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Recycling Elections, For Better Or Worse

It’s taken as a truism that more people voting is better for democracy. If it happens because more people want to vote, are willing to put in the effort to be knowledgeable citizens and participants in democracy, then there is a good argument that more is better. But more, if merely numbers of people who neither know nor care and either vote as they’re told or just check boxes across the ballot, maybe not.

But there is a separate problem, one that has long plagued local elections held on off dates and off years, as opposed to the elections we hear so much about, particularly when the presidency is up for grabs. Nobody shows for these orphan elections, held when no one is paying attention and we have other things to do that take precedence over voting for dog catcher, sheriff or justice of the peace. Well, not really nobody, but nobody outside a small circle of friends. And that small group decides who wins. The residents of a suburban cul de sac at the voting booth could swing the election, so few people vote.

New York is trying to change this with a new law signed by Governor Kathy Hochul.

Legislation S3505-B/A4282-B will move many county and town elections from odd-numbered  years to even-numbered years. This legislation impacts all elections for which the dates can be changed through legislative action; changing election dates for certain offices, including judgeships and offices in any city in the State of New York, must be done through a constitutional amendment. Governor Hochul also announced her support for a future amendment to the New York State Constitution that would align elections for all offices – a fiscally responsible approach that would reduce the taxpayer cost of election administration by avoiding the need for elections to be held every single year.

By consolidating more elections in even-numbered years when most voters are already planning to participate in an election, this change will increase voter participation in important local races.

Note that the rationale isn’t to get better, more knowledgeable voters for local offices, but just more voters. Unsurprisingly, Mara Gay at the New York Times approves.

For so many people, the temptation to tune out in this moment of uninspiring politics is stronger than ever. But in Albany, as in Washington, one of the clearest ways to build a saner, more responsive political system is to vastly increase the number of voters who cast ballots.

If you’re trying to figure out the reasoning behind this assertion, why more voters means saner political system, the disconnect is predicated on a tacit assumption that more voters means more voters who will vote the way Gay feels they should.

Abysmally low turnout in New York is a key culprit behind Albany’s dysfunctional politics, which sometimes seem mystifyingly divorced from the urgent needs of millions of residents. Consider, for example, the state’s failure over the past year to address a brutal housing crisis by adopting policies to build housing in the New York City suburbs and enact protections for tenants such as requiring a good cause for evictions.

When smaller numbers of people show up at the polls, elections are less competitive, enhancing the power of special interests — from donors to industry lobbyists and the so-called NIMBYs who have resisted the development of much-needed housing across New York State.

Gay touches upon a serious problem, albeit unwittingly. Off-year elections with low turnout enable local offices to be captured by interest groups who rally their tribe to turn out and elect an outlier candidate that might not otherwise win an election. This was the tactic the worked well in many of the early district attorney elections, an office few cared about and was worth taking the hour to go vote. Indeed, few either knew who was running or why they would vote one way or the other. Incumbents were re-elected for generations for no particular reason other than name recognition. People just didn’t know or care.

Then again, if these offices were on the ballot or the big elections, far more voters would cast ballots, making these offices are less susceptible to stealth capture by a small group of unduly passionate voters trying to seize an office. The flip side, of course, is that these voters knew and cared, so why shouldn’t they be able to elect their candidate if others couldn’t be bothered to vote? That’s democracy, for better or worse.

The law is a no-brainer for New York. Despite this, the bill faced opposition from some elected officials in the state — from both parties — who prefer that New York’s elections stay as they are.

“Even some Democratic elected officials have raised some concerns, a nonzero number of elected Democrats,” Mr. Skoufis told me. “It’s very much, ‘OK, the current system got me elected.’ They don’t want to lose that.”

The concerns are parochial, that more voters who have neither knowledge nor interest can cause chaos by voting the party line, or strip an incumbent’s ability to rally the neighbors in the cul de sac to be re-elected. The primary goal of an incumbent is to be re-elected, not to convince a new and disinterested group of voters of her merit.

Even if voter turnout is far higher in federal cycle election than off-year local elections, will that enhance voters’ knowledge or interest, or will that just bump the numbers to create the impression of a local official having greater support than she really does? Down-ballot candidates benefit from the popularity of the name at the top, and the tendency to vote party line. It doesn’t mean voters have a clue who is running for dog catcher and why they should vote for one candidate rather than another. But if numbers are an inherent virtue, then this change is, as Gay says, a no-brainer, although not for the reason she believes.

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