Yesterday’s voting brought an end to the 2013 election cycle. Ten of America’s 30 largest cities — including Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York and Seattle — elected mayors this year. Another 13 of those 30 cities elected mayors during the 2011 cycle. And regardless of election year, the vast majority of American cities also allow candidates to skip a November contest entirely by winning a majority of votes cast in typically low-turnout first-round elections. America’s local elected officials still enjoy far higher citizen trust than their state (and, especially, their national) cousins, so it’s worth asking why so many local governments continue to risk their relatively favored status by structuring their election systems to virtually guarantee abysmal voter turnout, thus essentially disenfranchising huge numbers of citizens. New York City’s mayoral contest exemplifies the problem in two ways. First, like about 20 percent of all U.S cities, the Big Apple still elects mayors on a partisan basis. Just 22 percent of New York’s 4.2 million registered voters turned out for this September’s party primaries. Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio won the Democratic nomination with a plurality of just 280,000 votes – less than 7 percent of the city’s registered voters. De Blasio’s primary win virtually guaranteed yesterday’s victory over Republican nominee Joe Lohta in a city where Democrats hold a 6-to-1 party-registration edge. Meanwhile, 700,000 non-affiliated voters, locked out of the party primaries, had no meaningful say in this election.
Second, like the vast majority of America’s cities big and small, New York mindlessly clings to the myth that off-year mayoral contests somehow ensure that citizens will be actively engaged and focused on key local issues, freed of the distractions of state and national politics. The kind of dismal voter turnout that New York City experienced this year proves otherwise.
By definition, if not design, partisan municipal elections relegate minority-party and non-affiliated voters to “observers-on-the-sidelines” status while forcing candidates through the same partisan paces that are driving our national politics into the ditch. Political ideology should have little to do with efficiently delivering core municipal services or revitalizing downtowns.
De Blasio may prove to be an excellent mayor, just as Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who won in 2007 with just 107,000 Democratic primary votes, is well regarded nationally. So too is San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who secured his 2009 election with just 42,000 first-round votes in a non-partisan system.
But micro-turnout elections also can protect and embolden less savory politicians who understand the basic mathematics of cozying up to key constituencies and making oversized promises during primary and first-round elections. Former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, recently sentenced to 28 years in prison for corruption, was first elected in 2001 after winning just 61,000 votes in his city’s Democratic primary. Former Baltimore mayor Sharon Dixon, who was forced to resign in a gift-card theft scandal, won just 54,000 votes in her city’s 2007 primary.
Full Article: The Wrong Ways to Elect America’s Mayors.