by Kathleen Reed
The issue of term limits is important to voters in Chemung County.
The Term Limits Review Committee recommended the previous resolution, but it died in the Multi-Services Committee on January 6th 2020, due to lack of a second to the motion to refer it for a vote by the Full Legislature. A new resolution that resumes the Term Limits Review Committee was introduced and details can be found at: https://www.rodneyjstrange.com/news/term-limits-for-county-executive-legislature-back-for-second-time
There have been at least 3 polls posted on social media since the Term Limits Review Committee was first appointed in last year.
Each had a relatively modest number of responses. They were not legal petitions with “verified” registered voters and, as such, could not be cited with a “scientific” margin of error.
But the results of each were incredibly consistent, and responses showed overwhelming support (well beyond any typical margin of error) in favor of term limits.
Some legislators who oppose term limits may point to the historic turnover in 2018 as “proof” that voters have the choice to elect new faces, without a “need” for term limits.……as if challengers and incumbents alike have equal footing every four years.
It is obtuse to discount the clear and ubiquitous “Incumbent Advantage” that has been cited and verified by countless sources across the nation.
Data shows that incumbent candidates overwhelmingly win re-election over challengers across all levels of government. While the average reelection rate of Congressional incumbents hovers in the high 90s (where costly campaigns create a greater obstacle for challengers), the average reelection rate at the local level is only about ten percentage points less.
In other words, in local elections where an incumbent is running, challengers only have about a 15% chance of winning. The fact that Chemung County voters rejected that pattern with historical numbers in 2018 shows a strong desire for change.
Forty percent of the incumbent legislative candidates who sought re-election in 2018 were defeated. Five out of 13 incumbents were defeated. And what speaks volumes is that the challengers who defeated them, at an unprecedented rate, all ran campaigns that stressed support for Term Limits. Additionally, the voters chose to fill the office of County Executive, and at least one of the two Legislative districts where incumbents were NOT running…..with candidates that have expressed support for Term Limits
It cannot be coincidence that, of the 15 legislative seats and the County Executive race, half went to candidates who have expressed support for Term Limits.
It is clear that the citizens of Chemung County desire change among their elected servants. Keeping unlimited elective terms, and perpetuating Incumbent Advantage significantly impedes that desired change. And the “Incumbent Advantage” grows stronger the longer the incumbent holds office. We should note that of all the current legislators who took their seat by defeating an incumbent, only one of the defeated incumbents had been previously elected more than once.
There are numerous scholarly articles that have examined the various factors that contribute to the phenomenon of the overwhelming “Incumbent Advantage” that exists. Some of the most accepted explanations include:
1. Name Recognition
This speaks for itself. Just as marketing experts know they can rely on consumers habitually gravitating toward brand recognition…voters gravitate towards names they know and have heard on the local news.
2. Institutional Support & Endorsements
By running from within the system, officials can use many of the advantages that come with their office. Interest groups and other supporters are much more likely to get behind someone with a track record of responding to their needs than an unknown challenger.
3. Access to, and Control Over Government Resources
There are many tools and resources available to office holders that challengers have more difficulty accessing, like voter databases as well as contact information that can be used to their advantage.
4. Voters' Inertia and Risk-Aversion
Simply put: when people are uncomfortable or unsure if they have enough information to make the most informed choice, human psychology defaults to leaving things as they are.
Inertia can stop us from taking action over all facets of our lives. From things as inconsequential as replacing an outdated fixture…to vital cancer screenings when we feel ‘fine’. We reflexively avoid action.
For instance, maybe a lack of exercise plan isn’t working so well for us. We know we need to do something different. Maybe we have even bought a membership to a gym.
But we may wonder if some new plan, like cardio or weights, might have their own drawbacks. We haven’t completely weighed ALL the pros and cons of different options….so we haven’t made any changes just yet (even though we know there are better choices than the current course).
Just because we have not yet overcome the inertia that keeps us from immediate change…does not mean that we believe the current course is best for us, or that we have no desire for change.
This “mental” inertia we encounter regularly is a difficult force to overcome individually. Collectively it is an even greater force.
Challengers face significant hurdles in informing and motivating the public to conquer that inertia. The 2018 turnover was indeed historical and required significant effort from those candidates, as well as the public’s desire for change. But most of the districts that saw change, removed a first term legislator. I would like to believe that incumbents (especially long tenured ones) who dismiss the idea that they have had an “Incumbent Advantage” are not simply being disingenuous. Perhaps some are just unaware because they themselves have never experienced the disadvantages of running against an incumbent.
The table below summarizes positions that Legislators have articulated at some point. I understand some that are noted as “undetermined”, but have expressed that they believe it deserves a vote….whether or not they necessarily support it themselves. That’s a perfectly fair position that I believe deserves respect.
However…. all the Legislators who have maintained a solid position against Term Limits are among those who have already been elected to 3 or more terms of office themselves. And of those long-tenured office holders who oppose Term Limits….How many of them have ever faced an incumbent opponent?
The Term Limits Review Committee will be holding meetings every Tuesday through the month of March. They are open to the public. Although the scheduling of all of them during traditional workday hours (at 3:45 pm) may be a challenge, I encourage all to attend if possible.
For those who have a Facebook account wish to express their view on the topic (and/or may be unable to attend a meeting during the workday), there is a current poll available at https://www.facebook.com/elmiratelegram/ (pinned just below the reviews section)
Click one button to vote, then a second button to share on your own timelines to reach as many Chemung County residents as possible.
Kathleen Reed is a resident of the Town of Catlin