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Unprecedented primary tie remains unresolved in Watertown

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Tom Magnarelli
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WRVO News (file photo)

The primaries in New York state took place more than two weeks ago, but the results of the Watertown mayoral primary remain undecided.

Under city law, the candidates with the first and second-most votes are supposed to advance to the general election. Jeff Smith came in first. The problem is that City Councilor Cody Horbacz and businesswoman Allison Crossman have tied for second place.

"This is absolutely unprecedented," said Jude Seymour, the Republican Elections Commissioner for Jefferson County.

Seymour says this tie is unique for several reasons. First, Watertown's elections are governed by its own laws rather than New York state's and there's no guidance in that local law on what to do in the event of a tie. Second, Watertown's elections are nonpartisan, so no local Republican or Democratic committee has the power to break this tie as would normally happen in a partisan primary race. And third, Seymour and Babette Hall, the Democratic Elections Commissioner, are split on how to resolve the issue.

"I still think the law is looking for two people and I don’t know who that second person is," Seymour said. 

"And I’m reading it as just being plural - the names of the persons who receive the largest and the next-largest," Hall said. "So my view is to move all three onto the general election."

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Credit Allison Crossman
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Allison Crossman

What Seymour and Hall do agree on is not to certify any candidates for the fall until this is resolved. The deadline to certify the city ballot is September 12. They have encouraged the city and or the candidates to bring the matter before a judge.

Crossman says she's prepared to do that, but she and her attorney don't think that's necessary based on their interpretation of the law.

"The persons who have secured the highest number of votes and the next highest shall basically move on to the general election in the fall. That to me does not specifically define two people," Crossman said. "My attorney likes to compare it to baseball. You can have multiple people that are in second place tied for second place. That's, I think, what this situation is. We’re tied for second place, so it doesn’t mean we should both be eliminated, it means we should both move on to the next round."

Horbacz wants a recount, but the way he reads the law - it doesnt clearly limit the number of people on the ballot, so all three should move forward.

Watertown City Manager Rick Finn says the city has no formal position right now as they are still reviewing the law, but ultimately it might come down to the Watertown City Council. City Attorney Robert Slye agrees that the council should weigh in on this, but his personal interpretation of the law is that all three candidates should move forward.

The Watertown City Council is scheduled to meet this monday.

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.