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GOP sweeps state Supreme Court race in 4th Judicial District

GOP sweeps state Supreme Court race in 4th Judicial District

Many voters didn't cast all four of their votes on Tuesday
GOP sweeps state Supreme Court race in 4th Judicial District
Left to right: Michael Cuevas, Dianne Freestone, Rebecca Slezak and James Walsh
Photographer: Photos provided

GOP candidates swept to victory Tuesday in the six-way race for four seats on the Supreme Court bench in the 4th Judicial District.

With all but one of the 681 polling precincts reporting by late morning Wednesday, James E. Walsh had won 13.6% of the votes cast, followed by fellow Republicans Dianne N. Freestone (13.13%), Rebecca A. Slezak (12.98%) and Michael R. Cuevas (12.73%). Democrats Julie A. Garcia and Michael Violando followed with 10.79% and 8.4%, respectively.

But the greatest percentage of voters simply didn’t exercise one or more of their votes — a whopping 28.18% were blank.

The 4th Judicial District encompasses Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Fulton, Hamilton, Montgomery, Saratoga, St. Lawrence, Schenectady, Warren and Washington counties. It is the largest of the New York’s 13 districts, containing 26 percent of the state’s land mass. 

No other judicial district outside New York City saw anywhere near as high a rate of blank ballots.

For example, in the neighboring 3rd Judicial District, which stretches from Albany County south into the Hudson Valley, Democrats swept the three seats up for election. The top two each got more than 27 percent of votes cast, while the third-place finisher got 15.6 percent. Only 16.13 percent were left blank.

Supreme Court is an important part of the state legal system but not a particularly glamorous one. It has unlimited jurisdiction but generally hears cases that are outside the jurisdiction of other courts. Its docket includes civil litigation; divorce and other marital matters; and equity suits such as mortgage foreclosures.

On Wednesday, winning and losing 4th Judicial District candidates offered several theories on the election results

Chief among them: 

  • Party-line loyalty;
  • Limited name recognition of candidates outside their hometowns;
  • Limited voter understanding of what Supreme Court is and does;
  • Limited ability by candidates to reach out across the district, which stretches from Schenectady to Quebec.

Consider that: 

  • Walsh and Freestone saw their strongest performance in Saratoga County and Slezak in Montgomery County, where each lives and works.
  • Garcia dominated polling in Essex County, where she previously was district attorney.
  • Cuevas was strongest in Schenectady County, where he has practiced in multiple private and public roles for decades.
  • Democrat Violando, a Saratoga County resident, came in dead last in that Republican stronghold but made his best showing next door in Schenectady County, a Democratic stronghold.
  • Essex County voters, who gave Garcia such a wide margin of votes but likely had limited knowledge of the other five candidates, had the highest rate of blank votes of any county in the district: 39.36%.

Walsh said Wednesday that he found the high rate of blank votes interesting but could only speculate about the reason. One explanation in northern counties, he said, might be that the judicial vacancies are all in the southern counties.

“It’s not a straightforward math problem,” he said, adding that some people likely voted for one or two candidates they knew and didn’t exercise their remaining votes.

Violando had a similar take.

“So many people really don’t know what the Supreme Court is and don’t vote — at least in the 4th Judicial District. A lot of people were voting for just one candidate.”

Violando ran and lost in 2016 and hadn’t expected to win in 2019. Nonetheless, he said Wednesday, “It’s one of the most frustrating pieces when I looked at the numbers.”

He wonders if the layout of the ballot might have contributed to people not casting all four of their votes.

Garcia said: “It was a good race. I'm disappointed, but at least we tried to keep one [judge] here” in the North Country.

The native of a small Adirondack mining community said the district’s size works against an effective and meaningful judicial campaign.

“The people that vote don’t know any of us — it’s just so large,” Garcia said. “A lot of people just vote the line. Which is unfortunate — it’s a 14-year term.

“I tried to get the League of Women Voters to do a candidate forum. It’s difficult.”

A state Board of Elections spokesman said Wednesday that judicial races are well-known for uncast votes, and the 4th Judicial District stands out among them because of its broad size. So when somebody votes just for the one candidate they know or like, three votes are recorded as "blank."

Blank votes in the 4th Judicial District totaled 179,818 on Tuesday, vs. 86,763 for Walsh, the top finisher. There were also a handful of write-in votes (812) and votes that were voided (556).

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