The Let Asheville Vote petition-drive organizers commandeered the front corner of a Merrimon Avenue coffee shop June 21 for a noon strategizing session.
They had a rally coming up in City/County Plaza in three days, and they were still collecting ideas for speakers, musicians and signs. Leader Charlie Hume, an electrical engineer by trade, was corralling location prospects for petition drives and public-speaking opportunities.
The casual meeting style belied the seriousness of the group’s objective. Let Asheville Vote filed a petition with the Buncombe County Board of Elections on June 17 to put the question of partisan or nonpartisan municipal elections to a citywide vote. They were given 30 days to collect the signatures of some 5,000 registered Asheville voters in order to make that referendum happen.
The petition is a reaction to City Council’s June 12 decision to depart from 12 years of nonpartisan elections and return to partisan contests, effective in the 2007 election cycle. That means that Council candidates of the two predominant parties—Democratic and Republican—will pay a $75 filing fee to run, but unaffiliated or small-party candidates—Libertarians and Greens, for example—would need some 2,000 signatures (10 percent of the total registered city voters) in order to enter the fray. (Under the nonpartisan system, all candidates simply paid the filing fee.) And it’s too late to change colors: State statutes require that party affiliation be on file 90 days before filing for candidacy, and municipal filing begins at noon July 6 and ends July 20.
Let Asheville Vote declares itself nonpartisan, and organizers say the group is taking no stand on the partisan/nonpartisan question itself, but rather a process they believe to be flawed. Organizing committee member George Keller (the former chair of the Buncombe County Republican Party) pointed out that if the three Council members expected to run again this fall (Jan Davis, Bryan Freeborn and Brownie Newman) had recused themselves from voting, the June 12 tally would have been 2-2 instead of 4-3, and the change to the city charter would not have passed.
Going back in history, in 1994, City Council voted unanimously to make the move to nonpartisan elections. Leni Sitnick, a Council member at that time who later became mayor, offered this comment last week: “I am absolutely in favor of putting it to the people. First of all, as a strong Democrat for many, many, many years, I can’t imagine a Democratic, Republican, independent or Green Party objecting to something being put to the people.”
Kathy Sinclair, chair of the Buncombe County Democrats, says her party supports the decision to hold partisan elections but also supports the petitioners’ efforts. “That’s what a democracy is,” she says.
Buncombe Libertarian chairman Bernard Carman says his party favors the referendum. “We’re supporting Let Asheville Vote entirely, 100 percent,” he says. “We don’t have that many people … but we’re trying to send the word and do our part.” The local chapter of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters has endorsed the effort as well.
Meanwhile, back at the coffee shop, Hume predicted that a conundrum would arise, should the petition drive prove successful. “I have reached a dead end at the [state] attorney general’s office,” Hume said. “There’s no oversight mechanism in place”—meaning that even if the petition succeeds, this fall’s primary and general elections could be partisan, unless the city and its attorney determine otherwise, Hume reported.
Correction: The percentage of signatures required for municipal candidacy should have been 4 percent, not 10 percent. The 10 percent figure applies to the number of signatures required for a referendum to go on the ballot.