Friday, October 30, 2009

Tuesday's Election II


---- Voting is a civic duty, right? Every vote counts, right?

---- For residents of five GreeneLand towns, however, voting on November 3 would be an irrational act. In Windham, Ashland, Halcott, Hunter and Cairo, there are plenty of offices to be filled. They include, just as is the case in the other Towns, legislator, supervisor, council member, town clerk, justice, highway superintendent and tax collector. But for every one of those offices in those towns, Tuesday’s ballot offers just one candidate. The only choice presented to voters in those towns will be a choice between candidates for Supreme Court Justice in the State’s multi-county 3rd Judicial District. (The contenders are Jill Dunn, Republican, and James Gilpatric, the Democratic, Independence, and Conservative [!] candidate).

----- In other GreeneLand towns, voters will actually settle some contests, but contested elections are abnormal events. Thus, 12 of GreeneLand’s legislators are seeking re-election, and seven of them cannot fail; they face no opposition. In the 12 Towns where the office of Justice is subject to election this year, there are 12 candidates. (All of them are incumbents). Of the eight Town Clerkships that come up for election on November 3rd, two (in Prattsville and New Baltimore) are subject to contest. Of the nine Highway Superintendent offices, three are subject this year not only to election, but to electoral contest. (They are in Coxsackie, Greenville and Lexington). Of eight Tax Collector races, seven are one-entrant affairs. (The deviant case, offering a choice between candidates, is in Prattsville).

This plenitude of choice-free elections does not attest to system health. In cases where the sole candidate is the incumbent—that is to say, most cases—the absence of a challenger does not attest reliably to general, informed satisfaction of voters with services received. It does not betoken excellent performance by the incumbent, or the opposite. With regard to most kinds of local elective offices, it attests to ignorance of what these office-holders do and of how to evaluate their work.

That ignorance is shared among office-holders. Town Supervisors and Town Councilors can scarcely monitor, much less control, the work of local judges, tax collectors, highway superintendents, and clerks. Some arrangements (such as mandatory outside audits) shed light on the performance of those officials. But direct popular election gives these officials a basis for independence from the legislative ‘branch’ of local government. Election without contestation fortifies that independence. Town highway superintendents do not file periodic reports that are open to public scrutiny and shed light on cost-effectiveness of performance. A tax collector who runs up needless expenses, or who collects selectively, cannot be fired--if, perchance, her malfeasance or nonfeasance were known. A town clerk who thwarts the will of town council members (even with regard to keeping the minutes of council meetings) cannot be fired.

Our superabundance of choice-free elections can be blamed in good part on bad laws. The offenders are the peculiar New York State laws creating our superabundance of types of local offices that must be filled by direct popular election. The intention may have been to facilitate popular control. The effect is the reverse.

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