Friday, June 11, 2010

Californians Rebuff Parties

California Voters
Approve 'Top Two'
Primary Elections
Both Parties Fought

Day 72 without a budget.

While paralysis prevails in the highly partisan scene in Albany, we cross the continent to California to report good news for independent and moderate voters.

By a convincing margin of 54 to 46 per cent, Californians approved Proposition 14, which mandates non-partisan elections in the nation's most populous state, starting in 2011. Under the Golden State's new plan - sometimes called the "Top Two" system - all voters would receive the same primary election ballot for nearly every elective office except for President. Candidates would be given the option to self-identify with a political party on the ballot or to leave that space blank. The two candidates receiving the greatest number of votes in the primary would then appear on the general election ballot regardless of party.

Prop. 14 was supported by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado. It was opposed by most elected officials in the state. Out of 58 counties in California, the Proposition carried 56. It lost only two counties, Orange, considered right-wing, and San Francisco, considered left-wing.

For those New Yorkers for whom the adoption of nonpartisan elections appears impossible, take note that 21 of the 25 largest cities in the United States currently have some system of nonpartisan voting in local elections, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, and Seattle.

Mayor Bloomberg has advocated nonpartisan elections since he was elected in 2001. In a referendum in 2003, New York City voters defeated a proposal for nonpartisan elections, 70 to 30 per cent. The issue has not been submitted to the voters since, nor has the City Council taken it onto itself to overrule the vote of the people.

Francis Barry describes the history of nonpartisan elections in "The Scandal of Reform" (2009). New York's 2003 referendum proposed "hybrid" nonpartisan elections, allowing candidates, if they wished, to identify themselves by party, similar to the system just passed by California, and those already in use in Jacksonville, Florida and the states of Louisiana and Washington. The current Charter Revision Commission, chaired by CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, will consider placing some form of nonpartisan elections once again on the ballot. If they do so, 2010 would be a better year than 2011 because there will be a larger turnout when state-wide offices, the Senate and Congress are on the ballot. 2011 is the off-year in the quadrennial election cycle.
Nonpartisan elections would erode but not eliminate the influence of political parties, which are basically hierarchical, self-serving aggregations of mostly decent, honorable people, led by others whose motivations may not be so pure. Political parties are often controlled by powerful leaders, called bosses.

As in military, religious, or criminal organizations, the person at the top can exert enormous influence over the decisions of the group, which the members must respect if they want to remain in good standing in the organization and eventually rise to power themselves. Faithful members of political clubs are often rewarded for their service by nomination to public office, including the judiciary. When that happens, judges can show their appreciation for their positions by responsiveness to the political leaders who selected them for the bench.

There are benefits to parties. They can unite people in support of a common program. They can defend and protect their communities from dangers, real or imagined. Parties are protected by freedom of assembly and association; voters have a right to join any legitimate group they support.

The main problem with political parties, however, lies in the power of their leaders to select candidates for public office. In one-party areas, which constitute the majority of legislative districts in New York City, the candidate selected by the dominant party is almost automatically elected. In turn, the elected candidates tend to bear unwavering allegiance to the party officials who put them in office. The interests of these officials are often not the interests of the general public, but the interests of lobbyists and contributors to the party, or to the individual who was so helpful.

Historically, the party system has led to corrupt political machines under leaders like Bosses Tweed, Kelly, Sullivan, Croker, Murphy and most recently Carmine De Sapio, who was overthrown in 1961, by which time, through a reform DeSapio, to his credit, sponsored, district leaders were subject to direct election. Previously, district leaders were elected by county committee members, who were generally political apparatchiks at the lowest rung of the ladder. Insurgencies were much more difficult to mount.

Political machines were also powerful in the suburbs, where the Nassau County Republican organization once ruled, and in New Jersey, where Boss Frank Hague ruled Jersey City as mayor from 1917 to 1947. His enduring contribution to political thought was the phrase, "I am the law", which at the time was not inaccurate. In some rural and urban areas, political parties are strong enough to control local governments, a practice similar to the warlords who control portions of some foreign countries.

Party primaries, closed to independents and non-members of the party holding the primary, encourage racism and extremism by the candidates and polarization of the electorate. Candidates hew to the right or the left to win primary voters, who are often more intense in their ideological views than less active members of the party.

To appeal to this base, one risks alienating the midstream. This requires a change of message between the primary and the general election. It is hard to discern, after all this, what the candidate really believes in, if anything, apart from his/her own election. Moderate or centrist candidates are particularly disadvantaged by closed primaries, since a disproportionate number of their supporters are ineligible to vote.

Opponents of Proposition 14, which include the heads of both major parties in California and many third-party devotees, have vowed to sue in order to prevent the referendum from taking effect, but their efforts are unlikely to succeed if precedent is to be followed by the Supreme Court of the United States.

In 2008, in a 7-2 decision, with Justices Scalia and Kennedy dissenting, the Supreme Court upheld a similar nonpartisan electoral system passed by the voters of Washington state. Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said that overturning Washington’s system would have been an "extraordinary and precipitous nullification of the will of the people."
The Constitution of the State of California allows Initiative and Recall elections. That is how Governor Schwarzenegger was elected. New York State gives the voters no such opportunity. Even when vacancies occur, they are filled by the legislature and not by the electorate. We have a long way to go.

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