Primary Colors


On Monday, the city’s Charter Revision Commission took another step toward the biggest change in municipal elections in over a decade. By a vote of 8-2, the commission moved to place a measure on the November ballot asking voters whether New York City should scrap its system of party primaries for municipal offices. Replacing the primaries, starting in 2009, would be one general election, with candidates allowed to list a party affiliation, and a runoff between the two top finishers.

Advocates of the plan—including Republican mayor Mike Bloomberg—say they want to make local races more competitive. They argue that the proposed system would also enfranchise more than a half-million voters, by opening up elections that are closed to those who don’t want to register with a party. In districts heavily dominated by one party, the primaries all but determine the eventual winner.

“We have 670,000 registered voters who chose not to register for a party,” says Alan Gartner, the commission’s executive director. “To the extent that we know about that group, they are disproportionately young, immigrants, and people of color. This is part of a larger disaffection with the institutions of the society. . . . I believe that experience elsewhere indicates that this is going to be a great opportunity for black, Latino, and Asian American voters.”

But the measure’s detractors say that, if anything, semi-nonpartisan elections will ultimately sink whatever power minority voters have managed to acquire in the city. “Nonpartisan elections will be nonproductive for black and Latino people,” says City Councilmember Charles Barron, of East New York. “We will be shifting from the empowerment of white males in the Democratic Party to the empowerment of rich white males in no party. I’m not out here to shift from one slave master to another.”

The most recent poll indicates that 64 percent of New Yorkers oppose a switch to nonpartisan elections, and objections are pouring in from all sides. That Democratic politicians are playing the powerful race card in their effort to oppose nonpartisan elections is no surprise. Nonpartisan elections could only serve to weaken the political bosses and party machinery that helped put them in office. But Bloomberg and his charter commission—the mayor appointed every member, some of them from his own paid staff—have also had to endure withering criticism from the city’s good-government activists. They say the commission has done only a haphazard analysis of the proposal’s effect on minority voters.

“There are definitely people who are hostile to political parties,” says Deborah Goldberg, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “There are a lot of people who think that political parties are an evil, that they are a bad thing. That is not an unprincipled position—there are certain problems with political parties. But it’s not a position that we would embrace.”

Goldberg notes that especially for poorer voters, who are disproportionately minority, time is money—and a lack of either means a decreased access to information. For them, argues Goldberg, party labels can tell a voter quite a bit. “There is a fair percentage of the electorate that still has an allegiance to the political parties,” she says. “They know that the party has endorsed the candidate, but they don’t necessarily have the resources or the time to do more investigative work.”

The commission’s Gartner objects to the notion that nonpartisan elections hurt minority voters. “It’s just not true. It’s not true in terms of the experience elsewhere, and it’s not true in terms of the reality in New York,” says Gartner. “If you look at the 50 largest cities, 41 have nonpartisan elections. There is a greater likelihood of those cities having elected a black or Latino mayor than in the partisan cities. I want to be careful and say that that doesn’t mean there is a causal relationship, but it surely doesn’t suggest the opposite.”

Goldberg attacks that argument, saying it’s not fair to cite statistics that consider solely the election setup while ignoring other factors. In general, she says, the research on nonpartisan elections is lacking. To the extent that numbers exist on what may happen in New York, they were compiled by Allan Lichtman, a professor at American University, who was paid by the commission to research the impact of nonpartisan elections on minority voters.

Lichtman surveyed the 100 largest cities in America and concluded that 18 percent of those with partisan primaries had elected minority mayors, compared to 29 percent of those with a nonpartisan system. He further concluded that where the majority of the population was non-Hispanic whites, not a single one with a partisan system had elected a minority mayor. Take the same demographics and get rid of primaries, though, and you’ll find eight cities that have had a minority chief.

Lichtman argues that while partisan elections help minority voters in certain situations, New York isn’t one of them. “What I found when I looked at New York was that the usual reasons for why partisan elections would help minorities don’t apply,” says Lichtman. “These examples mostly come from the South, where you have two groups, whites and blacks.” In places like that, black voters gain a fighting chance in primaries, then pull support from white voters toeing the party line.

In New York, however, the black voting bloc isn’t as strong, and a broad “minority bloc”—Asian Americans, African Americans, Hispanics—doesn’t really exist. As a result, the strongest bloc in the city is actually made up of white Democrats, who constitute a group of swing voters. In New York, white Dems will break party lines, tossing a Dinkins to anoint a Giuliani—or a Bloomberg.

Numbers aside, the mayor’s haste in attempting to alter the city’s charter so fundamentally has disturbed his activist critics. Ditching primaries would be the biggest change since the city eliminated the Board of Estimate in 1989. Back then, says Neal Rosenstein, government reform coordinator for NYPIRG (the New York Public Interest Research Group), the city appointed an independent commission with time and resources to study the issue, not one to simply carry out the mayor’s mandate. “We’d have trouble endorsing apple pie on the ballot from a committee that lacked independence and time to study the problem,” says Rosenstein. “We haven’t been convinced, and we’re disturbed by reports that it might decrease minority voter turnout and magnify the importance of personal wealth.”

Neither the activists, the commission, nor the voters may have the final say. In light of New York’s past problems with election fairness, any change must be approved by the U.S. Justice Department, because of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Should voters in November move to get rid of primaries, activists will certainly be cleaning their guns for a battle in Washington.