Gotham Gazette

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Albany Reform: Make Elections More Competitive

Albany Reform: Start by Changing the Rules
by Jeremy Creelan

There were some who opposed the Rockefeller drug laws at the very beginning, when Governor Nelson Rockeller pushed them to passage three decades ago, but most of the opposition to the laws grew steadily over the years. About a decade ago, a consensus emerged among both regular New Yorkers and public officials that the laws were too harsh and needed to be changed. Yet in all that time that virtually everybody agreed, nothing happened.

Then this fall, voters in Albany County organized to defeat the local district attorney, who was a strong proponent of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. Shortly after his defeat, the legislature finally got the message and enacted a partial reform of the 30-year-old laws.

Thus was demonstrated the power of a competitive election.

The Need For Change

If state officials finally reached agreement to make some changes to the Rockefeller drug laws -- after only ten years of trying -- many other issues of great importance remain unresolved, clear evidence of the inability of the governor and the legislature to get things done.

The litany of dysfunctionis familiar:

Legislation on pressing issues is stalled.To name just a few with daunting financial implications:


  • educational funding for city schools;
  • the crushing debt burden for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that threatens not only needed system expansion, but daily service;
  • skyrocketing costs for Medicaid.


The state budget has been late 20 years in a row. A recent bipartisan bill finally to address this delinquency, which was passed unanimously, collapsed two weeks ago when the governor vetoed it and the State Senate refused to overturn his veto.

New York City government is burdened with state requirements that lack adequate funding.

Special interests hold unusual sway over the making of policy.

The failure thus far of the state legislature to implement the Help America Vote Act, (HAVA) – the federal law enacted in 2002 to strengthen the country’s voting systems state by state - shows how partisan gridlock contributes to a failure even to ensure the integrity of each New Yorker's vote.

No wonder fewer and fewer citizens vote in city and state elections -- except when there is a competitive race with a real choice.

The Promise Of Change

2005 is the year that promises change in Albany. The state legislature will convene next week and both the Assembly and the Senate are expected to adopt new rules by which it operates during its 2005-2006 legislative session. Given the recent attention the dysfunction of Albany received in 2004, fueled in part by the Brennan Center for Justice’s report on the state’s legislative process, the new rules promise to make the legislative process more open, accountable, and democratic.

While these reforms are necessary, they will not result in the kind of lasting and far-reaching reform that is needed to make state government more responsible over the long haul.

The real roadblock to meaningful reform in New York is the lack of competitive elections.

Making Elections Competitive

Incumbent legislators are routinely elected without any serious challenger. Indeed, last year, 70 percent of New York City state legislators faced no primary challengers at all, and more than a quarter faced no general election challengers. Without competitive elections, elected officials seem to have little incentive to get anything done -- and voters feel helpless in holding them accountable for their inaction.

In order to bring about true reform in how state government operates, New York must change how its elected officials are elected, and how campaigns are run and financed.

Citizens Union, of which I serve as executive director, has been a non-partisan force for good government for more than 100 years and continues to serve as a watchdog for the public interest at City Hall and increasingly again at our State Capitol. It is why this past summer - during our biennial evaluation of state legislative candidates from New York City in which we issue preferences to those we believe would well serve the public interest - we changed the criteria on which we make such decisions. No longer were our decisions to prefer one candidate over another made on the basis of substantive issues, but rather on candidates’ commitment to reform in state government. Much to our surprise, 46 incumbents supported many of the reform measures Citizens Union is advocating. Elected officials are beginning to feel the heat from their constituents and know they need to heed the concerns of the voters.

There are three measures that must be undertaken to ensure that more elections are competitive in the state. They are:


  • Creation of an independent redistricting commission to draw legislative district lines that follow strict guidelines, are compact, contiguous and not drawn to favor or oppose any political party or incumbent.
  • Creation of a public campaign finance system at the state level that is similar to the New York City model.
  • Removal of burdensome ballot access requirements that prevent challengers from running from office.


These three proposals are part of a broader reform agenda announced last fall by a group of good-government groups that include the New York Public Interest Research Group, Common Cause/NY, the League of Women Voters, and Citizens Union. Called “Reform New York”, the agenda lays out ten steps on the path to change Albany that would bring greater accountability and transparency to state government, all with an eye toward making government address and solve the many pressing issues it faces. Outlined in the agenda are sweeping changes to the way in which legislative districts are drawn, campaigns are financed, public authorities are governed, lobbying is regulated, state budgets are approved, elections are run, the rules under which the legislature operates, and what ethic rules should exist for public officials and how accessible government information is.

The challenge for the good government cause in New York in the next few years is, and must be, reform of state government in Albany, which has become mired in scandal, corruption, and gridlock that has undermined the public trust and ducked critical issues. When the state legislature convenes next week to adopt its rules changes, an important step will be taken in the fight to bring reform to state government. But it must not stop there.

Dick Dadey is the executive director of Citizens Union and Citizens Union Foundation.


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