One of our November ballot propositions, the so-called "non-partisan prop", is a lot like America's feckless Prohibition experiment, an epic bozo project to ban booze. Tulsa's "No. 3" is poorly drafted, costly, rife with process problems- -- and invites a legal challenge. And No.3 is the most unimaginative thing since dirt: nonpartisan elections are very common in U.S. cities, but they are also being abandoned like crazy. The accumulating evidence, from behavioral economics, from political science and from info theory suggests that "non-par" contests hugely amplify the power of big dollar interests in local campaigns, dramatically suppresses voter turnout and tamps down voter interest in city races.
A Thought Experiment
If you are a baseball fan you've had time to recover from late night World Series games, so I want you to imagine a very different kind of baseball game. You see, in this variation, the teams don't have uniforms and the players wear street clothes, so it's impossible to see who's on what team. There are lots of very confused folks in the stands -- in fact many people simply go home shortly after the game gets underway, other fans, having been told about the no uniform rules, simply stay home not wanting to waste their time with a confusing contest.
But there are a handful of people at the game who are yelling and clapping, these folks have inside info, maybe they know the players first hand, maybe the players are their kin or maybe the insiders are owners. The thing is, only a tiny set of people at the game know the players and their team affinities: that is what non-partisan elections will "look like" in Tulsa.
Expanding A Reigning Non-Starter
Ever found yourself in a T-Town voting booth making a last second choice on judicial candidates? This happens to me a lot, although I have lawyer buds and a long-standing friend, who is a Tulsa judge. Tulsa school board elections are a similar mess: yet like law and justice, public education is a singular priority for most people in T-Town. The painful irony: our "non-partisan" school board and judicial elections have pitiful turnouts, lots of confusion and tiny voter interest.
Some of the best quantitative work in political science suggests that not having party labels in judicial and school board contests is a big part of the problem. Here's the kicker: The supporters of No.3 want to replace our imperfect, but healthier city contests with the dysfunction we see in our half-ass school board and judge contests -- perfect!
No.3 is one of four city voter propositions next week: it removes party labels from city contests: if "non-par" passes, voters will get ballots without the party identification of city candidates -- Tulsa will be a political world where the players have no uniforms.
Big print ads, sizable radio and TV runs will be paramount in "non-par" contests: council candidates will need big bucks to prevail in this newly chaotic, information spare environment. Expect the prospects of candidates with strong ties to banking, real estate, construction and big business to get a big boost: these folks should have some influence by right, but shouldn't be allowed to call all the shots.
Party identification is an imperfect, but vital connector that most voters use to make sense of the political world from childhood forward: it has only a tangential nexus to local matters -- but some info is better than zero. While it's unfair to claim that all the major studies of "non-par" come to the same conclusion, it is easy to say that some of the most rigorous analytics concur. "Teams Without Uniforms: The Nonpartisan Ballot and State and Local Elections", is a classic analytic look at these issues. "Teams" is a multifaceted, data packed examination, conducted by a team of university researchers. The often-cited 2001 study's bottom line:
"Using precinct and district level voting data we compare mayoral races in the sister cities of Champagne and Urbana (Illinois) and state legislative elections in the Nebraska and Kansas. In addition, we examined the city of Asheville, North Carolina during its change from partisan to nonpartisan elections in the 1990s and state legislative elections in Minnesota during its change from nonpartisan to partisan contest in the early 1970s...We find that non-partisanship depresses turnout and that in nonpartisan contests voters rely less on party and more on incumbency in their voting decisions." --From the March 2001 issue of Political Science Quarterly, by B. Schaffner, M. Streb & G. Wright.
The "big secret" of non-partisan contests: everybody except ordinary voters know the party/philosophical leanings of candidates, you see the "insiders always know": this is emphatically the case with Tulsa's existing non-partisan judicial and school board elections.
Does voter turnout increase in non-partisan city elections?
Has partisanship been at the core of the now hopefully past, 24-month impasse at City Hall?
The answers, from a small but carefully crafted set of "experimental studies" and my vastly more informal look at the party "effects" of the contentious 24 months Mayor/Council struggles at City Hall -- is a strong "no" on every front.
We could broaden candidate selection: Councilor G.T. Bynum's idea of staging a primary for independent voters is intriguing and merits attention. There are other ways of re-energizing city elections, maybe we simply need some wholly local parties -- imagine a Green party, a Northern Compact/Labor party, a Southern Rim party or a Downtowners Posse -- now we're talking cool!
If Tulsans want to re-think the party/local election nexus we need a first rate intellectual effort, real imagination, some legal and analytic advice and a community wide process, not a joke parley driven by City Council only votes and a self-selecting, busy body elite. Vote no on the antidemocratic, equality busting "non-partisan" proposition; and while you're at it, strike a blow for all these virtues by also voting no on city props No. 1 (The City Manager) and No.4 (Super-Councilors).
Send all comments and feedback regarding Cityscape to email@example.com
Share this article: