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
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