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Oct. 5 2009 - 9:49 am | 5 views | 0 recommendations | 5 comments

Ban national parties from local elections?

Second inauguration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg...

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As New York City embarks on yet another shamtastic election season, it’s worth asking a perennial question: Why are city council races such… shams? While some people tend to get their dander up at the prospect of another Bloomberg bulldozing, the fact is that New York City’s mayoral races have long had decent partisan competition. After all, in a Democratic city, we’ve had a long run of Republican (or, in Bloomberg’s case, semi-Republican) mayoralties, brought on by the mismanagement of the city by previous Democratic mayors. You may or may not love our current era of Bloomberg hegemony, but it was born of a competitive mayoral election system.

Not so for the City Council, where in most races the Democratic primary is the beginning and the end of the story. So what?, you might say. New York City is full of Democrats, why would it be any other way?

But just because a city has voters aligned with one of the national parties doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be competition at the local level — that there aren’t debates, even ideological debates, to be had over how to run a city. They say there’s no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the garbage. But that’s just not true. You could privatize trash collection! You could gold-plate garbagemen’s pensions! You can run city services any number of ways, and there are tons of debates to be had between the more market- or state-oriented among us. Crime control, development, taxation, welfare policy, education policy — all have major ideological debates tied to them.

The “there’s nothing to argue about” argument simply fails on its face. So why isn’t there partisan competition? A paper (abstract, with link to PDF download of full paper) by David Schleicher at George Mason University offers some answers:

First, if forced to choose, voters will decide to identify with a party based on its stance on issues at stake in the national legislature (and with the President) and not based on its positions on local issues. This is an assumption about the weighting of preferences—voters in the model have beliefs about local issues but care more about national ones. Next, city legislative elections are of sufficiently low salience that most voters only know about the candidates the information that appears on the ballot, i.e., party status. This is an assumption about available information. The combination of media attention and campaign dollars spent on legislative elections is not sufficient to provide much information to voters about city council campaigns. Finally, some degree of political residential segregation must be assumed. That is, in City A, one of the two major national parties is dominant in national elections.

That was the set-up. The crucial question is what causal factor makes the political parties dominant in national elections in City A dominant in local elections in City A. This model contends that there are a set of election laws and party rules—“unitary party rules,” as they are described above—that are the causal mechanism that permit the national parties to dominate local elections. There are three such rules. First, national parties automatically receive ballot places in local elections. That is to say, regardless of what else occurs, some candidate will appear on a local ballot as a “Democrat” and some candidate will appear as a “Republican.” Second, states have laws (and parties have internal rules) that make membership in national parties contingent on not being a member of another party, particularly for the purposes here, a different purely local party. This means that local voters, political activists, and politicians cannot organize uniquely local parties without harm to their position in national parties. Finally, as a matter of constitutional law, national political organizations have the right to participate in local elections even if the election is formally nonpartisan. Thus, national parties competing in local elections are guaranteed to have substantial organizational muscle.

This basically makes sense. People’s party identification is formed by their relationship to national politics; with very little information about local races, they vote their national party ID; in a city like New York, that means a Democratic council with virtually no competitive seats.

The question, then, is: Can you change this?

Fundamentally, there’s no reason our election laws have to be set up exactly the way they are now. Which brings us to the second paragraph above. Each of the three factors Schleicher identifies in the election laws could be changed — though, the third one, allowing national parties to participate in local elections, couldn’t really be changed without running afoul of the First Amendment. So, let’s look at the first two…

First, there’s allowing national parties automatic ballot places in local elections. Schleicher proposes getting rid of this, making each party collect signatures to get on the ballot. Possible upsides: 1) It would make a party like the Republicans have to fight harder and perhaps find a more appealing way to brand itself on the local level, 2) It could put the two major parties on a level with any other local party that might want to try to organize.

Second, Schleicher proposes you could allow people to register in one party locally (say, Republican), while maintaining their registration in another party nationally (say, Democratic). I can see why the parties might not love this, but it strikes me as a fine idea, especially in conjunction with the first idea. Basically, it would force people to have a more complex party identity ( “I’m a national Democrat but a local Republican.” )

Would these ideas work? Well, they couldn’t hurt electoral competition, could they? I mean, there’s really nowhere down to go.

Would the two major parties ever let such reforms through? Well, that’s another story.


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  1. collapse expand

    Ryan I don’t like your use of the word sham here, I think it implies that our elections are dishonest and I don’t see a lot of evidence of that. Also election season started at least two months ago up here in Wash, Heights, due to the fact our city council member was caught with his hand in the cookie jar our seat has been vacant. We have a very vigorous primary season here with many sound trucks going through the neighborhood with loud speakers blasting out salsa music.

    Frankly I don’t see a need for our laws to be changed to make the Republicans more competitive here in NYC, that’s the job of the party, not the govt.

    • collapse expand

      The thing is I’m not talking about the Republicans, really. Just pretend the two party labels don’t exist. What if NYC only had Working Families Party (which is a real party here, for all you non-NYers) and the Liberal Party (the old more conservative Democrat line)?

      The elections for City Council (and state senate and assembly) are essentially shams because often the Democratic machine decides who the Dem is, and then there’s no real general election challenge.

      Again, forget the idea that this is about Republicans. Assume that the center of gravity in NYC is way to the left of most of the country. It would still be healthier to have a two or more party system, with parties competing against each other. I don’t much care who those parties are.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        I understand your point Ryan but my point is it’s not the failure of the system, it’s the failure of the local GOP to put up candidates who appeal to the electorate. I take exception to your claim that the party machine picks who ends up in city council. We had I believe 5 candidates running for the seat up here. On what do you base your claim?

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          An exception that proves the rule? In my council district, the Vito Lopez machine candidate won in a crowded field, against the heir-apparent to the popular previous holder of the seat, David Yassky:


          Again, I feel you’ve gotten caught up on the “Republican” thing. There’s a structural problem with city council’s all over the country being captured by one-party rule. It’s not healthy. It breeds corruption. It reduces responsiveness to the public. It leads to less policy innovation.

          Again, I don’t care if the party is the Republicans or the Communists (okay, I care at a certain level, but I digress…), but competition would be better than what we have now.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
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    About Me

    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

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