Elections Without Choice
Assisted by Marc Thurston
We usually think elections are about choice. Applying some combination standards or criteria that each of us carries around in our heads – opinions about issues, demographic similarities, points of view about candidates’ character, partisan loyalties – we voters choose some persons and not others to govern nationally, in the states, and in our communities.
But the fact of the matter is that much of the time in local government elections are not about choice, because no choice is offered. Though not unique to them, here we analyze this phenomenon in village elections in our region last year.
There are 30 villages in Dutchess, Orange, and Ulster counties. We have data for 29; Kiryas Joel is the exception. Of these, 23 (79 percent) held an election for mayor in 2019. In all but three (Montgomery, Saugerties, and Woodbury), there was a single mayoral candidate (87 percent). In the same year, 25 villages (86 percent) elected one or more members to its board of trustees. In more than half (13), all candidates were unopposed (52 percent).
Villages were originally conceived in the progressive mold, as apolitical service delivery entities. The idea was that there is no Democratic or Republican way to pave a street or run a water system. That’s why in their basic governance framework villages look far more like school districts than like towns or counties. The state law’s default option is for villages to choose their leaders at non-partisan, at-large elections held on a day different than the general election day. In this way our villages were purposefully insulated from the partisan politics that prevailed at the state level, and in counties, cities, and towns.
Thus one reason for the absence of competition for village office may be that our institutions whose job it is to organize competition, the political parties, are on purpose rarely directly involved. (They may be active behind the scenes.) There is some research that has shown that when village elections are overtly partisan and ward-based elections are used, competition for village office tends to be greater. But even if they were not formally excluded by design, parties’ availability to make the choice of village leadership more competitive is increasingly problematic in most places. Local party organizations have fallen upon hard times in much of New York State. People are both disaffected from politics and have little time to volunteer.
Competition may arise for other reasons. Long-time personal rivalries or enmities may find their way into a village’s election. A major land use decision – e.g. the proposed opening of a big box retail outlet – may divide the community. Demographic change may lead to conflict between “old timers” and “newcomers.” But in general, village boards are oddly similar to classic closed corporations. People gain office through self-promotion, or out of genuine interest in public service, or because “no one else wants to do it,” or – perhaps surprisingly – for the pay and benefits. When a vacancy arises, sitting trustees recruit and appoint a friend or neighbor “who everyone knows will be good.” The appointment to fill the vacancy is often followed by that person running unopposed at the next election.
Yet, those who prevail in local elections without choice are still described as having “won” office. Maybe the potential for competition, if not its actuality, is enough to support a claim of democratic legitimacy. But interestingly, on average, nine percent of the voting age population voted in noncompetitive village mayoral elections in the region 2019, while in the few cases where there was competition the average was 23 percent. Local voters still appear to be telling us that choice at the polls matters.