Big Idea: Machine Dreams

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Every two years, as November draws near, candidates for political office pull certain words and phrases out of storage like so many Christmas lights and tree decorations. “Leadership” is one hardy example; “issues” is another; “bi-partisan” is good, most of the time. But even better–if a lopsided majority of American cities is correct–is “nonpartisan.”

Nonpartisan elections, already used in some of New York’s special elections, are the norm in most American cities. By letting an unlimited number of candidates run on the ballot without party labels, the reform essentially brings the dynamic of a primary to the general election: It’s a free-for-all. The two leading vote-getters then go head-to-head in a runoff, which in a city like New York could often mean that two Democrats would compete directly for the office.

The idea is that by taking out party labels, nonpartisan elections encourage voters to decide on the basis of attributes other than party label–such as issues, for example. Political parties are unavoidably fractious and self-interested, the thinking goes, and when they have too much power they can play a disproportionately large role in who wins and who loses–indeed, in who even gets on the ballot, as John McCain found out in 2000 when he tried to take his insurgent presidential campaign against anointed candidate George W. Bush to New York. (McCain got on the ballot eventually, but lost the state’s Republican primary after wasting precious time and resources.)

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a politician with little attachment to party, touted all these arguments in his effort to bring nonpartisan elections to New York earlier this year. The city’s charter commission chose not to place a referendum on nonpartisan elections on the ballot this year, suggesting the question might come before voters in 2003.

Ironically, insiders claim that the force behind the delay came from Governor George Pataki, who feared that Democrats eager to preserve their party’s large advantage in city politics might turn out in force to oppose the measure–and cast votes against his re-election bid while there. Apparently, even nonpartisan elections can be held hostage to a partisan purpose.

As it happens, the governor’s calculation–that keeping the referendum off the ballot this year would depress turnout among city Democrats–is in perfect keeping with the history of partisan electioneering in the U.S. Study after study has shown that nonpartisan elections, like many other “good government” reforms from the heyday of urban political machines, decrease voter turnout.

For all the high-minded rhetoric about doing away with corruption, ensuring fair elections and deciding political contests on merit alone, many scholars and historians of American politics point to another, no less vital goal of reformers: to sever the bonds between party bosses and the typically uneducated, low-income communities that faithfully voted as the bosses wished.

“Reformers were unhappy with how close machine politicians were to their supporters,” says author and University of California at San Diego political science professor Amy Bridges. In fact, Bridges notes, this was a prime motivation for self-professed good government activists: “They tried to create more distance. They were happy these people weren’t voting.”

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Through the early 20th century, and in some cases till much later, local party machines pervaded working-class and immigrant communities, helping them with the occasional Thanksgiving turkey, cash handout, a word with the police, even a job or a doctor’s visit. In exchange, their beneficiaries voted, reliably and monolithically, for the machine’s slate of candidates.

The goal of the machine was power, not democracy, as evidenced by its equal penchant for keeping voters out of the booths and willingness to commit outright fraud in the name of victory. But regardless of intent, machines concerned themselves with the working-class electorate and its needs.

They still do, in a way. Though the great machines that once dominated urban politics in America are long gone, the “mini-machines” that operate in the boroughs retain enough power to punish candidates, from judgeship hopefuls to aspirants for the city’s top office. In most parts of Queens, the Democratic machine is sufficiently strong that Republicans don’t bother to run candidates against them for city offices.

“In Queens County, virtually everybody supported by the [Democratic Party] organization gets elected, and they get support from the organization,” says political consultant Joseph Mercurio. “That means workers, legal talent, election day operations, fundraising–all the nice things in terms of party.”

The Bronx Democratic Party all but sat out the general election for the 2001 mayoral race after Fernando Ferrer, the borough president, lost a bitterly contested runoff to Public Advocate Mark Green. “They didn’t do anything on Election Day,” says Mercurio. “There was a substantially lower vote in the Hispanic community than there might have been had they been working actively for Green. Maybe 85,000 Hispanics didn’t vote who might have voted, and Bloomberg’s margin of victory was about half that. You could argue that that’s organizational strength.”

But for the most part, modern-day political organizations don’t shepherd nearly as many voters to the polls as their more colorful predecessors–probably because they have less to offer to party workers and potential voters.

“It used to be that machines could deliver votes because people feared losing jobs or benefits if the machine lost the election. That’s no longer the case,” says Hunter College political scientist Ken Sherrill. “There’s virtually no evidence that machines as they now exist lead significant numbers of people to the polling place.”

With the decline of party organizations as the focal point of politics, individual candidates have filled the void. This makes voter turnout increasingly dependent on the entertainment value of a given campaign. “The machine has been replaced by money and media as the agency of mobilization to get people to the polls,” says historian and Gotham Institute head Mike Wallace, “and it clearly hasn’t been as effective.”

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With Republicrat Bloomberg ensconced in City Hall, party labels seem less relevant than ever in New York. It’s probably not surprising, then, that Bloomberg headed the effort to bring nonpartisan elections to New York City.

Supporters claim that there’s rarely, if ever, any doubt about which candidates would line up with which parties. “In no place where you have nonpartisan elections does anybody have trouble with who the Democrat is and the Republican is,” says Mercurio. “I don’t think it breaks down party. Ask [Chicago] Mayor [Richard J.] Daley if he has less of a political organization.”

But the rise of the self-funded candidate who transcends established party machinery has redefined politics, from the federal level to city elections. In the free-for-all of a multi-candidate battle, it becomes more difficult for less attentive voters to ferret out just what’s going on and which contender best represents their views.

In the March 2001 issue of Political Research Quarterly, a trio of professors–Brian Schaffner and Gerald Wright of Indiana University, and Matthew Streb of Loyola Marymount University–announced the results of a study comparing partisan and nonpartisan races for local and state office in Illinois, Nebraska, Kansas, North Carolina and Minnesota, from the 1970s to the 1990s. They concluded: “We find that nonpartisanship depresses turnout and that in nonpartisan contests voters rely less on party and more on incumbency in their voting decisions.”

The reasons for this have a lot to do with the ease with which voters can get information on the election. “What happens in nonpartisan elections is there are many middle-class groups that fill in for getting out the vote,” Bridges explains. “Local chambers of commerce, maybe the Masons. Middle-class people have more of those groups than working class, much less the poor. The electorate is much more middle class.”

As always, election winners craft an agenda, and make policy choices that reflect the wants and needs of the electorate–in this case, a wealthier and smaller one.

“If nonpartisan elections benefit anybody,” says Sherrill, “it benefits those who are wealthy enough to get their message out and mobilize voters. When voters can’t rely on party label to evaluate candidates and tell you which side wants what, then they have to rely on other cues.”

Sherrill offers another argument that could have particular resonance in the aftermath of last year’s ugly Democratic primary contest for the mayoral nomination. When they make voting decisions, “other than just name recognition that comes from outrageous behavior or spending on advertising, people rely on ethnicity and race. So nonpartisan elections are typically much more divisive than partisan elections.”

In other words, the race to the lowest common denominator speeds up. Imagine a mayoral runoff between Al Sharpton and Dov Hikind, and suddenly Boss Tweed might not look so bad.