In June this year, Californians approved Proposition 14, which mandates nonpartisan elections starting in 2011. The two candidates receiving the greatest number of votes in the state's open primary would then appear on the general election ballot no matter what their party affiliation (even if both are of the same party). The measure passed by a vote of 54% to 46%.
Prop14 was opposed by most elected officials in the state, who are generally Democrats. This is a good sign for democracy. The incumbents fear that with voters free to vote anyway they wish challengers, third party candidates, and independents will have a better chance of beating them in the primary and making it to the general election. Apparently, the majority of CA voters like that idea. Out of 58 counties in California, only two counties had a majority voting against it. One was rightist Orange County, and the other was leftist San Francisco County.
Although clearly in their best interest, some progressive activists opposed Prop 14. They feared that open primaries would weaken their anti-establishment organizations. But the empirical evidence shows that in cities and states across the nation, nonpartisan elections have not reduced or infringed upon party activity; indeed, party competition has increased. [i]
While proponents of nonpartisan open primaries prevailed in California, their similar referendum did not do so well in New York City a few years ago. A look at what happened there will be instructive to everyone who would like to see some expansion in the degree of democracy in American elections.
In 2003, New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, strongly supported a referendum that would change city election practices from highly partisan to almost completely nonpartisan. If passed by the voters, the law would have opened primary elections to all voters by eliminating the partisan ballot.
Like California, instead of presenting an official Democratic or Republican ballot, the government would print and present to the voters a ballot without any party cues, unless a particular candidate requested his or her party affiliation be printed next to his or her name. The power of party leaders in NYC to decide whose name will appear on the ballot would have been significantly reduced, especially because any one could have claimed any party affiliation. The office at stake would be stated on the ballot, and the names of candidates listed thereunder. Voters would, in effect, be free to consider individual candidates office-by-office, and would not be forced to only vote within the party with which they have formally registered. [ii]
The NYC reform would have also evened out access to the ballot by requiring that all candidates, not just incumbents, collect 900 valid signatures. The unfair requirement that challengers to incumbents obtain 2700 signatures would have been eliminated.
Proponents of the reform predicted that it would make the city's elections more competitive. Democrats have been winning over 90% of city government positions below that of the mayor in the current partisan system. Opponents, nearly all Democratic Party members and their allies, accused the mayor, who is a Republican, of supporting a Republican Trojan Horse. If the proposal became law, argued opponents, then Republicans would be given an advantage they now lack, and Democrats could lose their near monopoly hold on city politics.
As might be expected, given the enormous influence of the Dems in NYC, the measure was defeated. In The Scandal of Reform, Francis S. Barry, now in the employ of the Mayor's public relations department, offers his post mortem on the dead proposition. In short, his thesis is that the measure would have been good for voters, because nonpartisan elections would have opened up the field of candidates and policy proposals from which the public could choose making elections more of an education for the electorate.
Republicans would benefit, but so would all the third parties in NYC politics, and so would independents, and insurgents within the Democratic Party. Also, the Democratic Party would still be free to recruit members, raise and spend money in support of candidates and issues, get out the vote, lobby the City Council, etc. Only the unfair advantages would be taken away.
The "scandal" here is that the very "good government" groups which had in the past condemned partisan politics as a cause of unfairness and inefficiency, now denounced the measure and wheedled their supporters into voting against it. While posing as reformers with high moral ideals, these groups, cheered on by the New York Times, took the low road of protecting what they saw as their self-interest in keeping the Dems in a position of one-party dominance.
Although the book focuses narrowly on NYC political history and current politics, some of the arguments rise to a more philosophical level. Barry argues, for example, that nonpartisan elections are more likely to produce moderates who can win by virtue of their policy proposals and personal appeal to voters, while partisan elections are much more likely to offer either ideological extremists or party hacks controlled by party bosses and machines.
As Henry Stern points out, another benefit of nonpartisan primaries is that candidates would be free to state their authentic beliefs, and could then state the same beliefs in the general election. In partisan primaries, however, candidates must "frame" their beliefs to appeal to the more extreme voters who tend to turnout in primaries. Then they must use yet another "frame" for the more moderate voters who wait to turnout in the general election. Will the real candidate please stand up?
Barry contends that the moderates who could win in nonpartisan primaries would be more pragmatic, and more concerned with the general good, but party hacks and ideological and issue extremists would have an agenda that might be against the public interest. Barry avoids a discussion of national politics, but I find a consideration of current congressional politics irresistible.
What if the US Congress was elected in a non-partisan process? If that system had a moderating affect on office-holders, surely the national interest would rise to the top of the legislative agenda, and partisan bickering would fade.
Barry suggests that "nonpartisan elections could create a more cooperative spirit within City Hall" (page 266). Wouldn't that be nice to see within our Congress? Today, presidential appointments are held hostage in the Senate for no better reason than to try to pressure the executive to appoint more people from the minority party (currently the Republicans). Federal courts are going without judges, and agency administrations are woefully under staffed as the backlog of unapproved nominations lingers. Legislation of all sorts, in both House and Senate, is being sabotaged for purely partisan reasons, and the public interest suffers.