TO THINK OF ALL THE GIFTS on my Christmas list, and the one I never thought to ask for is a new election. But that’s what some folks in Copake want now that the results of the referendum authorizing the dissolution of the town Police Department have been certified by the county. Darn! I wonder if I still have time to email Santa.
The proposition on the November 8 ballot in Copake read: “Shall the Town of Copake be authorized to dissolve the Copake Police Department?” and voters could choose “Yes, Dissolve the Department” or “No, Retain the Department.” Those who want to dissolve the Police Department won by a mere 4 votes out over 1,000 votes cast.
No one does reliable local polling that we know of, so it’s anybody’s guess what motivated the majority to vote the local police out of business. The reasons most often cited in public involve the cost of maintaining the department and the availability of Sheriff’s deputies and State Police to respond to emergencies.
The outcome didn’t deter people opposed to dissolving the Police Department. They attended a Town Board meeting earlier this month and raised objections to the referendum. They said some residents missed the opportunity to vote on the measure because it was printed on the reverse side of the ballot, where voters didn’t see it. They said some people who did see the question were confused by the language and others were misled by a sign in town that allegedly read, “Vote No to get rid of the Police Department.” That sign could have been a deliberate piece of campaign disinformation or maybe the sign maker was just one of the confused voters. Either way it’s not a reason to question the result at the polls.
But the people unhappy with the referendum don’t see it that way. They want a new election with, presumably, a new ballot question. Maybe they want an essay question asking voters in 100 words or less to explain the form of police protection they would most prefer. Penmanship would count, and the whole exercise would add new meaning to the term “write-in ballot.”
The objections are mostly silly, but the observation that some voters didn’t see the proposition because it was on the back of the ballot does deserve consideration of a different sort. Almost 10% of the ballots that were cast did not include the voter’s choice on the proposition; that’s a much higher rate of blanks than for the candidate races on the front of the ballot.
There’s no evidence that supporters of the proposition were any more aware of where to find the proposition than opponents. So the placement of the proposition cost votes on both sides of the question. The real importance here is for future contests. The Board of Elections should print ballots that alert voters in large and conspicuous type when candidates or propositions appear on both sides of a ballot.
A second election would add an additional cost for taxpayers, and that seems especially unfair to those who voted to dissolve the Police Department as a way to reduce their tax burden. Those voters won in an election certified by the Democratic and Republican county election commissioners as fair and accurate. And that should end the matter, right?
Well, not exactly. Yes, the language of the referendum was exact. Voters did not vote to dissolve the Police Department; they voted to “authorize” the town to do it. Here’s why that matters. A spokesman for the state Board of Elections said this week that a successful proposition asking: Shall a town do so-an-so? would oblige the town to do it. But this proposition asks only whether the town shall have the authority to do it. So the Town Board now has the power to dissolve the Police Department. Funny thing is, the Town Board has always had that power.
Perhaps supporters of the proposition hoped for a mandate that would show strong support for the Police Department or a clear resistance to continuing to pay for local police. Instead, the referendum revealed a community evenly split. The vote offers precious little political cover for dissolving the department, but it gives board members no excuse for maintaining the status quo when it comes to the department. And a second referendum would only make matters worse. That’s the lump of coal the new board will find in its stocking when it takes office January 1.