Political process edges out the public

By Douglas Turner
Published August 25th 2008 in The Buffalo News

In spite of the political mail you’re getting and the ads you’re seeing, your wretched state government does not want you to vote. Not really.

Potential voters who are just getting interested in the Sept. 9 primaries for Assemblyman Sam Hoyt’s seat or the one to pick the candidate to succeed Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds may brush up against something unpleasant.

If they’re not registered to vote in a party’s primary election, it is too late already.

The deadline for registering was Aug. 15. Confecting a registration deadline before the people and the media get curious is one of the many ways the New York Legislature and governor maintain the permanent incumbency.

The deadline for the general

election is Oct. 10. But New York has it arranged so that most hotly contested elections are in primaries. Quite often, as in this year, the Legislature fixes a date so awkward that the turnout, such as it is, will be low.

That’s especially tough on candidates making their first run, like Amherst attorney Alice Kryzan. She’s in the Democratic tilt to succeed Reynolds, R-Clarence, against industrialist Jack Davis, who has been running for five years, and Jon Powers, the veterans affairs specialist, who has been campaigning for almost two years.

“Most people only get interested in the last two weeks before a primary,” said Anne Wadsworth, spokeswoman for Kryzan. “And by Sept. 9 people are barely back from vacations and settling their kids in school.”

Another way the “incumbenocracy,” my new word, manipulates the people is by forbidding cross-party voting. No matter how important a primary election is, one may only vote in the party in which one is registered in the People’s Republic of New York.

None of this has to be this way. Many populist states like Virginia and New Hampshire encourage cross-party voting in primaries.

In eight states there’s no waiting to get registered. Adam Fogel, spokesman for the Center for Voting and Democracy, said Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, Maine and New Hampshire allow same-day registration.

There have been halting moves in Albany to open up the system. Before his fall, Gov. Eliot Spitzer asked for a law waiving the 10-day waiting period for registration. This bill died in the mail somewhere between the Legislature and Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

Ordinarily, about 20 percent of those registered vote in legislative primaries in New York. Depending on the district, only 50 to 60 percent of those eligible bother to register. So in most cases, votes in primaries are down to single-digit percentages.

•••

Another bulwark for the incumbenocracy is money.

After he won reelection by 73 percent of the vote in 2006, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, decided he’d join the high-rollers in Congress by creating his own political action commitee — BRI-PAC — which allows more than double the contributions that regular congressional campaign funds do.

For example, Buffalo developer Howard Zemsky and his wife gave Higgins’ campaign the maximum $4,600 then gave another $10,000 to Higgins BRI-PAC.

Higgins issued a statement saying congressional fundraising is “demeaning” and he “despises” it, but it is a necessary part of Washington life. Higgins could have said special interest PACs also shoulder the average voter and small contributor out of the process, but he didn’t.

Higgins has an $18,000 surplus in BRI-PAC, and $707,000 in his campaign account. He did not answer a question as to why Reps. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, and John R. “Randy” Kuhl Jr., RHammondsport, refrained from setting up one of these money-laundering, influence-peddling PACs.

dturner@buffnews.com