Bloomberg calls for nonpartisan elections

Spring Valley Deputy Mayor Joseph Desmaret, second from

Spring Valley Deputy Mayor Joseph Desmaret, second from left, walks past protesters as he arrives to federal court in White Plains. (April 23, 2013) (Credit: AP)

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Mayor Michael Bloomberg says bringing nonpartisan elections to New York would help rein in what U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara calls a "show me the money" culture of corruption in Albany and New York City.

But many political scientists say nonpartisan elections -- in which election ballots do not identify candidates' parties -- have not stopped graft of the type that Bharara alleged in a criminal complaint this month against a group of top officials.

That's primarily because political parties remain heavily involved in nonpartisan elections since they have the money and the organizations for formidable campaigns, experts say.

Chicago and Detroit have not put party labels on ballots for almost a century. Yet the Chicago area led the nation with convictions for public corruption from 1976 to 2010, with a total of 1,531, according to University of Illinois research. Detroit's former mayor was convicted on corruption and bribery charges last month.

"It doesn't really change anything because the political party organizations are still so strong . . . they just continue to carry out their functions," said Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, a newsletter that tracks ballot issues around the nation. "It doesn't matter at all."

Supporters and some academics say nonpartisan elections allow insurgent candidates to bypass parties to challenge long-serving officials. "They open up the candidate pool," said Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash.

Critics of the system cite research showing that nonpartisan elections decrease turnout. Without party labels to guide them, some people don't want to risk voting for someone who doesn't reflect their views.

If voters "don't know which candidate is which, they'll not participate . . . ," said Chris Bonneau, an associate political science professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "You're basically denied an important piece of information that allows you to participate in a meaningful way," he said of party labels.

About three-quarters of all local elections around the nation are nonpartisan, said Matt Streb, chairman of the political science department at Northern Illinois University.

Many Midwestern and Western cities and states adopted the system in the early 20th century as part of movements that aimed to break the power of party machines such as New York City's Tammany Hall.

But city politicians fended off calls for nonpartisan elections as well as other anti-corruption measures.

"New York resisted the Progressive movement," said M. Elizabeth Sanders, a professor at Cornell University's Department of Government. Also, "business groups knew that you'd get a lot of anti-business initiatives," she said.

The early April arrest of officials including state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Queens), who was charged with trying to bribe GOP officials to let him run as Republican in the mayoral race, prompted Bloomberg to renew his call for nonpartisan elections. Also charged by Bharara were New York City Councilman Daniel J. Halloran III, a Republican, and leaders of the Republican Party in the Bronx and Queens. Noramie Jasmin, mayor of Spring Valley in Rockland County, and Deputy Mayor Joseph Desmaret were charged with "accepting financial benefits" to award a real estate project to the same undercover FBI agent who agreed to help Smith bribe the GOP officials.

All have pleaded not guilty.

Bharara said the "charges demonstrate, once again, that a show-me-the-money culture seems to pervade every level of New York government."

Bloomberg recalled shortly after the scandals broke that he had spent about $7 million of his own money in 2005 trying to transform New York City's election system to a nonpartisan model -- although the city continues with a partisan election system.

Currently, the only candidates who have any "meaningful chance" of getting elected are chosen by the parties, Bloomberg said.

"Generally speaking, partisan elections deprive people of the right to pick their own leaders," Bloomberg said. Referring to the latest corruption scandal, Bloomberg said: "If you had it [an election] open to everybody, you wouldn't be open to any of these issues."

Many political scientists say abolition of the 1947 Wilson Pakula law requiring candidates registered with one party to win permission from leaders of another party to run on their line could be a first step toward curbing corruption. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recently proposed repealing the unusual requirement, citing the bribery allegations against Smith and others. "This is pay to run," Cuomo said.

But political parties can remain powerful even in nonpartisan elections -- recruiting and funding candidates and providing workers to canvas neighborhoods.

Stepped-up prosecutions and requirements that politicians disclose significantly more about their finances likely would do more to curb corruption in New York, political scientists say.

"It seems that a big part of it is a culture of corruption and what you need is enforcement," said Richard Hasen, a law and political science professor at the University of California Irvine School of Law.

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