State Legislature

Small groups of 'ultra-motivated activists' deciding elections?

New York Times political writer Matt Bai wrote out some new laws of politics last week, following the Tuesday electoral primaries that caused such discomfort for the established parties in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Arizona. One of his observations is

...when fewer people bother to engage in party politics, it takes a smaller group of ultra-motivated activists to overturn the traditional order of things.

The connection he does not make is that this has been a rule of New York politics for many years. It's something that the two major parties count on to get their people elected to office: apathy among the mass of voters. Consider another fact published in the May issue of Harper's Magazine. In a very tough indictment of the State Legislature, "The Albany Handshake," writer Christopher Ketcham notes that "one-third of all current New York State legislators took office in special elections for which voter turnout as low as 2 or 3 percent was typical."

When practically no one votes, it's easier to load up the ballots with a get-out-the-vote effort designed to favor one candidate. I've watched this happen, as elected officials resign part-way through their terms in order to force a special election to fill their seats. But even I was surprised that a full third of the legislature had won seats that way.

Of course, the two parties are not the only ones who can play that game. In recent years, unions have called on loyal members to turn out in numbers, and none so successfully as the coalition of unions known as the Working Families Party. Although, the New York State United Teachers and the United Federation of Teachers certainly present another strong force, especially to the extent that they can reach out to parent-teacher groups to spread the activism beyond their members to a more general voting public. E-mail has been a wonderful tool for these organizations.

I dislike the manipulation that's involved in loading up the ballot with a particular group of voters, because it cynically counts on the majority to care not at all. But I wonder if appealing to our passionate interests as voters is such a bad thing. I vote as a parent, and maybe as a worker who wants paid family leave, if I am a Working Families Party ally. But for fewer of us now, the labels Democrat and Republican stir much loyalty at all.