Scarsdale’s electoral system is fundamentally undemocratic, resembling more an age of smoke-filled backrooms than the open, democratic ideal we claim. Contrary to the open primaries at every other level of government, in Scarsdale little-known committees secretly discuss candidates and then present the community with fait accomplis.
Yes, it’s true that the members of the CNC and SBNC are directly elected, but this confers little real responsibility to voters. The 2019 CNC election saw 368 votes cast from a voting age population of more than 14,000, a participation rate of 2.6%. In the actual mayoral election, this marginally improved to 3.1%. These are abysmal numbers. It’s not that people don’t care to vote; Scarsdale’s 2016 presidential turnout was more than 62% despite pertaining far less to us locally. Our system, rather, discourages participation.
It’s true that anyone can run for office. When they do, however, half the battle is spent fighting the “system.” The few contested elections we have are met with outrage that anyone would consider an independent run “outside the system,” rather than welcoming the opportunity for debate. This is certainly not to say that mayoral elections should be fought between Republicans and Democrats over immigration and Medicare, but we have room in the village for public discourse. There should be open discussion about priorities in spending. There should be debate over school management. But there isn’t, or at least not enough, because we’ve granted the nonpartisan committees effective monopolies over political debate.
In 2017, when Robert Berg ran for mayor, turnout shot up to 20%, in line with most municipal elections. Contested elections make people care. They force discussion and debate. While there are many who disagree with Mr. Berg or other independent candidates, who would argue that the spike in engagement in local issues they raised with their runs is bad? We encourage interest in local affairs in our schools, then fail to follow through ourselves.
The committees also promote the idea of finding candidates who wouldn’t otherwise want to run. But, while this can work, it can also produce candidates who aren’t suited for public office: those who shrink from debate and argument. While some skills translate immediately from professional to public careers, others don’t. Such deficiencies can only be seen with public scrutiny.
We have a village manager, schools superintendent and full staff of professionals employed to ensure the town functions effectively and reliably. Yet, at the top of the tree, those responsible to voters should actually represent them. Technocracy does not work without priorities to guide it. These priorities must be established by voters, and elections must therefore be fair, open and competitive.
We need to start seeing the nonpartisan parties for what they are —political parties, not a system. They, like all parties, have full rights to nominate and run candidates, but we must stop considering them to be self-contained electoral units. Other challengers must be welcomed, debated, and, when necessary, defeated. Only then will we be a true democracy.