This Election Day, there's no telling how the contest in the 22nd State Senate district will end up. Incumbent Senator Martin Golden could prevail on the Republican line. Or, Golden might win on the Independence party line. The dark horse? A Golden victory on the Conservative line. No one can say for sure which party will come out on top. But one thing is certain: Golden can't lose, because he has no opponent.
With a presidential race setting records for voter interest and the two major parties vying for control of the New York State Senate, it might seem strange that no one is bothering to run against a Republican senator in a southwest Brooklyn district where Democrats hold a two-to-one registration advantage. But Golden is far from alone in facing no opponent this autumn. Candidates in four other state Senate races in the city also are running unopposed: incumbents Bill Perkins in Harlem, Shirley Huntley in south Queens, and Malcolm Smith in eastern Queens, as well as newcomer Hiram Monserrate, presently a City Councilman, in the district covering Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, Queens.
Statewide, 11 Senate candidates—together representing nearly 2 million voters, or more voters than are registered in New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Idaho combined—face no opponent. Half are Democrats and half are Republicans. Another five Senate candidates statewide, including Democrats Carl Kruger, Ruben Diaz and Pedro Espada, Jr., face only lower-profile minor-party opposition.
Although New York is far from the worst state in the union when it comes to the number of unopposed contests – with 68 percent of this year's races contested, it actually ranks in the middle – the lack of competition locally is certainly noticeable, translating into less choice and lower voter turnout. On a practical level, uncontested races bother some good government advocates and politicians because, they say, opposition helps keep incumbents responsive. “I've always benefited from rough and tough elections,” says Paul Feiner, a veteran Westchester County pol now serving as Greenburgh town supervisor and a longtime critic of the abundance of non-races around the state.
On a symbolic level, uncontested races can seem distinctly undemocratic. “It does feel like you are in some unstable third world country when there's only one name in a race or if the person has been endorsed by multiple parties,” says attorney Gene Russianoff of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). Indeed, when a European Union Election Observer Mission reported on the 2005 parliamentary elections in Lebanon, it noted: “Following the withdrawal of 17 candidates, nine of 19 seats were won uncontested before election day. This limited the voters' choice.”
State Assembly seats feature even less competition than the Senate. Forty-one Assembly candidates (28 Democrats, 11 Republicans and two candidates who hold both parties' lines) statewide—17 of them in the city—are guaranteed a win on November 4. These districts combined contain more registered voters than live in most U.S. states. Another 10 Assembly candidates face no major party opposition—such as like city Democrats Carmen Arroyo, Michael Benjamin, Jeffrey Dinowitz, Dov Hikind and Alan Maisel, who face only a rival from the Conservative party (which claims 170,000 members statewide and 76 current legislators using the party's designation).
Even federal offices go unthreatened: The only worry for Congressman Anthony Weiner, representing part of Brooklyn and Queens, is a Conservative challenger, and U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks of Queens faces no opponent. That's an improvement over 2006, when four of New York's representatives to Congress had no rival. There's more competition for state Senate seats this year, too: In 2006, 16 Senate races were one-person shows. But in the Assembly, things have gone in the other direction: 36 Assembly candidates ran unchallenged in '06, compared to this year's 41.
The lack of competition for different offices means that people in a particular neighborhood might cast no meaningful ballots for Assembly, state Senate or even Congress this year. For instance, if you live on Mott Avenue in Far Rockaway, Queens, Michelle Titus is going to be your assemblymember, Smith your senator and Meeks your Congressman no matter what you and your fellow voters do; none of them faces any competition. And once a person runs uncontested, they are likely to enjoy repeated cakewalks: Golden, for one, is running unchallenged in his Brooklyn district this year for the third straight time.
Many observers attribute the dearth of competitors to the daunting odds they often face. Legislative elections in New York State, especially if they feature an incumbent, tend to end lopsided. “The number of uncontested elections under-represents the gravity of the situation because in many races there's an opponent who doesn't have the faintest chance of winning,” says longtime reform advocate Henry Stern, a former parks commissioner and City Councilman.
One phenomenon contributes to the other: When a candidate expends time, energy and money running for a seat and gets beat by 80 points, other potential candidates (along with would-be volunteers and donors) can’t be blamed for taking a pass in subsequent elections. And even when insurgents do step up, the role can be thankless. Democrats Nora Marino and Albert Baldeo challenged two entrenched Republican senators in Queens in 2006, posted respectable results and were promptly dumped this year by the Democratic organization for more polished candidates.
Several factors are responsible for the lack of competitive races. The way district lines are drawn helps to insulate incumbents. The vast Democratic registration advantage in many districts discourages upstarts. Party clubs are adept at carrying petitions to get their people on the ballot and challenging the petitions filed by insurgents. The petitioning rules themselves—which require three times as many signatures for an independent candidate as for one running for a political party with a ballot line—also discourage outsiders.
For voters, elections are supposed to be about options. So it's little surprise that uncontested races often draw far fewer votes than real competitions. In 2002, when Golden beat Vincent Gentile for the Senate seat, 45,859 people voted in the race—nearly one-third of voters in the district. But in 2006, when Golden ran uncontested, a mere 22,093 people—only 15 percent of the district—cast ballots.
How many will vote in this year's bout of Golden v. Golden? We won't know until after Nov. 5. So at least there's some suspense in the race.