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Observation: Yes, It Matters Who Gets Elected April 2009

Yes, It Matters Who Gets Elected

By Robert B. Ward
Deputy Director, the Rockefeller Institute of Government

Robert B. Ward

A little more than seven and a half million New Yorkers voted for either Barack Obama, John McCain or another candidate for president last November. The number voting was just over half the state’s population of individuals aged 18 or more. In other words, another 7 million or so New Yorkers made the choice not to take part in the presidential election.

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Robert Ward is deputy director of the Rockefeller Institute. He is also author of "New York State Government: Second Edition," published by The Rockefeller Institute Press.

Voters in the Empire State also elected 212 members of the Legislature in November. The proportion of eligible voters who took part in those decisions was even lower than the number who voted for president.

When you talk to people who don’t vote, you’ll often hear that it doesn’t really matter – all the politicians are the same. Well, it seems clear that President Obama is doing things a President McCain would not have done. But let’s look in more detail at the New York Legislature. For the first time in more than 30 years, Democrats took control of the state Senate from Republicans as a result of last November’s elections. Democrats were already in the majority in the Assembly, so this means that they now control both houses of the Legislature. And of course Governor Paterson is a Democrat as well – so the three institutions that act on legislation and the state budget are all led by members of the same party. Has this made any difference?

It sure has.

Each of the changes underway has its supporters and opponents, but clearly change is happening. Here’s one example: Democrats talked for years about expanding the container deposit law that now applies to soda and beer purchases, so it would cover things like bottled water and iced tea drinks. When the Republicans controlled the Senate, they blocked that proposal, saying it would drive up costs for consumers. As a result of action on this year’s budget, the expanded deposits are now law. We’ll be paying the extra nickels – and anticipating the environmental benefits, such as fewer plastic bottles in our landfills – within just a few weeks.

Many of the interest groups that make up the Democratic coalition in New York have said for years that upper-income taxpayers ought to pay more, so the state could spend more on education, health care and other programs. Republicans in the Senate disagreed, saying that raising the income tax would make it harder to keep businesses and jobs in the state. Again, that proposal is now law. Individuals with taxable income above $200,000 will pay more, and those above $500,000 will pay a lot more.

Then there’s the issue of property taxes. In 2006, Republicans in the Senate pushed through an expansion of the school-tax relief program known as STAR. Over the last three years, eligible homeowners received rebate checks, generally ranging from $300 to $500, to help ease the burden of rising property taxes. Those rebates were eliminated from this year’s budget, so the checks won’t be arriving this fall. There’s some talk at the Capitol about trying to reinstate them, but Governor Paterson says the money probably isn’t there to pay for another year of STAR rebate checks for homeowners.

And of course there are important areas other than taxes where the Democrats who now control the Senate differ from the Republicans who used to be in charge. For example, this year’s budget included major changes to the state’s Rockefeller drug laws, giving judges more discretion in sentencing and expanding the use of alternatives such as drug treatment programs.

Gay marriage may be the next big change. Again, many of the Democrats who control the Senate now are pushing for a vote that would likely result in redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples. It’s not yet clear whether the proposal will come to the floor this session, but the question is probably when, rather than whether, the legislation will be considered. Such a vote would likely not be on the agenda if the Republicans still held the Senate majority.

Different voters have varying opinions on all of these questions. That’s what you’d expect in a democracy. But keep these issues in mind next time you hear someone say it doesn’t matter who gets elected. It sure does matter.


The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.