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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Oligarchy in a one-party town

Yesterday, New York City held the only election that really matters for the only two city-wide offices that were genuinely up for grabs -- the comptroller and the public advocate. (I am assuming that Bloomberg will face little danger from his under-funded and mostly unknown Democratic opponent in the general election). As a practical matter, virtually no one showed up to vote, because the election was a Democratic primary runoff for offices that few city residents understand and for candidates that, because they were all Democrats, could not be distinguished on the basis of party labels. (Of course, one could rely on campaign literature to learn about the candidates. Guess what? All of them said that they were going to stand up against special interests). 227,000 people voted in the run-off, meaning that the second-most important officers of a jurisdiction that governs over seven million people were chosen by, say, 2% of the population.

It is not that these officials do not matter. The Comptroller, for instance, has a significant role to play in managing the city's pension funds and reviewing city contracts. In an era when the city's collective bargaining agreements may come close to bankrupting the city, one would hope that the voters knew something about the candidates' stand on, say, "20 years and out" retirement packages. This is not to say that they should share my conservative skepticism about the sustainability of such deals: They simply ought to be aware of what is actually at stake in the vote. But the low turnout and desultory sources of information suggest that the tiny number of voters mostly voted blind, with the election turning on the informed self-interest of public employees. If one were especially well-informed, then one might know that John Liu, one of the two candidates for Comptroller, received the endorsements of the Working Families Party and the Central Labor Council, the latter by a vote of 22-0, meaning that Liu was the choice of the public employee unions. One could safely infer that his opponent, David Yassky, had as much chance of beating him as the Orioles had of winning a three-game series against the Yankees.

Predictably, Yassky lost. Whatever one thinks of this outcome (I supported Yassky), the process is preposterous. A tiny handful of voters vote blindly for two proper nouns that signify virtually nothing, and a much tinier handful of self-interested voters actually determine the outcome. But this is the process dictated by elections in a one-party town where the absence of competitive parties insures that voters will know nothing about the issues actually at stake in an election. David Schleicher has a good paper explaining how to reform this mess with rules encouraging competitive local political parties. But what are the odds that the power brokers in New York City would ever accept such reforms?

Posted by Rick Hills on September 30, 2009 at 09:53 AM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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One of the diseases of American democracy, acquired in the progressive era and not yet removed from our system, is the belief that holding elections for more offices produces more democracy and less corruption. The biggest problem is that we elect these posts in the first place.

Electing a comptroller (which means chief accountig officer in lay English) is itself a bad idea, on a par with electing a recorder of deeds, or a coroner, in an era where the coroner is a chief forensic pathologist with an M.D. This disease is largely confined to American politics. Elections aren't the worst possible way to select people for technocratic jobs, but appointing people to these positions, either through a civil service system, or a political appointment of some sort, is a far better alternative.

The case of the public advocate arguably involves more policy discretion (my home of Denver divides the responsibilies between comparable position of City Auditor and City Council members at large), but in many governments with elected officials, this role is served by all of the legislative branch elected officials and called constituent service, or by some body accountable to them (e.g., Congress has the GAO and many states have a legislatively appointed state auditor and/or a constituent services department located in the legislative branch).

A large share of local government elections are non-partisan (an approach that David Schleicher disfavors), and some, like Denver, have Louisiana style elections, with no primary and a runoff between the top two candidates when no candidate secures a majority.

While local government isn't inherently non-partisan (Germany and France and England all have partisan local elections where candidates coordinate with national political parties and local election results are used as bellwethers of approval for those parties generally), in the United States, municipal governments have largely been allocated less partisan service provision posts (New York City's regional government is very much the exception to te rule).

Local governments are expected to mend roads, collect trash, deliver water, provide fire protection, hire police, negotiate cable television monopolies, operate parks, and ensure compliance with building codes. Local government is charged with land use policy making, but is rarely innovative in that regard and likewise rarely uses even a fraction of the police power to enact ordinances to make partisan type decisions. Decisions that have a strong partisan character are usually left to state legislatures and Congress.

Indeed, there is little evidence that special districts and boards that are politically appointed and drawn from local voters (Virginia and Maryland do much of what elected local governments do elsewhere this way, for example), do a worse job at most government tasks than elected officers. The British use political appointees to supervise the police. Presidentially appointed U.S. Attorneys have less of a history of corruption than elected district attorneys. The French and Italian experience of having local government conducted almost entirely by nationally appointed prefects is not a model that many seek to emulate. But, that doesn't mean that voting for a comptroller or dog catcher or county engineer or county clerk, or state treasurer, or county treasurer, or secretary of state, is helpful. Certainly, democracy demands that somebody elected have ultimate authority, but it does not follow that more elections for most positions improve democracy.

Non-partisan elections decouple issues handled by federal and state governments from those handled by local governments. Attitudes towards zoning, for example, do not closely match the pre-election political coalitions developed in our two party system. (Although, primary elections that really are the only ones that matter can produce high turnout in closely contested elections for important posts, as they do in D.C. Presidential primaries).

Posted by: ohwilleke | Oct 1, 2009 6:48:30 PM

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