Last weekend the local paper ran a letter from Frank J. Lazzaro of Green Island, who presented his remarks on America's dysfunctional political order as a "View From Under the Bus," -- that place where dispensable people are thrown to lighten others' load. In Lazzaro's opinion, "'Government by the people' has degenerated to a phrase," because, when you vote, "you have to choose from party-endorsed candidates and with all the cross-endorsement, what choice? All are quite wealthy so guess who will be favored by their decisions." Lazzaro's proposed remedies include caps on campaign spending (to "give less wealthy candidates a chance to run") and an easier procedure for initiative, referendum and recall. As it happens, the New York state senate has approved a constitutional amendment facilitating the initiative and referendum process, though the assembly has not yet taken action. As far as parties and elections are concerned, Lazzaro believes that "cross-endorsing should be stopped." He takes the common-sense position that "if a minor party doesn't have its own candidates for all open offices, it has no reason to exist." I wouldn't go that far -- such a party might choose to endorse another party's presidential candidate while pushing its own slate of legislative candidates -- but the follies of the Conservative, Independence and Working Families parties make New Yorkers' unforgiving attitude understandable.
Lazzaro also demands that "no elected officials should have less than two opposing candidates available to voters." That is, he wants every election to be contested. Again, you can understand the feeling. "How can anyone really feel he has elected anyone when he had to vote for a party-endorsed candidate who is also many times the only one on the ballot?" he writes. I'm obliged to note that the Founders did not really envision contested elections in every instance -- at least not elections contested along party lines. No one felt a need to challenge George Washington in his two presidential campaigns, and a single electoral vote was cast against James Monroe in the 1820 election, despite the absence of an actual challenger, simply because one elector abhorred the idea of unanimity. An uncontested general election is not necessarily a bad thing; everything depends on why a particular race ends up uncontested. I don't think the Founders would have approved automatically of an election in which the sole uncontested candidate is the choice of a permanent faction. They preferred to at least perpetuate the illusion that candidates were nominated by assemblies of the general population on their own grass-roots initiative, however stage-managed or self-selected such gatherings actually were. In our own time, it's hard to imagine anyone accepting the representative legitimacy of any such gathering -- but there is probably no better way to choose an opponent for an incumbent or a dominant party when the party system itself proves unwilling to back a challenger. In olden times, of course, such a challenger didn't have to worry about qualifying for the ballot. The ballot was simply the piece of paper a voter put in a box, with any name he pleased written on it. In that respect, all candidates were equal. Today, the ballot is a barrier and a class system; it impedes the spontaneous spread of opposition to an unsatisfactory "consensus" candidate. If Lazzaro wants to be assured of contested elections, he should consider how it might be made easier for elections to be contested when parties fail to fulfill their supposed purposes. If the assembly approves that amendment and it gets ratified, ballot reform could be accomplished by initiative, bypassing partisan politicians entirely. That seems like the best answer right now to Lazzaro's question: "How do we -- the sheep -- get the shepherds, who are satisfied with the status quo, to institute these changes?" The sheep need to find ways to change things on their own, and they should learn to do without partisans in shepherds' clothing. Reforming elections so they aren't organized on party lines won't eliminate the advantages of incumbency and celebrity -- it won't even eliminate all the advantages of partisan solidarity -- but it would certainly make the ballot itself less of a deterrent to electoral competition than it is right now.