In a year where 12 of Westchester’s 17 County Board seats are witnessing competitive elections, there are still enough uncontested elections on the local level to leave the casual observer wondering why hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent setting up ballots and voting machines (and poll workers) to preserve our free elections.
To be fair, it is noteworthy that write-in ballots on primary day have become the political poison of choice to defeat endorsed candidates. Since the new voting machines arrived last year, anarchy has reigned – sort of defying decades-old rules of war whereby party leaders (with the rubber stamp of their committees) controlled the nomination process.
This is a powerful reversal of fortune in New York’s elections but somehow there are still a majority of incumbents who go unchallenged.
The reasons range from the corrupt non-aggression pacts between major parties to give their candidates a free ride, to the harmless possibility that an elected official might just be doing a good job. There is voter apathy. There is party apathy. Frankly, there is media apathy-especially as daily print news outlets are deconstructed by the competition of online news. People are overdosing on information and local/county/regional coverage is not there to help political challengers.
Then there is the cost of running for elected office. Being a candidate can be prohibitive for a wealthy human being; $1-3 million for a Congressional or State Senate seat, a few hundred thousand or much more for Assembly races, often six figures for competitive county legislative races or a supervisor/mayoral race, and tens of thousands for local council seats. There is the cost of mailings; postage, paper and copying or printing. Phone calls can be costly, though getting the vote out still thankfully comes down to volunteers. There is still a lot of grass roots activity in our elections, especially with the spread of tea party mania. The problem more often is time … and vanity.
Who wants detectives searching through one’s finances, personal life as every error or ethical flaw that could haunt a mere mortal is documented like a blood sport? Also, public service pulls you away from your family, work and leisure time. It ruins marriages, or at least stretches a fragile relationship to its limits.
Still, our free elections are missing many an opponent from the ballot. Worse, communities have been reduced to the supposed objectivity of non-partisan committees that choose uncontested candidates behind closed doors like a secret society.
When you go to vote on Tuesday, consider the fact that most of the candidates on the ballot have no challenger. Please remember that you reserve the right to write-in a name. In an era of participatory government and write-in friendly voting machines, it’s plausible that the next big step for our free elections will be independent write-in candidacies.
Basically, the people in charge of New York State and most local political systems either find themselves in a “have” or “have not” position – in terms of power. If the party has the power, they don’t want challengers. If the party is in the minority, they fight back to regain power, and then make sure “they” hold onto their majority for a long time.
The real power is the right to vote. You have it. You always have it. Don’t squander or neglect this power. Preserve it – and please vote on Election Day.
Bob Fois is the editor of News Copy, New York (http://www.newscopy.org) and the former editor of Empire State Report magazine, where he covered local governments across New York State. He was also news director at WVOX and has written extensively on municipal reform, most recently serving on the board of Rethinking Westchester Government. Bob also serves as chair of the Eastchester Town Conservative Committee and as Corresponding Secretary for the Westchester County Conservative Committee.