[David Schleicher, guest-blogging, December 8, 2008 at 6:29am] Trackbacks
Why Is There No Partisan Competition in City Council Elections? The Role of Election Law

First, I want to thank Eugene and all the other Conspirators for the opportunity to post this week. It should be fun.

This election year featured all sorts of historic and surprising events. One of the stranger debates, however, dealt with an election that will take place in 2009. The New York City Council debated and ended up passing a revision to the city's term limits law that gave its members and other city officials, most prominently Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the ability to run for a third term in office.

That politicians would act in a way that -- whatever the merits -- ended up benefiting themselves is not particularly odd or surprising. Even so, this decision took some serious chutzpah on the part of the Council. The two-term limit was passed in a popular referendum and then reaffirmed in a subsequent referendum, in which voters explicitly chose a two-term limit over a three-term limit. What was particularly surprising about the debate, though, is that the revision had the support of much of the city's goo-goo establishment: its newspapers, prominent supporters of term limits like Ron Lauder, who funded the original term limits referendum campaign, and its business leaders, which had pushed the idea from the start. 
The very groups we might expect to oppose such a move were actually the forces behind it.

It is clear that the reason for the change, and the reason it was supported by all of these groups, is the overwhelming popular support for Mayor Bloomberg (he had the support of nearly 70 % of New Yorkers before the term limits revision and still had nearly 60% support after).

However, even popular Presidents don't generate much support for repealing the 22nd Amendment. What differentiates this situation is that Bloomberg had no logical successor. If a President is popular at the end of his term, voters can support a co-partisan and get many of the same policies. At the city level, that's not so -- there is no Republican or Independent successor to Bloomberg, as there is almost no consistency in the policy stances of co-partisans on local issues. 
 Further, there is little reason to think that the crucible of electoral competition will force politicians to adopt popular policies -- even at the Mayoral level, general election competition is spotty and below that it is almost non-existent. To get Mayor Bloomberg's policies, city residents have to vote for Mike Bloomberg; there is no substitute. Thus, the decision to extend term limits made sense to those who support Bloomberg, even those like Ron Lauder, who also support term limits.

We take this state of the world for granted. But there has been little effort to explain the oddly uncompetitive nature of big city electoral politics, and the efforts that have been made have been unsatisfactory. My paper, "Why Is There No Partisan Competition In City Council Elections? The Role of Election Law," tries to provide a serious, theoretical treatment of the lack of partisan competition. Although it is directly aimed at the question of city council elections, if it is successful, it should explain much more about urban politics.

My next post will provide an outline for a week of posts. I look forward to spending the week with all of you.