07 February 2012

Squatters' Rights and Party Lines

In Rensselaer County, New York, politicians are on trial for forging absentee ballots for a Working Families Party primary. What could the stakes have been, given the limited influence and lesser electoral prospects of the WFP? According to recent testimony, the defendants simply feared the influence of an expert political operator, onetime county legislator Bob Mirch. Known locally as "Three-Job Bob," Mirch's specialty was taking over independent parties that had small local enrollment. He would get stooges to register in sufficient numbers to win primaries and secure ballot lines for candidates presumably of Mirch's choosing. "He would try to get control of third-party lines. He had already taken over the Independence and Conservatives. He would register people in the Working Families Party," said one witness. Mirch's candidates were meant to make mischief, splitting "liberal" voting blocs to make life easier for Republicans or Conservatives. To thwart Mirch, the defendants allegedly forged ballots to keep the local WFP out of his control. Mirch can effectively squat and take over a party, or at least a party line, without having any sympathy for the party's principles or agenda. Something isn't right when the only way to stop that from happening is to break the law. Maybe it was the only option given the limited support for Working Families locally, in which case one wonders whether the WFP was worthy of the ballot line that Mirch presumably wanted to steal. Whatever the case, a curious situation exists when a party can be steered contrary to the founders' purposes simply by recruiting a faithless majority to swamp a primary. New York State supposedly has a remedy for that, allowing parties to de-register voters shown to have betrayed party principles, but the process is elaborate and no doubt costly.  The problem may be that partisanship in this country is a matter of registration rather than membership, the only real members in the usual sense of the word being the committee members and other party administrators. A party could de-register someone, but parties can't stop anyone from registering in the first place. The situation gets worse from the perspective of party management when open primaries are the rule and people can vote without even bothering to register. But the only reason people like Mirch play their tricks is because party lines on a ballot are a kind of real estate. He wouldn't concern himself with the WFP, I presume, if they didn't have a guaranteed ballot line based on past performance. It makes you wonder what would happen if we could do without a physical ballot in the current sense. Mischief makers like Mirch might still try to split ideological voting blocs by promoting dummy candidates, but they'd probably have to start from scratch by creating dummy parties rather than possessing and corrupting parties originally dedicated to a particular cause or constituency. Part of the problem for independents under Bipolarchy, paradoxically enough, may be that being a partisan is simply too easy and too meaningless. Before reforming party politics, we may want to think about what it means to belong to a party in the first place.

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