New York wrestles with its 'party machine' in historic vote

In a decision that could transform city primaries, New Yorkers wrap their heads around a vote about the vote.

New York's electoral system is broken.

There's no debate about that. A whopping 3.9 percent of the city's registered voters turned out for the September primary for city offices. Call it democracy with a minuscule "d."

But a historic proposal to fix the system is bringing out New York's pugnacious best.

On Tuesday, when presumably a few more Big Apple voters go to the polls for the general election, they'll be asked to gut the city's traditional party-primary system and replace it with a winners-take-all contest. It would be the first major overhaul of the city's electoral process since the early 1940s, and it's prompted charges of distortion, election buying, and unfair advantages from both the city's traditional party machines and its current, unorthodox political establishment. Even the good- government groups, known affectionately around Gotham as the "Goo Goos," have gotten into the fray.

Most agree some kind of change is long overdue. New York and Philadelphia are the only major cities in the country that don't have a nonpartisan process for gaining control of City Hall. Both are also renowned for their political machines.

Depending on which side has the stump, the proposal has the potential to either revitalize local democracy by ousting the bosses and increasing voter turnout and minority participation. Or, it could undermine democracy completely by leaving the system even more vulnerable to big-dollar, celebrity candidates who could spend lavishly without any constraints to hold them in check.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg champions the change. He's the billionaire businessman and a longtime liberal Democrat who in 2001 switched to the Republican Party. That's because he knew no matter how many millions of his own he spent, his chances of winning a Democratic primary were slim to none since he wasn't part of the political establishment. (For the record, he still had to fork out more than $70 million to win as a Republican.)

Mr. Bloomberg has taken $2 million out of his own pocket to support the charter change, which prompted political analyst Doug Muzzio to charge: "He bought the election, now he's trying to buy a charter change that will fundamentally change New York politics!"

The mayor brushes that off, noting the change won't take effect until he's been term-limited out of office. The problem, from his point of view, is that the local party machine has a chokehold on ballot access, creating a situation that locks many viable candidates out and dampens voter enthusiasm.

"What we're trying to do is let the public decide what they want," he says. "It's fascinating just how threatening that concept of real democracy is to those who would lose their unfair advantage."

Many critics

Comments like that enrage the opposition, in part, because it's a fairly broad coalition that includes not only the local Democratic and Republican parties, but also The New York Times and all the city's top good-government groups, including the League of Women Voters, Common Cause NY, and the Women's City Club. They held a press conference on the steps of City Hall Thursday to decry what Gene Russianoff of the New York Public Interest Research Group calls "a crapshoot for the city."

"The benefits of this move are unproven and the risks are great," he says.

The biggest risk, from the good-government crowd's point of view, is money.

Currently, New York has one of the most progressive local campaign-finance laws in the country. It provides party candidates a 4 to 1 match in public money if they agree to abide by spending limits. Under the new system, those constraints would disappear, and critics say massive amounts of cash - from private individuals, or even political parties, could be poured into the primary races. "It's possible that could give party leaders even more say than they have now," says Mr. Russianoff.

The mayor discounts that, saying it's a problem that can be easily remedied with a legislative fix. But even his supporters admit the proposal carries some risks.

First, it's not really a change to nonpartisan elections. In a last-minute political compromise, the commission that Bloomberg appointed to study the idea decided to allow candidates to put their party label on the ballot if so chose. So, unlike in Boston or Los Angeles or Chicago, where there's no party label on the ballot, New Yorkers will still be able to discern if someone's a Democrat, a Republican, or a member of the Fusion Independent Party (yes, New York has a party called that).

Under this proposal, the top two vote-getters in the primary, no matter which party they belong to, even if it's the same one, will face each other in the general election. This system, known as the unitary system, is in place in only one state in the country, Louisiana, and only two other cities: Jacksonville, Fla., and Minneapolis.

The results so far

Its results have been mixed in each place. "The evidence is scattered and contradictory as to the likely impact," says Mike Wallace, director of the Gotham Center for New York History at the City University of New York, who opposes the proposal. "I just have to assume that anything that weakens collective forms of identification [in the form of a party label and backing] would weaken the system."

Supporters say the need for change is so great that it's worth the risk.

"The electoral system has collapsed," says Fred Siegel, a political analyst and member of the mayor's Charter Revision Commission. "This isn't a panacea, but it will at least provide an opening for new people to get into the system."

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