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Elections are Rigged

Which is why most incumbents won again

As usual incumbent politicians across New York State in the Senate and Assembly won re-election. The fact is that incumbents almost always win because running for public office is a rigged game. More state legislators have left office due to criminal charges over the past few years than due to losing an election.

95% of Incumbents Were Re-elected

The New York State Legislature consists of 63 Senators and 150 Assembly Members for a total of 213 districts. Twenty three seats in the State Legislature this election did not have an incumbent due to retirement, resignation to serve in another position, or resignation due to criminal conviction. Out of 190 incumbent legislators seeking re-election only nine lost. In other words 95 percent of incumbent state legislators were re-elected. It is easy to win an election when you do not have an opponent. Seventy three legislators or 39 percent of all incumbents did not have any opponent.

The 61 percent of incumbents that did have an opponent typically won big as very few races were even close. Out of the 190 incumbents seeking re-election only 15 had a race that was decided by a margin of 10 percent or less. In other words only 8 percent of incumbents had a race that was even competitive. Two democratic incumbent Senators did lose by a margin of more than 10 percent, which some attribute to the fact that the Republican Senate redistricting in 2012 made the districts more Republican. On average, incumbent legislators who won received 72 percent of the vote, which is victory by a landslide.

In Western New York, two out of five incumbent Senators did not have opponents. Seven out of eleven Assembly Members did not have an opponent. None of the races except for the Grisanti Senate seat were even close for any incumbent.

How Are Elections Rigged For Incumbents?

Redistricting—Every ten years by law state legislative districts are redrawn taking into account population changes. Each district is supposed to have approximately the same number of residents. The Democrats control the State Assembly so when their district lines are drawn they are done in a way to protect incumbent Democrats by having more democratic voters in a district than republican voters. The Republicans control the State Senate and likewise when district lines are drawn they protect incumbent Republicans.

How district lines are drawn is a key way that rigs and predetermines the outcomes of elections. Unfortunately the ballot proposition that voters approved creating a commission to draw district lines will not result in more competitive districts. Instead of legislators directly drawing the lines, a commission appointed by legislators will draw the lines.

Money—Incumbents have the power to influence legislation as such special interests and lobbyists donate large sums of campaign cash to incumbents. The lobbyists know that incumbents win 95 percent of the time so they rarely send money to non-incumbents.

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, Erie County Water Authority etc., that provide assistance. Challengers typically do not have access to an army of paid volunteers.

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 virtually 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 Re-districting 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 six to one 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 8 years (two 4 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% 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.

Paul Wolf is an attorney and the founder of the non-profit Center for Reinventing Government,

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