Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tuesday's Elections I

THE PROSPECT -----Voters in GreeneLand on Tuesday could change the county legislature’s present Republican 9-5 majority into a bigger majority, of 11 to 3, or into a minority of 6 to 8. Those arithmetic possibilities, and limits, are grounded in the facts about alignments, contests and the absence of contests.

----Of the Town of Catskill's four seats on the legislature, three are currently held by Republicans and one by a Democrat. Six candidates are vying for those four seats. Four are Republicans (including two incumbents) or proto-Republicans. One is an incumbent Democrat. The other is a proto-Democrat. Thus, the Republicans could lose one Catskill seat, or gain one.

-----Elsewhere in GreeneLand, four seats are currently occupied by Republicans who are standing for re-election and are unopposed. They are the two Coxsackie seats along with one from Cairo and one from the four-town Ashland-Jewett-Prattsville-Windham district.

----In all of GreeneLand's legislative districts, the only incumbent Republican who is seeking re-election is being challenged directly; he represents Athens. On the Democratic side, two incumbents who are seeking re-election are being challenged; they represent Catskill and Durham. Meanwhile, in Greenville, retirement of the Republican incumbent has given rise to an intense two-party battle.

-----If the two embattled Democratic incumbents survive, if the two open (Republican-held) seats go from Republican to Democratic, and if the one Democratic challenger to a Republican incumbent were to win, along with the three unchallenged incumbent Democrats, then next Tuesday’s GreenLand election would, with regard to party affiliations, be transformative. It also would be, to all knowledgeable observers, astonishing.

----Meanwhile, voters on Tuesday could bring about a modest change in the Republican and Democratic shares of Town Supervisor offices. Larger swings are precluded by the absence of a supervisorial election in one town (Catskill's election comes at another time) and of electoral contests in most others. In all but five Towns, the incumbent Supervisor is seeking re-election and (whether Republican or Democratic) is unopposed. Actual contests are being waged in Greenville, whose current Republican supervisor is seeking election to another office (county legislator), and where a Democrat and a Republican are competing for the succession; in Athens, where a Republican and a Democrat are contesting an open seat; Prattsville, whose Democratic incumbent is being challenged by the Republican who lost the seat to her (by 6 votes) in 2007; Jewett, where a Republican and a Democrat are vying to succeed the Democratic incumbent, who was not re-nominated by his co-partisans; and New Baltimore, where two candidates are contending for the open seat.

THE SELL ----The foregoing sentences, while delivering information about an impending bunch of elections to public offices, also deliver a sales pitch. They steer receivers in the direction of a judgment about what is most important, most portentous, about election results. They prod receivers to believe that, of all ways of appreciating the significance of the present election contest (and perhaps all public elections), the foremost is party affiliation.

----That suggestion is arbitrary. It is no less arbitrary than other categorical choices, such as gender ratio, race, turnover rate, religious denominations, national origins, occupations or hairstyles of contestants. It is no less arbitrary, and it is probably more insidious, because it is journalistically conventional.

----My treatment of the GreeneLand legislature and Town Supervisor races reflects standard practice. I have given it extra emphasis by means of surgery: dwelling on party affiliations while stripping away every other aspect of the matter, including even the contestants' names.

-----Party affiliation-focused accounts of popular elections reflect common practice, and they reinforce it. They also promote an illusion about intelligibility. By dwelling descriptively on the party affiliations of candidates they endow that variable with primary importance on and with seemingly clear meaning (for town and village and county elections as well as State and national elections). Thus, a change in the party affiliation of the majority of county legislators would be transformative—and the nature, the legislative meaning, of the transformation is self-evident. ----Such miseducation can be blamed in part on bad laws. The electoral laws of this State, and of many others, prescribe that every candidate whose name appears on the general election ballot (for clerk or tax collector, for judge or highway superintendent, for town or village or county legislator, for Representative or Senator or Governor) must be listed on a party “line.” To earn placement on a party line, a candidate must round up a prescribed number of signatures by voters who not only endorse her candidacy but also, specifically, endorse his Republican, Democratic, Conservative, Independence, Working Families, and/or Common Grass Voice Sense candidacy. Thus, focus on party affiliation is imposed on the voters by State law.

----For voters and for news-givers, this irrational, costly regime is treacherously convenient. Citizens want to make rational voting decisions, but it would be irrational for them to spend big resources for that purpose. They welcome informational shortcuts. They are receptive, accordingly, to suggestions that a bit of readily available information-- party affiliation--serves to differentiate candidates (local, regional, national...) and may differentiate them in a substantive, programmatic way. That bit of information could yield a rational vote--a choice that is the same as what wouild emerge from arduous study of candidates' positions on various issues, in relation to one's own arduously determined preferences.

----Voters look to the media for help in shaping their choices, and news providers want to help. But they too are constrained by information costs. Rarely can they afford to make deep studies of candidates' background and positions. They dwell on readily available, low-cost information: : name of candidate, age, home town, occupation, family ties, office-holding experience, and party affiliation. The latter information differentiates the competing candidates.It is uniquely highlighted on the ballot. It enables reporters to group together many candidates for many offices, and thus to generalize about election results. It appears to be impartial and objective (in contrast to "liberal" and "conservative," for example. It gives the voters a basis for choice that appears, however wrongly, to be a basis for rational choice.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would leave my name, but I might need a job in the Highway department one day. I want Forest Cotten to be re-elected, and will withhold my vote from all the republican candidates (some of whom I would otherwise support) lest the vote tally of one of them displace my favored candidate from office.