Local government elections should be nonpartisan

cross-posted at dKos

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Bill James' outrageous suggestion that gays are "sexual predators" exposes a much larger problem with the political culture in North Carolina. Specifically, the fact that county-level posts in this state--and a good number of other states--are elected on a partisan basis.

My home of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County is headed by a nine-member county commission. Six members are elected from districts. However, the districts are so outrageously gerrymandered that the district's minority party has next to no chance of winning. While this may seem to be yet another consequence of elected officials drawing districts for themselves, you really have to wonder--why are local government elections even partisan at all? After all, counties deal mostly with quality-of-life issues, most of which should never be partisan. To my mind, it's not enough to take redistricting out of the hands of county commissions. To get the politics out of local government as much as possible, county elections must be decided on a nonpartisan basis.

One major benefit of this would be to force civility on our local-level electeds. James, for instance, represents the most ridiculously Republican portion of the county. To my knowledge, he hasn't faced a Democratic opponent at all since his first run in 1994. Is it any wonder he can put out emails suggesting that one of gays' favorite pastimes is "feltching"? It's a pretty safe bet he wouldn't send out such garbage if he had to run entirely on his record, and not just have to rely on people voting for him just because he has an "R" next to his name.

You might be wondering, "Why not just have the districts drawn by a nonpartisan commission?" Well, I offer you as an example our school board. Back in 1996, after it emerged that the majority of the board lived in the eastern part of the county, it was decided to have six of the members elected from the same districts as the county commissioners. The result? Even though the school board is officially nonpartisan, the board has been infected with partisanship in an area where it DEFINITELY doesn't belong. Solve one problem, create another--the last 14 years have seen near-constant bickering, to the detriment of Charlotte's kids.

Until we get the partisanship and politics out of local government, in all likelihood we'll keep getting more idiotic statements like the ones made by James--and not just from Repubs either.


I often enjoy your diaries at Daily Kos

I often admire your diaries at Daily Kos and am very happy to see your cross-posts here. Thanks.

Interesting note: Having been on a non-partisan town council (Chapel Hill) for two years, I can say that the added layer of partisanship wouldn't have made much difference here. A Republican couldn't get elected. Our town generally values excellence in government, which is antithetical to the Republican view.

Having the additional layer of partisan bickering on top of all the other divisions a community has ... what on earth would be the point of that.

This is why the intervention of Mr. Pope's machine in Wake County is so worrisome. It subverts community standards in favor of what passes for acceptable at Roses Stores.

And not only that

in many parts of this state, every policy-making post from city/town/village council all the way up to Congress is effectively decided in the Democratic or Republican primary. Not a good idea at all if you have any interest in good government or fighting corruption.

Nothing makes a Democrat or

Nothing makes a Democrat or Republican look more like a member of the opposite party than serving on a town or county board of commissioners. That's where it hits the fan.

I'm a moderate Democrat.

On the other hand...

Even "non-partisan" races for the bench, local school boards, and town boards have turned partisan in recent years, in reality if not in name.

Here in Haywood County, the local "tea party" crowd was handing out their "voter guide" which included their endorsements for district court judge seats. I'm not sure what interest the tea party crowd has in what district court judges do, and I'm not sure what criteria the tea party crowd used to make their endorsements.


The measure of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little. - FDR

Alternative view

I'll defend the party nomination and campaign process.

First, nothing--literally, nothing--can take "politics" out of the election process. Politics is the process of running and winning elections. Informed, honest politicking involves explaining who you are, why you want to serve in office x, and asking people to vote for you.

Parties were not part of the original vision of the founders for our system of government. That's because they were essentially all members of the social, political, and financial elite of their time. More enlightened in some ways than most of their peers, but still operating on the base assumption that everyone running for public office in their Republic would be members of the same elite class, known to each other (and to that limited part of the public allowed to vote) by their reputation in their limited communities. Campaigning was considered crass. Organizing into parties of like-minded patriots for the purposes of influencing elections? Perish the crude and common thought.

Parties evolved quickly to serve that natural function, however, and within a half-century had become a prime means for giving voice to those not in the social elite. WHEN THEY'RE USED EFFECTIVELY, they can still serve that purpose today.

Non-partisan elections work well only in communities and districts so small that the old ideal of everybody-knows-you-anyway is a practical alternative. Otherwise, they act primarily to deprive the average voter of important information about the basic philosophy and alliances of the candidate.

For a practical comparison in North Carolina, take a look at the local city elections of 2009 in Winston-Salem and Greensboro. Winston-Salem has partisan elections, Greensboro non-partisan. The campaigns were competitive in both cities that year, but in Winston-Salem (generally a more conservative community) mostly Democrats won, while in Greensboro it was mostly Republicans.

Forward to last year and the school board races in Forsyth County (includes Winston-Salem). For the first time, the elections for school board in Forsyth were non-partisan. There was an intensely competitive campaign. But every single incumbent won--the same people who had been elected four years before in partisan races. That's because the district lines did not change. The same demographics shaped the results, and most of the voters were informed (at substantial cost) how the candidates were registered. Who did most poorly? Candidates who were not registered as members of a party.

Fools like Bill James can and do get elected under either system, unfortunately. Districts can be and are gerrymandered or drawn fairly under either system. Removing the partisan label from an election doesn't change either factor.

Dan Besse