Our city, state and nation are at an historic political crossroads. Citizen resentment and cynicism about partisanship and our elected leaders is at an all-time high.
In Albany, our legislators have become synonymous with dysfunction. Scandals have taken down a governor and comptroller, and a dramatic State Senate coup last summer brought government to a standstill for weeks. At the federal level, Congress has been divided into two gangs, the Dems vs. the GOP. It’s a divisive and corrosive mix that even a once-popular president has been unable to tame. In our great city, apathy, cynicism and a flawed voting system have resulted in primaries where less than 10 percent of the eligible populace votes, and general elections that merely rubber stamp the results of Democratic primaries (with the notable exception of mayoral elections, but that’s a story for another day).
Is this the type of government our Founding Fathers shed blood for? Is this what was intended by our Constitution, a brilliantly crafted document of power sharing and checks and balances?
There are many things that need to be done to improve our democratic system, from reforming archaic voting systems to a comprehensive and equitable campaign finance system. This year, the mayor is likely to convene a charter reform commission to address the livewire topic of term limits, among other things. We’ll comment on those in upcoming editorials, but today we want to encourage the mayor to take one more pass at non-partisan elections, a referendum that lost in the polls in 2003, but today is needed more than ever.
Non-partisan elections would have candidates appear on the ballot without party titles. If no candidate captured a majority vote in an election, a run-off with the top two or three finishers would occur, ensuring that whoever won that race would more accurately reflect voters’ preferences. This system is already in place in several municipalities across the United States, including Los Angeles, Houston and Boston. Here are a number of reasons why non-partisan elections would improve our system:
• All registered voters—including Independents and other third-party members—would be enfranchised in every election, significantly expanding the electorate.
• Candidates would no longer be voted into office by winning less than 40 percent of the vote in a Democratic primary, and then cruising to an easy victory in the general election.
• By eliminating party primaries, non-partisan elections would create a more diverse public debate.
• Some people avoid running for office because they feel they could not win a Democratic primary (tantamount to winning office in New York City); non-
partisan elections would lead to a larger, more diverse field of candidates.
• By removing party labels from the ballot, candidates who hope to be competitive would no longer feel forced to register in the Democratic Party.
• Since incumbents almost always win re-election when they’re not term limited, non-partisan elections would force incumbents to broaden their appeal and encourage rivals to throw their hat in the ring.
• Non-partisan elections would probably entail a bigger expense when it comes to publicly financed campaigns, but the amount is nominal in the context of the city’s budget, and the end result of more competitive elections justifies this investment of public funds. Campaign finance law could also be written to ensure that only those candidates with a realistic chance of winning would be eligible to receive public funds.
Of course, for non-partisan elections to function properly, the state’s petitioning laws would have to be altered. We’d urge the mayor to work closely with the legislature and governor to ensure that any unforeseen—and undesired—consequences are avoided when making these changes. In the end, we’d like to see some scenario where any registered voter can sign any petition, regardless of party affiliation.
We strongly encourage the mayor and the upcoming charter revision commission to come up with a comprehensive plan for non-partisan elections, and to put the issue on the November 2010 ballot. The time is right. This will help reform our broken electoral system.
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