An Oct. 11 forum on whether Asheville should switch to partisan City Council elections featured dueling views. Council attempted to make such a change back in June, but was stalled when a petition drive gathered enough signatures to force a Nov. 6 referendum on the issue.
Council member Brownie Newman, who spearheaded the June attempt, fielded many questions and defended partisan elections, saying they would lead to higher turnout and that voters need to know the political philosophies the candidates held.
“I realize the public holds a very cynical view of political parties today—and for good reasons,” he conceded. “But they are effective tools for organizing. The public needs to know what groups are supporting a candidate’s run for office, and we need to be honest about the role political parties already play.”
Council member Jan Davis, who opposes partisan elections, said that while parties are very involved in elections anyway, “with almost a third of our registered voters independents, I feel that it’s exclusive. I don’t think anybody denies what party they are, and I think the parties make it clear who they’re supporting. Partisan elections on the municipal level are not the best way to go: There are platforms, and bosses get involved.”
Currently, any city resident can run for City Council or for mayor simply by paying a filing fee. A primary like the one held Oct. 9 narrows the field to six candidates, and voters decide the final winners in a general election (see “The More Things Change,” elsewhere in this issue). Party affiliation isn’t noted on the ballot.
Under a partisan system, party primaries would choose three Republicans and three Democrats, while unaffiliated or third-party candidates would have to collect valid petition signatures from 4 percent of the city’s registered voters (which currently works out to about 2,400 signatures) to gain a place on the final ballot.
Charlie Hume, one of the main organizers of Let Asheville Vote, notes that the demographics of the successful petition drive “were really a mirror image of Asheville voters. You had 50 percent Democrats, 27 percent unaffiliated and 23 percent Republican.”
Around the turn of the last century, progressives pushed nonpartisan elections—now the norm in many cities across the country—as a way to reduce the influence of political parties and make local governments more professional, notes professor Bill Sabo, who teaches political science at UNCA. “There was no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the trash, the progressives argued,” Sabo explains.
But nonpartisan elections come with a trade-off, he says—including a 30 to 40 percent increase in the cost of running a campaign and lower voter turnout.
“The party label is the simplest and easiest way to tell about a candidate running for office,” argues Sabo. “Groups will mobilize voters, but they will do so on more narrow interests and speak to those likely to support their agenda. In American history, only the political parties have shown the ability to mobilize marginally interested voters on any large scale.”
In cities with populations of 75,000 to 150,000, says Sabo, nonpartisan elections “usually favor the wealthy and business interests,” due to the increased costs of running a campaign. But partisan elections, he cautions, only work when you have strong parties with coherent platforms that enable voters to know what they’re getting.
The burdens of beating the odds?
About 50 people attended the forum, including several current and former City Council candidates. After all four panelists had made opening statements, they took questions from the audience. The forum, held in UNCA’s Reuters Center, was sponsored by the Leadership Asheville Forum and the Center for Creative Retirement.
During the question-and-answer period, Dwight Butner, an unaffiliated candidate who nonetheless fared well in the Oct. 9 primary and will advance to the general election, said the problems independent candidates face in a partisan system don’t end with collecting petition signatures. During the primaries, he noted, “The party candidates are getting lots of publicity. That’s going to be very difficult to overcome, even if someone does get those signatures.”
Newman, acknowledging that he isn’t comfortable with the burden a partisan election system would place on unaffiliated candidates, said he would favor asking state legislators to change the law to make it easier for those candidates to get on the ballot.
“That’s the strongest argument against partisan elections: 4 percent is way too high. There should be a test to see if there’s a threshold of support for a candidate, but it should be much lower—500 [signatures], for example,” said Newman. “At the state level, the parties have made it unreasonably difficult for others to get on the ballot. I strongly support changing that at all levels.” Newman also said he’d be happy to consider alternatives such as instant-runoff voting.
He added that he feels the weakest argument against partisan elections is that they’ll somehow give party bosses undue influence.
“Our party boss is this nice lady from Weaverville in the third row, Kathy Sinclair,” noted Newman. “The parties in our country are so weakened, especially at the local level, the idea that the word comes down from on high is really silly.”
He added that “in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” when Asheville had partisan local elections, “there were plenty of people that weren’t liberal Democrats on Council—in fact, most of the mayors of Asheville in that time were Republican.” Newman also predicted that the referendum will uphold nonpartisan elections.
Former Council member Edward Hay, who ran under both the partisan and nonpartisan systems in the early ‘90s, later told the panel that shifting to a nonpartisan system “did raise the cost considerably from when you had parties. You had to start paying for everything yourself.”
Later, Libertarian candidate William Meredith, who lost in the Oct. 9 primary, said he believes “party elections keep the power in the hands of a few. I feel it’s insulting to suggest that we can’t pick candidates without the party label.”