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Stakes remain high in Livingston Co. DA race

Livingston County district attorney candidates Steven Sessler, left, and Eric Schiener, center, along with Schiener’s attorney, Robert Shaddock, await the counting of an unopened ballot. Mike Murphy

The contested Republican primary race for Livingston County district attorney not only is an example of the influence of local party committees but the importance of residents exercising their right to vote, according to a local political science professor.

The campaign and subsequent court drama associated with the battle between endorsed GOP candidate Eric Schiener and challenger Steven Sessler also provides a lesson on how rules matter in elections, said Timothy W. Kneeland, professor of history and political science at Nazareth College and director of the Center for Public History.

The two candidates deadlocked, again, with 1,881 votes apiece after three absentee ballots were ordered to be officially counted after a ruling Friday by state Supreme Court Justice John J. Ark. Both camps were in Justice Ark’s court Sept. 26.

The county Board of Elections on Monday morning in Geneseo opened an unsealed absentee ballot, which as it turned out was cast for Schiener. The two others counted were cast for Sessler.

By state law, a victor was to be decided by the committee, which was scheduled to meet Monday night.

“The procedure for guaranteeing the integrity of the voting process led to the case landing in court in which a handful of absentee ballots was needed to determine the outcome,” Kneeland said.

The result also set up a difficult decision for committee members.

The committee had voted 9-1 in favor of Schiener, but failed to avoid a primary, Kneeland said.

Although both candidates said Monday they were confident heading into the committee decision, they understood just how things have changed in the days since the primary election Sept. 13 and their attempt to run against incumbent DA Gregory J. McCaffrey, a Democrat.

Sessler led by 19 votes after the polls closed. Schiener was thought to have forged a tie after the absentee ballots were counted Sept. 19.

A counting error was discovered, however, and Schiener led by one vote as of last week.

Although he failed to gain the committee’s endorsement at first, Sessler said the number of people who voted for him changed everything.

If he’s learned anything, Schiener said it’s that one can never be too confident, although he noted he carried 40 of 63 election districts and 12 of the 17 towns in the county.

The committee decision revolved around two scenarios.

By selecting Sessler, who is running on the Conservative Party line, their candidate would run on two lines. By selecting Schiener, the GOP risks a three-way race, with Schiener and Sessler splitting votes and McCaffrey possibly winning the overall race.

“This is a great example of the power and limits of local party committees,” Kneeland said.

The court challenges and political strategy also demonstrate the importance of the race.

District attorneys not only enforce the law, but also have discretion on the applications of laws, Kneeland said.

“These are powerful positions that have political overtones,” Kneeland said. “Furthermore, the position as a DA has been the springboard for federal judgeships and elected office. Thus, the stakes are very high.”