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Keeping Local Elections Local

Keeping Local Elections Local December 13, 2023
Main Street, North Creek, Warren County, NY
Main Street, North Creek, Warren County, NY

The nationalization of state and local politics is probably irreversible. But it should not be hastened. That’s why Governor Kathy Hochul should veto S.3505-B/A.4282-B, a bill that would shift most county and town elections from the current odd-numbered years to the even years, when we hold national elections. It is easy to imagine a scenario in which a partisan of a presidential candidate votes a straight ticket, one that includes a candidate for, say, highway superintendent or town justice, without considering his or her particular qualifications.

The Democrats who sponsored it argue that if the bill is signed into law, the turn-out for local races will rise, which is no doubt true and will, not un-coincidentally, benefit the Democratic party, whose supporters tend to sit out odd-year elections. And it is, in all likelihood, the reason  why Republicans oppose the bill: they may lose their off-year advantage.

Regardless of their motives, though, the Republicans are probably correct to argue, as Assemblyman Matt Simpson does, that “local issues will be drowned out by the national screaming match” if local and national elections are held simultaneously.

“Voters will be less informed about what will now become down-ballot races,” asserts Simpson.

Our local politics will become as polarized and polarizing as our national politics, he suggests.

It may seem hard to believe, but even national politics were once local. Congressional candidates were nominated by their parties only after they had already served their communities, usually in local and state offices, where their character and abilities had been given a chance to prove themselves.

The erosion of locally-rooted politics has been attributed to the proliferation of politicized and polarizing radio shows and television networks and to the tides of money from lobbyists and corporations flowing into local races.

We can also see, in retrospect, how important 1994 was. That year, the Republicans won control of Congress for the first time in half a century. Led by Newt Gingrich, they nationalized local elections with a generic “Contract with America.” Twenty years later, we saw the fruits of that strategy in the primary victory of a Washington DC-based, straight-from-box Republican,  Elise Stefanik, who, not un-coincidentally, was a protégé of the architects of that strategy. Not only were Stefanik’s ties to the area nebulous; her grasp of local issues was too.  

The Electoral College, once a bulwark against tyrannical majorities,  is now dismissed as archaic and is likely to be replaced by direct elections. For powerful reasons: the winners of the presidential elections of 2000 and 2016 lost the popular vote, and the winner of the 2024 election may also. One hundred of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency come from states whose major product is corn, and their citizens appear to prefer a candidate who has called for “the termination” of the Constitution.

The late William F. Buckley Jr. once famously defined

a conservative as someone “who stands athwart history and cries ‘halt!’” Buckley, of course, was too intelligent to believe that any one person or political movement could stop history, just as we now recognize that there is little we can do to stop local politics and elections from falling even further under the sway of national politics. It’s therefore more important than ever that we retain whatever defensive barriers around local politics we have, for as long as we can.

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