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It Is Time For Non-Partisan Elections In NYC

by Frank J. Macchiarola, May 26, 2003

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In more than 80 percent of the nation’s largest cities, mayors are elected through nonpartisan elections — elections in which the candidates do not run on the Democratic or Republican or any other established party line, but as individuals. The cities where there are non-partisan elections include Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Detroit, Denver, and San Francisco. New York City is the exception.

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That is why the new Charter Revision Commission, which Mayor Bloomberg asked me to chair, will be considering this important matter, with the intention of putting it on the ballot for the voters to decide, along with several other issues. (See Blue Box for some of the other issues).

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I have been a member of two previous Charter Commissions, and was interested in the work of the last commission, chaired by Robert McGuire, and felt that it was important to build on what they had done. Because of the pressures of time, they had left several important matters on the table, including not whether but when to offer the voters a chance to choose nonpartisan elections on a ballot referendum.

The opportunity for citizens to choose freely and fairly those who represent them is at the core of democracy. Steps toward promoting democracy include encouraging greater participation of voters and a wider range of candidates, increasing the electorate’s knowledge of candidates and issues, and providing resources for those who seek public office. Nonpartisan elections may better complement and support these goals than the current partisan system.

The Commission's Other Tasks

The Charter Revision Commission will be addressing several issues, in addition to nonpartisan elections. Among the issues that the mayor has asked the Commission to address are government purchasing, agency (re)organization, and issues of fiscal management. The purchase of goods and services accounts for greater than $8 billion in public funds. These include the purchase of fuel for the city's police cars, fire engines, and other vehicles; office supplies and equipment; the construction of schools and other municipal buildings; as well as contracting with community organizations for the provision of health services, social services, educational and recreational activities. In doing this the city needs not only to purchase goods and services of a high quality, at a fair price, delivered in a timely manner, it must, as well, be concerned with the integrity of the process and fair dealing with vendors.

At a time of great strain on the city's resources, we must ensure that in the organization and structure of our governmental agencies that redundancy, duplication, and overlap are eliminated, both to save the public's money and to improve the quality of services the city's provides. At the same time, we need to address where areas requiring government attention are lacking. The establishment of the "311" system is a harbinger of the changes needed.

The financial reforms established during the fiscal crisis were established to assure lenders that the city was managing its funds in a prudent manner and to allow it to issue and market bonds. With the anticipated payoff of the bonds issued at that time, many of these reform provisions "sunset." The Commission will be looking at areas where the city can set its own program of fiscal self-discipline. In these issues, as with nonpartisan elections, the principles of access and transparency apply. And, as with the provisions regarding nonpartisan elections, the Commission's recommendations (in these and any other areas)
will go to the voters to decide.

-Frank Macchiarola

As the Charter Revision Commission considers nonpartisan elections, there are issues both concerning the “why” and the “how.”

Why nonpartisan elections?

Writing on these pages in January, Doug Muzzio cited the learned Yogi Berra: “Before you build a better mousetrap, it helps to know if there are mice out there.” Indeed, there are plenty of mice out there:

• Voting in local elections is declining. The number of non-enrolled voters is growing rapidly, particularly among youth and recent immigrants.
• The ballot petition procedures candidates must follow are famously burdensome and knocking opponents off the ballot absurdly common
• Party bosses still seek to stifle competition and exact patronage
• Perhaps most significantly, many candidates win their party primary with fewer than a third of the votes, with general elections serving as confirmations rather than contests. What should be a fierce competition is instead a fait accompli.

It is not surprising, given the sum of these variables, that incumbent re-election rates approach 100 percent, as party bosses continue to wield power.

The system is indeed broken. The city’s independent voters, ever-growing in number, are effectively disenfranchised, since the party primary decides all but a few elections. As the noted political scientist V.O. Key wrote about the segregated south, a one party system is the functional equivalent of a no party system.

How would nonpartisan elections work?

Over the next few months, as the Commission studies nonpartisan elections and their potential impact on New York City, our attention will focus on several key areas.

Nonpartisan elections across the nation and in New York City
Non-partisan elections are not some untried scheme. Indeed, they are not even new to New York City. Since the Charter revision of 1989, a proposal that I made has been in effect. Special elections to fill a vacancy in the term of a City Council member have been conducted on a nonpartisan basis. Speaker Gifford Miller, Majority Leader Joel Rivera, and Minority Leader James Oddo were first elected to the Council in nonpartisan elections. And earlier this year, there was a spirited nonpartisan election for a vacant City Council seat in Bay Ridge.

As the commission explores the design of nonpartisan elections, a number of variables will be considered. These include:

• which municipal offices should be covered;
• when should the elections be held;
• when should the new arrangements go into effect;
• how would candidates get on the ballot;
• how would the nonpartisan format affect the city’s campaign finance program and vice versa;
• how would votes be counted;
• what is a sufficient threshold of votes to elect a candidate;
• what would be the role of political parties; and many more.

As we examine the experience of other cities and consider the lessons they hold for New York, it is important to note several features unique to New York that can serve to enhance the effects of nonpartisan elections. New York is the only city in the nation with term limits, a generous campaign finance program, and a widely distributed Voter Guide. Contributing to civic debate and voter information in New York are the number of competing daily newspapers, weekly papers, cable news stations, ethnic and general radio stations, and powerful unions and other organized groups.

Voter turnout: Some have asserted that nonpartisan elections lead to reduced voter turnout. The research here is scanty, and often fails to compare turnouts in large cities. A further contradiction in opponents’ arguments concerns the assertion that in the absence of party labels voters will not have a cue as to a candidate’s views. Yet in the Democratic primary, where most elections are decided, voters differentiate among candidates without any party label to assist them. They do this by using information gleaned from the Voter Guide, the community newspapers, and the abundance of campaign literature that the campaign finance program funds. In New York City, at least, this argument lacks salience and is demeaning to voters.

Minority participation: In a city with a majority “minority” population, this is an important issue. Nonpartisan elections are held in forty-one of the nation’s fifty largest cities. Compared to partisan election cities in recent elections, nonpartisan election cities have elected a higher percentage of black and Latino mayors – 34 percent vs. 22 percent. At the least, this suggests than minorities are likely to do at least as well in nonpartisan cities as in partisan ones.

Of course, I am aware of the requirement that our proposal will require “preclearance” from the Department of Justice to ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act. This is a process with which I am familiar, as we went through the same one when the districting plan that the Commission I chaired was submitted and approved following the 1990 census. It is important to remember here that the Voting Rights Act protects the rights of members of the electorate, not candidates or political parties!

At bottom, the issue is whether we continue to allow a small group of party officials to determine both who gets on the ballot and who can vote in the elections that matter or do we expand opportunity and access. This is not a matter of abstract “good government” principle, but rather a response to the increasing numbers of voters who feel left out of the process as it operates today.

In developing its recommendations concerning nonpartisan elections, the commission will review the work of four previous Charter Revision Commissions which have addressed the topic, carry out its own data collection work, and conduct an extensive program of community engagement. Currently, the commission is in the midst of an initial series of public outreach activities, hearings in each of the boroughs and policy forums on selected subjects. (For a schedule of these activities, please see the commission’s web site.)

If as Clemenceau said, war is too important to leave to the generals, then democracy is too precious to leave to the party bosses. The recommendations put forward by the Commission will be on the basis of consulting widely, listening closely, thinking creatively, and proposing carefully. And, then, it will be for the voters to decide. Democracy is for all.


Frank Macchiarola, president of St. Francis College in Brooklyn and former New York City public schools chancellor (1978 – 1983), is the chair of the Charter Review Commission.


RELATED STORY:
Partisan Man to the Rescue!

Mark Green criticizes Mayor Michael Bloomberg's attempt to put the issue of non-partisan elections on the ballot in November, explaining why he calls it "the wrong answer to a non-problem," and suggesting some real "pro-democracy reforms."

Last Updated (Apr 02, 2013)