PROCEED CAREFULLY HERE. Get it wrong and somebody could get hurt. Seriously. Even though it’s hard to imagine a topic more likely to trigger a yawn or the urge to check who’s texting you now, let’s look at what’s happening with election districts in the City of Hudson.
There is no crisis. No one has been prevented from voting or running for office. There’s a bureaucratic mismatch along the edges of some voting districts. It’s happened over many years and supposedly only about 100 votes are at stake. Even then, it applies to just two different city offices at the far end of the ballot. The problem that hasn’t been fixed before now because, you know… why bother?
Members of the Common Council thought that the boundaries of each election district in the city followed the lines of the city’s five wards. The wards are subdivisions of the city and their boundaries are spelled out in detail in the City Charter.
But for multiple reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the election districts are just a little bit off, so that in some cases people who live along the fringes of one ward must vote in another. The wandering districts alter the profile of the electorate in races for seats on the Common Council, the city’s legislative body, and for city supervisors, who sit on the county Board of Supervisors. Citywide races or elections for countywide, state or federal offices aren’t involved.
Now that you’re all excited about this, let’s talk about why it matters. A slim majority of the Common Council wants to sue the county, forcing it to snap the election district lines back to the exact boundaries of the of the city’s wards. The mayor promptly vetoed that plan.
Mayor William Hallenbeck, Jr., argued in support of his veto that changing where people vote a few months before an election might confuse those voters. He’s right. Any obstacle you put before voters can reduce turnout. The phenomenon has been induced elsewhere around the country by well-funded efforts–often cloaked by the bogus argument that they prevent voter fraud–that have made it harder in some states for minorities to exercise their right to vote.
But not here. Suppressing voter turnout is Not the issue facing Hudson. There are, after all, only three polling places in the whole city, all within walking distance of each other. There are also plenty of competent election officials at each polling place ready to sort out any confusion. Typically, some voters will ignore advance warnings and instructions about Election Day changes, but it’s a stretch to believe that assigning them a new election district will stop them from casting their votes.
They might, however, raise potential legal weaknesses created by election district and ward lines that don’t match up as promised. That raises the specter of challenges in court following close races. In recent years close county elections have hung on the validity of ballots as determined by judges. Questionable district lines could add a new legal avenue to change election outcomes. Even if a challenge is not successful, should taxpayers have to pick up the bill for defending a known wrinkle in city election district lines?
The mayor is also correct that more investigation is needed before election district lines are readjusted. It could turn out that restoring old election district lines so that they match ward boundaries revives problems that the wrinkles resolved. But the look back should stop at the most recent changes. Ignore the ancient one. That’s for historians and would needlessly delay action, a concern raised by council President Don Moore.
If the Common Council is serious about suing the county to force restoration of election districts that follow the boundaries of the five wards, the council needs to know who requested the changes and why. They’ll also need to show what harm the revised lines have done to city residents. Let’s hope the council is careful what it asks for.
The council needed to raise this issue. There is no more important task for elected representatives than to secure for their constituents unimpeded access to the ballot box. Anybody who messes with the city’s election districts should know that their actions won’t go unnoticed or unchallenged.
What’s at stake here is the integrity of the public’s right to vote.
It’s not at all clear there are bad guys behind the revised district lines… this time. But there’s no reason to believe it can’t happen again.