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Charter Debate on Nonpartisan Elections

Below you will find a copy-paste of what I sent to my fellow members on the Charter Review Commission for their consideration as we ponder whether or not to amend the city’s charter so as to adopt nonpartisan elections. I’m quite sure that there are far more great articles – and maybe even scholarly sources – that I could have used, but the limited time with which I have to compile this information forced me to find and forward the best of what a google search had to offer.

At the very least, the people of Newark deserve a chance to vote on this. If they reject nonpartisan elections, then that’s fine for the time being. However, to deprive the people of that chance to contemplate what may be a better way – which is employed by our neighbor to the south, Heath – is a serious injustice to them. Let the people have a chance to say “yes” or “no”.

1) Source:

From the link, some excerpts:

In more than 80 percent of the nation’s largest cities, mayors are elected through nonpartisan elections — elections in which the candidates do not run on the Democratic or Republican or any other established party line, but as individuals.

…The opportunity for citizens to choose freely and fairly those who represent them is at the core of democracy. Steps toward promoting democracy include encouraging greater participation of voters and a wider range of candidates, increasing the electorate’s knowledge of candidates and issues, and providing resources for those who seek public office. Nonpartisan elections may better complement and support these goals than the current partisan system.

…• Voting in local elections is declining. The number of non-enrolled voters is growing rapidly, particularly among youth and recent immigrants.

• The ballot petition procedures candidates must follow are famously burdensome and knocking opponents off the ballot absurdly common

• Party bosses still seek to stifle competition and exact patronage

• Perhaps most significantly, many candidates win their party primary with fewer than a third of the votes, with general elections serving as confirmations rather than contests. What should be a fierce competition is instead a fait accompli

…The system is indeed broken. The city’s independent voters, ever-growing in number, are effectively disenfranchised, since the party primary decides all but a few elections.

…Voter turnout: Some have asserted that nonpartisan elections lead to reduced voter turnout. The research here is scanty, and often fails to compare turnouts in large cities. A further contradiction in opponents’ arguments concerns the assertion that in the absence of party labels voters will not have a cue as to a candidate’s views. Yet in the Democratic primary, where most elections are decided, voters differentiate among candidates without any party label to assist them. They do this by using information gleaned from the Voter Guide, the community newspapers, and the abundance of campaign literature that the campaign finance program funds. […T]his argument lacks salience and is demeaning to voters.

2) Source:

From the link, some excerpts:

[Arnold Schwarzenegger] made his first foray into government in 2003 when he ran for governor of California following the recall of Gray Davis.

In a nonpartisan election, Schwarzenegger was chosen on 48.6 percent of the ballots and won by 1.3 million votes. The key was that it was a nonpartisan election.

Schwarzenegger is a registered Republican who describes himself as fiscally conservative and socially moderate — traits that don’t scream “victory” in a Democratic state like California. Had it not been a recall election, Schwarzenegger first would have had to run in a partisan primary to win his party’s ticket to the general election. And, despite his popularity, it’s unlikely Schwarzenegger would have won over hard-line Republicans with his moderate stance.

…The advantages to a nonpartisan election are many:

• It helps eliminate the extreme candidates from the process. Those types of politicians thrive in a partisan primary, where they appeal to the diehard voters of their party and ascend to the general election. In Arizona, where there are heavy Republican and Democratic districts within the state, that may mean two candidates from the same party advance to the general election ... but that can be a good thing.

For example, a Republican legislator from Mesa or Gilbert is almost a shoo-in to win in the general election. If two Republicans emerge from a nonpartisan primary, at least that gives Democrats a voice in choosing the more moderate option between the two. Conversely, in Tempe or Tucson, which are more liberal in nature, two Democrats may advance from a nonpartisan primary. Republican voters can then vote for the more conservative of the two. The end result is a more moderate political body that is more likely to work together for the common good.

• Independents and third-party candidates have a better chance of beating traditional candidates in nonpartisan primary elections. And, even if a Green Party or Libertarian candidate does not advance to the general election, those voters can then have a voice in determining who among the finalists will win.

• Candidates are more free in a nonpartisan primary to state their true beliefs, rather than pandering to their party and framing their stance on issues to appeal to the more extreme voters who tend to turn out for partisan primaries. In partisan elections, candidates sometimes have one set of beliefs for the primary, then tweak them for the more moderate voters in a general election. So, what exactly do they stand for again? Oh yeah, they stand for doing what it takes to win an election.

• Nonpartisan elections reduce the gamesmanship that goes on in party politics. For the next two years in Washington, politicians will be more concerned about making the other party look bad heading into the 2012 election than they will be about finding compromise and doing something that actually benefits the country.

• It would also reduce the influence of political parties where currying favors (and paying back those favors in some way) to the higher-ups and lobbyists within the party are commonplace. In this scenario, what’s best for the public interest can easily fall victim to what’s best for the party and its contributors.

• It eliminates blind, straight-ticket voting where uninformed voters simply bow to their party ideals regardless of the merits of the individual candidates.

• But, more than anything, this is an alternative to the current system, which is broken. People are fed up with the partisanship of our elected leaders. How refreshing would it be if politicians were beholden to their constituents and not the party that got them elected?

3) Source:

From the article, an excerpt:

The idea behind the top-two system is that in thousands of congressional and state legislative races across the country, partisan gerrymandering has made the traditional general election between a Republican and a Democrat non-competitive. In many races, incumbents run unopposed, and if they aren’t, the only competitive elections are the party primaries, which in most states are closed to independent voters. Some states have primaries in which independents can vote (in one party or the other), but the Supreme Court has ruled that the government can’t force a political party to open up its primary, so advocates instead are pushing for the creation of nonpartisan elections outside of party control. This would allow millions more people who aren’t registered as Republicans or Democrats to participate at the earliest stages of the election, which Opdycke argues is often the most important part of the process. Primaries, he said, “don’t just determine party nominees. They determine the shape and the tenor and tone of the campaign, the issues that are on the table, the coalitions that are on the table.”

4) Source:

From the article, an excerpt:

Here is one way it could work. Every candidate for a city office would compete on the same September ballot. Their names would appear without party affiliation. Based on other cities' experiences, candidates' party and policy leanings generally come out during the campaign. The two top finishers would move on to a November runoff.

A nonpartisan election offers numerous advantages over the present system.

First, it enfranchises everyone. In terms of percentage, Democrats are not the fastest-growing voting group in Baltimore. Since 2005, Democratic voter registration in the city has increased by 14 percent, while "unaffiliated" increased by 28 percent. But these citizens presently have to re-register as Democrats if they want to vote in the pivotal primary election, or run for office and have any chance of winning. Nonpartisan voting would give them a full voice in the process.

Second, it brings majority rule to city elections. Presently, candidates can effectively win office simply by achieving a plurality in the Democratic primary. Under the new system, city candidates would have to win a majority in a fall election that actually matters — just as many of their state and federal counterparts must do.

Third, it gives city residents the opportunity to have a chance to vote for viable alternatives to the status quo.

5) Source:

The above source contains an audio clip. A great interview about how nonpartisan elections for the state legislature have changed the culture of politics at least for the affected body of Nebraska’s government.

6) Source:

From the article, a few excerpts:

These low-turnout party primaries not only encourage partisanship (a “run to the right or left” effect), but they are paid for with public taxpayer dollars.

IVN estimates suggest that over $400 million was spent by taxpayers in 2012 to fund primary elections alone; tax dollars that come from voters who the parties actively prevent from participating in the process. In closed and semi-closed primary states, only voters who affiliate with a particular political party can vote in the primary.

…This requirement stands in direct contrast with the freedom not to associate as guaranteed by the First Amendment. Political participation cannot be predicated on one’s membership to a private political party.

…[an example which can be extrapolated to address council ward redistricting] The phenomenon of gerrymandering, for example, is largely a consequence of bipartisanship. One party carves out a favorable district to secure safe elections for years on end and the other does the same. Party bosses can guarantee outcomes in uncompetitive districts where the party favorite has no real challenger.

Due in large part to gerrymandering, only approximately 35 of 435 congressional elections are competitive in any given election year. That means in more than 90% of these elections, the winner is actually decided during the primary, before the majority of voters participate.

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