Think Florida is the poster child for dysfunctional elections in this country? Think again.
The just-completed election (repeat those words to yourself for emphasis, remembering that Election Day is in early November) for the 46th state Senate District provides all the evidence needed to argue persuasively for electoral reform in New York. It took more than two months in time, countless hours of tabulating and re-tabulating, a small army of lawyers and several judicial decisions to finally determine the officeholder in a grossly gerrymandered and politically manufactured electoral area.
Nothing in that last sentence is defensible. In the representative democracy to our north, Canada, the results in virtually every district in every election are determined, known and pronounced within two or three hours of the polls closing.
That’s not only preferable; it’s entirely achievable.
Why not yet here? Perhaps in a governing system seemingly designed to discourage, ambition and frustration lead a search for every means of leverage in service to the arduous task of turning advocacy and judgment into policy. So it appears to be with the electoral system too, even when all involved profess to the contrary. How else to explain the picayune rules and procedures in New York’s Election Law that seem designed more to trip up prospective candidates and voters than to protect the integrity of the system?
If the objective is free, fair, openly and efficiently conducted elections, then the gamesmanship needs to be cleared from the process and a singular focus substituted. The pure purpose of elections, after all, is straightforward and without controversy.
So, what changes are needed?
• End gerrymandering.
After establishing the number of citizens necessary to create uniformly sized districts from the decennial census, use a non-political standard as the basis for drawing district lines for the Senate and Assembly.
One such standard that comes readily to mind is the postal ZIP code system. Since using ascending ZIP code numbers alone will not conform precisely to district boundaries, satellite geographical mapping can be overlaid in a uniformly mandated manner across the state (east to west, then north to south, for example) that takes no notice whatsoever of the party registrations of voters.
• Professionalize the Board of Elections.
Having politicians or those beholden to politicians in control of the electoral system is literally putting the players in charge of refereeing the game. Severing that relationship is essential to real reform of the system.
To use a prior example, Elections Canada is composed entirely of professionals whose sole responsibility is the proper conduct of elections. All state and local election officials should be a part of the state civil service system, fully protected from political pressure and influence.
• Empower the individual voter.
Voting is a sacred right; but it is as much a sacred individual responsibility. Treat it both ways. The best way to remove obstacles to voting is to make the rules for doing so uniform, spare and easy to comply with and understand.
The rules of eligibility are simple. One must be a citizen and at least 18 years of age. In local elections, the voter must be a resident of the jurisdiction in which he or she is voting. Enforcing these clear-cut rules could be as simple as issuing voter ID cards, using a centralized database of eligible voters, requiring proof of residency or any combination of these. Ultimate responsibility should lie with the voter to check and update the registration as necessary, but other government databases could be used to assist in this task.
The objective should be to simplify the rules, publicizing them widely and frequently but leaving it to the individual voter to comply.
• Turn the tables on campaign money.
Great effort has been expended to try to control the flow of campaign cash or create some form of public campaign financing, without much success.
Let’s try something new, even counterintuitive. Politicians and their donors always claim that the former’s votes are never influenced by the latter’s financial support. Call their bluff!
Require that political contributions be made into a kind of blind trust for each candidate that would legally bar the donor from disclosing his identity to the public or to the candidate and his campaign organization.
Making a campaign donation to elicit a particular vote is called “bribery” and is clearly illegal. What we effectively have now, though, is a slickly and intricately crafted, but no less crass, pay-as-you-go form of officially sanctioned near-bribery that winks at the law and pretends to be something it’s not.
Insulating the candidate from knowledge of who donated and how much would protect both the candidate and the system from the currently widespread impression that the money is what is influencing an officeholder’s vote, rather than the intellectual persuasiveness of the argument.
None of this will be easy to get through the parts of the state political establishment that benefit from things as they are now; and many will insist none of it is possible.
But if we are sincere in repairing our elections, indeed in removing the impediments to making state government all it can be in terms of responsiveness and transparency, continuing as we are is clearly not an option.
John Figliozzi lives in Halfmoon and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.