Friday, April 18, 2014

Village elections - think of them as 'democracy insurance' 

There were 35 village elections this past March in the six Hudson Valley and Catskill mountain counties west of the river. In 21 villages (60 percent), there were no contested elections at all. Overall, 60 of 81 available offices were filled without competition, including five mayoralties and six town justice positions. Turnout in most places was minimal. Two trustee jobs were open in Unionville in Orange County. Patricia Quinn was elected to the board with 13 votes; Deborah Miller won with seven write-ins.

Then there was the other extreme. Hotly contested village elections were triggered in Monroe and Bloomingburg by expansionist pressures arising from growing Hasidic communities. (Matters in Bloomingburg are still not settled, with challenged ballots under review by a county judge and the FBI investigating allegations of voter fraud.) Contests in other places often arose from individual challenges to incumbents, sometimes by rivals who formerly held village office. Often these were settled not based upon issue differences but upon the reputation of candidates among "friends and neighbors."

Village elections in New York are usually nonpartisan. But not always. With the two major parties involved in Liberty, Democrats prevailed in contests for two board seats. In Monticello the Democrats, Republicans, Independence and Conservative parties successfully joined in a coalition to seize control of the board from Mayor Gordon Jenkins in response to what many regarded as his "misconduct and abuse."

Previous research shows that none of this is unusual. New York state's village boards are remarkably self-perpetuating. Sitting members recruit others to fill vacancies; their continuation is routinely validated at low turnout elections. Competition and turnout are somewhat elevated by the involvement of the political parties. Citizens in communities turn out when motivated by a divisive, mobilizing issue.

In the opinion of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, "We have too many local governments." When he advanced this goal again this year in his State of the State message, the governor said further: "It's time to stop making excuses; it's time to start making progress." Cuomo is not the first governor to seek local government restructuring. His famous predecessor Alfred E. Smith energetically did so almost a century ago. Little changed then; little has changed lately.

Upstate New Yorkers tenaciously defend their village governments. One reason, they say, is that they value community-base, local democracy.

But is local democracy what we actually have? The easy answer is "No." Competition is rare. Turnout is low. A small self-selected group usually does the governing.

Yet our regularly scheduled village elections provide a sort of "democracy insurance policy." People retain the potential to get involved if there is a compelling reason to do so. As shown by the relatively few intensely competitive village elections we had this year, when sufficiently provoked by issues or events, people do take advantage of this potential.

In truth, the village election in Monroe attracted only 21 percent of the voting-age population, and that in Monticello, 13 percent. There's the timing; why March? There's the need to organize anew each time. Even when the community is challenged by potentially transformative issues, it's hard to get people to the polls under these conditions.

But surely if we fail to at least occasionally participate, and in this way pay our "democracy insurance," our policy will lapse. Village democracy will be lost, and with it a key reason for having villages at all.

Gerald Benjamin is Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for Research Regional Engagement and Outreach (CRREO) at SUNY New Paltz. Joy Mcallister of the CRREO staff assisted with research for this essay.


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