Style: They've got fame, funds, friends, and voters get no
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
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.
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
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
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
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