Try as we might, very few of us can get our minds around the Long Island government structure, what with its combination of counties, cities, towns, villages, hamlets, unincorporated areas and those special districts - - school, fire, water, sanitation, park etc. The sheer volume of government raises the question of whether too much democracy is itself undemocratic.
This is not yet another article about government reform and special district consolidation. This article does not ask why we have so many units of government or how can we consolidate them. Those questions long have been asked and have, by and large, been answered.
This article asks a different question: can we reduce the bewildering number of times we in Nassau County are summoned to the polls? The answer, like so much else in Nassau County, is neither simple nor straight-forward, and depends, once again, upon the raw material of politics - - political will, constituent demand, and special interests.
Nassau County demands a great deal from its citizenry. In its cornucopia of elections, to the dismay of all, but the surprise of no one, few participate in all these elections.
Indeed, a 2007 report by Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, "Special District Election Date Study: A Crazy Quilt," indicated, as it relates just to Nassau County's special districts, that "elections are held on at least 24 different days and that at [sic] there is at least one special district election in 11 of the 12 months of the year." None are held on November's general election day. In a bit of understatement, the report concluded that "even the most conscientious of Nassau residents would find it difficult to vote in all of the elections that concern them."
In Manhasset, a resident could easily go to the polls four to five times a year on different days. There are, for example: in March, village elections; in April, the Manhasset Public Library budget vote and trustees election; in May, the Manhasset School budget vote and board members election; in June, village elections; in November, the general elections; and in December, there are the special district elections, most notably the Manhasset-Lakeville Water District, the Manhasset-Lakeville Fire District, and the Manhasset Park District. There may be others.
Those fortunate enough to live within an unincorporated area of Manhasset (a so-called "hamlet") within the Town of North Hempstead have one less election to be concerned with than those living within one of Manhasset's six villages. Compare that civic burden with residents of New York City, who, aside from a primary, go to the polls just once in November.
Making one's way through New York's election law landscape is somewhat of a Magical Mystery Tour, but what clearly emerges is that the ability to fix Nassau's election calendar rests in whole, or in part, on our many, many elected officials.
Our federal, state and county-wide politicians are elected in the November general election. That is the easy part.
Town law sets Election Day in November of odd-numbered years for town-wide elections, and it also fixes the day for special district elections, in this case, as the "second Tuesday in the month of December of each year." Thus, moving the December special district elections requires the assistance of Manhasset's state-wide representatives, Senator Craig Johnson and Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel because the Town Law can only be amended in Albany.
Under the Village law, the majority of village elections in Nassau are held on the third Tuesday in March, although other villages hold their "general" elections in April or June. Here, the villages themselves possess the autonomy to change the calendar for their elections. Indeed, some New York State villages hold their elections in November.
The NYS education law establishes the third Tuesday in May as the date for voting on the budget and electing board members. The Education Law also fixes the date for voting on the library budget as "prior to the first day of July but subsequent to the first day of April." Here, moving the library vote to coincide with the school vote is within the prerogative of the library trustees. And, since the Manhasset Library is of the type whose voting roll is congruent with the Manhasset School District, there is a logic for holding them on the same day.
Beyond the scattering of elections throughout the year, the hours during which the polls are open are not optimal. For example, the polls for the annual December special district elections need only be open from 6 to 9 p.m. This, too, is specified in the Town Law, but the district commissioners can, by their own action, open the polls at an earlier time.
Aside from the issue of legal authorization, there are other hurdles. It is no great feat to predict that the special district insiders, while not viewing election day consolidation with the same degree of alarm as district consolidation, can be expected to oppose it as an indirect threat to their custodianship.
Moreover, there is a practical problem due in no small part to the State's durable, but archaic, voting machinery. Consider the November general election or the May school budget vote. Each of us steps up to the table, self-selects alphabetically and signs a dusty voting book that contains the names of eligible voters living within the relevant district. Since the election districts and the school districts are not geographically congruent, the books are different. Add in a village vote or a fire district vote, each of whose boundaries are unique, and another set of books must be presented for signature. The potential for confusion, delay or error increases. On the other hand, a modern voting machine would, upon establishing the identity of the voter, present on the screen for voting only those elections that correspond to the voter's residence. Neither New York State nor Nassau County is there yet. Why they are not, nearly a decade after the 2000 presidential election, is yet another issue.
If the answer to the question about our excess of democracy is informed by the participation rates in some local elections, then we may suffer from too much of a good thing. Nassau County Comptroller Howard Weitzman noted that in the special sanitary districts he reviewed in 2005, voter participation ranged from a high of 13.9 percent to a low of 1.8 percent of eligible voters. While the notion of "local government," and its promise of self-determination and citizen participation, is seductive, and unobjectionable in principle, the practice in Nassau County has been, paradoxically, that as local government gets closer to the people, the democratic process becomes less representative. In that same Weitzman report, he noted that 44 percent of the registered votes in Nassau County cast ballots in the 2002 gubernatorial election. And the turnout of Nassau County voters for the 2008 presidential election was even higher.
If we are to live with a surfeit of government, then it is incumbent upon our incumbents to address this "election fatigue syndrome" by more than mere exhortations to "get out and vote." A reasonable middle ground between the "Abolitionists" and the "Preservationists" that truly returns some measure of power to the people is to reduce the number of election days. This should be change we can all believe in. A first step, because it can be accomplished at the local level, would be for all village elections to be held in November and for the Manhasset Library vote to be held together with the school budget vote in May. The special district elections, when most are holiday shopping or shoveling snow, cannot be moved without a vote of the New York State Legislature.
Interestingly, as the blue ribbon panels issue reports and recommendations and the politicians hold press conferences, in the ultimate expression of democracy, some residents are taking matters into their own hands. The residents of the fire district of Gordon Heights, a hamlet within Suffolk County's Town of Brookhaven, have initiated the process that could lead to the dissolution of their fire district and the end to the average fire tax bill for fire protection of $1,500. As a measure of the difficulty in eliminating even a single special district, according to the March 18 report in The New York Times in March 2009, if successful, the effort would mark the first time in the State's history that a special district will have been dissolved.
The Town law governing local fire district elections states, with no hint of irony: "If in any fire district the number of voters is so great as to render it inexpedient or impossible to conduct the election at one polling place, the board of fire commissioners may divide the fire district into election districts and provide a polling place for each such election . . ."
How many times has this section of the law been invoked?