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What If They Gave an Election and Nobody Came

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"What If They Gave an Election and Nobody Came"

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Outgoing Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau

Outgoing Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau

Lying at the intersection of two bad aspects of American governance—partisan elections for local offices in essentially one-party jurisdictions, and the overabundance of elected officials—comes today’s New York City primary:

Tuesday is primary day in New York City, but don’t feel bad if it slipped your mind. As few as one in six enrolled Democrats are expected to vote, despite competitive races for two citywide offices. [...] The most consequential contest is the three-way race to succeed Robert M. Morgenthau, who has served as Manhattan district attorney since 1975. Because no Republican is running, the winner on Tuesday is all but assured to be the next district attorney. [...]

Voters have been inundated by television and printed advertisements from the four Democrats seeking to succeed Mr. Thompson as comptroller and the five vying to succeed Betsy Gotbaum, who is not seeking re-election as public advocate. If no candidate garners at least 40 percent of the vote in those races, a runoff between the top two finishers will be held on Sept. 29. [...]

Nearly 3.2 million Democrats are eligible to vote on Tuesday, but the turnout “will be low, possibly the lowest in recent memory,” said Prof. John H. Mollenkopf of the City University Graduate Center.

The purpose of having elected officials, as opposed to a self-perpetuating oligarchy like China, ought to be to enhance accountability. But elections only work as an effective accountability mechanism if we can reasonably expect the voters to monitor the elected officials and have some understanding of what they’re responsible for. A resident of New York City is responsible for electing a mayor, a city comptroller, a district attorney, a city council member, a borough president, two state legislators, a member of the U.S. congress, two U.S. senators, a governor, an attorney-general, and a state comptroller along with various judges. It seems to me that very few people actually know the name of all the different people who hold those offices, which I think we can take as a sign that they’re not monitoring their performance. It would make more sense to just eliminate some of this stuff (unicameral state legislatures would work fine, the “borough” level of government is obsolete) and make some of the offices appointed.

Meanwhile, having partisan elections in a place like New York City (or Washington, DC) manages to semi-disenfranchise the city’s registered Republicans while basically obscuring the issues at stake in the elections. I’m a big defender of partisanship against David Broder style whining. But that’s because partisanship at the federal level is a useful tool for clarifying policy issues and generating a measure of coherence and accountability to legislative operations. That’s because the parties are coherently organized around the main issues in national politics. The issues in local politics are pretty different. It might make the most sense to just have different parties at the national and local levels (like how Canada’s provincial parties are different from the federal ones) but barring that it would make sense for New York and DC to do what many other cities have already done and just shift to non-partisan elections.

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