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The Wrong Ways to Elect America's Mayors

Holding partisan mayoral elections ensures low voter turnout and disenfranchises vast numbers of voters. So does voting in odd-numbered years. We need to re-think how we approach these important elections.

Yesterday's voting brought an end to the 2013 election cycle. Ten of America's 30 largest cities -- including Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York and Seattle -- elected mayors this year. Another 13 of those 30 cities elected mayors during the 2011 cycle. And regardless of election year, the vast majority of American cities also allow candidates to skip a November contest entirely by winning a majority of votes cast in typically low-turnout first-round elections.

America's local elected officials still enjoy far higher citizen trust than their state (and, especially, their national) cousins, so it's worth asking why so many local governments continue to risk their relatively favored status by structuring their election systems to virtually guarantee abysmal voter turnout, thus essentially disenfranchising huge numbers of citizens.

New York City's mayoral contest exemplifies the problem in two ways. First, like about 20 percent of all U.S cities, the Big Apple still elects mayors on a partisan basis. Just 22 percent of New York's 4.2 million registered voters turned out for this September's party primaries. Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio won the Democratic nomination with a plurality of just 280,000 votes - less than 7 percent of the city's registered voters.

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De Blasio's primary win virtually guaranteed yesterday's victory over Republican nominee Joe Lohta in a city where Democrats hold a 6-to-1 party-registration edge. Meanwhile, 700,000 non-affiliated voters, locked out of the party primaries, had no meaningful say in this election.

Second, like the vast majority of America's cities big and small, New York mindlessly clings to the myth that off-year mayoral contests somehow ensure that citizens will be actively engaged and focused on key local issues, freed of the distractions of state and national politics. The kind of dismal voter turnout that New York City experienced this year proves otherwise.

By definition, if not design, partisan municipal elections relegate minority-party and non-affiliated voters to "observers-on-the-sidelines" status while forcing candidates through the same partisan paces that are driving our national politics into the ditch. Political ideology should have little to do with efficiently delivering core municipal services or revitalizing downtowns.

De Blasio may prove to be an excellent mayor, just as Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who won in 2007 with just 107,000 Democratic primary votes, is well regarded nationally. So too is San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who secured his 2009 election with just 42,000 first-round votes in a non-partisan system.

But micro-turnout elections also can protect and embolden less savory politicians who understand the basic mathematics of cozying up to key constituencies and making oversized promises during primary and first-round elections. Former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, recently sentenced to 28 years in prison for corruption, was first elected in 2001 after winning just 61,000 votes in his city's Democratic primary. Former Baltimore mayor Sharon Dixon, who was forced to resign in a gift-card theft scandal, won just 54,000 votes in her city's 2007 primary.

Electoral success, won too easily, can also make governing harder, even for clean-handed, popular city executives. Big victories in low-turnout elections convey a lack of broad political legitimacy. When the going gets tough -- as it so often does in local politics -- governing becomes more difficult when 90 percent of the public can essentially say, "He's not a mayor I voted for."

So what should cities do?

First, local jurisdictions that still elect their leaders on a partisan basis should switch to non-partisan systems so that all citizens can play a meaningful role. This is especially important for attracting younger voters, who increasingly register to vote as "none of the above."

Second, municipal election calendars should be re-aligned to coincide with even-year general elections, but with an extra twist that many politicians (especially popular incumbents) won't like: no more "first round guarantees." Voter turnout in first-round elections -- in both partisan and non-partisan systems -- has fallen perilously low; 20 percent is now typical, and sub-10-percent rates are increasingly common. No true mandates reside in such paltry figures. Better to require the top two first-round vote-getters to run again in much-higher-turnout, even-year general elections.

Bolder yet would be to experiment with the "instant-runoff voting" (IRV) systems (also known as "ranked-choice voting") used by Oakland in 2010, San Francisco and St. Paul in 2011, and Minneapolis this November. All candidates appear on the November ballot in these cities' nonpartisan elections. Voters rank-order their first, second and further choices, so no second run-off election is needed.

Though Minneapolis, San Francisco and St. Paul use the IRV system in odd-numbered years, their recent voter turnouts have been among the nation's highest. More dramatic still was Oakland's IRV experience in the November 2010 election, when Mayor Jean Quan prevailed in a contest that drew 120,000 voters in a city with a total population of 400,000. As a result, Quan arguably enjoys more than triple the voter mandate of New York's Bill de Blasio.

For America's cities, the stakes are high. According to a September Gallup poll, 71 percent of Americans still have a "great deal" or a "fair amount" of trust and confidence in their local governments. But trust can easily be lost. As recently as 2001, Gallup found 83 percent of Americans expressing trust in their federal government.

Local governments will likely get more important amidst our dysfunctional national politics. Rather than take that trust for granted, it's time to help make it even stronger.

This column has been updated to reflect Minneapolis' use of instant-runoff voting in the Nov. 5, 2013, election.

A Senior Fellow the Center for Public Service at Portland State University's Hatfield School of Government
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