To my mind, the choice between partisan and nonpartisan Asheville City Council elections is a dilemma, because neither choice is good enough. Let me explain.
Partisan elections put unaffiliated candidates at a serious disadvantage. In order to run, they must petition to file, and to file they must collect 2,357 valid signatures. If they obtain about the same percentage of valid signatures on their sheets as we did for the Let Asheville Vote campaign, they’ll need to turn in about 2,900 signatures. I’ll not say that’s impossible, but as a recent signature-gatherer, I will say that it’s a full-time job for a sizable number of supporters. Let Asheville Vote succeeded partly because there were close to 100 people working the streets, following a media blitz the likes of which this town hadn’t seen in years. Consciousness had been raised, and the campaign’s signature-gatherers took advantage of that awareness. Individual candidates would lack that advantage.
The good news about nonpartisan elections is that it keeps the ground level at the front door of City Hall: Any city resident can run for City Council merely by paying a $75 filing fee. But if we vote “no” and City Council elections continue to be nonpartisan, the candidates’ party affiliations won’t appear on the ballot. And according to the Council members who initially approved the switch to partisan elections (all of whom are Democrats), voters are forever asking about candidates’ party affiliations.
Personally, I am a partisan, and I make no bones about it. I am proud to be a partisan. Truth to tell, a lot of voters do rely on party affiliation to guide their choices, spending too little time investigating the candidates’ stands on the issues of the day.
Still, I believe that we partisans are supposed to look out for the interests of all city residents—including our unaffiliated friends and those belonging to the other major party. (As an aside, a partisan who doesn’t have friends in the other major party has a major problem, in my opinion.)
So what shall we do? I recommend a two-step approach. First, let’s vote “no” on the partisan-election referendum in November, retain our level playing field, and spend some time between now and Nov. 6 giving the voters their crutch, if you will—helping educate them about the candidates’ party affiliations, whether by means of letters to the editor, print ads, radio or television. Second, let’s petition our legislators to make one small but significant change in North Carolina’s voting law allowing each candidate to append a single letter of the alphabet to their name, whether it’s a “D” or “R” or “U” or “G” or “L” or whatever. That one-sentence modification of the law would give voters the clue that some desire.
In the long run, I recommend that we adopt the same criterion for electing judges in North Carolina. Too much time and money are spent helping voters figure out which party judicial candidates belong to.
The major political parties will always help support their own candidates; that’s why they exist. To suggest that they should abstain from doing their job is to take way their First Amendment rights. But more and more, Buncombe County residents do not want a D or an R appended to their voter registration, and we must allow them not only to vote, but also to run for office on a playing field that’s kept as level as possible.
[Asheville resident George Keller is the secretary of the Buncombe County Republican Party.]