ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — There is a conflict within the local Democratic party, and it’s unfolding just days before the convention this weekend.
Assemblyman Harry Bronson (D-138) has been representing his district in the New York State Legislature since 2010, winning a number of primaries and re-elections along this way.
However, this year he faces an upstart Democratic challenger in Alex Yudelson, Mayor Lovely Warren’s current Chief of Staff, and former aide to President Barack Obama.
The Monroe County Democratic Committee says their party’s designation is split evenly, which means a vote will take place at Saturday’s convention, but Bronson’s campaign says the MCDC is stacking the deck in favor of Yudelson, and going against the organization’s bylaws in the process.
“There were ballots that were not cast, that were counted — this is a perversion of democracy,” said Bronson campaign spokesman Alan Richards.
At the heart of the issue: Should two abstention votes count?
Breaking the bylaws?
Richards says the MCDC is going against the party’s own bylaws by counting abstention votes in the designation process. According to those bylaws, a candidate needs greater than 50% of the votes to earn the party’s endorsement, and to avoid a secondary vote at the convention.
Richards says the committee is going against its own rules in counting the ballots that were not cast in order to keep Bronson from exceeding the 50% threshold
“What they are doing is inconsistent with the party’s bylaws,” Richards said.
Those bylaws were reviewed by an independent party. Steven Anderson, a Professional Registered Parliamentarian who has worked locally on similar cases for organizational bylaws, says the abstention votes shouldn’t count, according to the rules set forth by the MCDC, and by Robert’s Rules of Order, a widely accepted parliamentary authority.
“Defined under common parliamentary law, you only count those who vote,” Anderson said. “Those who don’t express, or abstain, don’t count.”
Anderson weighed in on the matter for this designation and came to the conclusion that since no other voting basis is mentioned in the committee’s bylaws, with no reference to include any non-voters in any calculation, the abstentions shouldn’t count.
“What is written down, is not what happened,” Anderson said.
However, MCDC attorney Nathan Van Loon says the committee has counted abstentions in situations in the past.
“Historically, there were a couple examples in the last year or so where we did that — and I can’t speak for before my time because I became counsel last year, but my understanding is in the past some abstentions have been counted and sometimes in the past they haven’t been counted,” Van Loon said. “But it really goes down to what the legislative district leaders decide to do on their sheets that they have to give to us, so when they give us their sheets, they’re locked in stone — and that’s it.”
Van Loon maintains that how votes are counted is at the discretion of specific district leaders.
“It’s sort of situational where we have it left up to the legislative district leaders, how they tabulate and get their votes in,” Van Loon said. “So with regard to that, if the leaders want to count abstentions, they certainly can and there’s nothing that says they can’t.”
News 8 reached out to Van Loon and the MCDC Thursday about why the abstention votes were counted in this particular race, as well as a request for supporting documentation for when abstention votes were counted in the past, but they have not immediately returned a request for comment on the matter.
What’s a designation?
The designation is the MCDC’s way of officially endorsing its candidates, and earning it comes with inherent benefits.
How a party ultimate designates a candidate is a complicated process, and each committee is entitled to their own ways to go about it. To help understand the matter better, News 8 spoke with former MCDC Chair Dave Garretson.
Garretson says the MCDC is broken down into 30 subcommittees — one for each town and another for each legislative district. Those subcommittees vote for a designated candidate. However, the designation is determined by what is called a weighted vote — not unlike how the electoral college supersedes the popular vote in a presidential election.
In this case for the assembly race, the abstention votes being counted is what prevented Bronson from exceeding the 50% threshold required to earn the party’s designation, according to Richards.
As an example, let’s say ten people are voting on something, and five people vote in favor, four vote against, and one abstains. If the abstention vote doesn’t count, the votes in favor would account for 55.5% of the vote. However if the abstention did count, then the results would be 50% in favor, 40% against, and 10% abstains. So in this example, if the vote required more than 50% to pass, and the abstentions count, then it wouldn’t pass.
This is what Bronson’s camp is saying happened with the designation process.
“49 people signed in, and 47 ballots were cast,” Richards said. “I couldn’t guess what happened with those two missing ballots.”
Value of abstentions
The choice to count abstentions, in this case of razor thin margins, is of extreme political consequence. Take a look at the following two documents, one from the MCDC, and one from the Bronson campaign:
Bronson campaign results
The discrepancies between the two calculations are highlighted. As you can see, the MCDC version for LD-24 counts 49 in attendance with 47 votes cast, compared to the Bronson results which accounts for just 47 ballots cast. Those seemingly small differences played a big factor in determining the percentage of weighted vote.
That’s what this all comes down to — whether two people, who attended a meeting and abstained from voting, should count in the designation process.
If the two abstained votes didn’t count, Bronson would have enough to secure the designation and the party’s endorsement. Since the abstained votes are being factored in, Bronson fell beneath the threshold and a second vote will be held Saturday to decide which candidate gets the official party endorsement.
Regardless of how either camp feels about abstentions counting toward the results, multiple parties say it’s clear that the MCDC has no precedent for a situation where the votes were as close as this — when the difference of just two abstaining votes made all the difference as far as the designation goes.
“I’d support clarifications in the bylaws for future races if that’s what the committee members wanted,” Yudelson said.
“No designation is damaging to a longtime incumbent,” said Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart on Twitter Wednesday, regarding the prospect of longtime assemblyman Bronson losing the designation.
Barnhart knows this process well.
“This designation process doesn’t always reflect the will of the voters,” Barnhart said. “Sometimes its an exercise of who has the most power and has nothing to do with what’s best for the party and nothing to do with what’s best for citizens.
“That’s why I’m opposed to designations, let the voters decide in June in the primary, there’s no reason for the party to pick a favorite.”
Just last year she lost the party’s designation to Victor Sanchez. Barnhart says the endorsement comes with advantages, namely resources, recognition, and establishment support.
Although Barnhart didn’t get the designation, she was still victorious in last June’s primary, before ultimately winning the seat in November’s general election. On the night of her primary victory, she issued a statement about the designation process and how the Democratic infighting was hurting the party
“Tonight should be a wake-up call to the local Democratic party, which used precious resources to go to war against fellow members of the party,” Barnhart wrote. “The party designation was rife with backroom deals.
“The party should reconsider designations and stay out of primaries,” she wrote last June.
Whether or not the designation process goes away, Barnhart told News 8 Thursday that the current assemblyman has a right to be upset over the matter.
“Bronson has a right to question this,” she said. “If it wasn’t for counting blank ballots and his opponent’s father stacking the Henrietta committee, he would be the party’s designee already.”
Alex Yudelson’s father, Michael Yudelson, is the leader the Henrietta Democratic Committee, a district that Alex overwhelmingly carried in the designation process.
Richards says the committee has a specific agenda with what they are doing in counting the abstentions.
“The party is pushing their objective,” he said.
Yudelson has close ties to Democratic Mayor Warren as her Chief of Staff, and the current MCDC Chair, Brittaney Wells, also has close ties to Mayor Warren, previously serving as Warren’s campaign manager.
Yudelson dismisses the notion of any favoritism in this race.
“The committee members voted a dead heat,” Yudelson said. “I won a majority of members, but because of the weighted vote, it’s a dead heat. Any calls for favoritism are ungrounded.”
At an anti-poverty initiative event in Rochester Thursday, Mayor Warren declined to comment on the assembly race.
The MCDC is scheduled to hold their convention at 10 a.m. Saturday at Workers United on East Avenue in Rochester where the party will officially endorse its candidates for this year’s elections.
At that convention, a vote will be held for who gets the designation between Bronson and Yudelson, but regardless of who wins that, voters can expect a primary contest come June 23.
“There’s going to be a robust primary,” Yudelson said.
Bronson’s campaign officials released this statement Thursday:
“Assemblyman Bronson is in Albany actively working to address the very real problems that families in Monroe County are facing. Whether it’s coming up with a plan to get Rochester’s schools back on track, working to make sure seniors can age in place, or ensuring families have access to the health care they need, Harry remains focused on getting the job done and not getting pulled in to cheap political games or backroom deals like changing the rules for designating candidates.”
Yudelson released this statement to News 8 Thursday:
“My understanding is that the precedent in recent years has been to count protest votes and abstentions toward the total number of votes, and what’s happening is in line with that precedent. I was proud to win a majority of committee members and a majority of committees, both in the suburbs and the city. At the end of the day, the voters want to hear about our plans to fix and fund our schools, fight the opioid crisis, and grow jobs in our region. This inside baseball is a distraction from the real challenges facing our community.”
MCDC Designating Results
Check back with News 8 WROC as we will continue to update this developing story.