EDITORIAL: Election Day… again?

DID YOU KNOW there’s an election next week? Have you made your plans to vote and picked the person or people you’d like to see elected? Should we go over that first question again?

Yes, there is an election Tuesday March 16, 2021. But it’s only for residents of the four villages in Columbia County: the Village of Chatham, the Village of Kinderhook, the Village of Philmont and the Village of Valatie. Find the details in the election news story on Page 1 of this issue.

If you live in one of these villages you have good reason to scratch your head and express disbelief starting with: “What the…..” Voters went the polls in the November presidential and congressional elections. And about a month before that you were asked to elect village officials in contests originally scheduled for March 2020 but postponed until September because of the pandemic.

Forget all that. Blame it on a bad Zoom dream. What matters is that next Tuesday village residents here can exercise a human right so valuable that people from Belarus to Myanmar are willing to die for the same privilege even as we cast our ballots in peace.

The people we elect to village offices—mostly mayors and trustees of village boards—do the granular work of self government. They take responsibility for assuring that our water supply is clean and reliable, that the sewer treatment system works and that village roads get plowed. Often enough the people who oversee these services are folks you know or didn’t know you knew.

Candidates for village positions run on ballot lines with made-up names rather than on the tickets of national or statewide political parties. This year in the Village of Kinderhook two candidates are running for two vacant seats, one on the Shamrock Party and the other on the Van Buren Party line. The idea is not whose party name is too cute to forget. The names reinforce the expectation of candidates and voters alike that village government is responsive village needs rather than partisan loyalties.

Voters will know who shows up and does the work. And dissatisfied voters eagerly voice their displeasure is services fall short of expectations. It takes a thick skin to govern effectively.

Many village elections are won or lost by a handful of votes. And ballots offer the chance to write in a candidate’s name and it happens now and then that a write-in candidate wins. The write-in option can give the wildest crackpots reason to hope. But it also strikes fear in hearts of would-be despots. The power of an individual ballot is expressed most clearly in these elections.

For all that, the village voting access could work better. Village elections in Chatham are managed by the County Board of Elections. The election board’s website lists the date of all village elections this month, and it does mention the option of absentee ballots. But the websites of the Kinderhook, Philmont and Valatie make no mention of absentee ballots.

All of them offer the absentee option but if it isn’t promoted and the deadlines aren’t widely circulated, that creates a barrier to full participation in a fundamental right. Even as the Covid-19 pandemic seems be relenting it is unacceptable to leave voters uninformed about all their voting options. We will face other pandemics and perhaps other threats, which is all the more reason to broaden public knowledge about voting options.

In the last two general elections in New York State the trend has been the opposite, with voting options expanding through the long overdue early voting days and absentee ballots that don’t require voters to state an “excuse” for requesting an absentee ballot. The villages can do their part by building public awareness of these choices.

And in case village voters think that after Tuesday they won’t be able to vote again until the November general election—Good News. There’s always the primary elections in June.

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