Partisan Municipal Elections: A Not-so-Hot Idea


Adam Fink writes up the news in DC politics, but the issue I’d like to point to is our voting system:

This is the first public polling I’ve seen on the race. Clarus Research Group (which is actually run by a former George Washington University professor of mine) has a poll out showing Mayor Adrian Fenty, who is up for re-election in 2010, at 43%/49% approval/disapproval and 34%/53% re-elect/someone else numbers. It also shows him losing 41%-37% to the DC Council chairman, Vincent Gray, but leading in a four-way race with Gray and two other DC Councilmembers. None of those potential opponents have announced. In DC, the Democratic nominee is expected to easily win, so the September primary is the ballgame.

This is one of the lamentable consequences that results when big cities decide to hold partisan elections for municipal offices. The vast majority of DC residents are registered Democrats, but there are Republicans and Independents in this city and in effect their voices don’t count in the mayor’s race. In national elections, partisanship helps clarify issues and agendas and enhance accountability by giving people a crude-but-fairly-accurate shorthand way of knowing what Candidate X is all about. But this doesn’t hold for municipal elections—the key issues in DC government have very little to do with the main subjects that separate Democrats and Republicans on national issues.

Many American cities have a much more sensible system, with an all-party primary that leads to a run-off between the top two vote-getters even if (as is generally the case) but of the top two contenders are Democrats. I don’t think that method is ideal, but it makes a lot more sense than the system used in DC, NYC, and other cities with partisan elections where you either get de facto disenfranchisement of large swathes of the population or else things like Michael Bloomberg’s kinda sorta pretending to be a Republican because it gives him advantageous access to the GOP ballot line.