Two Law Professors Pinpoint Disadvantage of Non-Partisan Elections

Law Professors Chris Elmendorf and David Schleicher have this op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle of February 28. They present evidence that non-partisan elections are faulty, because many voters are so dependent on party labels, they simply won’t vote in elections without party labels. The op-ed focuses on elections for San Francisco city office.

The op-ed suggests that statewide political parties aren’t relevant to San Francisco politics, so they don’t recommend making San Francisco elections partisan. Instead, they suggest that the city amend its election ordinances to list on the ballot which candidates for city office, other than Mayor, are endorsed by the Mayor.

A better solution, which isn’t mentioned in the op-ed, is to make it possible for local political parties to be recognized. Many cities and counties in other parts of the United States have local political parties and partisan elections for local office. This is especially true in Connecticut, New York, and Illinois. California election law relating to political party qualification does not permit a party to be recognized in just part of the state.


Two Law Professors Pinpoint Disadvantage of Non-Partisan Elections — No Comments

  1. The proposal to print the mayor’s endorsements on the ballot is actually rather silly. It sounds like a diversionary tactic to me, almost as if they know what the real solution is but don’t want us to figure it out. I agree with Richard’s view: allow parties to form and qualify for the ballot at the city or county level and get rid of the fiction that any election can ever be “non-partisan”.

    The article also invokes the old “debate” between district and at-large elections. Again, I suspect the authors know that proportional representation is the real answer, but don’t want to talk about that, either.

  2. Minnesota has a similar process where a minor party can pull enough votes in a state legislative election to be a major party in that district, but I not sure if its still on the books or even used.

  3. It would be better to switch back to odd-year elections for supervisor. Supervisor elections used to be held in odd-numbered years. When San Francisco first switched to district elections, they coincided with the old schedule. But the switch back to district elections was approved at a special election in August 2000. That proposition made the first election for at-large elections in November 2000, just 3 months later. Supervisors who had been elected for a 4-year term in November or December 1999 were booted from office less than 1 year after their election. In effect, it was recall by stealth.

    Ever since, supervisor elections have been held in even-numbered years where they are below the presidential and gubernatorial and other statewide and congressional races and legislative races.

    When San Francisco switched backed to district elections, they provided a transition. District elections were approved in November 1996, to take effect in November 2000. The last at-large elections for supervisor in November 1998, were for 2-year terms.

    District elections in November 2000 and 2002 required a majority, with a conventional runoff in December. This meant that voters could focus on the leading candidates in a separate election, and in several cases the leader in November was defeated in December.

    Once San Francisco switched to IRV in 2004, with the IRV elections buried below all the federal, state, and legislative elections, the leader on first preferences has always been elected. Secondary preferences appear to be as if a voter who had worked his way through the rest of the ballot was simply marking choices essentially at random.

    In an odd-year election without a mayoral race, the supervisor elections would be the featured race. In November 2009, San Francisco held an election for two unopposed candidates for City Attorney and Treasurer. Turnout was dismal, and would have been even lower if there weren’t so many permanent mail voters.

    Holding elections for these two offices which are often as not uncontested, is residual from when supervisors were elected in odd-years, and there were a great many more elected city offices, which were split between the two odd-year elections in a 4-year cycle.

    Even in mayoral-election years, there would be a reasonable level of news coverage of the supervisor races.

    In olden days, the Voter’s Pamphlet included official endorsements. It appears that they have been the persons who had signed the nominating petition. If the signature counts are modest, a candidate could simply get the mayor or other supervisors to sign their petition, and have that list appear in the voter’s pamphlet.

  4. #1 The authors suggested that when supervisor elections were coincident with mayoral elections, the “two leading candidates” could be permitted to endorse. The only problem with this is that supervisor elections are not held in the same year as mayoral elections; and it is not clear how you would determine the two leading contenders. I don’t think they had really thought through there proposed solution.

  5. I agree with Jim Riley’s comments. I am also impressed with his extensive knowledge of the San Francisco election system.

  6. Why don’t we just cut to the chase and outsource local government to corporate “persons?”

  7. Jim (#3), your first paragraph says that the switch from at large to district was voted on in 2000, to take effect immediately. In fact, your third paragraph is correct; the vote was in 1996, to take effect in 2000. I can’t find anything on an August 2000 special election in San Francisco. Similarly, the first and third paragraphs disagree on when the last at-large election was held.

    Richard (#5), I hope you don’t agree with Jim’s implicit criticism of IRV in his fourth paragraph.

  8. How many professor MORONS does it take to detect that —

    every election is NEW and has ZERO to do with any prior election results ???

    P.R. for legislative bodies — even for party hacks.

    What percentage of the free world has proportional representation systems ??? — NOT like the STONE AGE minority rule gerrymander systems in the U.S.A..

    A.V. for executive/judicial offices — to have some sort of NONPARTISAN enforcement of the laws.

  9. #7 I goofed the dates.

    San Francisco first used district elections in 1977, when among others, Harvey Milk and Dan White were elected. After White killed Milk and mayor Moscone, they added a requirement that supervisors and other offices be elected by a majority, with a runoff if necessary. Before that only mayoral elections required a runoff.

    A second set of district elections occurred in 1979. And then in August 1980, there was a special election that proposed switching back to at-large elections for supervisors, to take place almost immediately. It passed by a narrow (50.58% majority), so in November 1980, 65 candidates ran for 11 at-large positions. Half were then given an initial 2-year term, and and half were given a 4-year term.

    The district supervisors elected in 1979 to a 4-year term had their term cut to one year. It was a side effect of the manner in which district elections were eliminated that caused the switch in elections to even-numbered years.

    Incidentally, there was a proposal on the November 1980 ballot that would have switched back to district elections, which was defeated (it received 48.42% Yes). There were other proposals to switch back to district voting over the years.

    In November 1996, the switch back to district supervisors was approved by a 56.7% margin. At the same election there was a proposal to use STV for the at-large election of supervisors, it failed with 43.5%. Since the two propositions were in conflict, if both were approved, the one with the greater majority would take effect. It is possible that this might have given a little more support to the district election proposal.

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