CAROLINE, N.Y.—Residents in the Town of Caroline, a rural community east of Ithaca, voted for the incumbent candidates in the Democratic primary election Tuesday, despite widespread community organizing efforts to oust them.
The results follow a lengthy and emotional battle between residents who oppose adopting a zoning ordinance and elected officials who believe enacting zoning laws in the town is necessary.
Those against zoning have been organizing via in-person meetings and social media sites, protesting outside Town Hall and communicating their distaste to incumbent town board members since 2021.
The Town Board in Caroline has four members with four-year terms, with two positions up for grabs in the Democratic primary. Incumbents Tim Murray and Kate Kelley-Mackenzie both won the nomination for the general election in November. Murray received 465 votes in his favor, which accounted for about 32% of total votes in the town. Kelley-Mackenzie received 492 votes, around 34% of total votes.
Ballots cast in support of the two challenging candidates, both who largely were supported by residents in opposition to zoning, made up about 33% of the total. Megan Slatoff-Burke received 228 votes and Kathryn Mix received 253. It is unclear whether or not Slatoff-Burke or Mix will run for Town Board again in the general election as either Republicans or third-party candidates.
For town supervisor, voters cast ballots for incumbent Mark Witmer, who received 429 votes, which makes up about 67% of the total ballots cast in the town, according to results released Tuesday night by the Tompkins County Board of Elections (TCBOE). His name will appear on the ballot for the general election in November. His challenger, single-mother and long-time Democrat, Tonya VanCamp, received 240 votes.
Witmer said he is “very happy” with the results, and in a way, “it’s a validation.”
He said he “felt good about this election” and that he feels the same about the upcoming November election.
Stakes increased in Feb. of this year, when 74 registered Republican, or Independent, voters in Caroline switched their political party affiliations to Democrat, in order to vote in the primary to support the challengers.
The switch was at the request of Pete Hoyt, a former town board member and town supervisor candidate, who urged the audience at a community meeting to join him and “a few others” in making the switch.
A couple months later, Linda Hoffman, chair of the Tompkins County Democratic Committee (TCDC), declared Hoyt’s actions illegal in a letter she wrote to Matthew Van Houten, Tompkins County District Attorney, in April.
Van Houten responded to Hoffman via letter in May and wrote that Hoyt’s actions, while “morally questionable,” were not in violation of New York State election law.
Voter turnout on Tuesday in Caroline was larger than it has been in previous primaries, with 735 ballots cast. In 2022, only 334 ballots were cast, according to election results from the Tompkins County Board of Elections (TCBOE).
Facebook groups created by organizers against enacting a zoning law were active throughout election day on Tuesday. Residents wrote in public threads about high turnout, and a handful wrote that select polling locations ran out of “I Voted!” stickers before 1 p.m. Some long-time residents wrote about waiting in a line to vote in the morning for the first time ever.
While incumbent candidates were victorious, posts from residents in Facebook groups make it clear organizers and the new candidates are not planning to stop fighting for representation.
Organizers who supported the new candidates continued to share posts on the community Facebook groups after results were released. A handful of group members wrote statements like “We always have November!” and “We lost the primaries, but the numbers are good for November! It’ll be a close race!”
Residents who have felt politically excluded from decision-making, particularly regarding drafting and approving a zoning ordinance, attempted to circumvent the status-quo in this primary election.
They did so by supporting new candidates, organizing and changing political parties. According to comments and posts on Facebook, they do not plan to stop before the November election.
The Ithaca Voice reached out to all three new candidates who ran against incumbent candidates in the primary and received no on the record response before the publication of this article.