02 November 2011

No Contest? Why Not?

With less than a week before Election Day, it occurs to the Albany Times Union that there's something wrong in Albany County when eight Democratic candidates in countywide races are running unopposed. Neither the Republicans nor any of the state's smaller parties were willing or able to recruit challengers to the Democrats, despite a Republican's insistence that "there should always be somebody out there" to challenge incumbents and a Conservative leader's complaint that the "terrible" local electoral lineup puts no pressure on incumbents to "explain their records."

The county GOP chairman explains that running a candidate for an open seat in the county executive's office was prohibitively expensive -- he estimates the cost at approximately $400,000. He tells the Times Union that there was no point in fielding a candidate in a race he considered hopeless "just so 'you can say you have a candidate.'" Democrats are naturally inclined to assume that the lack of challengers simply proves how strong their own candidates are, but even a veteran party worker wonders if the lack of opposition "has to do with the economic times or if people are just fed up with politics in general."

Reporter Carol Demare turns to a local political scientist to diagnose the problem. Dr. Bradley Hays warns that uncontested elections in a de facto one-party system like Albany's "makes office-holders less receptive to the impulse of the electorate....There is no mechanism to force them to adjust to the needs of their constituents if in fact there is some degree of unrest."

A major-party leader has already admitted that the cost of campaigning is a deterrent, even (or perhaps especially) on the local level. For minor parties or independent individuals, the conditions set by government for ballot access are possibly more formidable deterrents. Democrats may like to believe that the public has already spoken, and that challengers would exist otherwise. Would their complacency be justified? Let's say that a critical mass of Republicans, Conservatives and others agree now that the situation is unacceptable, that someone should challenge the Democratic candidates as a matter of principle. It'd be impossible to get a challenger on the ballot now -- but why should that be so? In our age of instant communication, why shouldn't a candidate nominated by some public assembly the day before Election Day have equal standing before voters with a party candidate tapped weeks or months ago? Why shouldn't citizens be able to rally behind someone on short notice if the parties prove unwilling to put up a challenge? Why should there be deadlines that supposedly make it impossible for anyone to enter the Republican presidential campaign in the actual year 2012? How do these regulations serve the public or satisfy their obvious interest in sincerely contested elections? Have the people no remedy if the parties won't provide one? If not, our claim to be a democratic republic is even shakier than it looks.

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