Friday, October 16, 2015

Surprise! Democracy Isn't All That Democratic

If a senator from NYS resigns from the Senate, the governor gets to replace him or her until the next statewide general election. Remember how when Hillary Clinton resigned to join the Cabinet, Governor Paterson kept Caroline Kennedy on the hook and finally settled on Kirsten Gillibrand? That wasn't pretty. He managed to irritate just about everybody, but the result was that Gillibrand got a leg up—running in November of 2010 as essentially an incumbent after nearly two years on the job. She beat the woman who primaried her 3 to 1. Not really fair, right?

If any NYS candidate drops dead prior to the election or otherwise cannot serve, a vacancy committee may choose his or her replacement on the ballot. Such a vacancy committee may consist of as few as two voters from that candidate's party in that jurisdiction. Typically there are three vacancy committee members on a local petition, but only a majority vote is required to fill the vacancy. A larger number of vacancy committee members may be listed for higher offices. Two people choosing a candidate? Hardly seems right.

In a town such as Dryden, which makes its nominations by caucus, it's quite possible to end up with a handful of people selecting the nominee. Caucuses are open to all voters from that Party in the town, but no amount of advertising seems to draw people to these public events. Most people don't know they exist. But this year, except for in Ithaca, at least one Party in each town selected candidates by caucus. Democrats in the Village of Dryden and Republicans in the Villages of Dryden and Groton also selected candidates by caucus. Sometimes it's an easy process. Sometimes nobody steps up until people convince their friends in the room to run. Usually it's over in half an hour. It's lively and interesting, but at present, it's hardly democratic. Dryden has around 2,270 registered Democrats this year. Maybe 25 attended our caucus—and that's a big number for us.

If you don't choose your candidates in a caucus, you do it by petition. In NYS, the number of signatures required on a petition for a village seat equals five percent of the number of enrolled voters of the Party residing in that village. The number of signatures required for a statewide seat equals five percent of the enrolled voters of the Party or 15,000, whichever is less. If a candidate does not knock on your door and request your signature, you very well may not know he or she is running until the petitions are filed. Again, is this democratic? Do you have any input into choosing such a candidate?

So we come to the situation Ithaca is facing now, with two county legislature seats up for grabs in a special election. Because the vacancies occurred prior to September 20, the special election can coincide with the general election; both will take place on November 3. And the rule is that candidates are chosen in a meeting of the members of the committees "in the political subdivision in which such vacancy is to be filled." Which is not to say that the members are "party chiefs" or "officials"; rather, they are people like me, who have petitioned or otherwise been selected to represent their election districts on the Democratic Committee. In Dryden's case, we have 30 such representatives; a choice of nominee could be made by the majority vote of a quorum—say, maybe by 8 people in all. But other towns and wards have far fewer representatives. A couple to a handful of people can choose the nominee. If there were an active Republican Party in Districts 2 and 4, they, too, could have selected nominees.

The election calendar is engraved in stone. We are allowed one primary election, this year on September 10, and one general election, this year on November 3. If vacancies happen after September 20, a special election may need to take place after the general election, as happened in 2007, when Dick Booth resigned from the county legislature in November to take a governor's appointment to the Adirondack Park Agency. Such special elections are rarely well attended; turnout in District 3 that year was 9 percent.

So there are many times when elections in NYS are less than democratic, from those where turnout is especially low to those when the governor gets to choose all by himself. People who are alarmed at the current situation in Districts 2 and 4 should perhaps be alarmed more generally.

I don't pretend to know how to make our electoral process more democratic. We committee members do the work of finding candidates, helping them to fill and file petitions, or setting up caucuses. We try to get out the vote in our towns and villages, making calls, sending postcards, and generally attempting to boost turnout where we can. The media help somewhat. They publish candidate interviews and letters to the editor, and they remind voters about upcoming elections. They could help more if they ever printed our requests for candidates; I've been told that such requests are "the Party's job." If that is true, of course, we are unlikely to find those candidates who aren't active in the Party or who don't otherwise put themselves forward.

I've seen a lot on social media this week about how "I should get to choose candidates; after all, I'm a registered voter." I don't disagree. If everyone thought that way, we'd have a lot more people come to our caucuses. We'd have more people active on their ward and town committees. We might even have more people step up and run. I'm sorry our NYS nominating processes are so quick and noninclusive. If you get to choose between two candidates in a primary, are you really "choosing a candidate"? If you look around at a caucus room of a dozen people and pick someone over the course of half an hour, are you really "choosing a candidate"? We committee members beat the bushes in the towns to find candidates to run for town and village offices and are lucky to find any. Is that "choosing a candidate"?

I'm grateful for every person on the ballot, no matter which Party he or she represents, because I know a little about how hard it is to find candidates and how daunting it is to run. I'm hoping that people channel their irk about the process into some kind of action, whether it's petitioning the county or state to change some rules, or it's learning more about how things work in other states and making some recommendations, or it's attending a caucus or helping with nominating petitions for the first time or working on a campaign or joining a committee or encouraging someone great to run for office. We live in a representative democracy that purports to be participatory. If you don't want representatives making choices for you, you'd better participate.


Anonymous said...

Allegations of mismanagement at the Tompkins County Soil & Water Conservation District continue to circulate as Election Day nears in the Town of Dryden.

Dryden Town Supervisor candidate Craig Schutt was district manager when New York state cut off funding to Soil & Water and the district was nearly dissolved. Schutt is running for office as an Independence Party candidate.

Ross said...

Thanks for this explanation!

Ross said...

Thanks for this explanation!

KAZ said...

You are welcome!