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"Race, Poverty, & Nonpartisan Elections,"

by Alan Gartner September/October 2003 issue of Poverty & Race

Nonpartisan elections, if you are as parochial a New Yorker as I am, are some exotic practice, elsewhere. In the course of my work as Executive Director, 2003 Charter Revision Commission, I learned how limited was my knowledge: Forty-one of America’s 50 largest cities, 8 of the largest 10 (all but Philadelphia and New York), conduct their elections for all municipal offices on a nonpartisan basis.

New York’s Charter is the governing document of the city. A Charter Revision Commission is the instrument, per the state constitution, for making changes in the Charter. A Commission can be appointed by the Mayor, or the City Council, or by petition of the voters. A Commission is authorized to recommend changes to any part of the Charter, which recommendations become the subject of a voter referendum. The current Charter Revision Commission was appointed by Republican Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg last April. It is chaired by Frank J. Macchiarola, currently President, St. Francis College, and former NYC schools Chancellor. With its chair, it has eleven members, a majority of whom are “minority” group members, with a greater representation of non-Manhattanites than is traditional on such bodies.

In appointing the Commission, Mayor Bloomberg noted that the issue of nonpartisan elections had been studied by several previous Charter Revision Commissions and that, now, it was time to “let the voters decide.” In accepting appointment as chair, Dr. Macchiarola pledged to have the matter placed on the ballot.

While, as noted, nonpartisan elections are the typical form of municipal election across the country, in no two cities is the form identical. Common among them is a primary election, where all registered voters – i.e., not just those of a particular party – are eligible to vote. In New York City, the Commission’s proposal is for the top two vote-getters in this primary to go on to a general election. In some jurisdictions, there is a single election round, with the candidate receiving the most votes elected. The form the NYC Commission has adopted ensures that the winning candidate receives a majority of the votes cast.

A further feature of the New York City procedure concerns the process whereby a candidate gets on the primary election ballot. This will be done by petition, with any registered voter eligible to sign a petition and to circulate one.


The Problems With the Current System

What are the problems nonpartisan elections are designed to address?
• Along with the rest of the nation, participation in local elections is declining in New York.
• Increasingly, those who register to vote do so without selecting a party affiliation. This is particularly true of recent immigrants and youth. Currently in New York, there are nearly 700,000 unaffiliated registered voters, a number greater than the enrollment in all but one political party and a total of nearly 20% of the electorate. These persons are precluded from voting in the September primary, which is almost always the determinative election.
• The political parties have a lock hold on the election process, especially at the primary stage. Only members of the particular party can vote in its partisan primary; only members of the particular party can sign a petition to place a candidate on the partisan primary ballot; and only members of the particular party can circulate a petition. These provisions, alone and together, exclude another nearly 700,000 persons registered in a party other than the Democratic Party. These persons too are precluded from participating in the determinative September primary. Thus, a total of 1.3 million voters are effectively disenfranchised. Further, there is abundant evidence that these features lead to the exclusion of those with dissident views and favor those who have served their time as party functionaries. The spoiled fruits of this system are evidenced in the expanding judiciary scandals in Brooklyn, The Bronx and Queens.
• As a consequence of the party lock hold, elections are largely uncompetitive and (apparently as a consequence) turnout is diminished. Victory in the Democratic primary all but guarantees victory in the general election. For example, in the councilmanic elections of 2001, when term limits provided an abundance of vacant seats, in only one of 51 races did the winner have a margin of victory of less than 10%. In 42 of the races, the winner had a margin of victory greater than 30%.

While these data are specific to New York, the situation here is not dissimilar from that elsewhere. For example, a recent report noted that in Massachusetts nearly half the voters register to no party. Nationally, among Blacks a quarter of the voting age population identify themselves as independents. According to a researcher at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, among Blacks 35 years of age and under the figures are 30-35%.

It is not only the election system that is corrupted. So, too, for those elected, there is an absence of a mandate, when the top vote-getter in one party’s primary is nearly always guaranteed victory in the general election, often with the votes of fewer than a fifth of the electorate.


Research Limitations

The scholarly research is scant, largely out-of-date and generally not of very high quality. Claims have been made that nonpartisan elections diminish turnout, disadvantage low-income and minority voters, are less likely to elect minority group members, promote fringe candidates, deny voters the cueing function that party labels provide, and are unlikely to receive “preclearance” under the Voting Rights Act. Rarely, if ever, does the research provide needed context when making comparisons between jurisdictions with partisan vs. nonpartisan election systems. Most often, it ignores such contextual factors as the size of the jurisdiction’s population (small vs. big cities); the demographics of the population (especially the percentage of minority group members); the jurisdiction’s form of government (city manager vs. strong mayor); when the election is held (on the “regular” election day or some off-cycle date); geographic differences (West Coast, where nonpartisan elections have the longest history vs. the Northeast, where nonpartisan elections are least prevalent).
When such factors are considered, the case against nonpartisan elections lessens if not disappears entirely. Less clear is whether there is a case for nonpartisan elections. Some research suggests this. Just as the Justice Department does in reviewing a jurisdiction’s application for preclearance, the case needs to be made in the context of the “totality of circumstances” in the particular jurisdiction.


The Core Principles

As the Charter Revision Commission considered recommending to the voters that they adopt nonpartisan elections for the City of New York, it embraced the following core principles:

• Enhancing and promoting participation in the electoral process among racial and political groups whose participation heretofore has been limited or precluded;
• Increasing access for voters and prospective candidates; and
• Forging greater governmental accountability.

For New York, the following additional data provided pertinent evidence:

• In City Council special elections (i.e., those conducted when the officeholder leaves mid-term), which are conducted on a nonpartisan basis, turnout is greater than in comparable partisan elections for state offices.
• Candidates easily win general elections despite winning only narrow margins of support in the primary – sometimes only 3% of the total electorate.
• Minority candidates are squeezed out. For example, District 1, which includes Chinatown, was crafted by the Districting Commission to enable Asian-American voters to elect a candidate of their choice. In 2001, a non-Asian candidate won the Democratic primary with 21.5% of the vote and then easily won the general election. In a nonpartisan election, it is likely that one and perhaps two Asian-American candidates would have run in the general election.
• Nearly two-thirds of the campaign finance funds paid to City Council candidates in the 2001 general election went to those who won landslide victories (i.e., a winning margin of greater than 30 percentage points) or to those who lost in the Democratic primary and then ran as a third party candidate in the general election (and then lost again, by a landslide).


Next Steps

The Commission proposal goes to the voters on the upcoming November ballot. Should it pass, it will come into effect for the first municipal election after 2005 – 2009 for the next general election, earlier if there is need for a special election, as might, for example, occur to replace someone who leaves office in mid-term. Passage of the Charter change will effectively enfranchise some 1.3 million voters, who are disproportionately poor and minority. Other steps to increase and produce more (small d) democratic turnout involve enfranchising lawful immigrants unable to register because they are not citizens and others for whom the registration rules and procedures militate against their registration. Such matters require changes in state law and the state constitution, and the Commission intends to petition the relevant actors to enact these needed changes.

Alan Gartner is Executive Director of the 2003 Charter Revision Commission, City of New York. The views presented here are his own.
 
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