making local government more ethical

Partisanship of Local Elections and Government Ethics

Is the partisanship of local government elections a government ethics issue? I think it is, partly.

The story that sparked my thoughts about this was one from today's New York Times about Mayor Bloomberg's second attempt to turn New York City elections from partisan to nonpartisan.

Pro-nonpartisan arguments include "the unhealthy influence of parties" and the encouragement of more voter participation (there was an especially low voter turnout in last year's mayoral election). Also, under the current NYC system, unaffiliated voters cannot vote in primaries, and in an essentially one-party city, primaries are usually where candidates are selected. Therefore, people who choose not to join major parties are effectively disenfranchised.

Pro-partisan arguments include the worry that wealthy outsiders, like Bloomberg, get more power under a nonpartisan system, and that minority candidates are helped by party support. The head of one local party compared eliminating parties from elections to “having teams without uniforms. ... They signal to voters who stands for what."

The National League of Cities has a page showing the forms of government and partisanship of elections in the thirty largest American cities (as of 2004). Only 9 of the 30 cities have partisan elections, and all but one of those cities has a mayor-council form of government (the oddball is Charlotte, NC). Of the 21 cities with nonpartisan elections, 9 have a council-manager form of government, and the rest have mayor-council forms. The reforms that created the council-manager form generally included nonpartisan elections, as well, but clearly the two reforms did occur separately in many cities.

Of the 9 partisan cities, 5 are on the east coast, 2 in the midwest, 1 on the west coast, and 1 in the southwest. So clearly the choice of partisanship is more cultural than anything, but cities are not bound by culture any more than by history.

The Government Ethics View From a government ethics point of view, it's interesting how much emphasis New Yorkers are placing on the problem of a wealthy independent candidate. In contrast, the government ethics emphasis is on candidates who are not beholden to others, who do not appear to the public as if they are, at best, acting for special interests rather than acting in the public interest. A wealthy independent is, presumably, beholden to no one but voters. He or she cannot get elected on the basis of money filtered through party committees, and does not need money filtered through PACs. In terms of campaign finance, very wealthy candidates have much less chance of causing appearances of impropriety.

However, the wealthier the candidate, the more likelihood there is of conflicts of interest. Yet, on the other hand, a wealthier candidate has little need to use government office to push his or her interests, except for the interest in getting re-elected. And this is exactly where Bloomberg's conflicts have arisen, especially the support given to him by nonprofits he personally supports (see my blog post on this).

But nonpartisanship does not necessarily lead to wealthy candidates, and partisanship certainly does not prevent their success. In fact, in a one-party city, the opposition party is no likelier to be able to support candidates than where there are nonpartisan elections. This is why there have been many wealthy Republican candidates in Democratic-controlled cities. In fact, Bloomberg ran originally as a Republican.

Nonpartisan elections do not prevent candidates with party affiliations from running. They only prevent parties from taking a leading role in elections. Party support does not directly lead to corruption, but party committees are themselves supported by people who do business with local governments. Party fundraising allows these people to give more and, therefore, expect more from local government officials. It also allows powerful officials to use party committees as a part of their pay-to-play efforts.

Nonpartisan elections do not allow candidates to present their positions easily by means of the party brand name. But it is disingenuous to think that party ideology is generally important in local elections. Yes, there are often differences at the extremes, and in terms of approaches to development, but in general local candidates lack the clear ideological differences of national candidates. And poorly understood internal party schisms and personal agendas end up having much more to do with primary elections than does ideology. Party labels hide much from voters while appearing to make their voting decisions simpler.

In some ways, nonpartisan elections allow minority candidates more freedom. In an nonpartisan election, an Hispanic-American candidate who is not the party's first choice can run against an African-American candidate (or vice versa) without having to destroy his or her relationship with the party. And minority candidates, as well as others, do not have to choose whether to run or change parties (nor can they threaten to change parties if they are not supported over another candidate). All these party issues become secondary to winning public support.

But this is expensive. That is why it is best that nonpartisan candidates be allowed to participate in public campaign financing programs, such as the one in New York City (and the one I administer in New Haven). Although a wealthy candidate such as Bloomberg can undermine such a program, this is uncommon. Public financing programs allow individuals without party support to compete for elections, and prevent all candidates from taking too much from any individual or group of individuals.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics