Narrow Choices for Voters When One Party Dominates

Thomas Edsell has a column in Sunday's New York Times -- "What's Wrong With Pennsylvania?" -- that explores how various factors have conspired to make the state uncompetitive for Mitt Romney. 

One of the people Mr. Edsell interviews about the state's leftward trend is William Heydt, the long-time Republican Mayor of Allentown, who expresses some frustration over the city's transformation into a one-party town:

The political consequences of recent population trends have been dramatic.

William L. Heydt, a Republican, held the mayor’s office in Allentown from 1990 to 2002, when he retired. He decided to run again in 2005. He only got 41 percent of the vote. Allentown voters, he told me, came to the polls “by the busload, pulled the D lever, and had no idea who they were voting for.” Many, Heydt said, “were Hispanic, a lot African American.”

Julio Guridy, a native of the Dominican Republic who is now chairman of the Allentown City Council, sees a growing, vibrant and, not least of all, Democratic city.

“We have seen an influx from New York and New Jersey, particularly after 9/11. This is a very good place to live,” Guridy told me. “America is a wonderful place.” He is one of two Latinos on the six-member city council, all of whom are Democrats, as is the mayor, Ed Pawlowski, the man who beat Heydt in 2005.

Mayor Heydt seems to chalk up his 2005 loss to thoughtless lever-pulling by numerically-ascendant Democratic-leaning groups, but the better explanation may be that Allentown voters were making the best available choice, based on the most reliable information they had -- the party labels.

Allentown's voters know they prefer Democratic candidates in federal elections, and they rely on the party labels for information about which candidates best line up with their views in local elections as well.

Contrary to Mayor Heydt's objections to straight-ticket voting, there's nothing irrational about relying on party cues. Party labels are very useful shortcuts that convey important information about how candidates can roughly be expected to vote on public policy questions once in office.

This shortcut is especially important in state and local elections, where good information about specific candidates is harder to come by.

The problem with one-party cities is that while the national party labels do a great job of telling us how federal-level politicians will vote on federal issues, they don't do a good job of telling us how local-level politicians will vote on local issues.

This is a real problem for democracy, especially since the electorate has become more geographically polarized. As political partisans increasingly cluster together, we can expect more cities and towns to become single-party towns where one party or the other is unable to compete in local elections. Uncompetitive politics breeds unaccountable politicians, and can lead to poor government performance and corruption. We need the party labels to give voters good information about candidates' positions on local issues, not on national issues.

To make city level elections more competitive, we need either new local-level political parties that capture the real partisan divisions in the local issue space, or fusion voting -- where major party candidates can appear on minor party ballot lines.

In municipal level politics, the partisan divisions tend to be more about insider-outsider politics than sweeping ideological visions. Here are a few common examples:

  • Developers and future housing consumers vs. incumbent landowners;
  • Future business owners vs. incumbent business owners;
  • Future workers vs. incumbent workers;
  • Future taxi drivers vs. incumbent taxi drivers;
  • Mobile vendors vs. incumbent food sellers;

Currently, the major parties don't reflect these kinds of divisions. Knowing that a candidate is a Democrat doesn't really tell you anything about whether she'll be more or less friendly to new development.

Fusion voting could change the game by allowing minor parties to form, and aggregate issue positions according to the real partisan divisions. They would then endorse the major party candidates whose views are most reflective of their platforms, and those candidates would appear on their ballot lines in addition to the major party ballot lines. This could make local elections more competitive even in one-party cities, by replacing traditional party competition with open competition between interest groups.

Rather than blaming voters for using the informational shortcuts we give them, we should try to give them more useful shortcuts to help them make meaningful choices about their local government's policy agenda.

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