The Village/Town of Scarsdale (it’s both—though that’s the subject of a different story) has been electing its officials on a non-partisan and usually uncontested basis since 1911. The idea is based on the premise that many of the functions of municipal government are not political in nature; there’s no Democratic method of garbage disposal or Republican way of policing the streets—so it’s best to take partisanship out of the equation. At least that’s what Republican and Democratic Party leaders concluded after a particularly raucous election for town supervisor in 1911 left the Village electorate bitterly divided. Instead, only the best-qualified candidates would be selected, regardless of political ideology. At first, candidates who garnered bipartisan support were put forth. That worked for a while, until the parties couldn’t agree on a candidate in 1930. Then they realized the solution wasn’t bipartisan agreement—but, rather, a non-partisan selection process—and the Citizens Nominating Committee (CNC) was born.
The 30 elected non-partisan voting-members of the CNC select just one candidate for each of the Village’s seven elected positions—the mayor and the six trustees of the Village Board—after researching, interviewing, and vetting potential candidates. The CNC’s slate of candidates usually runs unopposed—though other candidates can be included on the ballot, too, if they garner the same number of signatures in advance that are required of all candidates. “This has happened several times in recent memory, usually because of a specific issue,” notes Scarsdale’s previous mayor, Miriam Levitt Flisser. A strong advocate for the town’s non-partisan system, Flisser insists that “Scarsdale’s elected officials are free of party encumbrance, and function independently, making the best decisions possible based on current community situations and residents’ concerns.”
Given that the candidates traditionally run unopposed—and have previously been vetted by the CNC—the nominees usually don’t do any campaigning. Proponents of the system argue this encourages qualified candidates who might otherwise be turned off by the acrimony of campaigning to serve. Also, money isn’t wasted on financing expensive, and often negative, campaigns. “A number of former mayors and trustees, I know, would not have agreed to serve if they had to go through regular political party channels, fundraise, and campaign in contested elections,” says former Scarsdale Mayor Anne Janiak (1995-1997).
Critics contend that the system is, or at least appears to be, a closed club, where only residents from the same clique run for the CNC and the Town’s elective offices. “I am proof of the contrary,” says Levitt Flisser. “I am an immigrant to the USA from Europe. I work in medicine—I’m a pediatrician—not in politics or law. So I’m obviously not an insider. But when I stepped up and volunteered, I was offered the chance to run for office, and I was elected as a trustee twice, and, most recently, as mayor.” Last year, the League of Women Voters undertook an independent review of Scarsdale’s election system, and, in May, reaffirmed its support of the process.
While its openness may forever be a matter of debate, critics point to low voter turnout as proof that an uncontested electoral system like Scarsdale’s discourages participation. Former mayor Janiak disagrees. “Low voter turnout in uncontested elections reflects a general satisfaction and support for the current system—that is, the government is functioning and things are run well. In communities such as Scarsdale, people are not shy about letting their voices and opinions be heard.”