Commentary: Non-Partisan Elections?

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Last week, Mayor Bloomberg's Charter Revision Commission approved a ballot question for this November: Should the city institute non-partisan elections? The mayor says it's a way to increase voter turnout and weaken entrenched machines. But WNYC's Brian Lehrer is wondering: is this all there is?

Brian: Let me make clear from the outset that I am taking no position on the proposal itself. The evidence seems to be mixed from cities that have non-partisan elections about whether they really do attract more voters, encourage political independence or otherwise empower the people. The mayor's plan, as it will appear, may or may not be a good thing for the city. Let the debate begin.

But what jumps out at me from this plan isn't so much what's in it, as what's NOT in it. Advocates of reform have a whole list of innovative ideas for increasing voter turnout and making elections more democratic. Here are six of them:

Lengthen the voting day or expand it to two days to better accommodate working people.
Declare election days national holidays to focus attention on the vote.
Grant the right to vote to non-citizens with permanent resident status. New York City has close to a million of them.
Allow same-day registration.
Introduce on-line voting.
Or introduce second-choice voting, so voters can indicate their favorite and second-favorite candidates in case no one wins a majority. That would almost certainly have given Al Gore the presidency in 2000, when Gore votes and most Nader votes were taken together in Florida. It would probably have gotten the first President Bush re-elected in 92, since a lot of Perot voters were well to the right of Clinton, who won with only 43 percent.

But none of those ideas was included in the mayor's plan. Only non-partisan elections.

Bill Lynch cast one of the two dissenting votes on the mayor's Charter Revision Commission. The narrowness of the plan was his main issue.


For the Mayor's part, he says non-partisan elections are what the city can do on its own, right now, to expand voter turnout. Most other ideas would take permission from the State Legislature. But the commission could have written a ballot question that approves non-partisan elections, AND directs the mayor to formally ask the state for permission to implement some of the other ideas.

Why here, and why now for some of the more experimental changes like second-choice voting? New York City has a history of progressive democracy, and in a city with many active political parties, from the Conservative and Right to Life Party to the Working Families Party and the Greens, this might be just the time and place to challenge the tyranny of winner-take all elections in a city that is so politically diverse.

Sadly, Mayor Bloomberg could have been just the man to lead the charge. On education reform, this mayor had a grand vision, and he pushed it through the sclerotic system. That bold experiment begins in the classroom next week. And Bloomberg - whose own political independence is his biggest virtue - clearly believes in election reform too. You can hear it in his usually dispassionate voice. As it is, some analysts are calling his proposal, if approved, the biggest change for city politics in a hundred years. Maybe. But it could easily have been bigger. And in this case, bigger probably would have been better.

Anchor: WNYC's Brian Lehrer. You can hear his call-in show weekdays at 10am.