Vote NO on Question 3

November 3, 2003

In tomorrow's election, New York City voters will decide whether or not to radically overhaul the way that public officials are elected. Since I think that the net effect of the organized political parties on our political system is not positive, I welcome change that will weaken the two party duopoly and promote voter choice. However, ballot initiative 3, the non-partisan primary proposal supported by Mayor Bloomberg, is not that effective change. Non-partisan voting, as described in ballot initiative 3, is a poorly developed idea that would contribute only negatively to New York's electoral process and reduce democratic choices. Therefore, I encourage you to vote "NO" on Question 3.

The proposal
If approved by voters, Question 3 would eliminate party primaries for city offices (Mayor, Public Advocate, Comptroller, Borough Presidents, and Council members). Instead, an open primary would be held in September, in which all voters, regardless of party affiliation, would vote for a candidate. The two candidates who received the most votes in the primary election would then be the only two candidates in the general November election.
The full text of the proposal:

This proposal would amend the City Charter to establish a new system of city elections for the offices of Mayor, Public Advocate, Comptroller, Borough President, and Council member. The September primary election would be open to allvoters and all candidates, regardless of party membership or independent status. The top two vote getters would compete in the November general election. In both elections, candidates could indicate their party membership or independent status on the ballot. Candidates participating in the voluntary campaign finance program, which provides public campaign funding, could not accept contributions from political parties or party committees. The new system would replace the current system of political party nominations through primary elections in which only party members may vote. The changes would take effect after the 2005 Citywide election. Shall this proposal be adopted?

This proposal is intended to make the city electoral system more democratic. Since the Democratic party has a large advantage in the number of registered voters over any other party, the Democratic candidate is likely to win. Because only registered Democrats are able to vote in the Democratic primary, voters who are not affiliated with the Democratic party may have no actual influence on selecting the candidate who is most likely to win the office. Proponents of the initiative argue that it will increase voter turnout, increase minority participation, create better choices for voters, and limit the corruption of party politics.

Problems with the proposal
The non-partisan primary proposal is flawed for a number of reasons. The proponents of the proposal have demonstrated no empirical evidence that non-partisan primaries will have the positive effects they could. The proposal will undermine city campaign finance laws and actually increase the influence of party bosses. With only the top two candidates from the open primary election, voters in the general election may be denied the choice between differing political opinions.

The proposal has not received the serious scrutiny that is required before such a radical proposal should be enacted. NYPIRG argues: "The Charter Revision Commission didn't do its homework. Opponents [to Question 3] raised serious questions. These include whether killing party primaries would lower voter turnout, advantage wealthy candidates, and make elections less about issues and more about celebrity. But the commission didn't fully address these issues." In the absence of more detailed studies about how the non-partisan primary would affect voter turnout for both the primary and general elections, campaign spending and name recognition, the proposal should be defeated. The mere fact that this proposal could possibly make elections more equitable is no reason to adopt the proposal without more proof. In other words, the commission has not met its burden of persuasion: The Bar Association for the City of NY opinion points out that "the [Charter Revision] commission acknowledges that there is no dispositive proof that a change to nonpartisan elections will produce the benefits that many of its proponents claim, and that the Commission seeks to achieve." It is the proponent of of dramatic change that must make the case, not the opponent.

This proposal would undermine the city's innovative campaign finance laws, consolidate the power of party bosses and bring about a return to the bad old days of machine politics. The NY Times editorial board fears that non-partisan elections will actually increase the negative influence of party bosses:

The city's election system is actually a mixture of good and bad, with the good often due to its campaign finance system. That program — with its four-to-one match for qualifying funds raised by participating candidates — is the crown jewel of New York City's political life. It has given rise to competitive mayoral contests and helped transform the City Council, turning grass-roots candidates into serious contenders. Under the proposed charter revision, it would be hamstrung. Party bosses, currently banned from contributing to primary contests, would be able to spend endlessly for their favored candidates. The mayor says the city could figure out a way to adjust the rules, but election experts, citing Supreme Court precedents, say that is doubtful. With so few clear benefits to the mayor's plan, we are unwilling to take the risk.

The proposed system will favor self-financed, wealthy and celebrity candidates like Schwawrtzenegger and Bloomberg. In elections, the largest hurdle a candidate faces is name recognition. When a candidate has his or her own money or celebrity, that candidate has significantly easier access to the media. In the 2001 mayoral election, Bloomberg was able to blanket the city with ads. In the California recall election, Governor-elect Schwartzenegger received the benefit of exposure in the entertainment media because of his status as a movie star. Without the selection process of the party primaries, candidates with substantive policy experience may have less name recognition before the general election.

This proposal changes the election where city voters have substantive choice from the general election to the non-partisan primary. Although the Democratic candidate is more likely to win the general election than any other party's candidate, the fact remains that the Democratic candidate is going to occupy a certain part of the political spectrum and is a known quantity. When the candidates who will compete in the general election are chosen by the non-partisan primary, it is unclear what part of the ideological spectrum each of the two candidates will represent. The non-partisan primary election will be where the real action happens in city elections. The turnout is generally going to be lower in a primary election than in a general election where voters will also be participating in state and federal elections. Neither of the top two candidates could be the candidate preferred by the majority of voters and there might be no ideaological distinction between the top two candidates.

Status Quo
While not perfect, the status quo party primary system represents a superior form of running elections and presents more substantive choices to voters in the general elections. As the only alternative presented in this election, the status quo is clearly the preferred choice at the polls tomorrow.

Instant Runoff Voting
A better solution would be to adopt the electoral process of instant runoff voting, in which voters rank their preferences in candidates during the general election. The Center for Voting and Democracy presents the case for IRV clearly and concisely:

Instant runoff voting allows for better voter choice and wider voter participation by accommodating multiple candidates in single seat races and assuring that a "spoiler"-effect will not result in undemocratic outcomes. Instant runoff voting allows all voters to vote for their favorite candidate without fear of helping elect their least favorite candidate, and it ensures that the winner enjoys true support from a majority of the voters. Plurality voting, used in most American elections, does not meet these basic requirements for a fair election system that promotes wide participation, and traditional runoff elections are costly to the taxpayer and often suffer from low voter turnout.
Unlike the non-partisan primary proposal, an IRV system would give voters substantive choice in the general election with a full slate of candidates affiliated with major and minor parties as well as independent candidates.

Instant runoff voting will not be viable in NYC until the city replaces its obsolete mechanical voting machines with a secure electronic voting system that will allow for the easy tabulation of ballots with multiple candidates selected and ranked in each race.

Neutral/News stories



UPDATE (Nov. 4, 10:50pm): NY1 reports:Voters Reject Non-Partisan Elections

Posted by Andrew Raff at November 3, 2003 06:26 PM
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Wow, I haven't thought of the Ayatollah Macchiarola in years (He wasn't popular with students when he ran the Board of Ed).

I couldn't agree more.

It's hard to imagine Lenora Fulani pushing something through a charter commission that was meant to help the voters.

Posted by: julia on November 4, 2003 07:10 AM