pageok
pageok
pageok
[David Schleicher, guest-blogging, December 8, 2008 at 6:29am] Trackbacks
Why Is There No Partisan Competition in City Council Elections? The Role of Election Law



First, I want to thank Eugene and all the other Conspirators for the opportunity to post this week. It should be fun.

This election year featured all sorts of historic and surprising events. One of the stranger debates, however, dealt with an election that will take place in 2009. The New York City Council debated and ended up passing a revision to the city's term limits law that gave its members and other city officials, most prominently Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the ability to run for a third term in office.

That politicians would act in a way that -- whatever the merits -- ended up benefiting themselves is not particularly odd or surprising. Even so, this decision took some serious chutzpah on the part of the Council. The two-term limit was passed in a popular referendum and then reaffirmed in a subsequent referendum, in which voters explicitly chose a two-term limit over a three-term limit. What was particularly surprising about the debate, though, is that the revision had the support of much of the city's goo-goo establishment: its newspapers, prominent supporters of term limits like Ron Lauder, who funded the original term limits referendum campaign, and its business leaders, which had pushed the idea from the start. 
The very groups we might expect to oppose such a move were actually the forces behind it.

It is clear that the reason for the change, and the reason it was supported by all of these groups, is the overwhelming popular support for Mayor Bloomberg (he had the support of nearly 70 % of New Yorkers before the term limits revision and still had nearly 60% support after).

However, even popular Presidents don't generate much support for repealing the 22nd Amendment. What differentiates this situation is that Bloomberg had no logical successor. If a President is popular at the end of his term, voters can support a co-partisan and get many of the same policies. At the city level, that's not so -- there is no Republican or Independent successor to Bloomberg, as there is almost no consistency in the policy stances of co-partisans on local issues. 
 Further, there is little reason to think that the crucible of electoral competition will force politicians to adopt popular policies -- even at the Mayoral level, general election competition is spotty and below that it is almost non-existent. To get Mayor Bloomberg's policies, city residents have to vote for Mike Bloomberg; there is no substitute. Thus, the decision to extend term limits made sense to those who support Bloomberg, even those like Ron Lauder, who also support term limits.

We take this state of the world for granted. But there has been little effort to explain the oddly uncompetitive nature of big city electoral politics, and the efforts that have been made have been unsatisfactory. My paper, "Why Is There No Partisan Competition In City Council Elections? The Role of Election Law," tries to provide a serious, theoretical treatment of the lack of partisan competition. Although it is directly aimed at the question of city council elections, if it is successful, it should explain much more about urban politics.

My next post will provide an outline for a week of posts. I look forward to spending the week with all of you.

9 Comments

[David Schleicher, guest-blogging, December 8, 2008 at 1:32pm] Trackbacks
Why Is There No Partisan Competition in City Council Elections? An Outline:

My paper, "Why Is There No Partisan Competition In City Council Elections? The Role of Election Law," starts with an assertion of fact: There is no partisan competition in city council elections in big cities. By this, I mean two things. First, there are rarely individual seats that are contested between political parties in city council races. And, second and more importantly, there is almost never competition for control of the overall legislature.

Although Mayoral races in big cities are not exactly paragons of competition, they are much more competitive by comparison -- for instance, in New York, 3 of the last 5 mayoral races were decided by only a few percentage points. Over the same period, Democratic control of the City Council went from 44 of 51 to 49 of 51. Further, in 2005, there were no City Council races where the winner received less than 60% of the vote. (I apologize in advance for all the New York City examples -- it's the city with the most available data and research about local voting patterns. That said, the fundamental story is not different in other cities with partisan elections.) Cities that use non-partisan elections -- where candidates appear on the ballot with no partisan identification -- feature even less competition in their city council races.

The lack of partisan competition in local elections is such a long-standing feature of American political life that it doesn't earn much notice nowadays. However, it is a major challenge to the dominant theoretical understanding of how political parties operate. In Anthony Downs's famous model, political parties are like business firms, except instead of maximizing profits they maximize votes. The way they do this is by altering their platform -- if a party is unsuccessful at a level of government, we should expect it to change its stripes such that it becomes more popular.

Regardless of how they do it, our expectation is that political parties will try to win elections and, as a result, power should alternate between parties (in a system that uses first-past-the-post vote counting and single-member districts, this likely means power passing between two parties, as explained by Maurice Duverger). In political markets, as in economic markets, monopoly isn't a normal condition -- it needs to be explained.

The monopoly control of one party over municipal elections needs an explanation too. Tomorrow's posts will address the two dominant existing explanations -- that local issues are inherently non-partisan in nature or that the dominance of one party in national elections in a city explains why there is not competition at the local level. I will show that these explanations are unable to explain the lack of competition, at least on their own.

On Wednesday, I will lay out my model, which tries to explain the lack of partisan competition at the local level through an analysis of the interaction between local election laws and predictable aspects of voter behavior. Thursday's posts will address the implications if I'm right and will explain why neither party primary competition nor non-partisan election competition is an adequate replacement for general election competition in terms of generating representative policy outcomes or policy innovation. Friday's post will suggest some policy options for introducing competition into local elections, from the simple to the radical.

I'll try to answer your comments where possible (I've already gotten a number of really excellent comments that I will address as I go). Again, if you're not willing to wait or would like a more thorough treatment, you can download the full article here.

8 Comments

[David Schleicher, guest-blogging, December 9, 2008 at 6:40am] Trackbacks
The Lack of Partisan Competition in City Council Elections? The Problematic Current Explanations:

As I noted in my last post, the absence of partisan competition in city council elections in big cities at the seat-by-seat level or for control of overall local legislatures poses a substantial challenge to our understanding of what parties do. Although under-studied, people have attempted to explain why there is no such competition before.

These explanations come in two flavors, one focusing on the types of issues in local politics and the other focusing on the voters who make up the local electorate. As I explain in my paper, I don't think either of them provides an adequate explanation for the lack of competition in these elections -- but let's take each of them in turn. (I'll handle the first in this post and the next in a subsequent post).

Explanation 1: "There is No Democratic or Republican Way to Pick Up Garbage."

The quote is attributed to Fiorella LaGuardia, but the sentiment is common -- local issues are somehow inherently non-political. Economist Paul Peterson formalized this intuition in his influential book City Limits. He argued that the threat of exit meant that cities can't redistribute wealth -- you can't tax Peter to spend on Paul because Peter will just leave town. The result was that local government policy is limited to providing universally-desired public services and goods and allocating them among the citizenry, like funding a public park and putting it a neighborhood. Debate over these "developmental" and "allocational" policies, though, can't give rise to political party divisions, as "developmental" policies do not inspire disagreement, and allocational policies only inspire neighborhood vs. neighborhood conflict, or ethnic group conflict and not the ideological conflict that is necessary for political party competition.

The theory is neat, but it has a problem: there is no reason to believe it's true.

First, although the threat of exit limits redistributionary policies, exit is less of check on local policies the denser and bigger cities get. The reason is what economists call "agglomeration economies," (i.e. the attraction to living to close to other in terms of reduced transportation costs for goods, access to large labor markets and knowledge spillovers), which mobile residents balance against "congestion costs" (e.g. the cost of housing, the increased incidence of crime in dense areas). In a place like New York or Chicago, while public policies still effect whether people leave the city, the benefits of urbanity and the costs of congestion make up a big part of the decision about where to locate -- bigger at least than a citizen choosing between two suburbs. (Studies of the Tiebout model -- based on similar intuition -- show that there is more capitaliztion of policies into home prices in the suburbs than in dense urban areas). This means that, particularly when combined with transaction costs of moving, big cities have more policy slack than Peterson acknowledges.

However, that's not the big problem with Peterson's theory. Even accepting Peterson's premise, there is no reason to believe that "developmental" policies -- the provision of public and club goods -- can't give rise to partisan politics. At the national level, there are partisan debates about the provision of public goods all the time. National defense is a public good, but differing views of it are, quite naturally, part of the division between the two major national parties.

Put a bit more formally, there is no reason there cannot be partisan debates about how a given public good or service can best be provided and whether something is, in fact, a useful public good. There are certainly such debates between scholars and between cities (and no evidence of sorting based on preferences for means of providing these goods). For instance, there is a long-running debate about whether broken windows policing reduces crimes more or less than community policing or other police strategies. Or take the question of what produces local economic growth: Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin have continuously argued for more than a decade about (and advised cities on) what types of policies are likely to create a conducive atmosphere for business and entrepreneurship, giving entirely opposite prescriptions. People disagree about which policy is most likely to produce a desired end -- low crime, a good local business climate. This could be the subject of partisan debate, and hence generate policy competition between the parties, but it just doesn't.

Similarly, there are all sorts of urban policy debates about what is a useful developmental policy. Should local schools be used to promote civic responsibility? Are orderly, organized cities along the City Beautiful ideal better or worse than the seemingly-disorganized "sidewalk ballet" Jane Jacobs noticed in her West Village neighborhood? Is it nicer to live in a city with a major sports team, and hence fund a stadium with local taxes, or to live in a city without one? Debate on both of these types of questions rage among scholars and activists, between cities, and even occasionally in big-time Mayoral races, and there is no reason why political parties couldn't line up on one side of these issues or another. But they do not.

The absence of partisan competition in local elections can't be explained solely by the types of issues at stake in local elections -- there needs to be another explanation.

12 Comments

[David Schleicher, guest-blogging, December 9, 2008 at 1:43pm] Trackbacks
Why Is There No Partisan Competition in City Council Elections? Why The Fact That Most Residents Are in One Party Can't Explain the Phenomenon:

As I noted in my last post, there have been a few efforts to explain the lack of partisan competition in city council elections. Probably the most intuitive explanation is that, in most big cities in the country, most residents vote for Democratic candidates for President, so why shouldn't they vote exclusively for Democratic candidates for City Council?

It is true that in almost all major American cities, one party is dominant. However, as I argue here, this, it turns out, can't explain the lack of competition either, at least on its own. In order for national political preferences to explain the lack of competition at the local level, we would need a reason why the party that is in the minority locally doesn't change its stripes -- at the local level -- to become more attractive. That's what Downs would predict, yet it doesn't happen at the local level.

One reason that a local party might not do this is that national parties exert extremely strong control over local branches to stop them from modifying their platforms in order to compete. It is a bit unclear why a national party would do this -- after all, they generally want their local branches to succeed. That said, there certainly are some disciplining forces, notably the limits local dissenters have when trying to climb the electoral ladder.

However, even if parties do exert control over their local branches, stopping them from deviating from the national party too dramatically, local segregation by national party preferences could explain the complete and total lack of local party competition in City Council elections only if preferences on national issues and local issues are extremely consistent. If they are not, the majority party's coalition would fracture occasionally, leading a group of dissident majority party members into the hands of the local minority party now and again. When combined with the ability of the local minority party to deviate for national dictates somewhat, national preferences could only explain the lack of local competition if Democrats and Republicans form clear and very distinct groups at the local level on local issues.

Although the data is a bit spotty, what information we do have shows that preferences on national issues are not strongly tied to preferences on local issues. In the paper, I present all sorts of evidence -- polling data, studies of turnout -- that shows this. One notable piece of evidence comes from newspaper editorial boards. These boards can be presumed to have informed, complete preferences on political issues. If they have different endorsement patterns in national and local elections, it would suggest that national party preferences do not predict local policy preferences all that well. And indeed this is the case. Newspapers with heavy Democratic tilts in federal elections -- like the New York Times or Newsday -- have substantially less pronounced tilts at the local level. On the other hand, the Daily News, which has been consistently pro-Republican in New York City local elections, has a very slight pro-Democratic endorsement pattern in federal elections.

Further, the "they're all in one party anyway" concept can't explain the divergence between executive and legislative levels of competitiveness. And, moreover, the idea that national and local preferences track one another closely just doesn't pass the sniff test. On key local issues, one cannot identify the Democratic or Republican position. Mayoral control of the schools? Broken Windows policing? Using zoning policy to limit substantially the heights of buildings or to require large minimum lot sizes for houses? Bond issues for stadiums? This is the stuff of local politics, and there is little consistency across party members on these and other key urban issues.

Preferences on local issues just don't track preferences on national issues very closely. And as a result, they cannot explain the total lack of partisan competition in City Council elections -- at least by themselves. Tomorrow, I'll attempt to sketch an understanding that does.

9 Comments

[David Schleicher, guest-blogging, December 10, 2008 at 11:47am] Trackbacks
Why Is There No Partisan Competition in City Council Elections? An Election Law Model

In my paper, I argue that the lack of competition in city council elections can only be explained by understanding the laws governing local elections and how they interact with voter behavior. I develop a model to explain the story.

(For those of you interested in the provenance of the thinking, the model is derived from two-stage entry models used to study tying in antitrust, and the general approach follows the "Politics as Markets" approach to studying election law rooted in the work of Rick Pildes and Sam Issacharoff).

Here's the basic concept: Assume that there are both national and local elections in a city and that both elections use first-past the post/single member district systems (this is true almost all American cities at this point). Next, assume my last post was right. People have at least different preferences about local issues than they do about national issues. That is, members of national parties do not form strongly coherent blocks at the local level -- they could not agree on a common local platform. Party can explain a little about local preferences, but not much more than that.

Given these basic assumptions, the ordinary assumptions of a Downsian model would suggest that two separate party systems would develop -- Republicans and Democrats would contest national elections and either two different parties would contest local ones or the Democrats and Republicans would change their positions on local issues to become competitive at the local level. The question is why this doesn't happen.

To explain, I need to make some assumptions about voters and to incorporate a series of common state, federal and constitutional laws. The two assumptions are that voters care more about national issues than local issues when making party identification decisions. and that individual city council races are low-salience -- voters have little to no independent knowledge about city council candidates. There is substantial evidence backing up both of these assumptions (look in the paper if you're interested ).

The laws are what I call the unitary party rules:

1. National Parties automatically receive ballot places in local elections, usually on the basis of how well they do in gubernatorial races.

2. States and political parties make it difficult to change parties between elections -- there are laws limiting the ability of voters to switch parties and still vote in primaries (for a period of time), and strong limits on the ability of candidates and activists to switch parties between elections.

3. As a matter of Constitutional law, national political parties have the right to participate and use their organizational and financial muscle in local elections (even if the elections are non-partisan).

4. Primary elections are used to select candidates.

Under these laws and the assumptions above, you can see why there is no partisan competition in local elections.

In the first instance, the vote in local elections will directly track the vote in national elections. Voters with little information will use the information that the law provides to them -- the party name on the ballot. If "Republican" and "Democrat" provide a non-zero amount of information about a candidate, a voter with no other information (by assumption) about the candidate will rationally use the national party heuristic to vote.

The question is why the minority local party doesn't modify its issue stances to become popular at the local level. By assumption, the only way it could do this is if it did so on a city-wide level -- individual candidates can't get enough attention. But using primary elections makes this impossible. Local party members don't have consistent preferences and the result is candidates that are all over the map on local issues. Further, they will have trouble attracting candidates and activists from the majority, as those candidates and activists (as well as the representative local voters who they'd have to attract to have primaries among a local issue preference-consistent group) would not choose to join the local minority party in local elections because they care more about national elections and don't want to be penalized.

This is an inefficient outcome -- local elections end up not having competition and hence don't end up with representative results. The question then is why is there not entry?

The assumptions and laws show that there are substantial barriers to entry. A local only third party cannot attract adherents, because people care more national issues than local ones and won't abandon their national party to contest local elections. Further, they face the ordinary limits on third parties -- Duverger's Law and the organizational muscle of the national parties. Under the model, the only way a local-only third party could get adherents is by competing in national elections as well as local elections, but national elections aren't uncompetitive. So there is no entry and no competition

The model is a bit dry, but perhaps it can be explained through a story. This is from my paper…

The dramatic effect of the lack of information on local city council elections can be seen if one considers the case of New York City's Councilmanic District Five on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. In the 2001 local election, Gifford Miller, a powerful and well-known Democratic incumbent who directly after the election would become Speaker of the City Council, faced a relatively unknown candidate named Robert Strougo. Not surprisingly, Miller won 68 percent of the vote to Strougo's 31 percent, neatly tracking the 2-1 dominance of Democrats in the district.

In 2005, a perfect storm of factors lined up to reverse this result. First, Miller could not run for reelection because of term limits. His aide, Jessica Lappin, who had never run for public office before, was the Democratic candidate. Second, Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg reached new heights of popularity, particularly on the Upper East Side (he would end up winning 59 percent of the citywide vote and more than 80 percent of the vote on the Upper East Side). In District Five, the Republicans nominated Joel Zinberg, a former Democrat, cancer surgeon and Yale-educated lawyer, who built his candidacy around Bloomberg's popularity, declaring his goal as furthering the Mayor's agenda. The New York Times and the New York Post endorsed Zinberg, as did Bloomberg. In the face of this, Lappin's campaign simply sounded a single theme. When asked by a local paper what differentiated the candidates, she responded, "I'm a Democrat. I mean, that's sort of the most obvious difference between us... He's a Republican, and I'm proud to be a Democrat, and I think that certainly distinguishes us."

The result of the election was a near carbon copy of the 2001 race: Lappin received 65 percent of the vote to Zinberg's 35 percent. Thus, in a district which a Republican mayor won 80 percent of the vote, the Republican city council candidate devoted to exactly the same platform as the Mayor only won 35 percent, despite being endorsed by the mayor and the major newspaper and facing a political neophyte. The only factor that mattered was the 2-1 advantage Democrats had in registration.

The story of Joel Zinberg is the story of all city council candidates: what they say and who they are matter very little to those who will vote for them. It is their party status and the popularity of that party at the national level that defines them.

9 Comments

[David Schleicher, guest-blogging, December 11, 2008 at 9:24am] Trackbacks
Why Is There No Partisan Competition in City Council Elections? Implications 1

If my paper and previous posts are correct, it has some rather dramatic implications for local democracy. I'll try to sketch some of them out in this post and another post later today.

1. Local Elections Can Be Less Representative Than National Ones

It is a commonplace American assumption to view local elections as better and more representative than national ones (with state elections falling somewhere between). This may be true in small towns -- there is certainly something to William Fischel's argument about the role of homevoters in smaller localities. But, if I am right, it is not true about big city elections.

One might put it this way. While small town voters may have reasons to be informed and active in politics (according to Fischel, the potential variance in the price of their home), most voters in big city elections and national elections are rationally ignorant. Their vote is unlikely to be important to the outcome and, because government is complicated, the cost of becoming informed exceeds the benefits.

But voters in national elections are provided with a coping mechanism, a bit of publicly provided information, given to them directly at the moment of voting, the party label on the ballot. As Morris Fiorina argued, voters develop "running tallies" about the parties, using retrospectice evaluations of how life has been under one party or another. That is, they gather over time about the qualities, successes and failures of each of the political parties to develop a scoresheet or tally that will provide them with guidance about how to vote in the future. As long as the parties remain relatively consistent between elections, and different from one another over time, the party heuristic will provide voters in national elections with substantial information about the candidates.

(Note: There are extensive arguments about how much party heuristics help rationally ignorant voters. For instance, check out my colleague and co-Conspirator Ilya Somin's extensive work on voter ignorance of party labels. Even for critics of the "running tally" model, like Ilya and Larry Bartels, it is clear that party heuristics at the very least mitigate the effect of voter ignorance to some degree.)

Voters in local elections — at least those that use partisan elections — are given information too, but it is of a lower quality. If I am right, the party heuristic provides only very weak information at the local level. As a result, big city voters are left largely adrift without the tools to provide much meaningful input in local elections. Voters use party labels almost exclusively, even though they carry little information, because they don't have any other information. Given rational ignorance, this means that big city elections do not regularly generate representative outcomes.

I can put this more starkly: There is little reason to believe that the outcome of City Council or other local races bears much resemblance to the preferences of local voters about local governance. Sometimes Mayoral races will be high profile enough that they can break from this -- a Bloomberg or a Cory Booker will get enough media coverage and spend enough money on ads to develop a personal brand -- but most local races will look more like the Lapin-Zinberg race which I described yesterday.

This effect is not only felt statically -- individual elections are not particularly representative -- but dynamically. The lack of competition in local elections results in there being too little policy idea development, incubation of promising candidates and interest group mobilization. As I wrote in the paper, the reason for this is that political parties do more than just endorse candidates "they serve as the fulcrum for the creation of ideas about governance and for the development of future political leaders. They also organize groups into politically effective coalitions." In a one-party city, there is little reason to convince the populace of new policy ideas or to try to organize new coalitions, as it is unlikely that it will matter particularly. (Quick: How many think tanks can you name that study local policy? There are a few, but not very many.) Someone who wants power would do better just scrounging for support among party hacks.

This dynamic harm was best summarized by famous New York City Democratic Party Tammany Hall hand George Washington Plunkitt. He noted that that occasionally "reform" campaigns could win elections, but they could not sustain a challenge to machine's control of the city: "Reform committees ... were morning glories. Looked lovely in the morning and withered up in a short time, while the regular machines went on flourishing forever, like fine old oaks."

My next post will lay out the implications of my model for non-partisan elections and for party primaries.

6 Comments

[David Schleicher, guest-blogging, December 11, 2008 at 2:33pm] Trackbacks
Why Is There No Partisan Competition in City Council Elections? Implications 2 -- The Problems of Primary and Non-Partisan Elections:

If my model laid out in my paper is correct, it has dramatic implications for non-partisan elections and party primaries.

1. Non-Partisan Elections Make Things Worse, Not Better

One major piece of the Progressive movement's response to big-city political machines was to institute non-partisan local elections. In a non-partisan election, no party preferences are listed on the ballot; candidate names appear by themselves. This is how local elections are conducted in most American localities.

If my story is right, these elections are even worse than partisan local elections. The nub of the story I laid out yesterday was that party heuristics -- the fact of party endorsement -- gave voters in local elections too little information to make an even-mildly informed decision about for whom they should vote. Given the low-information nature of individual city council races, party heuristics make up the lion's share, if not the entirety, of the information that voters receive in local elections. If the party heuristics don't give a great deal of information about what a candidate is likely to do, then voting won't produce a government that represents the preferences of locals on local issues.

Non-partisan elections take the little information contained in the party heuristic at the local level and throw it out the window. If voters in partisan elections are effectively poorly informed about the policy stances of candidates, voters in non-partisan elections are completely lost.

When compared with partisan elections, non-partisan elections generate lower voter turnout, strengthen the incumbency effect and make variables like candidate ethnic, gender and other candidate status variables (such as whether a candidate's name is preceded by an honorific) matter much more. Voters in non-partisan elections are not provided with any easy way to determine the stances of candidates on local policies and, as a result, use variables that don't track at all to policy stances or rely on the name they've heard. As I summarize the research on the field in the paper, "voters in nonpartisan system do not replace the heuristic provided by party label with other, better indicators of policy stances taken by candidates - they do not learn their policy position or rely on newspaper or civic group endorsements. Instead, for the most part, voters simply remain entirely uninformed."

Non-partisan elections make things worse, not better.

2. Majority party primaries do not replace the need for general election competition

As some of the comments have noted, most of the action in big city elections takes place in party primaries. This is true, but it takes little of the normative sting out of the problems caused by a lack of general election competition.

The problem with majority party primaries is the same as the problem with non-partisan elections -- voters are not given any information on the ballot. There are no parties internal to the Democratic or Republican Parties. Even where there are formal internal-to-a-party coalitions, there is no way to provide information on the ballot and hence voters cannot use them to engage in meaningful retrospective evaluation or to collect views of groups over time. Voters in party primaries are, hence as adrift about ideological stances of candidates as voters are in non-partisan elections. They have little information about the candidates and the ballot does not provide them any information to mitigate this ignorance.

As such, majority party primaries do not generate much ideological competition. Not surprisingly, city council primaries usually turn on incumbency, ethnicity and other candidate status variables, party organization support and money, with issue stances playing a very small role. Voters don't have the ability to vote on the issues because they have too little information, and as a result turn to less useful heuristics.

All of that said, it is better to have primary elections than not to have them (they provide some check on truly unpopular politicians). But they do not replicate, or even go much of the way towards replicating, the beneficial effects of general election competition. The conclusion I drew in the last post, that big city elections are unlikely to produce representative outcomes, is not changed by the fact of primary elections.

6 Comments

[David Schleicher, guest-blogging, December 12, 2008 at 1:51pm] Trackbacks
Why Is There No Partisan Competition In City Council Elections? Some Proposals:

As I've been blogging all week and as I argued in this paper, the lack of partisan competition in city council elections, and big city local elections generally, is a serious problem for cities themselves and for theories of localism. I have a few ideas about how cities might change their election laws or other rules to either deal with the problem of the lack of competition or to introduce more competition.

The first is to enhance the power of the Mayor relative to the council and other locally elected officers. In most cities, there are a number of elected officials, but they are elected without much real democratic input for the reasons I've hope I've explained. Mayoral and County Executive races sometimes generate some policy competition -- they are big enough and individually valuable enough that there is sometimes enough coverage in the media and money spent that candidates effectively create their own brands. Centralizing power in Mayors, which already happens to a large degree, is a good thing from the perspective of enhancing democratic outcomes.

Another is to repeal what I called in this post and the paper "the unitary party rules." If ballot lines weren't guaranteed to the major parties and it was made easier to switch parties between elections, one strategy we might see more of is the local minority party rebranding itself at the local level. In New York, we get some of this through fusion, a process by which two or more parties endorse the same candidate (New York is the only state that permits fusion and for federal elections, I think the decisions by other states is a good thing, for reasons I laid out in a previous paper). Fusion has been central to the success of minority party candidates like Fiorella Laguardia, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, as they were able to disassociate themselves from the unpopular Republican Party brand in New York City by getting the endorsement of parties like the Liberal Party and the Independence Party.

However, fusion does not generate substantial party competition, as it doesn't provide an easy-to-understand brand that is continuous across elections and down a ballot. (Also, fringe parties, like cats, will only stay herded for so long.) Repealing those unitary party rules that can be repealed -- particularly automatic ballot lines for statewide parties and the limits on party switching -- might do so. The idea is that the local minority party might apply for ballot access in a reformed way, under a more popular local brand -- the "Development" party or "the Bloombergs" or whatever -- and attract a more local-issue consistent primary base. This might generate a party with consistent policy stances across election type and across elections, and if they develop a popular set of stances, partisan competition would ensue.

I also propose thinking about something more radical, a rule that parties that bars parties registered at the statewide level (i.e. the major parties) from having a ballot line in local elections. The idea is that local-only parties would spring up (the elections would still be partisan) to contest local elections. At first, these parties might look like simulacra of the major parties but would, though competitive pressure, develop locally competitive identities over time. Again, this is not anti-party or pro-non-partisan election -- I think parties are essential in world where voters are rationally ignorant of the policy stances of candidates -- but, rather, is focused on using election law to incentivize the creation of parties that are competitive at the local level and that provide heuristics that provide voters with information. (More details on this idea are in the paper.)

Now, these last two proposals would face some substantial constitutional problems. Further, they might not work. And, almost certainly, they wouldn't pass. They do, however, highlight the central claims of the paper -- that the lack of competition in local elections results in an absence of representation and dynamism in local politics, that the lack of competition is a function of the problem of party heuristics in a governmental system that has a number of different levels, that the links between these levels are caused both by the cognitive limitations of voters and by a legal regime that ensures that the same parties contest elections at all levels, and that the solutions we've tried, like non-partisan elections, only make things worse.

I'm not certain my solutions to this problem are the best. But I hope by identifying the problem and the causal mechanism for why there is an absence of partisan competition in big cities, I've spurred some thought about how we leave the governance of our cities to what's clearly a broken electoral system. If you're interested in what a bunch of blogs and other media sources have thought about the paper, check out the links on this page and here).

Finally, I want to say thanks to Eugene, the rest of the Conspirators and especially to the readers and people who have left comments. It's been a really interesting experience and I've enjoyed it. So thanks.

7 Comments