With slightly less fanfare than the Constitutional Convention of 1789, the city’s Charter Review Commission has been debating the present and future structure of city government. After a series of public hearings throughout the spring, the mayor’s commission will issue its recommendations this summer. At least a couple of those positions—e.g. on term limits and nonpartisan elections—likely will appear on the November ballot as referendums. Two years after the fact, the term limits extension will finally be submitted to the voters. But it may not get as much attention as the question of whether to end closed party primaries.
At the end of June, the civic watchdog group Citizens Union issued a lengthy set of recommendations regarding the Charter Review. Earnestly subtitled “Increasing Avenues for Participation in Both Elections and Governing in a Diverse and Large City,” the report calls for a new system of open primary voting. When Mayor Bloomberg first sought to end nonpartisan voting in 2003, the Citizens Union opposed the move; the Democratic Party managed to successfully crank up its machinery and handily defeat the proposition. Now the “go-goos”—as Robert Moses used to call the good government types he despised—are on the mayor’s side of the issue.
The Citizens Union report offers a compelling explanation for this change. “New York City’s recent municipal elections have been plagued by anemic voter turnout,” it states, attributing the problem mainly to the closed party primary system, which “effectively preven[ts] a growing number of unaffiliated and third-party voters from participating.” That number is now nearly one-quarter of all registered voters in the city. Except for the mayoral race, almost all other local races are decided in the Democratic primaries, thus denying access to many potential voters.
While participation in the primaries by registered Democrats has also declined (even in the relatively lively 2005 campaign, which saw Anthony Weiner challenging Freddy Ferrer, turnout was only 16%), the general elections are guaranteed to produce a higher turnout. That number, however, is still shrinking—from 40% in 1997 and 2001 to 33% in 2005 to just 26% last year. The causes of that apathy are beyond the scope of the Citizens Union report. What it does advocate is an open primary system, specifically in the form of “Top Two” elections.
In such a scenario, all registered voters could participate and the two candidates with the most votes would proceed to the general election. Candidates would have the option to list their party affiliation on the ballot. The number of signatures required for ballot access would be reduced (which in general is a good idea, but could produce free-for-alls like the California recall). Political parties could still spend money to promote candidates in both the primaries and general elections, and finance rules regarding independent expenditures would be tightened.
The Top Two proposal is worth considering, as is “Instant-Runoff Voting”, which would allow voters to rank their preferences. Yet there is something missing from the whole debate: the role of money. According to the Citizens Union, “With New York’s strong campaign finance laws and public financing program, more candidates are able to wage more competitive races,” which is an accurate, but incomplete, accounting. As any New Yorker who turned on a television in 2009 knows, rich candidates are legally able to self-finance their campaigns and spend whatever they want.
If the Top Two system were to be implemented, envision the following scenario in a future mayoral race: A grocery store mogul spends $150 million of his own money without ever declaring his party affiliation, while the Democratic Party promotes a career politician. Meanwhile, three or four eminently qualified progressive candidates split up votes along ethnic and gender lines. The mogul and the party hack then square off as the Top Two, and late in the race revelations surface about some shady development deal the hack made, propelling the mogul into office. The point of this cautionary tale is that with large money in the mix, something other than the cream can easily rise to the top.
That very real scenario is not an argument in favor of keeping the current system intact, however. What it instead suggests is the need to create further safeguards against the influence of money. One way to do so is to provide more free media to all viable candidates; giving them the same mailing privileges as officeholders is a good start. The bottom line is that any attempts to expand the field must be accompanied by clear efforts to level it.