Sunday, October 19, 2008

In the narrow term limits debate, are we missing the point?

Mayor Mike Bloomberg's effort to get the City Council to extend voter-approved term limits deserves continuing scrutiny, but the coverage and commentary in today's newspapers is anemic.

There's nothing in the New York Times. The New York Daily News offers an encomium to Bloomberg from financier Felix Rohatyn, who conveniently ignores that the term limits override would apply to the Council, the Borough Presidents and more.

The New York Post does some investigating, and discovers that Bloomberg "showered cash on key City Council members with the power to kill a term-limits extension bill in the last year."

And the Daily News reports that many of those fighting the override have personal or political agenda, though some, an observer acknowledges, are motivated by principle.

Missing the larger point

Still, we are missing a larger point about ways to improve political representation. If those fighting Bloomberg's plan are successful in gaining a referendum to address the term limits issue, they will at least have achieved a more legitimate process.

However, an election regarding term limits would inevitably be a big money battle, and either result may not improve the quality of our political representation.

In an article headlined Making Our Votes Really Count in this month's Brooklyn Rail, Nicholas Jahr points out that our "plurality, winner-take-all elections" can produce winners with only a small fraction of the vote.

Citing the election-reform organization FairVote, Jahr cites instant run-off voting (IRV) and proportional representation (PR). FairVote has suggested IRV for citywide races:
Under IRV, voters rank candidates in their order of preference. If no candidate wins a majority (51% or more of the vote) on the first count, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and that candidate’s votes are reallocated to those voters’ second-choices.

And FairVote has suggested PR for Council races:
Like IRV, under “choice voting”—the form of PR championed by FairVote—voters rank candidates in order of preference. Elections are held in “multi-member districts,” in which each district elects several representatives. Candidates are elected by wracking up enough votes to pass a set threshold. Any remaining votes for that candidate become “surplus’ votes,” and are redistributed according to the preferences of the voters. (A more recent innovation sees the surplus redistributed in proportion to the second-choices of all voters for the candidate, eliminating any bias in which votes are counted first).

This could allow more representation by smaller parties and various ethnic groups. For example, New York has some one million people of Asian descent and exactly one Council Member of Asian descent.

Going forward

The problem is getting there. Jahr writes:
Regardless, at this late date, legislation will have to precede the software (with whatever costs the voting machine cartel decides to charge), and those who would see the city once again adopt PR are dependent on the same Democrats that the new system might unseat. In the mid-’90s, cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder spent around $4 million on his crusade to get term limits on the ballot; few see such money materializing on behalf of IRV or PR. Toying with the idea of wiping term limits off the books, Mayor Bloomberg has declared that he would convene a charter review commission, which might provide a way of introducing IRV and PR independent of Democratic initiative. For its part, FairVote has decided to focus for the time being on promoting IRV. More radical democracy will have to wait.

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