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Recently obtained 1993 city primary law causes consternation for Board of Elections officials

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The flap over the city’s arcane election law has moved to a new level with the discovery that the 1993 Watertown Nonpartisan Primaries and Elections Act repealed the city’s 1920s election law and brought it into conformity with state election laws.

The problem is that nobody told the Board of Elections where to find it. Not recently, anyway, according to Republican Election Commissioner Jerry O. Eaton and Democratic Election Commissioner Babette M. Hall.

“There was no copy and no single mention of it. It’s not even reflected in our annual report for that year,” Mr. Eaton said.

With an increased interest in the City Council race this year, the board worked hard to help candidates by creating the first-ever designating petition that conformed to the election law so candidates could get on the ballot.

“Up to this point in time, neither the City of Watertown nor the Board of Elections produced a standard petition that conformed to the 1920 law,” the commissioners wrote in a May news release.

There’s only one problem: there is no 1920 law anymore. It was repealed and replaced by the 1993 law.

The board apparently did all that work for nothing. And no one came forward to bring the discrepancy to the commissioners’ attention at the time, according to Mr. Eaton.

Then, in September, just days before the primary, Watertown Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham pointed out on his blog that the ballots the board had printed were incorrect. They instructed “Vote for any four” of the six candidates running when they should have said “Vote for any TWO,” according to Mr. Graham, who cited the 1920 law as his authority. The board hurriedly reprinted the ballots and got them out to absentee voters and to polling sites without another hiccup.

After the primary, board officials voiced dissatisfaction with the law, calling it antiquated and archaic. Then someone forwarded them a copy of the 1993 law.

“Needless to say, we were not pleased to find out about it,” Mr. Eaton said.

Mr. Graham, who was in office at the time the law was enacted, has advertised the fact that the 1993 law is available from the city and from the state.

But when the election commissioners tried to meet with city officials in April to discuss the election, they were turned away, Mr. Eaton and Ms. Hall said. Mr. Graham did try to meet with them, but since they were looking for a legal opinion on the matter, they said they didn’t feel that he was the appropriate person to meet with.

And on Tuesday, Mr. Graham said, “No one is going to have it at City Hall. ... It’s home rule legislation. ... It’s a state law.”

Mr. Eaton and Ms. Hall said they feel the law should be maintained by the city, while Mr. Graham holds that the law is a state law and is available from the state.

“The city’s supposed to provide us with their law and we run the election,” Mr. Eaton said. “It’s kind of incumbent on the city to protect the law and groom it and modernize it.”

The 1993 law is a condensed and updated version of the 1920 law. It does not include a requirement to alphabetize the names on a ballot and directs the board to match the city’s primary election to the state’s primary election in all other ways.

It still includes some problematic sections involving absentee ballots, according to Mr. Eaton.

Absentee ballots are printed and mailed more than a month before the election. But the city’s election law allows for a change in candidates up to the second Tuesday before the election, which can cause significant problems for the board. The law also should be updated to reflect the use of optical scan voting machines, Ms. Hall said.

And the law directs the city to pay for the election even though the county is footing the bill for this primary, Mr. Eaton said.

Other than that, the law is much more effective than the original version, board officials said.

Whatever the dispute between Mr. Graham and Mr. Eaton and Ms. Hall, one thing is for sure: The law is not likely to be lost again.

Any additional changes or revisions will have to go through City Council, which then would request home rule legislation from the state Legislature.

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