In this year’s debate over partisan elections, I’ve noticed that some opponents of the idea seem not so much interested in helping people understand the issue as they are in scoring political points against current City Council members. So I think it’s time to take on the three biggest myths about partisan elections that are making the rounds.
Myth #1: Partisan primaries and elections exclude independent voters. In a partisan primary, independents would have more choice than voters from either major party. They could choose which primary they wanted to vote in, and they could sign petitions for as many independent candidates as they’d like to see on the ballot. It’s a different system, certainly. But it doesn’t exclude independent voters.
Moreover, we’re seeing abysmal turnout in city elections, and independent voters are turning out in even lower numbers than Democrats and Republicans. It’s hard to imagine that partisan elections could make things any worse. In fact, some studies suggest that nonpartisan elections actually depress voter turnout. So, even though our nonpartisan elections seem to be turning voters off, why are we being told—in defiance of the evidence—that partisan elections will turn people off even more?
Myth #2: Local issues don’t lend themselves to partisan politics. That’s true—to some extent. But the two major parties do have distinct philosophies on a number of issues, including preserving the environment, regulating the free market, and tackling crime and other social concerns. All of these issues come before Council in some form, so when we vote, might it not be useful to have the clarity about candidates’ values and orientation that comes from knowing their party affiliation?
Voters want this clarity, even if candidates don’t. When I talk to my neighbors, we talk about what party candidates belong to. Mountain Xpress and other local media indicate party affiliation in their voter guides. Yet we’re told that it would be a mistake to give voters that information directly on the ballot. And it’s surely an additional turnoff to the thousands of voters who are beating the odds simply by making it to the polls to deprive them of the information they rely on in almost every other election. Finally, you have to wonder whether more independents might vote if they knew they’d find at least a few candidates on the ballot with an “I” next to their names. After all, the current system prevents all candidates—not just Democrats and Republicans—from identifying themselves.
Myth # 3: Partisan elections exclude independent and third-party candidates. If this were the case, partisan elections would clearly be against the public interest. But if we went to a partisan system, independent candidates would have months to gather the roughly 2,400 signatures they need to make it onto the ballot in the general election. By comparison, this year’s independent candidates needed to receive at least that many votes by election night in order to finish fifth in the primary—and the time may come when 2,400 votes won’t be enough even for that. So which is harder—gathering signatures or collecting enough votes to make it through a competitive primary? Nobody knows. For some reason, however, we’re supposed to take it on faith that nonpartisan primaries are fairer, even though very few independent candidates have advanced to the general election since we switched to nonpartisan contests in 1994.
We’re Americans. When debates arise over how to vote, we become passionate, because such questions go to the heart of our democratic values. At the same time, however, this debate—in Asheville, in 2007—is also about policy. Which approach will bring out more voters? Which will serve voters best? Which will foster the full participation of our diverse community?
The move to nonpartisan elections was supposed to accomplish all these things, but 13 years later I don’t see that it has. So in spite of all the rhetoric—or perhaps because of it—it may be time we tried another approach.
[Asheville resident Doug Gibson serves as a Democratic precinct chair and is a volunteer organizer for Asheville Democracy for America, which has endorsed candidates in this election.]