Democracy in Peril

Posted by NYPIRG on October 24, 2022 at 9:48 am

A poll released by the The New York Times and Siena College Research Institute last week found that over 70 percent of registered voters agreed that democracy was “under threat.”  Given the lies about the 2020 election being “stolen,” such a view is not surprising.  But the poll found that the concerns ran much deeper. 

Most of the survey’s respondents viewed the deepest threat to democracy resulted from government corruption.  That survey result resonates with anyone who has followed ethics, campaign financing, and elections in America.  Put simply, those polled raised the longstanding public concern about the basic functioning of a democracy, as the Times put it; “whether government works on behalf of the people.”

The concern that democracy is threatened by government that does not work on behalf of the people can manifest in many ways, for example issues about whether elections are run to benefit the public at large or more specifically for the benefit of the two major political parties.

That issue raised itself last week with a report over how the Dutchess County Board of Elections is complying with New York State law. 

First some background.  Under New York State law, polling locations must be located on college campuses if 300 or more students who live on campus are registered to vote in New York.  The law states when a “contiguous property of a college or university” has 300 or more registrants, who are registered at that address, the polling place must be provided on the site or at a location “recommended by the college and agreed to by the board of elections.”  Those locations must have been designated by August 1st of 2022.  These college-based polling sites are for the General Election only; the requirement does not apply to the location of early voting places.

Vassar College, located in Poughkeepsie, has about 1,000 registered voters.  In August, the college emailed the BOE requesting a polling site and providing a suitable location on campus.

Nothing happened.

As reported in the Poughkeepsie Journal, as of last week (three weeks before Election Day) the Dutchess County Board of Elections has yet to designate a site because of failure of the Republican and Democrat commissioners to agree on a location.  This failure to follow the law reportedly stems from the Republican Commissioner who simply doesn’t want to agree.

Under New York’s system of running elections, the two major political parties have to agree on an issue of consequence.  When they don’t, gridlock follows.  In this case, that partisan gridlock has blocked the placing of a polling place for Vassar college students – even though the law requires it.

Why is it that months have lapsed between the legal requirement that the polling sites be identified by August 1st and last week?  Apparently, no one in authority seems to care enough about this (other than the college students and apparently the administrators at Vassar) to crack the whip. 

When it comes to youth voting, the Vassar case is just one of too many.  The political class is very willing to have young adults fight in wars, but when it comes to their constitutional right to vote, that willingness too often evaporates.

As the Times poll showed, “whether government works on behalf of the people” is at the heart of public dissatisfaction with their own democracy.  That voter cynicism is too often borne out by the behavior of those who are elected and the partisan – or ideological – motives of public officials.

American democracy has always been a work in progress, with all of us obliged to continue the work of taking care of this grand experiment in self-governance.  Let’s hope that those charged with running Dutchess County’s elections agree to follow the law.