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Vote No to 'Nonpartisan' Elections | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Vote No to 'Nonpartisan' Elections

State Senator and Deputy Minority Leader Eric Schneiderman is a politician New York Republicans love to hate. As the New York Observer put it: "Mr. Schneiderman's scrappy refusal to observe the traditions of Albany politics may earn him some short-term pain, but it also indicates the gritty stuff out of which New Yorkers mold their favorite politicians."

As one of the state's most important progressive voices on issues of social and economic justice, Schneiderman has led the successful effort to force the Senate to pass major gun control legislation and is a leading advocate for stronger environmental protections, increased funding for our city's schools and mass transit, and the reform of the draconian Rockefeller drug laws. He was also the lead attorney in litigation against the MTA to roll back the fare hike. Most recently, Schneiderman has been one of the most active opponents of the proposed charter revision to eliminate party primaries.

The Op-Ed below is adapted from a longer paper--compiling fifty years of scholarly political science research--showing starkly that "non-partisan" elections favor the elite, the wealthy and the Republican party.

"Nonpartisan" Elections Favor the Wealthy by Eric Schneiderman

The most remarkable thing about the current debate over the proposed Charter Amendment to end party primaries and replace them with "nonpartisan" elections is the fact that the Mayor's Charter Revision Commission has been able to cover up fifty years of academic research showing that such elections favor the elite, the wealthy and the Republican Party.

While the Mayor's Commission has asserted that the academic literature is inconclusive, the overwhelming body of scholarly evidence is to the contrary. In a 1988 publication, Professors Chandler Davidson and Luis Ricardo Fraga summed it up as follows:

"Scholars are virtually unanimous that nonpartisan systems in general disadvantage the poor, the working classes, liberal voters and Democrats. "

In fact, scholars routinely use the term "Republican Advantage" or "Republican Bias" in discussions of the effect of a nonpartisan system. In 1991, Professor Edward Lascher of Harvard University wrote an article titled The Case of the Missing Democrats: Reexamining the 'Republican Advantage' in Nonpartisan Elections, which concluded: "These results dramatically underscore the Republican advantage [in nonpartisan elections] except at very high levels of Democratic voter registration.

The Commission managed to conceal the true record on nonpartisan elections in their report with the crudest kinds of distortions-quoting selectively, presenting quotes out of context, and in one case literally deleting the second half of a sentence they purport to quote because it squarely contradicts the argument they are making.

To attempt to rebut the overwhelming evidence of a Republican advantage in nonpartisan elections, the report relies heavily on only two articles, including a 1986 article by Susan Welch and Timothy Bledsoe. The commission quotes the authors stating that the Republican bias only "surfaced in smaller cities, in those of moderate income and in those with at-large elections."

The obvious inference is that New York does not fit this model. However, the Commission leaves out the very next line after the quoted sentence, which reads that a Republican bias "appears in cities dominated by Democrats but not in competitive or Republican ones." Clearly such a bias towards Republicans would occur in New York City.

Incredibly, the Commission's abuse of the Welch and Bledsoe study pales in comparison to its misrepresentations of Professor Carol A. Cassel's 1986 article, which is cited repeatedly and is the principle source offered to rebut decades of literature establishing that nonpartisan elections favor the wealthy, the elite and Republicans.

The Commission conveniently omits the following statements from Professor Cassel's article:

"It does appear that Republicans, members of the business community, and professionals are elected more frequently in nonpartisan than in partisan systems."

"Partisan elections do appear to provide better access to local office to persons who are not community elites."

The only other significant study cited in the Commission's report is a 1962 paper by Professor Charles Gilbert. Once again, the Commission misrepresents Gilbert's findings. They quote him as stating: "Republicans have been elected in nonpartisan cities only in circumstances in which they might equally have been elected in partisan elections…" In fact, Gilbert's statement goes on to say "or in situations in which their 'Republicanism' was not apparent and in which, therefore, few partisan benefits could accrue." The Commission's proposal would allow Republicans to run without identifying their party affiliation. Clearly, that would constitute a situation in which "their Republicanism was not apparent." It is hard to conceive of a cruder form of deception than cutting off the end of a sentence to change its meaning.

There is no need for New York City to rush into a vote on a Charter reform that will not take effect until 2009 without a full investigation of the research into these issues. We could also use an investigation into the crude misrepresentations in the Commission's report.

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