Friday, September 23, 2005

Fiasco

BUT FIRST Before turning to the main business of this blog, yr obdt svt ventures to share with you-all his sense of exasperation over technical problems that caused long delays and many oaths and imprecations before posting. Furthermore: BE WARNED. On October 1st, all fees related to motor vehicles will go up. Big time. Included are fees for photocopying documents (from $5 to $10), original title ($10-$50!), duplicating titles ($10-$20), mobile home title ($25-$125!), dealer issued plates ($50 per box-$125) and, well, everything else. Moreover, civil penalties for lapses in vehicle insurance go up steeply. BE THERE. A superb exhibition of photographs--"1000 Families: The Family Album of Planet Earth"--opens tonight at, and around, and near, the Brik gallery in Catskill (473 Main Street). The maker of this marvelous collection, Uwe Ommer, will be there for the 6-8 pm. opening party. The show--or as much of it as can be moved indoors--will be on view until the end of October. AND NOW... GreeneLand’s taxpayers were subjected last Tuesday week (9/13) to an exercise in futility. They funded “primary elections” (to use the conventional label), in which an overwhelming majority of registered voters could not participate. They paid for county-wide elections in which eight out of nine of the eligible voters did not participate. They paid for political contests in which the participants’ votes decided nothing. In the southernmost voting district of Cementon, four paid inspectors waited all day, as they were obliged legally to do, in case the two repeat TWO residents who were eligible to vote there chose to do so. They waited in vain. In the 5th (little red schoolhouse) voting station in Catskill, similarly, turnout among the eligibles was zero. In another district the total turnout was one. At latest count, 29,720 people were classed by registration and past participation as active GreeneLand voters. But in Tuesday’s elections, only 1024 of those individuals were eligible to participate. They included the 860 GreeneLanders who are registered adherents of the Conservative Party, the 61 county residents who adhere to the Working Families Party, and the 103 Athenians who are registered Independence Party members. To accommodate those prospective voters as mandated by State law, the Elections Commissioners (Frank DeBenedictus and Tom Burke) established 29 polling stations, each staffed by the required number of inspectors (four at each). Thus, 116 trained inspectors were on site, each paid, each duty-bound to be there all day. At the end of the day, votes at those 29 stations had been cast by 142 Conservatives, by 7 (s-e-v-e-n) WoFams, and by 14 Indies. Each vote in effect cost the taxpayers more than $80. For all intents and purposes, those voters made decisions that were devoid of consequence. They decided who would be named, on the forthcoming general election ballot, as the designated nominees of the Conservative and the Working Families parties for county judge, as the Independence Party nominee for Athens Town Supervisor, and as Conservative nominees for local offices in Athens (supervisor) and Cairo (supervisor, justice, councilman). But the names of the winners of those contests would have appeared on the general election ballot anyway; and so would the names of the losers. The contestants already had earned Republican and Democratic designations on the general election ballot (thanks to party caucus nominations that were not challenged by petitions that could have led to more primary contests). All that Tuesday’s winners gained was “second line”candidacy on behalf of a minor party. Thus, George J. Pulver Jr. already is the Republican nominee for county judge, and Eugenia M. Brennan already is the Democratic nominee. The primary election enabled Pulver to be designated also as the Conservative nominee (thanks to receiving 91 votes by registered Conservatives to Brennan’s 50), while Brennan gained the WFP nomination (by six votes to one). Consequently, Pulver’s name will appear on the general election ballot as the Republican and the Conservative nominee while Brennan’s name appears as the Democratic and the WFP nominee. In Athens, Albert Salvino won the Independence Party designation for town supervisor, by 9 votes to Richard Surrano’s 5, while Surrano won the Conservative Party nomination over Salvino by 22 votes to one. In Cairo, the primary election contests resulted in the selections of Joseph Calcavecchia as Conservative nominee for town supervisor (by 22 votes to 11 for Kathy Jurgens); of Tom Baldwin for town justice (by 8 votes to one apiece for “Mary Tarpanion” and Mike Flynn); and of Alice Tuneson and “Mary Tarpinion” for town council offices (by 10 votes apiece over 6 each for Paul Schirico and Ray Suttmeier). (Would those two Marys actually be Margaret Tarpinian?). But in none of these cases is it likely that having a second party line is crucial to a candidate’s success. Indeed, registered Conservatives and WoFams, along with Independencians, collectively are out-numbered by registered Republicans, by registered Democrats, and even by the GreeneLand voters who adhere to no party. How did such a debacle, such a waste of resources, come to pass? Don’t blame the Elections Commissioners. They did not make the laws that they faithfully executed. Indeed, they did their best, by way of the number of polling stations they established, to lighten the taxpayers’ load. And they have tried, in conjunction with their counterparts across the State, to get the legislators to amend the laws that allow such waste of resources. If you want to make a case against the Elections Commissioners, scold them for not being loud enough, nasty enough, toward the candidates and their handlers who, by choosing to compete frivolously for minor-party nominations, set in motion an elaborately pointless operation. Do blame the contestants, then--a little. They could have refrained from bidding for ‘second’ party lines on the November ballot, when they already owned major-party designations and they had no solid reason to believe that the extra line would make a crucial difference. But at the same time, they can scarcely be blamed for feeling insecure about their prospects and for responding to uncertainty by utilizing every legal device that could conceivably bring electoral advantage. Most blameworthy for our late election fiasco, really, is The System. What happened was made possible by provisions of New York State’s election laws. The offending provisions are products historically of commendable drives to (i) prevent the two major parties from having a stranglehold on general election ballots, and (ii) prevent the governing committees of those parties from running roughshod over rank-and-file members. The former value is served by rules making it fairly easy, by means of petition signatures of a prescribed number, to create what the Election Commissioners recognize as a political party (Conservative, Socialist Labor, Progressive, Reform…) whose name shall be placed on a line on the general election ballot, parallel to the names of its designated candidates for public office (candidates who also may be nominees on other parties’ lines). The second value is served by rules limiting the power of party leaders to decide who shall be their party’s designated nominee for a given office. Thus, a candidate can become the party’s nominee, identified as such on the general election ballot, by winning endorsement at an officially recognized party caucus. That is just how many candidates do become nominees. County-wide committees of Republicans and Democrats respectively endorsed Pulver and Brennan for election to county judge. But the endorsement suffices legally only if it is not effectively challenged. If another Republican had sought to become his party’s candidate for county judge, he could have challenged the endorsement of Pulver by gathering from registered GreeneLand Republicans a prescribed quota of signatures, namely 5 per cent of the.party’s enrollment. If he had done so, the Elections Board would have been obliged to conduct a county-wide Republican primary election. Contests of that sort are regular occurrences, especially when the office sought is as mighty as Congressman or Governor or Mayor of New York City. What happened in GreeneLand last Tuesday was that while there were no challenges over Republican or Democratic nominations for county judge and for local offices, there were challenges over Conservative and Working Families nominations (plus Independence Party nomination for town supervisor in Athens). The required quotas of signatures were collected, so the challenges became effective, at least to the point where the Commissioners of Elections were obliged to set up polling booths all over the county for convenience of just a few voters. Such travesties can be forestalled. They can be forestalled without bringing in bad side effects. They require changes in State law. Two approaches could be taken. (i) Raise thresholds. One approach consists simply of increasing the volume of popular support, in the form of petition signatures, that a candidate needs in order to trigger a primary election contest. The current threshold, 5 per cent of enrolled party members, is absurdly low when the prospective contest is a minor-party contest. Thus, only valid 43 signatures by registered Conservatives (860 in number) were needed in order to prompt a county-wide primary election contest for the county judge nomination. The quotas for minor parties (who registered supporters number less than 10 per cent of all registered voters, and/or whose electoral support at the last general election came to less than 10 per cent of votes cast) should be much higher. The higher requirement would not snuff out minor parties; it would only forestall publicly funded contests over minor party nominations. (ii) Eliminate party lines. Much more comprehensive, easy to do, certain of effect, and attractive financially would be the simple step of eliminating the practice of identifying, on the general election ballot,the party affiliations of candidates for public office. Thus, candidates would be grouped by office sought and would be identified only by name. Nobody is identified officially as the Republican, the Democratic or the Progressive candidate. That simple measure would be rich in economizing, simplifying consequences. When nobody is entitled to a party label on the general election ballot; public officials do not need rules governing the allocation of those precious labels. They would not need rules for deciding what procedures by party committees qualify as valid candidate-nominating procedures. They would not need to decide when there shall be primary elections. There would be no primary elections. After all, the only purpose served by those elections is to assign party labels on the general election ballot. Political parties would still exist, and indeed would thrive. But they would be private clubs. Their members are peculiarly preoccupied with public policies and public offices. They would be free to mobilize volunteers and frame programs, to recruit candidates, to make endorsements contingent on promises not to run independently if not endorsed, to marshall support for those candidates, to co-ordinate campaigns of endorsed candidates for various offices, to frame platforms, to publicize favored candidates by reference to party affiliation, and thus to tell voters which candidate for each elective office is the endorsed Republican, Democratic or Progressive candidates. But their endorsements would not be recorded on the ballot. They would be outside the purview of public authority. While elimination of party designation from general election ballots would obviate the need for primary elections, however, it would not dispose of the problem of deciding what persons are entitled to be listed on the general election ballot as candidates. And filters are needed. For good civic reasons, contestants for each office ought to be few in number, so as to bring about majority or heavy-plurality decisions without run-offs. That need is partly met now, and it could continue to be met, by rules that in effect require prospective candidates to show evidence of substantial grass-roots support and of serious intention. Evidence of support is customarily provided by endorsements on petitions. Let the required number of endorsements be substantial—10 per cent of the number of votes cast in the last election for a given office—and only a few people will be able to pass that test (a measure of electability). Meanwhile, seriousness of purpose can be evidenced by the payment of a substantial cash deposit (varying upward with rank of office, from local to State and so on). Each deposit would be returnable if the candidate wins a required percentage (10, for example) of votes cast in the election. By this dual means, weak and frivolous candidacies would be deterred, but candidacy—opportunity to appear on the ballot—would still be readily accessible. In short, elimination of party designation from the general election ballot need not prompt an undesirable profusion of candidates. It would spare us no end of trouble and expense. And it happens to be a thoroughly conventional thing to do. Far from being a radical step into the unknown, it would mark a return to pre-20th century elections in America, and it would bring us into line with standard practice in most of the English-speaking world.

5 comments:

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wellingtonrock said...

Just thought you'd be interested to know that Judge Pulver sent me a personal request for my vote. Why might you be interested? I live in the UK (left the US in 1978), but voted in the last presidential election. I 'googled' the judge and find that, 'In a determination dated May 18, 2004, the Commission found that Judge Pulver engaged in business dealings with an attorney who appeared in his court and issued rulings in a custody case involving his business partner’s relatives.'

Guess I won't be voting for him.

Oh, and I wonder who paid the postage?

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