mainstream races — and it gives us a chance to learn about and choose leaders who are much closer to home. Even our neighbors. And listening to those voices is vitally important — much more important for our daily lives than what’s being bandied about in Washington or Albany.
But there’s a downside to off-year elections, and it’s a significant one: voter turnout is abysmal. Across the state, off-year elections attract just half of those who head to the polls for presidential elections, according to Citizens Union.
The potential solution? Turn “off-year” elections to “on-year,” by moving town and county races to the same year as campaigns for state and federal offices. And it’s part of a bill that has passed both chambers of the state legislature, and is now on the governor’s desk.
This would certainly increase the number of people who cast votes in local races, and would save money typically spent to make off-year elections happen (although how much is up for debate).
And yes, the more people who vote, the better our communities are represented.
It’s a noble idea, and it makes sense, at least at first blush. But it would also sacrifice a key element of off-year elections that make them so special: Focusing on these races allows the candidates to not only get their message out, but also to address hyperlocal issues in our neighborhoods that are simply not dealt with at the federal or even the state level.
Imagine a ballot dominated by a presidential race, U.S. Senate contests and U.S. House races that also included the choices for local judges, county legislators, town administrators and town councils, and village officials — to say nothing of local referendums. It would be a jam-packed ballot, which would make it nearly impossible for a typical voter to be properly informed about who’s who and what’s what.
Naturally, much of our attention would be focused on who would be in the White House come January, and who would be sent to Congress. Candidates for local offices would have to shout to be heard, and even then they’d likely be drowned out.
Local issues are crucially important. You know that, because you’re reading a local newspaper. Will local taxes be raised? Can we prevent the sinkholes that are opening up in our streets? How do we put up barriers to keep state legislators from forcing residential zoning in our communities? How do we counter some of the issues we’re experiencing as a result of bail reform?
Those are just a handful of the myriad issues that Herald editors and reporters have inquired about in more than 40 roundtable sessions with local candidates this election season — issues that most likely wouldn’t get anywhere near the attention they deserve if you mixed them in with topics dominating the debates in the state and national campaigns.
We look at voting as a right, but it’s also a duty. True democracy requires participation by those being governed to truly work, and our participation takes many forms, but the primary one is casting a ballot. Increasing turnout for these races most certainly remains a priority — but we don’t want to accomplish that by pushing local races into a ballot’s fine print.
Gov. Kathy Hochul hasn’t yet signed the bill changing election dates that passed both chambers of the state legislature earlier this year. And she shouldn’t. We need to come up with ways to bring more voters out for local elections, but we must do that by continuing to educate those voters on the issues affecting them most here at home, and by making it clear that voting is one of the best ways they can do something about them.
What we can’t do is let those issues be swept away in the whirlwind of state and national elections.