ITHACA, N.Y. –– As the final results were returned in the primary race for Tompkins County District Attorney Monday night, an overwhelming amount of absentee ballots waiting to be counted propelled incumbent Matt Van Houten to victory over his opponent Ed Kopko.

Early returns showed Kopko ahead by over 500 votes based on in-person voting. The final results after affidavit and absentee ballots were counted ended in an even smaller margin, with Van Houten overtaking Kopko by just 345 votes.

This is the second time the two have run against one another –– Kopko ran unsuccessfully against Van Houten as an Independent in 2016.

“I am honored and humbled to receive the Democratic nomination for Tompkins County District Attorney. This result represents a victory for truth,” Van Houten said in a statement. “I have listened carefully and paid close attention during the campaign and I will continue to do so. I embrace the opportunity to participate in the meaningful and significant change that is happening in our public safety system here in Tompkins County.”

Much of the race over the last few months has been focused on issues regarding race and law enforcement, made even more contentious following recent protests and rallies for racial justice in the Ithaca community.

Throughout the campaign season, Kopko took every opportunity to bring up Van Houten’s missteps involving last year’s Commons case and a perceived inclination to protect law enforcement, while Van Houten continually challenged his opponent’s claims and brought into question Kopko’s credibility by highlighting actions at odds with his progressive platform, including a murky defamation suit brought against a victim of sexual assault.

Notably, a staggering 2,447 of the ballots cast countywide were undervotes, meaning nearly 18% of voters declining to choose between the two.

Despite the defeat, Kopko feels his campaign had a positive impact on the ongoing community conversation regarding race and the criminal justice system.

“I’m delighted that I was able to elevate the public discourse on crucial matters relating to the criminal justice system, and I’m even more pleased with the enthusiastic response and embrace from thousands of voters,” Kopko said on Tuesday. “I’m delighted the voters had a real choice in the type of law enforcement and criminal justice they want in Tompkins County.”

When asked if he would run again in the future, he said he would consider it.

“I’m encouraged to think that after this last election that the people’s view of the criminal justice system is moving closer to my view of it,” he said. “So I would most certainly consider running again.”

Correction: the original version of this article stated that Van Houten had been nominated by former DA Gwen Wilkinson to run on the Democratic ticket.

Anna Lamb

Anna Lamb is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at alamb@ithacavoice.com