Archived Opinion

Partisan local elections have different outcomes

Partisan local elections have different outcomes

As Cory Valliancourt report s in The Smoky Mountain News, North Carolina House members Rep. Mark Pless , R-Haywood, and Rep. Mike Clampitt , R-Swain, have proposed a bill ( HB998 ) to move municipal and school board elections in Haywood County to partisan contests where each candidate’s party affiliation is listed on the ballot next to their name. HB998 is a local bill  which means that the barriers to becoming law are lower. If the legislature passes the bill, it will become law without making a stopover on the governor’s desk.  

This proposed change in Haywood County is part of a growing trend in North Carolina to shift local elections from nonpartisan to partisan affairs. This trend is most pronounced in Republican counties and has occurred with particular frequency as it relates to school boards. In fact, one of the co-sponsors of the Haywood County bill, Clampitt, co-sponsored  a bill (HB3) last fall to move the Craven County school board from nonpartisan to partisan elections. It passed on a party line vote. 

Nonpartisan elections are the standard for local elections in North Carolina and in most other states. North Carolina statute indicates that school boards should be nonpartisan , although 25 school boards have abandoned  the nonpartisan structure for partisan school board elections in the last decade. An International City and County Management Association survey  reveals that nationally about 70% of municipal elections are nonpartisan. A 2014 study found  that 98% of North Carolina municipalities were non-partisan. 

Some longtime Western North Carolina residents may remember that Asheville moved in the opposite direction, changing from partisan to nonpartisan elections in 1994. Although the Asheville change was proposed and passed at the local, rather than the state level, the debate was almost a carbon copy of the one proposed in Haywood County today. Proponents of the nonpartisan system, like then Vice Mayor Chris Peterson, argued that local politics are not partisan politics and that partisan elections had led to “concentration of power by a select few.”
Those in favor of partisan elections argued that the partisan label helps voters know where the candidates stand. 

By relying on the case of Asheville and other cities that have switched to or from partisan elections, political scientists have come to some conclusions that can help frame the debate over the effects of partisan versus nonpartisan elections. 

Elections are complicated and the ballot is long. One argument for partisan elections is that they give voters a shortcut that they can use to vote even if they don’t know much about the candidates. Turns out that the presence of the partisan shortcut  reduces the number of people who skip local elections on the ballot (what political scientists refer to as ballot roll-off), resulting in higher voter turnout in partisan elections. 

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In the absence of partisan cues, voters rely on  any cue they can get — familiar names, ballot order, anything that makes one candidate stand out from the field. As a result, female candidates tend to perform better in non-partisan elections, as do candidates at the top of the candidate list. Incumbents are also more likely to be re-elected in non-partisan environments, partially because of their higher name-recognition. All of this combines to create a slight advantage for the minority party  in non-partisan elections. One argument in favor of non-partisan elections is that they can blunt the effects of partisanship in local policymaking. This hope isn’t borne out by the data.  Municipal policy-making largely follows  the policy preferences of the citizens in the municipality. Whether the city elects their councilors through partisan or non-partisan means doesn’t seem to make a dime’s worth of difference in policy outcomes. 

Putting all of this evidence together doesn’t lead to the conclusion that one method of election is inherently and consistently superior to the other. Proponents of partisan elections can correctly point to the increased voter turnout and clear indication of a candidate’s policy preferences that partisan elections provide. Proponents of non-partisan elections are on solid ground when they argue that removing the partisan cue allows for voters to consider factors other than just partisanship. 

For policymakers and voters in Haywood County, then, the question isn’t “are nonpartisan or partisan elections better,” but rather “what outcomes do they want to achieve?”

(Christopher A. Cooper is Madison Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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1 comment

  • Professor Cooper: I appreciate your balanced assessment of the issue of school board partisanship. Nevertheless, I question the veracity of your statement that "proponents of partisan elections can "correctly" point to .... clear indication of a candidate's policy preferences that partisan elections provide." The reason I do so is because of the information that Cory Vaillancourt presented in his article of May 22 that,

    "(School board director Chuck) Francis changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican last summer, not long after he was reelected to a four-year term in 2020.

    Fellow board members Steven Kirkpatrick, Larry Henson, Jimmy Rogers and Bobby Rogers have also switched party affiliations from Democrat to Republican since the last time they ran for election in 2018, turning a 6-3 Democratic board into a 6-3 Republican board without so much as a ballot box to stand in their way. "

    The changes by four school board members after the last election makes it more difficult to ascertain the policy preferences, in my view. I also question the reason these changes were made after an election rather than before. The issue appears quite complicated.

    posted by Teri D

    Wednesday, 05/25/2022

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