It’s time to give partisan elections a try

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.]

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About Doug Gibson
I live in West Asheville. I do a lot of reading. Follow me on Twitter: @dougibson

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9 thoughts on “It’s time to give partisan elections a try

  1. Doug Gibson

    Just one more thing that I couldn’t fit in the article: Asheville Democracy for America has no position on the referendum. In fact, when we polled our members they were two-to-one against partisan elections.

  2. I’m against partisan elections. You know why? Because I’m smart enough to read about the candidates and not just blindly vote for someone because of a “D” or an “R” by their name.

  3. no… it’s not time, the time for partisan elections is past. … time to move it to county commissioners, sheriff, all the other races on at least local and regional levels.

  4. Doug Gibson

    I disagree. What we’ve seen over the past couple of decades is an increasing alignment of the two parties along ideological, rather than regional, lines. We’ve also seen the widespread demise of the “machines” that were such a corrupting influence on the process before. (And in their place we have put a system that turns off voters and boosts the power of money and name recognition.)

    Without a dominant party and a corrupt machine, party affiliation becomes a useful shorthand for a candidate’s values even in local elections – especially when a partisan primary allows the parties to decide who will represent them on the ballot.

    Finally, widening the scope of non-partisan elections would be a mistake. It’s already creating confusion in our state judicial races, and the two parties are involving themselves heavily to guide their voters. With a larger electorate that has even less opportunity to get to know candidates, it’s good to have the parties acting as some sort of mediator.

    Also, though, our ballot access system ensures that candidates from both major parties will appear on the ballot in all partisan elections. Regional non-partisan elections may limit choice by preventing candidates from a regional minority party to run in the general election.

  5. Appaholic

    Doug, I agree with your analysis but disagree with the conclusion. IMO, partisan elections will limit our choice of candidates while making it easier for people who don’t care enough to study issues in order to make an informed vote beyond party affiliation. Personally, I would rather the uninformed not vote…..if they don’t care enough to study the issues, I would rather they disassociate themselves from the process. I want a system that enables people who really care about issues to participate by running for office, not a system that enables the uninterested and unmotivated voter to participate along strict party lines.

  6. travelah

    Well, Mr Gibson,
    The solution is so simple I fail to see why you would in good conscience avoid it. Pay attention to Mr. Kellers suggestion: lobby to allow the placing of a D after your candidate’s name and the issue of partisan identification evaporates. It doesn’t keep other candidates off the list, that being your primary interest, but it does allow voters to recognize your candidate as a Democrat.

  7. Billr

    Doug I have to agree with you.

    What most people do not think about is that the local elections is the starting place for many of your state and national politicians.

    With such a stark difference in the philosophies of the two major parties, we each need to start thinking past local when we vote for anyone for an elected position.

    The Republican party realized this some three decades or so ago and started on a long term plan of filling every local position that they could in every election with a Republican candidate. That is how they managed to rebuild the party after the damage that the Nixon years caused.

    The Democrats do not seem to have seen the importance of building a strong democratic party of office holders at the local level and it has hurt them at the national level, especially here in the southern states.

    With such differences in political goals between the two major parties now it really is not the best thing in the long run to just go vote for old Joe Green down the street because he is a neighbor and has always seem like a great guy.

    If that same Joe green winds up going to Washington in the future to serve as a Representative or Senator the chances are that he will gradually start voting more and more the party line of what ever party he belongs to. If that happens to be the party that is opposed to to your own philosophies then you have in effect helped to send someone up there who will vote against your own interest.

    Good ole boys become much more loyal to their national party once they become a part of the establishment in DC.

    Something we should all think about when we go push that button even in our local elections.

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