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Politics, Incumbency Style: They've got fame, funds, friends, and voters get no choice
By Rosanna Perotti
November 3, 2002

Every year at this time, a few dozen students in my American politics classes get a chance to partake in the suspense of election night.

Armed with press credentials from a local TV station, our students go to polling places as part of a long-standing commitment I have come to call "The Election Night Project." They listen as officials read tallies off voting machines, recording the data and calling in results to newsrooms. The figures help on-air analysts project winners in tight federal, statewide and local races.

This year, however, my students will be staying put. For the first time in my decade teaching on Long Island, the press hasn't sought our services. Out of the dozens of federal, state, county and town races Long Island voters will decide Tuesday, there aren't enough competitive contests to warrant sending them out to help call the races.

That lack of competition is a pity for our students. It may be a bigger loss for the voters of Long Island.

Lack of choice in legislative elections is not big news to a political scientist. Nor is it out of step with trends across the country. Out of 435 races for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives this year, about 40 are considered to be competitive by experts. That means less than 10 percent of the House races are likely to have a role in either handing control of that body to the Democrats or leaving it with the Republicans. Until the last few weeks, none of those competitive races was considered to be in New York, let alone Long Island. The other 90 percent of the races for the House will not be competitive, largely because of the incumbency advantage.

Incumbents have name recognition. They are able to consolidate political support by providing constituency service. They are easily funded by political action committees eager to establish access. And their campaign war chests serve to scare off would-be challengers. Throughout the post-War era, upwards of 90 percent of incumbent House members seeking re-election have been returned to Congress.

It is no coincidence that exactly one Democrat and one Republican incumbent were hurt in the politics of congressional redistricting this past summer in New York. Redistricting usually makes life easier for incumbents of Congress. Reps. Peter King (R-Seaford), Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola), Steve Israel (D-Dix Hills) and Felix Grucci (R-East Patchogue) lobbied the State Legislature for a redistricting plan that would make each one safer. The legislature largely complied.

When drawing state Senate district lines, the legislature was careful not to hurt Long Island's nine incumbents, all of whom are white and Republican. In fact, the legislature could have created majority black and Hispanic districts for the State Senate in both central Nassau County and in the towns of Babylon and Islip. "That's racial gerrymandering at its worst," a Democratic state senator said at the time. "You can't racial gerrymander to protect white incumbents at the expense of the rising number of African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics.

Well, they did. Creating minority districts would have upset the power of incumbents, so minorities had to forego the chance at new representation in the State Senate. One of those protected was Sen. Owen Johnson (R-West Babylon), against whom the Democrats didn't even bother to field a challenger. "We think Owen's doing a good job," Suffolk County Democratic boss Richard Schaffer said. Even in open contests, the parties redistrict to create safe districts for one another.

Is there any alternative to this state of affairs?

One might point the finger at voters. Higher turnout might stimulate competitiveness. But why should voters go to the polls when they feel they have no choice between candidates? It is no wonder that recent midterm congressional elections have attracted less than 40 percent turnout.

People can't be blamed for staying away from the polls when negotiations between the major parties give them few choices. Redistricting lines are drawn by the State Legislature in accordance with population shifts based on the decennial census. In New York, the State Senate is dominated by the Republicans and the state Assembly by the Democrats; therefore, the parties share the blame for incumbency protection plans that discourage challengers from running. Voters, then, should be voicing their frustration to their parties.

At the same time, money plays a key role in determining who will run for office. As any Political Science 101 student knows, it is almost impossible to unseat an incumbent without raising enough money to buy media time and name recognition. The major parties are reluctant to field quality challengers against entrenched incumbents unless it is clear they have a chance. In 2000, a House candidate spent $308,000 on average ($747,000 for House incumbents). The average winning State Assembly candidate spent more than $70,000. This year, with foreign affairs having dominated the headlines for so long, party officials may have made the calculation early on that voters would not want to change candidates in midstream. Hence, the parties largely did what they often do - save their resources for races involving the rare open seat.

Giving challengers a chance means funding them well. But funding depends on expectations of success, which in turn depends on the strategic decisions posed by election rules. And this means that, in order to get real competition in legislative elections, deeper systemic reforms are necessary.

One route is to find a nonpartisan way to redistrict. Unlike a bipartisan system, a nonpartisan one would pay closer attention to drawing lines that maintain the integrity of counties, towns and other communities. Another route would be to level the playing field between candidates through campaign-finance reform.

We could also replace the single-member-district, plurality-winner system with some form of proportional representation. In our current system, the candidate who gets the most votes in the district wins. If an election is lost even by a percentage point, the voters for the losing candidate are deprived of representation. In proportional representation schemes, however, the voters elect representatives according to their strength in the electorate. Instead of casting one vote for one representative, the voter may be given several votes to apportion across candidates in a multimember district. Sometimes, the voter ranks candidates; those candidates with the higher preferences are elected. This system often helps parties and demographics in the minority gain representation. It encourages third-party candidates to run and shakes up complacent major parties.

Over the past few weeks, my classes have had some serious debates about systemic reforms. The verdict seems to be that encouraging greater competition would sacrifice some of the stability we enjoy under the two-party monopoly. The students are right. That is the tradeoff. But they are divided about whether a little more excitement and a little less stability would be a desirable thing for our political system.

They'll have to be satisfied spending their energies on academic debate. They certainly won't be spending much time predicting the winners of the election They've got fame, funds, friends, and voters get no choice.

Rosanna Perotti teaches political science at Hofstra University.


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