20TH CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT — Thousands of votes could be up for grabs in the race between U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, and Republican challenger Bob Dieterich as both are pursuing the Independence Party ballot line for the general election.
With about 23,000 enrolled Independence Party voters in the newly redrawn 20th Congressional District, which includes parts of Montgomery, Schenectady, Albany, Saratoga and Rensselaer counties, having the ballot line could mean the difference between victory and defeat.
Currently, Tonko is poised to be the Independence Party candidate because he has been endorsed by the party and has submitted more than the required 871 petition signatures to appear on the line, but Dieterich’s campaign is taking steps to prevent this from happening and to secure the line for him.
That effort began this week with the review of about 1,200 signatures Tonko’s campaign submitted to the state Board of Elections on Monday for the Independence Party nomination. Petitions are reviewed for any errors that might make them invalid, such as an unqualified signer or collector. Without enough valid Independence Party signatures, Tonko’s campaign would not be eligible to appear on that ballot line.
Dieterich spokesman Scott Hommel said the campaign has secured James Walsh — who served as campaign attorney for Roger Hull’s nearly successful Schenectady mayoral run — for this process and any other legal issues the campaign might confront. According to the state Board of Elections, though, no objections to any of Tonko’s petitions had been filed as of early Wednesday afternoon.
If a challenge is brought, Tonko spokesman Clinton Britt said they’re confident the petitions will be proven valid. He acknowledged there might be some minor mistakes with a few petitions, but stressed that with about 300 extra signatures submitted there shouldn’t be a problem passing the required threshold.
The Independence Party has until Friday to accept the petitions and grant Tonko a waiver to appear on the ballot this fall under their party designation.
Besides blocking that process, the Dieterich campaign is exploring a way on to the Independence Party line without the backing of the party.
They are expected to file today “opportunity to ballot” petitions, which could force a primary for the party’s nomination.
Collection of these petitions, Hommel said, has “been going fairly well.”
If there was a primary, Tonko’s name would appear on the ballot and Independence Party voters would have to write in Dieterich’s name.
State Board of Elections spokesman John Conklin said this would not be an insurmountable challenge for Dieterich because the race wouldn’t require that many votes. “It does occasionally work,” he said of the opportunity to ballot process.
The importance of this ballot spot varies from race to race, but in Tonko’s last campaign he generated almost 10,000 votes from the Independence line. Both campaigns agreed the spot is a valuable position in a close election.
Homell added that even without the Independence Party nomination, Dieterich would be able to attract independent-minded and Independence Party voters by contrasting his positions with Tonko’s record.
Britt countered that Tonko clearly supports independent thinking and good ideas, no matter what party they came from.