Mayor Bloomberg to the rescue?

Paul Jacob

9/13/2009 12:00:09 AM - Paul Jacob

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has unveiled a new plan to reform New York’s — and ultimately America’s — elections.

Bloomberg’s proposal calls for creating a Democracy Index to assess the election administration process, changing election day from Tuesday to over a weekend, automatically registering everyone to vote, and making it easier for candidates to petition their way onto the ballot. The goal, ostensibly, is to make democracy function more effectively and efficiently.

The plan won prompt plaudits from folks like Jacob Soboroff of the group Why Tuesday?, who wants voting to take place on the weekend and certainly not on a Tuesday, and Norman Ornstein, who also doesn’t like Tuesdays. However, Ornstein is best remembered as one of the greatest defenders of an entrenched, professionalized Congress unrestrained by the term limits that, for the record, just happened to win in election after election all across the country.

Our election process certainly does need reforming and at least a couple of Bloomberg’s prescriptions seem like good medicine to me. But just as I tend to take nutritional or exercise advice from people who eat well and exercise regularly, I prefer election reform suggestions come from folks who respect the voters and actually abide by election results.

That makes Mayor Bloomberg about as relevant in this discussion as Michael Vick would be on the topic of proper care for your pet.

Let’s consider Hissoner’s history on term limits. The problem isn’t that Bloomberg opposes term limits. Some of my best friends are wrong-headed enough to honestly oppose such limits. Term limitation is a practical issue, not a moral one.

Nor is it entirely damning that Mr. Bloomberg originally pledged his support for the city’s voter-enacted limits — even pledging to block any New York City Council action to overturn or weaken the law — only to flip to an opponent after gaining office and personally bumping up against the limits. Just as pigs may someday sprout wings and fly off to the horizon, it is indeed possible that Mike had an epiphany unconnected to his own self-interest.

What is entirely unforgivable, especially for someone who wishes to claim the pro-democracy, citizen empowerment mantel, is that Mayor Bloomberg slapped the voters (and any fair notion of democracy) in the face by refusing to allow the people of Gotham a vote on whether to overturn the two-term limit that would have required him to hand back power.

Back in 1993, New Yorkers had enacted term limits. City Council members, angered by the policy, then placed a measure to weaken those limits on the 1996 ballot. Voters unequivocally said NO. Fast forward to 2008, and polls showed that a third vote would again uphold the limits so hated by those in power.

So, this time the politicians simply refused to hold a vote — and did what they knew was undemocratic. The City Council, with the necessary support and encouragement of the mayor, unilaterally changed the term limits law to allow themselves to stay in office.

This doesn’t make Bloomberg the worst politician in the nation, automatically. There is a ton of competition for that title. But thumbing his nose at the city’s voters certainly doesn’t make him a paragon of democratic virtue or permit him to now stand as a credible leader for electoral reform.

We don’t see Dan Quayle judging spelling bees or Bill Clinton on the stump for chastity.

Speaking of leadership, most of Bloomberg’s reforms are to be accomplished not by him and his city council, but by others — notably New York’s dysfunctional state legislature and the equally functional federal Congress. For instance, it would be the federal government registering folks, as voters, against their wills.

Additionally, Bloomberg’s press release says he’ll propose legislation in the state legislature to ease the draconian ballot access laws that currently deny New Yorkers the opportunity to vote for additional candidates, invariably espousing more varied viewpoints. But the mayor has no official role in the legislature. His only power would be to use his bully pulpit and the weight of his political credibility.

Oops. That’s the problem. He doesn’t have any credibility — especially on allowing more candidates on the ballot, and thus, providing more choices for voters.

Earlier this month, Free & Equal, a national non-partisan election reform group dedicated to improving ballot access laws, took Mr. Bloomberg to task for supporting “ridiculous” attempts to throw candidates off the ballot. The group urged the mayor to “respect democracy in New York City and cease with the petty petitioning challenges.”

So the man who disdains voters when it suits him now endorses a set of reforms for others to accomplish. One thing I’ll say for Bloomberg: He’s got chutzpah.