These posts from Scott Armstrong (via the Bernie O’Hare blog) and LVCI on whether Democrats are to blame for Allentown’s problems present a nice opening to plug my post on local government and political parties at Demos last week.
LVCI sets this up well by showing that Republican Mayor William Heydt actually did most of the things that today’s Republicans complain about when Ed Pawlowski does them. The fact is that you just don’t see a distinctive Democratic or Republican approach to municipal governance. Everybody’s just kind of grasping around in the dark, using whatever tools the state saw fit to give them.
Some people want to point to this and say “there’s no Democrat or Republican way to fix a pothole” – the implication being that there are no ideological issues in play at the municipal level.
I think that’s dead wrong. What this really tells us is that the national party labels are doing a bad job of capturing the real partisan divisions in the local issue space. Knowing that somebody is a Democrat or a Republican tells you virtually nothing about what positions they’re going to take on municipal issues.
In this view, the blame doesn’t lie with the voters for using the informational shortcuts they’re given. The blame lies with the authors of our ballot access laws, who have prevented new local political parties from forming to aggregate issue preferences at the local level:
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.
For instance, back in the heady days of the great Philadelphia municipal consolidation in 1854, you saw a whole bunch of different local issue parties like the Consolidation Party, the Paid Fire Department Party, the Prohibition Party, and the Native American Party, in addition to major parties like the Democrats and the Whigs.
With fusion voting, some motivated folks could circulate some petitions and put a Don’t Sell the Water System Party, or a Form-Based Zoning Party, or a Land Tax for Allentown School District Party on the ballot. Then the Democratic and Republican candidates would compete to win those parties’ endorsements, and appear on their ballot lines in addition to the major party ballot lines.
Turning local elections into open interest group competitions in this way would give voters better information shortcuts that would make it clearer which policies are likely to be enacted if they vote for this politician or the other one. Not only would the ballot itself make this relationship clearer, but we would also expect the new parties and coalitions to expend considerable resources educating voters about the issues at stake.