Lining Up on Nonpartisan Elections
July 7th, 2010
Now that its forums on key issues have come to a close, the city charter revision commission will hold a public meeting on Monday at which the members will “discuss the next phase of the commission’s work.” While the commission ponders its options about what, if anything, to put before the voters in November, it certainly has plenty of advice it can take — or ignore.
Last week, Citizens Union (whose sister organization publishes Gotham Gazette) weighed in with its recommendations. Amid all the advisers, Citizens Union might have a bit more heft than both, given its long history as a good government group and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s endorsement in March of the group’s creation of its own charter task force.
Among its 50 recommendations, Citizens Union called for instituting nonpartisan elections, term limits, providing the public advocate and borough presidents with independently funded budgets and giving the Civilian Complaint Review Board the power to prosecute cases.
In backing nonpartisan elections, Citizens Union reversed the stand it took in 2003 when it opposed a proposed charter revision, overwhelmingly rejected by the voters, that would have created open primaries. The mayor backed the idea then — and reportedly still does. Some other civic groups, such as the Women’s City Club, still oppose the idea.
Under the plan believed to be under consideration — and adopted by California voters last month — all voters would cast ballots in a primary open to candidates from all parties. The top two vote getters would then go head-to-head- in a general election.
This system, Citizens Union said in a statement, would “provide that the voice of the 1.5 million voters, who are now effectively shut out from choosing many of the city’s elected officials because they are not affiliated with the Democratic Party that effectively determines the vast majority of the city’s elected officials in a closed partisan primary, is heard.”
Opponents argue the nonpartisan primaries could be a boost to wealthy self-financed candidates like Bloomberg. Citizens Union endorsed Bloomberg in all three of his mayoral elections.
The proposal also has the enthusiastic backing of the Independence Party, Bloomberg gave $1.2 million to party the last year and — not surprisingly — its endorsement, and line in the mayoral election last year.
At a Democratic Party press conference, last month, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio –a Democrat — was among those condemning the nonpartisan election idea. “Nonpartisan elections undermine our democracy,” he said. “They create a system that is dominated by wealth, suppresses voter turnout and makes it harder for minority candidates to compete.”
About three quarters of U.S/ cities now have nonpartisan elections, according to a study of them by George Mason University law professor David Schleicher. Schleicher told the Wall Street Journal the system has left voters even less informed than they were under the old party-dominated system.
Like it or not, party labels provide information. And so, Schleicher said, nonpartisan elections “take a situation where you know little and reduces it to zero. All evidence shows that voters in nonpartisan election behave as if they have no idea what’s going on and they turn out in far smaller numbers.”
But most accounts the charter commission will put term limits before the voters but predictions vary as to whether nonpartisan elections will make the cut in its draft recommendations, expected in September. The commission — and mayor — have been careful to avoid a replay of the 2003 election when the commission made it clear it would follow Bloomberg’s bidding and put the issue on the ballot before it held even a single hearing.
As to back channels, who knows? After all, as City Hall noted, “most of the staffers … are either current or former city employees, and several split time between the Bloomberg administration payroll and the commission.”
On the other hand, the article said, “Staff and commission members insist that they have had no contact with anyone inside the Bullpen about the mayor’s preferences.”By Gail Robinson on July 7, 2010, 3:00 pm
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