Friday, June 15, 2007

Let's Get Rid of Partisan Elections?

In Macon, the only city in the state that holds partisan elections for municipal office, everyone from sitting elected officials to the Telegraph's editorial board have been rather loudly saying that this needs to change. They argue that partisanship divides us, that we are "lagging behind" and that party really has little to do with local issues. This Sunday, even Probate Court Judge Bill Self wrote an opinion piece for the Telegraph advocating that these elections, including the one for his office, become nonpartisan. (Scroll down the page.)

Hold the train. I agree with Judge Self to an extent. I believe that all judicial elections should be nonpartisan. It is, however, ironic, that some of the same people who are advocating for local nonpartisan races are supporting legislative changes that would make judges' elections partisan at the state level. That makes no sense to me. Beyond judges races, though, I disagree with Self and the others who claim Party has no place in local elections. Some say, "I can't think of a single partisan issue that is decided on a local level." What they are really saying is that hot button issues like abortion and gay rights are not decided on a local level, so to accept that premise means accepting that these are the issues that define the parties. I don't accept that at all.

There really are some basic differences in how Democrats and Republicans approach problems that impacts us on the local level. Actually, Dale Cardwell said it well. The difference is that Democrats favor the Golden Rule, and Republicans favor "survival of the fittest." That's too broad a brush stroke to be sure, but there is truth in the statement. On scores of issues from taxes to whether or not city workers are allowed to organize to how we support our public schools, public transportation and public recreation, Democrats and Republicans are likely to differ.

Plus, I hear this illogical argument: "Party doesn't matter at a local level. I must run as a Republican/Democrat in my district in order to get elected." Party apparently matters to someone-the voters, for instance. Oh, and Party matters so little that currently in Georgia, the Republicans who are in charge of such decisions require that even in "nonpartisan races" (like the special election in the Georgia 10th), candidates must claim a party and that identification appears on the ballot. This practice does not render the race "nonpartisan," it just ties the hands of voters, preventing them from choosing one candidate from their Party to participate in a general election.

Perhaps what the Parties should hear in all this is also reflected in the polling trends that show voters increasingly identifying as neither Democrats or Republicans. What we need to learn is that 1) voters don't trust partisans much; 2) they don't think they are effective or have their interest at heart; and 3) they will increasingly vote "for the candidate not the Party." If we want to make the Party relevant, then we have work to do.


Button Gwinnett said...

All judicial races should be nonpartisan. I believe a solid majority of people would agree with that. In the case of Probate Judges, many of them in Georgia are also election superintendents. That makes it especially important to declare that office nonpartisan.

There was a big push to do this from around 1996 through 2002. Unfortunately, Mark Taylor and Nadine Thomas didn't want this to happen. They ignored the trend of more and more probate judges and election supes going Republican. Like with the other local offices, the Republicans are collecting even more money in qualifying fees for these offices because so many of the candidates are now qualifying as Republicans.

A compromise was eventually reached to allow each county to decide the issue by local legislation. Those that are now nonpartisan generally say that the lack of partisanship in their office has created less suspicion, and a relief of a burden when dealing with their election boards and local parties.

Open+Transparent said...

There should NOT be partisan elections for offices such as Clerk of Court, Sheriff, school board, etc. Yes, partisan elections for mayor & council make sense. But for the others, it's about competency, experience, etc. Your political party makes no matter in the operations of a sheriff, clerk of court, etc.

We need less partisan politics, and a whole lot more competency.

And ya know what, if there are partisan elections, and a office holder gets in trouble for corruption, etc., than that political party should be held accountable. How many sheriffs in this state have been indicted for something? Can't have it both ways.

Amy Morton said...

Button, we have the opposite impact here in Bibb where the majority of those who qualify in these races are Democrats. In the qualifying for recent city races, the Bibb Democratic Party netted about $11,000.00. My question about your last statement re "less suspicion and a relief of burden.." is how is this more of an issue in local than state and federal races?

And, Track, I agree about judges, am conflicted about Sheriffs and Clerks of Court and disagree about School Board. School Board members levy both property and sales taxes, plus education is one place there is a serious divide in philosophy between Democrats and Republicans, as we saw in the last session.

Another thought, you can make the race nonpartisan, but can you really make a partisan candidate nonpartisan? For example in the Hunstien/Wiggins race last year, the race was not partisan, but Wiggins was clearly a Republican.

Anyway, I think that this is an interesting discussion, one that is alive and well in my community.

Button Gwinnett said...

Amy, I think your example of the Hunstein/Wiggins race is a good one to show the differences between a state race and a local one. You're absolutely right when you say that you can't take the partisan out of someone like Wiggins even though it's a nonpartisan race. That's true because that kind of judicial post will have to deal with partisan issues like the death penalty.

But compare that to an office like Probate Judge. Right off the bat, I can't think of any partisan issues that office faces with the exception of when the probate judge is also an election sup.

Election supes who must (well, they could run as an independent) run as either a Republican or Democrat can face a lot of challenges even beyond winning the election from the opposing party.

It's much different now than it was even 15 years ago. We live in an age of suspicion. It starts with the presidential race and trickles right on down to local races.

The aftermath of the 2000 general election was unreal. It didn't matter that Florida was where the focus of national attention was. Georgia's own record was even worse and we knew it. So some partisan candidates that lost an election or some voters whose partisan choice lost a close one began applying what they were seeing in Florida to their individual counties at home.

Now, I'm not saying that closer attention by candidates, voters, and the media is a bad thing. But some take it too far. And when the election sup. is a Dem. or a Rep. she/he is going to catch a lot more heat than the average nonpartisan election sup. Some end up spending weeks at a time defending themselves and their low paid personnel from token complaints filed by the chairperson of the opposite party. The overwhelming majority of which end up proven to be baseless.

Probate Judges who also serve as election supes are paid around $3000.00 a year to hold elections. Frankly, that's hardly worth putting up with what you have to put up with these days. Which is one reason why so many probate judges are either leaving the job or voluntarily giving up elections in favor of a full time nonpartisan board. But I don't personally mind that because I think that's how it should be anyway.

RJ said...

There's one thing being left out of this conversation. And it's very important that we factor this in.......

Non-partisan elections are held during primary voting. So, if you want the few voters who show up at a primary, in the middle of summer, to determine the outcome of an important local race, put it on the non-partisan election ballot.

Personally, I think the idea sucks for this reason alone. I think elections are too important, on all levels, to be left to a few partisan hacks. And those are the only voters who show up in the middle of summer to cast a ballot.