To Party or Not to Party?
June 3rd, 2010
The city Charter Revision Commission last night confronted its 800-pound gorilla — nonpartisan elections. The ostensible subject of the meeting was increasing voter participation but, while five expert panelists offered various ideas on how to do that, and nonpartisan elections clearly were the cause nearest and dearest to much of the audience’s heart.
Many members of the standing room only crowd held Independence Party placards reading “New York City Wins When Everyone Can Vote.” They hissed opponents of the idea and lustily cheered supporters.
While many members of the commission, which is preparing recommendations to go to voters, did not express an opinion on the hot topic, at least some seemed to favor it. And of course nonpartisan voting has long been a pet cause of the man who appointed the charter commission — and has given lavishly to the Independence Party — Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The mayor’s handpicked commission put the issue on the ballot in 2003 without public debate, only to see it go down to resounding defeat.
Last night, Harry Kresky, an election lawyer who has served as counsel to the New York Independence Party, led the charge for nonpartisan elections. In his testimony, he noted that more than 750,000 registered voters in New York not affiliated with any party are shut out of primaries altogether, and 1.3 million cannot vote in the Democratic Party, which very often is the real election in this city.
More of the arguments pro and con after the jump.
Dating back to the early days of the country when only white male property owners could vote, he said, the nation has steadily expended its franchise. Nonpartisan elections, he said, would represent another step in that process, a particularly vital one as fewer younger voters identify with a major party.
“Do we want to continue a process where the discrepancy between the political process and young voter grows every day?” Kresky asked.
The system generally envisioned for New York City — and which will be on the ballot in California later this month — would enable all registered voters to cast ballots in a nonpartisan primary. The two top vote getters, regardless of party, would then go head-to-head in a general election that would, again, be open to all registered voters.
Parties would continues to exist, Kresky said, as they do in many cities, such as Chicago, which already have nonpartisan elections. But, he said, “The issue is whether parties have a right to control the election system.”
At least one commission member, Stephen Fiala, a Republican and former City Councilmember from Staten Island, left little doubt where he stood. “How do you get around this notion that party politics isnít exclusionary?” he asked.
But David Jones, president of the Community Service Society, who also testified, said nonpartisan elections could decrease voter participation. As some in the crowd hissed, Jones said party labels provide important information to many voters. “A lack of party participation reduces voter interest,” he said. “Nonpartisan elections could and would diminish voter turnout in low-income and minority communities.”
In Jones’, view, “The Democratic Party was the only reason we saw a black mayor in the city of New York.”
MIT urban studies professor J. Phillip Thompson said he doubted nonpartisan voting would have much effect on mayoral campaigns, but added it’s more likely “nonpartisan election will open up accesd at the City Council level” by forcing unions and party bosses “to do more outreach to the public before selecting candidates.”
Jones expressed concern that nonpartisan elections would help rich candidates — a particular concern, he said, in New York because of the huge disparity wealth here and the high cost of media. In a nonpartisan system, he said, “candidates of moderate financial means, particularly minorities and immigrants … would not be able to effectively compete.”
If the commission was to propose nonpartisan elections, he said, “You better make sure we have sharp restrictions on campaign finance with no exceptions, and I don’t think this panel can do that.”
Election lawyer Jerry Goldfeder questioned whether nonpartisan elections would increase turnout. Among cities that already have such elections, some have higher turnout than New York and others don’t, he said, adding “It really does not make all that much difference.”
As to people who cannot vote in key elections now because they have not registered with a party, Goldfeder said, “they have chosen not to affiliate, which is their right.”
The experts raised a number of other points, such as allowing immigrants who are not citizens to vote, making it easier to get on the ballot, allowing same day registration, instant runoff voting, holding elections at different times, and strengthening the Voter Assistance Commission.
“Turnout is low, itís declining, and it’s distorted by class bias,” Barnard College professor Lorraine Minnite testified. “The electorate as a whole is better educated and a little wealthier than the general population.”
This, she said, “violates democratic norms.”
No one disagreed with that.By Gail Robinson on June 3, 2010, 11:41 am
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