[David Schleicher, guest-blogging, December 11, 2008 at 9:24am] Trackbacks
Why Is There No Partisan Competition in City Council Elections? Implications 1

If my paper and previous posts are correct, it has some rather dramatic implications for local democracy. I'll try to sketch some of them out in this post and another post later today.

1. Local Elections Can Be Less Representative Than National Ones

It is a commonplace American assumption to view local elections as better and more representative than national ones (with state elections falling somewhere between). This may be true in small towns -- there is certainly something to William Fischel's argument about the role of homevoters in smaller localities. But, if I am right, it is not true about big city elections.

One might put it this way. While small town voters may have reasons to be informed and active in politics (according to Fischel, the potential variance in the price of their home), most voters in big city elections and national elections are rationally ignorant. Their vote is unlikely to be important to the outcome and, because government is complicated, the cost of becoming informed exceeds the benefits.

But voters in national elections are provided with a coping mechanism, a bit of publicly provided information, given to them directly at the moment of voting, the party label on the ballot. As Morris Fiorina argued, voters develop "running tallies" about the parties, using retrospectice evaluations of how life has been under one party or another. That is, they gather over time about the qualities, successes and failures of each of the political parties to develop a scoresheet or tally that will provide them with guidance about how to vote in the future. As long as the parties remain relatively consistent between elections, and different from one another over time, the party heuristic will provide voters in national elections with substantial information about the candidates.

(Note: There are extensive arguments about how much party heuristics help rationally ignorant voters. For instance, check out my colleague and co-Conspirator Ilya Somin's extensive work on voter ignorance of party labels. Even for critics of the "running tally" model, like Ilya and Larry Bartels, it is clear that party heuristics at the very least mitigate the effect of voter ignorance to some degree.)

Voters in local elections — at least those that use partisan elections — are given information too, but it is of a lower quality. If I am right, the party heuristic provides only very weak information at the local level. As a result, big city voters are left largely adrift without the tools to provide much meaningful input in local elections. Voters use party labels almost exclusively, even though they carry little information, because they don't have any other information. Given rational ignorance, this means that big city elections do not regularly generate representative outcomes.

I can put this more starkly: There is little reason to believe that the outcome of City Council or other local races bears much resemblance to the preferences of local voters about local governance. Sometimes Mayoral races will be high profile enough that they can break from this -- a Bloomberg or a Cory Booker will get enough media coverage and spend enough money on ads to develop a personal brand -- but most local races will look more like the Lapin-Zinberg race which I described yesterday.

This effect is not only felt statically -- individual elections are not particularly representative -- but dynamically. The lack of competition in local elections results in there being too little policy idea development, incubation of promising candidates and interest group mobilization. As I wrote in the paper, the reason for this is that political parties do more than just endorse candidates "they serve as the fulcrum for the creation of ideas about governance and for the development of future political leaders. They also organize groups into politically effective coalitions." In a one-party city, there is little reason to convince the populace of new policy ideas or to try to organize new coalitions, as it is unlikely that it will matter particularly. (Quick: How many think tanks can you name that study local policy? There are a few, but not very many.) Someone who wants power would do better just scrounging for support among party hacks.

This dynamic harm was best summarized by famous New York City Democratic Party Tammany Hall hand George Washington Plunkitt. He noted that that occasionally "reform" campaigns could win elections, but they could not sustain a challenge to machine's control of the city: "Reform committees ... were morning glories. Looked lovely in the morning and withered up in a short time, while the regular machines went on flourishing forever, like fine old oaks."

My next post will lay out the implications of my model for non-partisan elections and for party primaries.