What if they held an election and no one ran?  The majority of elections in Erie County this year are uncontested.

Amid all the political fighting and challenges that we have seen in this country in recent years there has been a strange counter phenomenon: voter participation is relatively low.  This has been true in most recent presidential elections (the 62 percent turnout nationally in 2020 among the voting age population was somewhat of an anomaly); in the race for New York governor in 2018 (48 percent); and multiple local elections in Western New York, including this year’s Democratic primary for mayor of Buffalo (21.8 percent).

There are many reasons for low turnouts which pretty much all come down to a voter lack of interest; the “what’s the point of voting, nothing changes” excuse; or “there is no difference between the candidates”; or “my candidate lost his/her primary so I’m sitting this one out.”

All this occurs in New York State despite increased opportunities to vote with early voting, and soon perhaps, same day registration and no excuse needed absentee voting (constitutional propositions are on this year’s state ballot to extend those rights).  Of course, for folks living in Texas, Georgia, Florida and many other Republican controlled states things are headed in the opposite direction as the party does all it can to restrict and limit voting.

But there may be one other significant development that depresses turnout:  many elections are not being contested.  We might think that is something out of Russia or some other authoritarian countries, but it very often happens right here in the USA.

The House of Representatives has 435 members and all seats are up for election every two years.  In 2020 13 of those elections had only one candidate.  The Cook Report, which does a running analysis of all House races, said in October 2020 that just 26 seats were considered toss-ups; they considered less than one of every eight seats to be competitive.

In the New York State Legislature last year all 213 seats in the Assembly and the Senate were on the ballot but elections in 64 of the districts were not contested.  In other seats there may have been more than one name on the ballot but the second or third candidates were on minor party or independent lines.

A major reason for there being so many uncontested or non-competitive House and State Legislature seats is the gerrymandering of districts by the parties in power in the states when it comes time to redraw district lines after the federal census.  Things are often stacked for one party or the other before anyone even thinks about running.

Then there are the local elections.  Gerrymandering plays little to no role in such elections, but nonetheless many public offices are filled without a contest.

In Erie County in 2021 there will be 146 public offices on the ballot, ranging from State Supreme Court to town clerk positions.  The public focus this year has been on the campaigns for mayor of Buffalo plus Erie County sheriff and comptroller, but otherwise candidates are lacking everywhere.  Here are the facts in Erie County:

  • There are only contested races for 66 public offices out of 146 positions on the ballot.  That means that for 55 percent of those offices we already know the winners.
  • There are no contested local elections in seven towns.  Republican candidates have effectively been elected to positions including supervisor, council member, clerk, highway superintendent and justice.
  • There is an election for two village trustee seats in Kenmore plus the village justice.  Congratulations to the Democrats for those positions who have in effect already been elected in the absence of other candidates.
  • Only six of the eleven seats on the Erie County Legislature have both Republican and Democratic candidates.  Three Democrats and two Republican candidates are effectively already elected.
  • The four State Supreme Court seats of the ballot in the 8th Judicial District in Western New York are carrying on the time honored tradition of being uncontested, all the candidates having been cross-endorsed by the Democratic and Republican parties.  Just one of the seats has an incumbent judge. 

Back in the day, meaning as recently as the 1980’s and 1990’s party committees almost always found someone to carry the flag for the party for almost every office, even when the prospects of winning were not great.  General election turnouts in Buffalo and Erie County were often in the 60-70 percent range.

So what about the lack of candidates?  It starts with the party organizations.  I wouldn’t minimize the hard work that is often necessary to recruit candidates.  It is not unusual for prospective candidates to want to know what kind of support their party will provide them.  Such resources are often not available or there are higher priorities for the party to consider.

Then there is the reality that one-sided party enrollments in the various jurisdictions discourage candidacies.  Thus there is almost never a Republican candidate on the ballot in Buffalo; there is one listed for city court judge this year but she is actually on all four party lines.  The same lack of competitiveness is true for Democrats in places like Brant and Sardinia.

When parties don’t put up candidates for local offices there are collateral negative effects.  Countywide candidates have less potential support for their candidacies when some of the party faithful stay home.

I guess I’m old-fashioned but I think that parties and communities all benefit from spirited political competition everywhere.  I’m not holding my breath, however, that previous levels of competition will return any time soon.

Early voting starts on October 23

Here are links to early voting information from the Erie County Board of Elections and the Niagara County Board of Elections.

Follow me on Twitter @kenkruly

I am not a member of any organized party — I am a Democrat.

Will Rogers’ quote about being a Democrat is often repeated.  More true today than it has been in a while.

This country has some important problems to deal with.  I’ll let you take your choice of how you rank them.  In some cases there are local and state solutions available.  More often than not, however, those problems find their way to Washington, the one place in America that is least likely to find a solution to anything.

The nonstop fighting that has been going on for months occasionally crosses the political aisle.  Lately it has been dominated by intramural arguments among congressional Democrats.  Moderate Democrats in the Senate cobbled together a bi-partisan infrastructure bill affectionately known as BIF, which is designed to repair highways, bridges, airports, water and sewer lines and like-minded things.  The Senate bill would cost something in the neighborhood of $1,000,000,000,000; does one trillion dollars look better in words or numbers?  The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 69 to 30, and that’s where it stands at the moment.

The House of Representatives isn’t on the same page.  While BIF seems to be acceptable to most Democrats, and maybe even a few Republicans, House Democrats are divided nearly in half by the so-called moderates and the so-called progressives.

The moderate Democrats want a vote on BIF like last week, or in the alternative, immediately.  Progressives say not so fast.

The holdup is because of disagreements about another big piece of legislation, the human infrastructure bill, aka Build Back Better or BBB.  BBB is intended to provide substantial funding for many social and environmental matters including additions to Medicare and Medicaid coverage, child care, climate control, free community college, etc.

BBB is not likely to attract any Republican support.  There is constant talk about Senate Democrats abolishing the filibuster process to make approval somewhat easier.  The alternative is budget reconciliation, which needs only majority vote approval in the Senate – how quaint. 

While many if not most of the program areas covered by the proposal have substantial Democratic support in both the House and the Senate, the big intramural fighting is about the size of the bill and the programs included.  The dollar range is pretty large.  The low end of support is something in the neighborhood of $1.5 trillion.  The high end of spectrum is currently about $3.5 trillion although Senator Bernie Sanders says it should be $6 trillion.  President Joe Biden is talking about a $2 trillion bill.

There are at least four major complications to getting a BBB bill resolved:

  • The lower the amount of the total bill, the more programs need to be cut back or eliminated.  Getting agreement on such things is difficult or maybe impossible.
  • Some of the programs are what are considered non-starters by a least one of more Democratic members of the House and Senate, all of whom basically having veto power over any agreement that might be reached by party leadership.
  • The Senate has 50 Democrats.  The House Democratic caucus has a three vote margin.  Those are not FDR or LBJ numbers so doing anything takes some luck and magic.  Biden is savvy in the ways of the Senate but he is no magician.  Neither is Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
  • Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

The current BBB debate means nothing to most people.  There is lots of public support for the programs contained in BIF and the subjects are pretty well understood.  Not so with BBB.  Words like reconciliation and filibuster get thrown around a lot and that tells most voters nothing they need to know.  They need to know what’s in it for them and maybe how much does it cost.

To give themselves any sort of fighting chance in next year’s mid-term elections Democrats need to clarify what the programs will do for people, choose the preferred programs smartly, and get to a number supportable by majorities in the House and Senate.  Many of the proposals, properly explained, draw wide support in polling.  That can only translate into votes in 2022, however, if congressional Democrats can come together to pass something and then explain what the legislation does in plain English.  And the sooner the better.

That is much harder said than done.  There is lots of not-so-subtle animosity among the members.  Sanders could not even bring himself to sign off on a statement saying that it was wrong for protesters to follow Senator Sinema into a restroom because he wanted the statement to also criticize Sinema’s policy stances too.  Come on Bernie, lighten up.

As regular readers of this blog know, I am a Democrat.  I don’t enjoy highlighting the problems the party has these days but the discussion needs to be had.

For my Republican friends who are smiling at all this, please remember that in the past six years the far-right members of the so-called Freedom Caucus raised a lot of hell and drove two House Speakers, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, out of office.  How many times did the Trump White House talk about infrastructure week?  And then there is the party’s defense of the Big Lie and the January 6th insurrection.

Where this is all heading is anybody’s guess.  BBB and BIF could all get worked out if Democrats can come to the realization that the legislation is too important to fail.  Take what you can achieve this year and then work to elect more Democrats next year for another shot at things in 2023.  At this time, unfortunately, too many Democratic members of Congress can’t get past the idea that the good should not get in the way of the perfect.  If that can’t get figured out then all of this time and discussion has been wasted.