Noting a historic California referendum passed Tuesday that eliminates party distinctions from state primary elections, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he'd like to see something similar come to New York City.
California's Proposition 14, which discards a party-based primary in favor of sending two candidates with the most votes overall to the general election, passed by an 8-point margin, carrying every district except liberal San Francisco and conservative Orange County. Hailing the vote as a "sweeping change," California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the new measure will weaken the sway parties hold over the political process.
Now, Bloomberg says a charter revision commission is examining whether a similar system could work in New York.
"In primaries, only the party faithful vote," he said. "A very small percentage of the electorate picks the leaders. That's not what the founding fathers had in mind."
He drew allusions to his own race for mayor as a Republican in 2001, saying he would never have forced his way past the "Democratic machine" had he not had his personal wealth to fall back on.
"I think without non-partisan elections, someone like me would be absolutely impossible to get elected," he said.
As it stands, New York voters can only select candidates within their own party in primary elections. Voters who haven't registered with a party – the so-called "independents," whose numbers have swelled to more than 750,000 within the city, or 17 percent of all voters – are effectively barred from voting at all.
New York City has toyed with open primaries before. A charter revision commission examined them in 2002 but never put them on the ballot for a general vote. In 2003, an open primary measure was voted down by 70 percent of city voters.
This year, it's on the table again – and as controversial as ever. At a Bronx public hearing where the idea was briefly floated earlier this month, tempers rose in a discussion commission spokesman Matt Gorton could only describe as "raucous."
Many fear that minority voters, traditionally allied with the Democratic Party, will lose faith in the electoral process if their candidates aren't guaranteed a slot in the general election, he said. As in California, detractors in New York argue that sending only the top two primary candidates to the general election gives an unfair advantage to well-funded campaigns – like Mayor Bloomberg's.
The commission has until September to decide what to put up for a public referendum, if anything. It isn't married to pushing open primaries, Gorton said, no matter what the mayor's stance is.
"The commission is eager to increase voter participation and is looking at all the avenues that may achieve that goal," he said.