[David Schleicher, guest-blogging, December 8, 2008 at 1:32pm] Trackbacks
Why Is There No Partisan Competition in City Council Elections? An Outline:

My paper, “Why Is There No Partisan Competition In City Council Elections? The Role of Election Law,” starts with an assertion of fact: There is no partisan competition in city council elections in big cities. By this, I mean two things. First, there are rarely individual seats that are contested between political parties in city council races. And, second and more importantly, there is almost never competition for control of the overall legislature.

Although Mayoral races in big cities are not exactly paragons of competition, they are much more competitive by comparison – for instance, in New York, 3 of the last 5 mayoral races were decided by only a few percentage points. Over the same period, Democratic control of the City Council went from 44 of 51 to 49 of 51. Further, in 2005, there were no City Council races where the winner received less than 60% of the vote. (I apologize in advance for all the New York City examples -- it's the city with the most available data and research about local voting patterns. That said, the fundamental story is not different in other cities with partisan elections.) Cities that use non-partisan elections – where candidates appear on the ballot with no partisan identification – feature even less competition in their city council races.

The lack of partisan competition in local elections is such a long-standing feature of American political life that it doesn’t earn much notice nowadays. However, it is a major challenge to the dominant theoretical understanding of how political parties operate. In Anthony Downs’s famous model, political parties are like business firms, except instead of maximizing profits they maximize votes. The way they do this is by altering their platform – if a party is unsuccessful at a level of government, we should expect it to change its stripes such that it becomes more popular.

Regardless of how they do it, our expectation is that political parties will try to win elections and, as a result, power should alternate between parties (in a system that uses first-past-the-post vote counting and single-member districts, this likely means power passing between two parties, as explained by Maurice Duverger). In political markets, as in economic markets, monopoly isn’t a normal condition – it needs to be explained.

The monopoly control of one party over municipal elections needs an explanation too. Tomorrow’s posts will address the two dominant existing explanations -- that local issues are inherently non-partisan in nature or that the dominance of one party in national elections in a city explains why there is not competition at the local level. I will show that these explanations are unable to explain the lack of competition, at least on their own.

On Wednesday, I will lay out my model, which tries to explain the lack of partisan competition at the local level through an analysis of the interaction between local election laws and predictable aspects of voter behavior. Thursday’s posts will address the implications if I’m right and will explain why neither party primary competition nor non-partisan election competition is an adequate replacement for general election competition in terms of generating representative policy outcomes or policy innovation. Friday’s post will suggest some policy options for introducing competition into local elections, from the simple to the radical.

I’ll try to answer your comments where possible (I've already gotten a number of really excellent comments that I will address as I go). Again, if you’re not willing to wait or would like a more thorough treatment, you can download the full article here.