Nonpartisan Elections a Bad Idea for Franklin County
When it comes to elections, everyone wants the same thing: high voter turn-out and a well-informed electorate. Unfortunately, those two goals often work against each other. Voters search for shorthand cues — such as political party identification, incumbency, gender, and ethnicity — that might indicate which choice would best fit their own political inclinations and voting preferences. The charter proposal currently before Franklin County voters would designate the newly created offices of county council and county executive as nonpartisan positions, meaning that candidates would not run as Democrats or Republicans. Party affiliation is an efficient mechanism by which candidates reveal information about themselves to voters. Party labels aid typical voters in deciding which candidate better fits their preferences. Although the proposed charter includes many positive aspects, civic leaders need to ensure that voters can still make use of shorthand cues to increase their ability to cast informed votes, rather than taking those cues away.
Historically, supporters of nonpartisan elections touted them as a means of fighting corruption by urban political machines — a situation that does not apply to Franklin County. The next common argument is that local issues do not fall along partisan lines, as is the case in Jefferson City or Washington, D.C., so partisan elections would be irrelevant. While that may be generally true for smaller towns and suburbs, it is not always the case for counties — particularly larger ones, like Franklin. Counties are not cities, and should not be governed as such. Counties contain competing interests, and must deal with issues, such as zoning and taxation levels, that sometimes fall along traditional partisan lines. In those cases, party identification can guide voters to make a more informed choice.
The Kansas City City Council is the most prominent nonpartisan elected body in Missouri, yet the substantial majority of its members are quite partisan by any practical definition. Almost half of them have previously served as state representatives, and many of the others are currently active in partisan organizations. A former Kansas City mayor just ran for Congress in a partisan race. Nonpartisan elections have not taken party activism out of Kansas City politics.
A final common argument in favor of nonpartisan elections is not so much an argument as it is a hope. Some seem to believe that eliminating party identification will lead voters to make more informed decisions because they no longer have a partisan shortcut. This is wishful thinking at best, because there is no evidence to suggest that this happens. There might be an extremely small number of people for whom the lack of a party label acts as an incentive for them to research their decisions more carefully, but the vast majority of voters will simply look for other cues to decide their votes — particularly incumbency, but also gender, family name, and party recommendations.
This last item — party recommendations — is key. The most informed voters are also, almost always, the most political voters. It is only common sense that these two qualities coincide. Even without partisan elections for Franklin County’s new offices, factions will still develop — and the existing party structure will still support one faction over another. For instance, from 1913 to 1973, Minnesota’s legislative elections were nonpartisan. During that period, the legislature quickly developed conservative and liberal caucuses, political parties still endorsed particular candidates, and researchers at MIT and Princeton found, “A large segment of the electorate consistently voted for one party across offices even in the absence of party labels.”
In “Teams Without Uniforms: The Nonpartisan Ballot in State and Local Elections,” a study for Political Research Quarterly, three political scientists concluded that nonpartisan elections led to decreased voter turnout and increased the advantages of incumbency. They also failed to find evidence that nonpartisan elections lead to a more informed electorate, stating, “there is little reason to believe that nonpartisanship promotes an effective policy linkage between citizens and their elected leaders.”
The decision to mandate nonpartisan elections as part of Franklin County’s charter proposal is troubling. Voters there deserve the same candidate information they receive for other elections. Nonpartisan elections in an area as large as Franklin County will not lead voters to cast more informed ballots for county races — particularly when it comes to the county executive. Despite the many worthwhile parts of the proposed county charter, nonpartisan elections will not lead to better government in Franklin County.
David Stokes is a policy analyst for the Show-Me Institute, a Missouri-based think tank.