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Judge gives Democrats authority to choose elections commissioner 

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A state judge on Tuesday gave the Monroe County Democratic Committee the authority to vote to nominate the party’s next elections commissioner.

The decision by Justice John Ark seeks to end months of internal party wrangling over the process to install a permanent commissioner, and would have Democrats conduct a drive-in election at a location to be determined in the coming weeks.

But the committee’s lawyer, Nathan Van Loon, foresaw challenging the decision.

He said a drive-in vote not only violates the committee's bylaws but was unworkable given the current health crisis and the standing state executive order to abide physical distancing guidelines.

“The drive-in provision of this plan would basically have us ignore our own internal rules, and we just can’t do that,” Van Loon said.

The county’s Democratic elections commissioner post has been filled on an interim basis since early March by LaShana Boose, the former deputy commissioner, who was elevated to acting commissioner when the former commissioner, Colleen Anderson, resigned.

State Election Law calls for filling a vacancy in the office by requiring party leadership to devise a plan to recommend a candidate to the County Legislature for confirmation. If the party does not make a recommendation in 45 days, the law gives the Legislature the authority to appoint a commissioner.

After some early delays in the nominating process and complaints from some of the party’s 1,700 members about transparency, the committee called for an election. But the election, which was set for early April, was postponed due to the pandemic.

In the ensuing weeks, the 45-day deadline elapsed, and Democratic legislators moved to act.

A faction of Democrats sued to stop the appointment, however, arguing that the pandemic effectively paused the clock and that the window to conduct an election remained open.

Ark has not ruled definitively on that point of law, but the plaintiffs viewed his greenlight for a drive-in vote as a victory.

“Everything wasn’t a perfect answer, but we got what we needed, which was for the judge to say that this (vote) is a legitimate process,” said Anthony Plonczynski-Figueroa, a member of the county party’s executive committee and a plaintiff in the case. “We feel like it vindicates us.”

County Legislator Rachel Barnhart, a Democrat from Rochester, who, like her counterparts in the Legislature, was a defendant in the case, but filed a counter-claim with two other Democratic legislators supporting the plaintiffs, called the judge’s directive “a victory for democracy, for the party, and for voters.”

“We cannot allow a backroom deal to choose a position of such importance and trust,”’ Barnhart said.

Boose has stayed out of the fray, but has been something of a lightning rod throughout the months of intra-party squabbling.

The leader of the Legislature’s Democratic minority, Vincent Felder, has publicly endorsed Boose. Mayor Lovely Warren has not publicly backed Boose, but her support of Boose in previously unsuccessful bids for elected office and public pressure she applied on the Legislature to make an appointment has been viewed by some who favored an election process as a tacit endorsement.

The voting process presented to the court Tuesday in a video conference hearing would have party members drive up to a ballot box, confirm their identity, and cast a vote from their vehicle.

Lawyers said members could make multiple choices in order of preference. If no one candidate received a majority of votes, the votes for the least-favored candidates would be thrown out or recast until a winner prevailed.

Ark asked the parties in the lawsuit to reconvene via video conference on June 12.

Plonczynski-Figueora said he believed the election could be held as early as June 8.

The vote for a commissioner comes at a critical time not only for the party, but for the broader election process in Monroe County. The presidential primary and a string of other primaries, including those for county, state, and federal races, are scheduled for June 23.

Like other county boards of elections in New York, Monroe County’s is overseen by co-commissioners representing the Democratic and Republican parties.

David Andreatta is CITY’s editor. He can be reached at dandreatta@rochester-citynews.com.
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