[David Schleicher, guest-blogging, December 12, 2008 at 1:51pm] Trackbacks
Why Is There No Partisan Competition In City Council Elections? Some Proposals:

As I've been blogging all week and as I argued in this paper, the lack of partisan competition in city council elections, and big city local elections generally, is a serious problem for cities themselves and for theories of localism. I have a few ideas about how cities might change their election laws or other rules to either deal with the problem of the lack of competition or to introduce more competition.

The first is to enhance the power of the Mayor relative to the council and other locally elected officers. In most cities, there are a number of elected officials, but they are elected without much real democratic input for the reasons I've hope I've explained. Mayoral and County Executive races sometimes generate some policy competition -- they are big enough and individually valuable enough that there is sometimes enough coverage in the media and money spent that candidates effectively create their own brands. Centralizing power in Mayors, which already happens to a large degree, is a good thing from the perspective of enhancing democratic outcomes.

Another is to repeal what I called in this post and the paper "the unitary party rules." If ballot lines weren't guaranteed to the major parties and it was made easier to switch parties between elections, one strategy we might see more of is the local minority party rebranding itself at the local level. In New York, we get some of this through fusion, a process by which two or more parties endorse the same candidate (New York is the only state that permits fusion and for federal elections, I think the decisions by other states is a good thing, for reasons I laid out in a previous paper). Fusion has been central to the success of minority party candidates like Fiorella Laguardia, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, as they were able to disassociate themselves from the unpopular Republican Party brand in New York City by getting the endorsement of parties like the Liberal Party and the Independence Party.

However, fusion does not generate substantial party competition, as it doesn't provide an easy-to-understand brand that is continuous across elections and down a ballot. (Also, fringe parties, like cats, will only stay herded for so long.) Repealing those unitary party rules that can be repealed -- particularly automatic ballot lines for statewide parties and the limits on party switching -- might do so. The idea is that the local minority party might apply for ballot access in a reformed way, under a more popular local brand -- the "Development" party or "the Bloombergs" or whatever -- and attract a more local-issue consistent primary base. This might generate a party with consistent policy stances across election type and across elections, and if they develop a popular set of stances, partisan competition would ensue.

I also propose thinking about something more radical, a rule that parties that bars parties registered at the statewide level (i.e. the major parties) from having a ballot line in local elections. The idea is that local-only parties would spring up (the elections would still be partisan) to contest local elections. At first, these parties might look like simulacra of the major parties but would, though competitive pressure, develop locally competitive identities over time. Again, this is not anti-party or pro-non-partisan election -- I think parties are essential in world where voters are rationally ignorant of the policy stances of candidates -- but, rather, is focused on using election law to incentivize the creation of parties that are competitive at the local level and that provide heuristics that provide voters with information. (More details on this idea are in the paper.)

Now, these last two proposals would face some substantial constitutional problems. Further, they might not work. And, almost certainly, they wouldn't pass. They do, however, highlight the central claims of the paper -- that the lack of competition in local elections results in an absence of representation and dynamism in local politics, that the lack of competition is a function of the problem of party heuristics in a governmental system that has a number of different levels, that the links between these levels are caused both by the cognitive limitations of voters and by a legal regime that ensures that the same parties contest elections at all levels, and that the solutions we've tried, like non-partisan elections, only make things worse.

I'm not certain my solutions to this problem are the best. But I hope by identifying the problem and the causal mechanism for why there is an absence of partisan competition in big cities, I've spurred some thought about how we leave the governance of our cities to what's clearly a broken electoral system. If you're interested in what a bunch of blogs and other media sources have thought about the paper, check out the links on this page and here).

Finally, I want to say thanks to Eugene, the rest of the Conspirators and especially to the readers and people who have left comments. It's been a really interesting experience and I've enjoyed it. So thanks.