Nearly 700,000 registered New York voters who select no party affiliation are
precluded from voting in the September primary, which is almost always the determinative election.
An additional 700,000 registered New York City voters who belong to a party other than the Democratic Party are precluded from participating in the September primary. In total, greater than 1.3 million registered City voters are effectively disenfranchised.
In City Council special elections, which are conducted on a nonpartisan basis, turnout is greater than in comparable partisan elections to fill vacancies for state offices.
In the 2001 general election, only 1 of the 51 City Council races was competitive (where a candidate won with a margin of victory less than 10 percentage points). In 42 of the races (82%), the winning candidate’s margin of victory was 30 percentage points or greater.
Candidates easily win general elections despite winning only narrow margins of support in the primary – sometimes only 3 percent of the total electorate. Minority candidates are squeezed out. For example, District 1, which includes Chinatown, was crafted by the Districting Commission to enable Asian-American voters to elect a candidate of their choice. In 2001, a non-Asian candidate won the Democratic primary with 21.5 percent of the vote and then easily won the general election. In a nonpartisan election, it is likely that one and perhaps two, Asian -American candidates would have run in the general election.
Nearly two-thirds of the campaign finance funds paid to City Council candidates in the 2001 general election went to those who won landslide victories (i.e., a margin greater than 30 percentage points) or to those who lost in the Democratic primary and ran as third party candidates in the general election (and then lost again, by a landslide).
Nonpartisan elections are intended to reform the failings of New York City’s electoral process by including those currently excluded from participating in the primary election and its petition process, increasing voter choice and participation, creating more competitive elections, and producing election results that are more democratic. Criticisms have focused on remote, out-of-date, and irrelevant data having little to do with the reality of New York City or its governing and election system.
The chief criticism leveled against nonpartisan elections, indeed, the criticism from which nearly every other criticism flows, holds that party labels provide important information to voters and “cue” them where information is lacking.
The Commission staff has not proposed, nor has the Commission considered, any restrictions on candidates’ abilities to identify their party affiliation in their electioneering messages, nor any restrictions on parties’ ability to make endorsements. (This is in keeping with U.S. Supreme Court decisions.) In light of the public testimony presented to the Commission regarding the value of party labels, however, and in recognition of its merit, the Commission is considering additionally allowing candidates to identify their party membership on the ballot. If party labels appear on the ballot, the criticism that nonpartisan elections deprive voters of useful information would become moot, as would the other arguments, including those outlined below, that flow from it. It is important to emphasize this point: should the Commission opt to allow party labels to appear on the ballot, findings of previous studies on nonpartisan elections cited by critics and supporters alike become moot.
(For a copy of the Charter Revision Commission’s Final Report, call 212 676-2060.)