By now you may have heard about the contentious zoning debate in the town of Caroline south of Ithaca. But, you may not know that it almost led to criminal charges against one resident.
In April, the Tompkins County Democratic Committee (TCDC) accused Peter Hoyt of violating state election law. There’s a video showing him at an anti-zoning meeting in February. He’s urging people to change their party affiliation so they can vote in the Democratic primary. The TCDC asked the district attorney to investigate.
Hoyt is a former town board member and a Republican.
"In my opinion, I have done no wrong," he said.
He said if you aren’t a Democrat in Caroline you don’t have a voice in the important decisions. All of the town board and the town supervisor are Democrats. This year they have opponents who think the town should reconsider having any zoning laws. Hoyt calls them DINOs – Democrats in Name Only.
"What I am interested in is seeing these alternative candidates elected," he said.
Shana Gadarian is a political science professor at Syracuse University.
"This is not just an issue in Tompkins County it’s an issue all over the country, particularly in small places or highly gerrymandered places where the real crux of competition is not across parties it’s within parties," she said.
Gadarian says voters in this situation have three options. "You can opt out of politics all together. You can continue to participate in non-electoral and electoral ways but in ways you know you are pretty consistently going to lose",
Or, she said, they can do what 74 people in Caroline did.
"You could affiliate with a party or vote in a party primary and try to push the party that’s in power."
Matt Van Houten, the District Attorney for Tompkins County refused to conduct an investigation. In a letter to the party’s chair, he said changing party affiliation to influence a primary might be “morally questionable”, but it wasn’t illegal. Van Houten said the election law is for cases of bribery, extortion, or quid pro quo agreements.
The Tompkins County Democratic Committee Chairperson is Linda Hoffmann. She said the party is filing a complaint with the state’s Department of State about the matter.
Primary elections are today.
Keep up to date on local news. Follow us wherever you get your podcasts.