On November 4, New York City is being asked to decide Question 3, a deceptively simple change to the city’s charter that would eliminate the role of political parties in nominating candidates through primaries and instead adopt a “unitary ballot” listing all the people running for each office, followed by a runoff for the top two vote-getters. The real question is: Should America’s richest politician, Mayor Michael Bloomberg (number 36 on the Forbes 400, at $4.9 billion), be able to buy a change that will end up enhancing the prospects of other wealthy or famous candidates like himself while doing nothing to improve voter education, turnout, ballot access or genuine debate?
Political parties are much disdained these days, often deservedly. People-intensive politicking based on contrasting projects and ideas and an active grassroots membership has been supplanted by money-intensive politics that empowers individual candidates with the bucks to buy consultants, polling and thirty-second TV ads. In this shrunken version of democracy, the parties often are little more than shells for laundering donations from wealthy special interests, through which lobbyists and interest groups who can “pay to play” get their concerns addressed.
But eliminating party primaries won’t solve these problems; it will make them worse. Party primaries do help signal that candidates represent minimally different programs; parties also help recruit and filter candidates, and depending on their leadership, work to hold elected representatives accountable. In New York, where smaller parties thrive because fusion is legal, the Working Families Party has played a vital role in raising neglected issues, organizing underrepresented constituencies and nurturing new leaders. Party primaries also give racial minorities a chance to concentrate their votes. By contrast, a nonpartisan listing of candidates would repeat the cacophony of the California recall, where voters had to choose among a cattle call of contenders, and so gravitated to the ones with the most money and name recognition.
Mayor Bloomberg is spending at least $2 million on this charter change because, he claims, it will increase voter participation and reduce the power of “party bosses.” But as Barnard College professor Lorraine Minnite points out, “We know from nearly a hundred years of experience with nonpartisan elections that these systems…depress turnout, further skew the upper-class bias of the electorate and privilege wealthy candidates or candidates with name recognition.” In New York as in other places that have shifted to nonpartisan ballots, that means electing more Republicans.
If Bloomberg were serious about political reform for the Big Apple, he wouldn’t have stacked his charter revision commission, rushed its hearings or winked at its biased research. Instead, he should have looked at: moving Election Day to the weekend, to allow more working people to participate; Election Day registration; streamlining ballot access to end nitpicking efforts to knock people off the ballot; instant-runoff voting; expanded public financing, especially when a candidate is faced by a free-spending mogul; and a return to proportional representation, which served the city well for decades. But Mayor Mike didn’t want a real fix for what ails New York. He just wants a sham that rewards his class and produces more elections like his own cash coronation. We urge New York City voters to vote No on Question 3. For more information, go to www.TheMayorsLatestBadIdea.com.