Brennan Center takes sides on nonpartisan debate


By Roslyn Kramer

Just in case you had a warm, fuzzy it-can’t-happen-here feeling watching the chaotic California recall election, think again. Some of the more contentious items on New York City’s November ballot propose changing the City Charter to allow nonpartisan elections, a gaudy variant of which was recently on display in California.

New York City voters will decide Nov. 4 whether our present political-party driven electoral system becomes a so-called nonpartisan one in the future.

The issue has been thrashed out all over the city. Public hearings have already been held, albeit somewhat underpublicized and not always at easily accessible locations. For a while you could have gotten a look at selected New York City Charter Revision Commission documents on the Web site, NYC2003Charter, including drafts of the Nov. 4 ballot. (The Web site seems to have disappeared, however.)

Scrolling through the Web site, you’d have to infer the existence of critics to nonpartisan elections with one major exception: a small Greenwich Village think tank, the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. The Brennan Center apparently has been a major irritant, if not a downright obsession, of the Charter Revision Commission. On the Web site, the Commission addressed no less than three documents attempting to shoot down Brennan Center objections to nonpartisan elections.

Greenwich Village has always nurtured speakers to power, and the Brennan Center appears to be the latest in that hallowed lineup. The Brennan Center is part of the New York University School of Law. But it’s no powerhouse, measured by it $5 million annual budget. The Commission apparently doesn’t have a comparable budget. It spent $350,000 for a seven-week period during the summer, according to spokesperson Paul Elliott; however, this amount could rise exponentially now that Mayor Bloomberg is contributing money from his personal fortune, as he said he would, for a get-out-the-vote campaign.

The Brennan Center’s Democracy Program has addressed voting rights around the country, including Nebraska, California and Arkansas. “But we’ve never had the situation where a public body spending public resources issues a 15-page single-spaced response to us,” says Deborah Goldberg, director of the Democracy Program.

The Charter Revision Commission wants a stronger voice for Republican and independent voters, with a nod to minority voters, community organizations and even unions — all of whom the Commission maintains have little or no representation on the ballot in this heavily Democratic city.

So devoted to nonpartisanship is the Commission, that at first no candidates were to be identified by party on the ballot. But after widespread objections the Commission had a change of heart, restoring parties to the ballot if the candidate wants such identification. However, all the candidates will be lined up on the ballot in the primary election, no matter what their party; voters can chose any candidate they want. The two top vote-getters will contend in the decisive election.

Eliminating or weakening the role of parties doesn’t democratize elections, nonpartisan opponents maintain. Instead, for information, voters must largely depend on the indirect but powerful advocacy of big bucks and sound-bite advertising financed by soft money.

Yet another change would affect the amount of money from the city’s campaign finance program available in primaries. Funds would be targeted at “competitive” races.

“We have robust competition at the mayoral level,” says Goldberg. “But the election is largely in the primary. Once you sever the connection between the political party and its nomination procedure and candidates, it opens the way for soft money, undermining the entire system.”

Just as the chaos of California’s recent gubernatorial recall suggests a worst case scenario of nonpartisan elections, in Goldberg’s view, there’s a worst case scenario for New York: City Council nonpartisan elections, where an unlimited number of primary candidates would battle for the top two slots on the ballot.

“The system fractures the vote of the main party and allows a system that isn’t representative,” Goldberg says.

The Charter Revision Commission devoted a release, entitled “Brennan Center Not Credible Here,” on July 31 to attempt to punch holes in the center’s research. But the center noted it had used existing research on nonpartisan elections only after noting its inadequacy. (For the critique and response, see the Brennan Center Web site, www.brennancenter.org.)

“It is irresponsible to make fundamental change in the city’s electoral processes, including a move to nonpartisan elections…or a move to Louisiana-style elections, without first undertaking serious, methodologically defensible, empirical analysis of its probable impact,” said Goldberg in an Aug. 22 statement. “The Commission had the time and resources to conduct such a study but refused to do so. In the absence of new and reliable research, the Center had no alternative but to review preexisting studies….”

By Louisiana-style elections, Goldberg was referring to how white-supremacist David Duke almost became governor of that state.

In response, the Commission on Sept. 9 in a release headed “Nonpartisan Elections in NYC” pointed out that registered independents are the fastest growing group of voters. Now ineligible to vote in primaries, under the proposed system independent voters “all would be eligible to vote in the election [primaries] that count.”

The Brennan Center finds numerous faults with the Commission’s research, citing untraceable identifying footnotes in one case and slanted interpretations of unreliable research.

Research on past nonpartisan elections throughout the nation is sketchy and out of date, both sides agree. But without new, improved research, to change the city’s electoral system now means doing so “without undertaking serious, methodologically defensible, empirical analysis of its probable impact,” according to the Brennan Center.

In the Commission’s response on Sept. 9, it states that it has not only studied the admittedly weak and fragmentary evidence on nonpartisan elections around the country, but has “engaged in an extensive study of elections in New York City.”

The Brennan Center disputes the Commission’s statement that voter participation would likely increase by a significant number in the primary election.

“We are not afraid to take on Goliath when the time comes, and once in a while we win,” says Goldberg.

However, it will be up to the voters to decide who wins; having withstood legal challenges by Democrats, the nonpartisan elections issue is slated to appear on the ballot Nov. 4.

(For the complete “Charter Ballot Proposals” document, a statement by Charter Revision Commission chairperson Frank Macchiarola, visit pelliott@dcas.nyc.gov.)

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