By Henry J. Stern
November 18, 2010
Every now and then, a story appears on an inside page of a newspaper which deserves more attention than it receives.
Tuesday's New York Times published an article by veteran reporter Sam Roberts. The headline on pA28: NEW YORK STATE'S VOTER TURNOUT THIS YEAR WAS LOWEST IN U.S. The lede:
"Despite contests for every statewide office for the first time in decades, a smaller share of eligible voters turned out two weeks ago in New York than in any other state. New York turnout was lower than in any midterm election for at least three decades.
"On the basis of unofficial returns, about 40 per cent of registered New Yorkers voted on Nov. 2. But an analysis by the United States Election Project at George Mason University [in Fairfax, Virginia] found that only 32.1 percent of the 13.4 million who were eligible � citizens 18 and older who are not convicted felons � actually voted...
"New York ranked among the 10 lowest states for turnout in 2006 and 2008, but until this year it was not at the bottom."
A number of academics offered theories to the Times: "'Mostly, I suspect that uncompetitive elections is the main cause,'" said Michael P. McDonald, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor at George Mason. 'There are other factors at play, too: the state has been slow to adopt more convenient voter registration and early voting options...'
"Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia�s Center for Politics, agreed. 'New York Republicans nominated arguably the weakest ticket in the nation, especially with two Senate seats and the governorship at stake,' Dr. Sabato said. 'None of the top three G.O.P. candidates was taken seriously. The amazing thing is that the G.O.P. captured at least five House seats � but, then, the party was at a historic low in Congress and had nowhere to go but up.'"
We see three specific factors as depressing the turnout in New York State in 2010.
1. Noncompetitive races. There was no doubt that the Democratic candidates for the two senate seats and the governorship would be elected. Therefore no one could believe that his/her vote would make a difference.
2. Widespread disillusionment with state government. The legislature has been known for years as the most dysfunctional in America. It's antics in 2009 and 2010 were deplorable. Some of its members belong in jail.
3. The last two governors have been enormously disappointing for widely different reasons. Their predecessor governed poorly and without imagination, courage or fiscal responsibility, but maintained the facade of propriety and regularity.
Although the three top Republican candidates were extremely weak (Townsend and DioGuardi for Senator and Paladino for Governor), the two down-ballot state-wide candidates (Dan Donovan for Attorney General and Harry Wilson for Comptroller) did much better. Wilson lost by about 102,000 votes in what was the closest of the state-wide contests.
The Republican state chair, Edward Cox, promoted a viable candidate for governor, Steve Levy, the Suffolk County executive, who switched parties in 2010 to become a Republican. Levy was very popular in Suffolk, one of the state's most populous counties. In 2007 he was endorsed by all five legal parties (D, R, C, I and WF) and received 96.1% of the vote. The balance was shared by the Integrity Party candidate (2.5%) and the Libertarian nominee (1.3%).
Levy's candidacy was derailed, however, by Republican county leaders around the state, who chose Rick Lazio as the party's candidate, and denied Levy permission to enter the Republican primary. Lazio had lost to Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Senate in 2000 by over 825,000 votes (55 to 43, with 2% scattered among six minor party candidates). He was regarded as a sure loser against Andrew Cuomo. Lazio had received $40,000,000 for his Senate race, but that was from people who disliked Hillary, not from his own devotees. His fundraising results in 2010 were minimal, compared to the eight-figure treasury Andrew Cuomo had amassed.�While Cuomo was gaining praise for his work as Attorney General, Lazio was employed as a lobbyist for J. P. Morgan, although he took a leave to run for governor.
Lazio's weakness was demonstrated by his 62-38 loss to Carl Paladino, a more colorful and authentic advocate of anti-government attitudes. The large margin surprised observers and pollsters, but Paladino's intemperate language, ignorance of public issues, implicit threats of violence (carrying a bat), and an attempted assault on a reporter caused substantial erosion of his support. Many people concluded that he was emotionally suited to be governor of New York State. After the Spitzer and Paterson debacles, voters placed new value on stability, sound judgment, good temper, and the ability to work with other people.
THE LESSONS OF HISTORY -- THE UNIQUE POLITICS OF THE STATE OF ALASKA
The overwhelming problem facing Governor-elect Cuomo will be the nine billion dollar looming deficit in the state budget, surpassed only by California's deficit. The new Congress is likely to be far less sympathetic to the cities than the lame duck 111th Congress. I remember as a child hearing President Truman denounce the "do nothing 80th Congress", which was elected in 1946.�Both houses went Republican, and John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were among the freshmen. At that time, politicians crossed the country in railroad cars, on whistle-stop tours, with the train stopping at numerous stations in small towns for brief remarks by the candidate, who was photographed with local dignitaries for the press.
Truman surprised the public, the press and particularly the pollsters by winning in 1948, so there is hope for Obama in 2012. However, Truman exemplified American attitudes, even in his weaknesses. In the end, his persona was deemed preferable to that of New York's governor Thomas Dewey. But that was when the Solid South was Democratic (except for Strom Thurmond, who carried four states as a Dixiecrat) and the country was far from what it is today.
The lesson we can draw from this that political situations can change rapidly, like weather on the prairie. Look at Senator Lisa Murkowski, defeated in a Republican Senate primary in Alaska when she was on the ballot, and nine weeks later elected to the Senate as a write-in, the first since Mr. Thurmond won 56 years ago in South Carolina.
Ms. Murkowski's route to the Senate was quite unusual. She was a member of the Alaska House of Representatives in the fall of 2002 when her father, Senator Frank Murkowski, was elected Governor of Alaska. Upon taking office, he realized that his resignation from the Senate had created a vacancy, and after due consideration, he appointed his daughter Lisa to fill the seat.
She was sworn in on December 20, 2002 as the most junior senator, her term overlapping by two weeks the service of the longest serving senator in United States history, who retired at the age of 100 on January 3, 2003, a Mr. Thurmond.
Governor Murkowski incurred public displeasure for appointing his daughter to a vacancy he created, and a state referendum was held to limit the governor's power to the appointment of a temporary senator, who would hold office only until a special election was held to fill the vacancy. Although Lisa was elected to a full six-year Senate term in 2004, to which she was just re-elected by write-in, her father Frank was not so fortunate when his term expired.
Seeking re-election as governor in 2006, Frank was defeated in the Republican primary by the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska (2000 pop. 5469; 2008 est. pop. 10,256), one Sarah Palin. She resigned as governor on July 26, 2009 to pursue other objectives in business, entertainment and public service.