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Incumbents win, as usual Legislature's dodging of electoral change is not really a sign of voter approval

Here is the biggest, most telling nonstory of the 2006 elections, one that is pregnant with significance as New Yorkers look to a new governor to repair their broken state: As a tidal wave of voter resentment washed across the country, changing control of both houses of Congress, ushering a reformist governor into Albany and altering the makeup of statehouses around the country, the New York State Legislature was placidly undisturbed.

Democrats gained a seat in the Assembly and Republicans held on to their Senate majority. Just another election.

It would be a remarkable thing on its own if that stability reflected broad satisfaction with the way state legislators do their job. Indeed, it would be a real feather in the lawmakers' caps for the Legislature to be so well regarded by New Yorkers.

But that's not the case, and that's what makes this election so notable. The Legislature, in fact, is held in broad disrepute by voters. Only 33 percent say they approve of the way the Legislature is handling its job, according to polling done by the New York Times and CBS News in September. The Brennan Center for Justice famously labeled the Legislature as the nation's most dysfunctional in a landmark report two years ago, and in an update this fall concluded that nothing much had changed.

Yet even in an election when voters across the country were primed to throw the bums out, the New York State Legislature remained solidly, unperturbably unaffected. Like a rock. Or a cadaver.

It's not that New Yorkers are happy with the performance of the Legislature. And it's not that the entire economy of upstate hasn't been eroding for years. It's that this discreditable Legislature has so isolated and insulated itself that voters can hardly get to it.

If ever New Yorkers had evidence that their system was broken, it is in an election that left them little choice but to elect -- or, as editorial writers across the state know, endorse -- the same people who have given them such a dim view of the institution. It's enforced insanity. Voters are required to keep doing the same thing in the same way while still hoping for a different result. It doesn't work.

That's why New Yorkers have to insist that Gov.-elect Eliot Spitzer not only keep his promise of independent redistricting, but that he also push for reforms in fund-raising rules that allow lawmakers to rake in campaign cash from lobbyists. He must demand ethics reform and refuse to go along with the system of member items that gives tens of millions of taxpayers dollars to legislators who distribute it as they see fit in their districts.

Incumbents will always have a potential advantage over challengers. That's the nature of politics. But for democracy to work, the system can't tilt so far toward them that able challengers are discouraged from even trying to unseat a sitting legislator. Indeed, New Yorkers need to demand a system that invites challenge. That's the way to keep incumbents responsive to voters.

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