By Josh Shipper
Term limits and campaign finance, as it turns out, were
This month, one third of the City Council candidates
in Queens were stricken from the ballot when their petitions
were invalidated. The majority of those disqualified were
running against a well-supported party candidate. The
Queens County Democratic organization sent a team of a
dozen lawyers to represent their candidates and challenge
opponents. Louisa Chan, a candidate in district
25 in Jackson Heights, left the courtroom in tears.
Like the rest of the candidates opposing a party machine,
she was fighting against patronage, money, resources,
and a guaranteed wall of endorsements -- an apparently
"Despite all the popular rhetoric about reform," wrote
Michael Bloomberg in a recent Newsday article, "old-fashioned
political bosses, not the people, still dominate political
life in New York City." It is time, he said, to take them
How would he do so? Non-partisan elections.
Mayor Rudy Giuliani supports the idea. At a recent press
conference, the mayor told reporters that nonpartisan
elections would "continue to help move the city out of
domination by one political party. I was only the third
Republican mayor in 100 years." Support comes as well
from New York's Independence Party, which includes it
in its platform. "The idea is a frightening one for our
partisan system," says Frank MacKay, the chairman of the
Nonpartisan elections, where candidates would be prohibited
from running as the choice of any party or under their
banner, are designed to remove political parties from
local government. Its advocates argue that this would
open the ballot to a wider range of candidates and ideas,
and force citizens to become more informed voters.
If all of those reasons aren't enough, proponents say,
consider the fact that we already have nonpartisan elections
in New York -- and have had them since 1989, when an
amendment to the City Charter required that special elections
to fill sudden vacancies be nonpartisan.
These, though, happen only about once a year. More compelling
perhaps is that New York is one of the few major cities
left in the United States that does not use them to select
all its public officials.
A HISTORY OF IDEALISM
The argument for nonpartisan elections is simple. It
is based on the old saying, "You don't need to be Republican
or Democrat to pave a road."
The job of a member of the city council, proponents say,
is not to debate national issues, but to preserve the
neighborhood park, make sure trash is picked up, and occasionally
fix a pothole or two. All of these do not require partisan
The nonpartisan election was a Progressive reform introduced
around the turn of the 20th Century in response to party
machines that in effect ran municipal governments. The
Progressive Party was strongest out West and in Texas,
which is why most cities there had the format written
into their original charters. Progressives wanted city
governments to be more responsive to community needs,
less vulnerable to the self-interested manipulation of
party hacks. They wanted to sever public servants' allegiances
to political parties.
Today, at least three-quarters of all municipalities
in the United States use nonpartisan elections, including
Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Dallas, and Seattle.
Chicago made the switch in 1999.
Nonpartisan elections are intended to bring about reform
in several ways.
By prohibiting parties from running candidates, advocates
say, they remove party influence from the race. During
the do-or-die period of petitioning when candidates in
New York now rely on party organizations for help, such
a reform could level the playing field.
It also opens the ballot to a wider range of candidates
who don't need to adjust their ideas to win the approval
of parties. And, advocates say, by stripping voters of
their most useful cue -- party affiliation -- nonpartisan
ballots are also intended to force voters to search out
more information on a candidate. A more active and informed
citizenry could increase voter turnout.
Some candidates see the idea of non-partisan elections
as a thinly-disguised scheme to increase the chances for
a Republican win in this overwhelmingly Democratic city.
"If my poll numbers looked like his," a spokesman for
Fernando Ferrer responded
to Bloomberg's proposal, "I'd call for nonvoter elections."
According to some political scientists who are studying
nonpartisan elections, there is a significant discrepancy
between what nonpartisan elections are intended to do,
and what they actually do - or need to do.
Despite the complaints, for example, "party dominance"
is not what it used to be, says Richard Briffault, a professor
at Columbia University School of Law who specializes in
election law. In New York's Democratic primary elections,
while party organizations can endorse candidates, they
no longer have the power to select who can run in the
"In cities like New York, parties are not filtering the
ideas of candidates," adds Matthew Streb, a political
science professor at Loyola Marymount University. "They
are primarily fundraising bodies."
Then there is the argument advocates use that local problems
do not require partisan solutions. Briffault disagrees,
at least when it comes to many decisions that the mayor
must make. "The real question is, do Republicans and Democrats
take different approaches when dealing with larger issues
like education and crime?" says Briffault. To him, it
is clear that they do.
Critics are also skeptical that non-partisan elections
will promote a more informed citizenry. To Brian Schaffner
of Indiana University, who with Streb is part of a group
of political scientists researching nonpartisan elections,
this is one of the worst myths. "It is unrealistic to
think that people are going to go out and get more information
on candidates," he says. Quite to the contrary, their
research has shown that when voters cannot rely on party
affiliations to guide their vote, instead of investigating
the candidates further, they are most likely to use the
next best cue, which in most cases is incumbency, name
recognition, or ethnicity. But the team would much rather
see people vote based on party, because, they believe,
it is the most effective cue for determining what a candidate
will do if elected.
And far from increasing voter turnout, in fact, the researchers
discovered that nonpartisan elections often actually depress
voter turnout. Without a "team"
to root for, they say, voters become less interested in
the race. They have also found that voters often leave
a ballot blank when they are not given party affiliations
because they are less sure who to vote for.
Then, rather than being a way to make the process of
elections more open and responsive, critics claim, nonpartisan
elections achieve something quite different. "The history
of nonpartisan elections is a history of moneyed elites
trying to manipulate the people," says Dan Cantor, executive
director of the Working
Families Party. "They are a way for wealthy candidates
from unpopular parties to get on the ballot. They create
no advantage for smaller party candidates except for politicians
like Mike Bloomberg and Ross Perot who mistake their money
If all this were not argument enough, critics make one
final point: Even if nonpartisan elections were a good
idea for New York City, would they even be possible? According
to Briffault, it is unconstitutional to bar parties from
endorsing candidates or giving them money.
If parties can still endorse candidates in a nonpartisan
election, it is hard to imagine them staying out of a
race. Party machines would most likely continue to pick
favorites and shovel funds into their campaigns.
The chances of nonpartisan elections taking over New
York City are slim. There is a long tradition of partisan
politics here. State law is based upon political parties.
No grassroots organizations seem to be taking up the cause.
That may be why the past two Charter
Revision Commissions, though formed by Mayor Giuliani
with the intention of implementing this new election format,
have rejected the idea. And the proposal has lost steam
in recent weeks. This year's Commission did not even mention
the idea at its first public meeting.
The idea still appeals to some, however. Three-quarters
of the nation's municipalities can't all be wrong.
Take Los Angeles, an example used by advocates because
the city's last mayor was Republican. This indicates to
some that nonpartisan elections have weakened the influence
of the city's Democratic organization.
Another example used by advocates is from right here
in New York: special elections for vacated City Council
seats, which occur on the average only once or twice a
year. The last such election was held in February to fill
the central Bronx's 15th
District (seat vacated by Jose Rivera. The race was
contested by two Democrats, Edwin Ortiz, and Joel Rivera,
son of Jose, and the Bronx Democratic organization's candidate.
turnout for this nonpartisan special election was
touted as surprisingly high for a City Council election
in the middle of February.
Since the turnout was actually only around 12 percent,
this may say less about the value of nonpartisan elections
than it does the indifference of voters in the 15th district.
In any case, it was only a fiction that it was nonpartisan;
the victor, Joel Rivera, was clearly the choice of the
Bronx Democratic party machine .
And when advocates point to L.A.'s nonpartisan elections
allowing for a Republican mayor, critics point out that
New York City's current mayor is Republican, too, demonstrating
that the party is perfectly capable of winning in a major
city without the aid of nonpartisan elections.
THE PERSISTENCE OF PARTIES
The debate over nonpartisan elections seems to boil down
to the value of political parties in our nation today.
Are they inevitable, desirable, or do they impinge on
the ability of a democracy to function? Our Founding Fathers
did not anticipate the rise of dominant parties--no where
in the Constitution are they mentioned--and they warned
about the potential of large factions to bring politics
to a stalemate.
"The public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival
parties," wrote James Madison in The Federalist Papers.
"Measures are too often decided, not according to the
rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but
by the superior force of an interested and overbearing
Bloomberg, taking a page from Madison, persists.
This week, he wrote a
letter to the Chairman of the Charter Revision Commission
Randy Mastro urging him to reconsider nonpartisan elections
for the November ballot. "By eliminating the partisan
primary," he said, "nonpartisan elections prevent a small
segment of registered voters from determining the outcome
of the general election‚§| By opening our electoral system
to all candidates, we can create a new climate for politics
in this city, one that encourages political minorities
and broader political debate."
While the theoretical discussion continues, Council candidates
in Louisa Chan's district are now learning the everyday
facts of party machine politics. Chan was one of six Democratic
candidates in District 25 initially knocked off the ballot
by the Queens County Democratic organization. The organization,
which is backing candidate Helen Sears, convinced a judge
to strike 200 signatures from Chan's petition because
people used the abbreviation "NYC" and then crossed it
out. Several days ago, Chan won a difficult appeal, and,
for now, is back on the ballot. But her temporary disqualification
caused her to lose any pubic funding she might have had
to continue her campaign. She now has to wait until September
6th, five days before the primary, for the Campaign Finance
Board to approve her funds.
Others candidates, like S. Terry Lewis, were not as fortunate
"I believe my campaign is over for 2001," she said. "We
simply don't have the funds to fight this challenge."
Indeed, what the campaign finance program and term limits
were supposed to create--a ballot open to challengers
representing different views--local party machines have
managed to take away. New Yorkers supported those two
initiatives several years ago, and so it is hard to believe
that they would support the elimination of a candidate
based on some abbreviated addresses.
"The petition challenges are meant to weed out fraud,"
said Chan, "not to weed out opponents of party machines.
This is an election by the people. If I get beaten by
the people at the voting booths, that is one thing. But
if I get beaten by a party machine, that is not democracy,"
Party machines do not play the role they used to, but
it is hard to ignore their power in local elections. After
the first round of petition challenges, it is clear that
while incumbents may be gone, parties are not; and while
public funds are available to all, party funds are not.
But few people agree with Bloomberg that the answer is
nonpartisan elections. They may be one way to check parties'
influence, but in the end, they create more problems than