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Efforts underway to increase blue votes across East End

A grassroots effort is underway among political activists to persuade second-home owners across the North Fork to register to vote here rather than at their primary residences.

The goal, organizers said, is to shift a predominantly Republican area toward the Democratic side, increase public engagement in elections and educate second-home owners about their right to vote here.

“They live here [and] they deserve a voice in our community,” said Katherine Casey of Greenport, who is part of a network of people working independently on voting efforts. “It’s part of our civic responsibility to help educate people about their opportunities to participate in the communities in which they live.”

New York State permits people to vote in a district where they own a second home, although voting can’t be split between two locations. Voter registration does not serve as proof of primary residence, according to a 2008 state appellate court decision that said that the homeowner’s intent and personal connection to the home was what mattered most, not the address on their driver’s license.

Ms. Casey also works to increase overall voter registration on the North Fork, including among those who recently turned 18 and other residents who are not yet registered.

“One thing we are really focusing on is hyperlocal [involvement] and getting people to learn about the Nov. 7 election,” she said. “The more engaged people are locally, the more they’ll continue to be engaged in the state and national level in the future.

“A lot of people from the city might feel like their vote doesn’t have as much of an impact, but out here it actually can have more of an impact and I think people are motivated by that,” Ms. Casey said.

Voting in both Riverhead and Southold towns has leaned Republican in recent elections. In the 2016 general election, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump won the majority of votes in both towns, as did Mitt Romney in 2012.

Mr. Trump won 58 percent of the vote across Riverhead Town, according to the Suffolk County Board of Elections, and 53 percent in Southold Town.

“I know it’s legal to do that but I find that it’s really unfair because a person should vote where their legal residence is, not where their vacation home is,” said Riverhead Republican Committee chairman Remy Bell. “I think in the future it is something that could be concerning to the Republican Party if that does happen.”

Riverhead has 7,754 active Republicans and 5,834 active Democrats and Southold has 6,210 active Republicans with only 4,523 active Democrats, according to the most recent data from the Board of Elections.

Jane Flinter of Mattituck is working with Vote Smart NY, an organization dedicated to educating residents about their public officials, to locate Democratic second-home owners on the North Fork. Through public records, the organization found about 500 people to whom volunteers will speak about their voting registration.

“I have to do what I feel is right,” Ms. Flinter said. “I think partly because of the fierce independence of some of the people of the North Fork, they prefer the hands-off government kind of thing.”

She said her biggest goal is to give Democrats a fighting chance. Ms. Flinter expressed concern about two major issues on the North Fork: the environment and immigration. She believes in increasing work visa programs to keep the process legal.

“I get a definite sense that there’s an anti-immigration feeling, and I can’t imagine the North Fork without the Latino population,” Ms. Flinter said. “They are vital to our economy and it creates diversity.”

“The East End Democrats have been trying this for well over a decade, with negligible results,” Southold Town GOP chairman Peter McGreevy said. “In effect, having failed to win votes from actual full-time residents of Southold, they are now turning to residents of New York City in an attempt to bail them out. What they should realize is that in Southold, most people vote for the candidate, not the party. Get good candidates and you don’t have to resort to these games.”

He also brought up the point that countywide over 3,000 registered Democrats changed their party to Republican, while only 1,500 Republicans changed to Democrat.

“The real voter swing is there, not a few dozen second-home owners on the East End, most of whom never actually show up to vote,” Mr. McGreevy said. “It’s a fool’s errand.”

Ms. Flinter noted that second-home owners are paying heavy taxes and don’t even use all the resources in their communities, especially schools.

“This particular organization is inviting second-home owners to exercise their right,” Ms. Flinter said. “They are an important, significant part of the community here.”

Indivisible North Fork, an activist group based in Riverhead, also aims to increase liberal representation in 2018 and urges greater involvement in local politics. There are currently 12 people involved in this group.

Laura Venugopalan of Riverhead, a member of Indivisible North Fork, shared similar goals of turning an overwhelmingly red area blue.

“That blue vote is going to weigh more out here on the East End than it would in the city,” she explained.

The group formed in February as a reaction to Mr. Trump’s election.

“We were not happy about his election to office and we wanted to do something to resist and be vocal about our disagreement,” Ms. Venugopalan said.

Members of her group are also using a list provided by Vote Smart NY to locate prospective voters. Ms. Venugopalan said the group could use more help.

“We haven’t hit that many doors yet. We’re lacking volunteers,” she said. “We need more bodies.”

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Photo: Primary voting took place Tuesday at Mattituck High School. Local efforts are underway to shift the region from Republican to Democratic. (Credit: Rachel Siford)