Sadly our election process is a rigged game where an incumbent losing is a rare event. In most years incumbents win 90 plus percent of the time, with one or two losing. Tuesday’s election with few contested races and a record low turn-out was a 100 percent success for incumbent politicians in the City of Buffalo, Erie County and Niagara County.
The Best Election Is No Election
The number of races where voters were not given an opportunity to make a difference was incredible:
■ Erie County Supreme Court—Two candidates running for two positions. Political party bosses who control the selection of convention delegates, worked together to ensure that voters would not decide who fills these two important positions.
■ Erie County Legislature—Only two legislators out of eleven had serious opposition. Not a single incumbent lost.
■ City of Buffalo—A City Court Judge position, City Comptroller and four Councilmembers were elected without any opposition. Not a single incumbent lost.
■ Niagara County—Eight out of fifteen county legislators ran without any opposition and not a single incumbent legislator lost. Voters were not given any choice for the positions of Niagara County District Attorney and Niagara Falls City Court. The incumbent Mayors of Niagara Falls, Lockport and North Tonawanda were all re-elected.
The dictionary definition of Democracy is: “A government by the people,” “rule of the majority.” With fewer and fewer contested races and fewer people voting, we are moving further away from a functioning Democracy. In Erie and Niagara counties only twenty three percent of voters took the time or interest to show up at a voting booth. Twenty years ago I had a conversation with Carl Perla who represented the Niagara Council district in Buffalo who once told me “the best election is no election.” Perla would love how things are today, as instead of elections we seem to be having coronations.
How Elections Are Rigged For Incumbents
Redistricting—Every ten years by law city/county legislative districts are redrawn taking into account population changes. Each district is supposed to have approximately the same number of residents. Whichever political party or incumbent is in control at the time district lines are drawn makes sure such changes are done to maintain their power. How district lines are drawn is a key way that rigs and predetermines the outcomes of elections. Many districts are intentionally drawn to be overly Democratic or Republican, making it virtually impossible for an incumbent to lose.
Money—Incumbents have power and influence over legislation, contracts and various items that come before them, and as such, special interests and lobbyists donate campaign cash to incumbents. The lobbyists know that incumbents win almost all of the time so they rarely send money to non-incumbents. In most races challengers are vastly out spent.
Patronage—Incumbents have paid staff in their offices that will obtain petition signatures, do literature drops, make phone calls etc. Incumbents also have access to other patronage employees through party headquarters, the Board of Elections, County Water Authority etc., that provide assistance. Challengers typically do not have access to an army of paid volunteers, which makes getting on the ballot to run difficult.
Name Recognition—Incumbents, while serving in office for years, get to build up their name recognition through taxpayer-paid mailings, distributing tax dollars to various organizations and projects, free publicity through press releases and ribbon cutting press conferences. It is practically impossible for a non-incumbent to obtain free publicity during a campaign.
How Do We Make Elections More Competitive?
Independent Re-Districting—The drawing of district lines needs to be taken away from self interested legislators. A truly independent commission—not one appointed by legislators—needs to be created. California utilizes an interesting process where individuals who want to serve on the Redistricting Commission submit applications. The applicants are reviewed by a panel of three independent auditors. People cannot serve on the Commission if they or members of their immediate family have sought or served in an elected position, have donated to a political campaign, worked as a lobbyist or work for a company that has government contracts. A list of 60 names is produced and then names are randomly drawn to serve on the Commission.
Public Financing of Elections—People give money to a candidate because they want something whether it is a job, a tax break, a change in a law or regulation. The several hundred people who fund campaigns get special access and special treatment from government officials. Their interests and the public interest are not the same. We need independent candidates not beholden to party bosses or special interests to seek public office. We need individuals who are not afraid to challenge the status quo or to propose new ideas. Such candidates are not able to compete for public office because special interests will not fund them.
New York City has created an effective and well run public financing of elections program. In order to receive public funds, candidates have to get on the ballot and raise a certain threshold of money from small donors (under $175), which is then matched on a 6 to 1 basis. A $175 contribution then becomes $1,050 with public matching funds. This system makes small donors important, and allows more candidates to compete and be heard.
Term Limits—Public service should not be a career, for as we know power corrupts. Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers had concerns about people remaining in elected office too long. Our country’s first Constitution, the Articles of Confederation, at Jefferson’s insistence limited federal office holders to serving three years. By tradition, for over 150 years and then by Constitutional requirement, the President of the United States only served a maximum of eight years (two four-year terms). Most incumbents leave by criminal arrest, death or by their own retirement after many years in office. If we don’t force people out of office they simply won’t leave, and with a 95 percent re-election rate it is virtually impossible to defeat an incumbent.
Required Debates—In every election there is a debate on whether the incumbent will agree to debate their opponents. Incumbents with all of the above mentioned advantages do not want to provide any media exposure to their challengers, so they typically refuse to debate or only agree to one debate. An important part of the democratic process is for the media and the public to see candidates speak and answer questions in a debate setting. A law needs to be passed requiring candidates to engage in debates when seeking a public office.
Any candidate that receives public funding in New York City is required to participate in two debates before the primary election and two debates before the general election. Such debates in my opinion should also include minor party candidates and not just be a debate between the Democratic and Republican candidates.
Clearly steps have to be taken to bring back meaningful competitive elections and not coronations.
Paul Wolf is an attorney and the founder of the non-profit Center for Reinventing Government, www.reinventinggov.org.