Imperfections of Democracy

By Edwin D. Reilly, Jr.
For the Sunday Gazette

         There is no way that Carol Moseley Braun will be the Democratic nominee for President, but she can turn a phrase with the best of her competitors. She says that the Presidential election of 2000 was decided by the African-American vote, the single vote of Clarence Thomas. That this was even possible illustrates how imperfect our alleged "democracy" can be. To select the incumbent of the highest office in the land, we use a system that weights real estate (the red states) more than population (the blue states). What kind of rational system would grant New York State, with 38 times the population of Wyoming, only ten times as many electoral votes? But that's what our Constitution does, and there is no hue and cry to change it. And, however "elected," an incumbent has enormous natural advantages over his or her challenger when seeking reelection.

            Now, I have nothing against incumbents; I was myself one nine of the ten times I ran for Niskayuna Supervisor. But the natural advantage of greater name recognition should never be augmented artificially and unfairly through election law. Imagine my surprise, then, when in our recent Niskayuna School Board election, two of the five candidates were conspicuously identified as "incumbents." Such an unfair ballot cannot hold a candle to the infamous 2000 "butterfly ballot" in Florida, but it will do for the purpose of illustration.

            The relevant section of Education Law, 2032b, states "The names of all candidates for each separate specific office shall be grouped together and at the top of each group shall be placed a description of the separate specific office for which such candidates are nominated, which description shall include at least the length of the term of office and the name of the last incumbent, if any, and in addition a direction that only one vote may be cast in each separate group."

            But our incumbents were not listed "at the top" of their one and only group, they were directly identified right below their names! Also, it is not clear what is meant by "last" incumbents; the two listed were current incumbents. I submit that the intent of the law was to cite, in a descriptive note at the top, the name of the prior incumbent not on the current ballot when there is a group of candidates vying for the remainder of a term now vacant through death, resignation, or a move out of the District. This interpretation is supported by the phrase "separate specific group." Since "only one vote may be cast in each separate group" and since two may be cast in the group seeking full terms, such a group is not a "separate" specific group and hence no one in it need be, or should be, identified as an incumbent.

          Another imperfection in democracy is New York State's unusual practice of letting a party "cross endorse" the candidate of another. This is not allowed in most other states and has two very unfortunate side effects. The least of these is that a candidate with only one line on the ballot often has to face an opponent who has four or more. The more insidious effect is that it lets parties with relatively small numbers of enrolled voters become tails that wag the "dogs," the bodies of Republican elephants or Democratic donkeys. Tertiary parties are all too prone to abandon their professed ideologies and give their endorsement to major party candidates who, if successful, are likely to grant them some material advantage in return. What gives these small parties such clout is that they so often provide the winning margin in a close election. There must, of course, be a mechanism that allows creation of new parties, but they should run their own candidates.

           A few years ago, a political party was formed that was allowed to call itself the "Independence Party." But election law reads: "The name and emblem chosen [for a political party] shall not be similar to or likely to create confusion with the name or emblem of any existing party or independent body." Now, the unorganized collection of registered but unenrolled voters who consider themselves "independents" may not be, by law, an "independent body," but they certainly are in fact. And there can be no doubt that enormous confusion has been caused by letting the name "Independence Party" stand. When I seek signatures on nominating petitions for candidates endorsed by that party, finding people who knowingly enrolled in it is very difficult. What most  thought they were doing when they selected "Independence" from a long list was declaring their independence of, not their adherence to, a particular party. Election Boards all over the State have had to stop using "I" in their rolls to designate "Independent" voters, give that letter to those that enroll in the "Independence" Party instead, and use the somewhat pejorative designation "B" (for Blank) for those that register but do not enroll in any party. I once called on what proved to be one of these inadvertent members of the Independence party, and his name happened to be "J. Blank." When I tried to convince him that he was indeed a bona fide member of that party he just gave me a Blank stare.

Edwin D. Reilly, Jr. lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette Opinion Page.