The Asheville City Council’s majority decision requiring candidates to declare a political-party affiliation is, quite simply, truth in advertising for voters. Party affiliation is a shorthand method for helping voters decide whether a candidate shares their values.
Ask any voter what it means to be a Democrat or a Republican and they’ll probably list a series of attributes identified with each party. That’s because party affiliation brings with it a set of broadly defined values voters use to gauge whether a candidate is right for them.
Ask a voter what it means to be an “unaffiliated” candidate, however, and you are likely to get a blank stare. So while requiring party identification may be an imperfect system, it does provide a road map to a candidate’s values.
That would have been helpful when I ran for City Council in 2003. With 13 candidates on the ballot for the primary, many voters were looking for some guidance, and party affiliation would have been a good starting point.
I suspect that some of those most opposed to this change fear that having to show their true colors—and run as a Republican in Asheville—would lessen their chances of getting elected. They, too, know that party affiliation matters to voters and that, with the voter-registration numbers already stacked against them, the candidates running as Republicans would probably have to be more centrist to win in Asheville. But isn’t that how it should be in a democracy?
Some have also argued that switching to partisan elections means third-party candidates will have a tougher time getting elected. But consider this: In the last six election cycles—all of them nonpartisan elections—not a single third-party candidate was elected to City Council. How could switching to partisan elections make things any worse?
Finally, many have argued that it’s not City Council’s place to make such a change. Voters, it’s been said, should have been the ones to make this decision. Some also maintain that the decision should have been put off until after this year’s Council elections.
But our system of local governance is designed to be a representative democracy. We elect a mayor and City Council and trust in their wisdom to guide our city. I don’t always agree with their decisions, but this is the system we have.
If, however, a majority of the voters are truly aggrieved by this decision, we do have a self-correcting process: It’s called elections.
[Chris Pelly, a two-time candidate for Asheville City Council, is president of the Haw Creek Community Association.]