Feature Editorial

Importance of Party and Nonpartisan Elections

By Mike Rawlins, County Chair.

With the May nonpartisan elections for various city councils and school boards heating up, and with Senator Sanders again announcing for President, there has been a lot of talk about who is and isn’t a real Democrat. This raises an even more basic question about why we even have political parties. I’d like to step back from day-to-day politics for just a minute and address that.

Most dictionaries agree that the basic definition of a political party is that it’s a group of people who share a set of values and policies and band together to help elect people to public office who will work for them. The key here is that parties aren’t just a bunch of activists working to change public policy. The focus is instead on electing people who will implement policies.

Party Labels Vs. Positions and Qualifications

I would be astounded if anyone had a problem with the basic idea of working together in a group for a common goal. What most people have a problem with in regard to partisan politics is defining someone first by their party label, and making arguments based solely on party labels rather than actual positions, qualifications, etc.

Every idealist among us wishes that people would actually research candidates and vote accordingly. However, that’s never been widespread. The donkey, elephant, and other symbols gained use on ballots at least as far back as the 19th century because they indicated the choices to the illiterate. Even with illiteracy being the exception now, I don’t see reliance on party labels going away in the foreseeable future. Too many people complain about even taking the time to vote now, let alone thoroughly research thirty or more races on their ballots in an even year general election. Party affiliation is a useful shorthand for a candidate’s values, priorities, and stances on various issues.

Partisan Vs. Nonpartisan Elections

Should we pay attention to party labels in partisan elections? Absolutely.

Should we pay attention to party affiliation and history in nonpartisan elections? I say yes, though they are of lesser importance because party affiliation isn’t always clear and parties generally don’t take stances on local issues. However, a history of party affiliation can provide a good guess about what a candidate’s values and priorities are. For example, I would expect a Democrat running for city council or school board to give priority providing quality public services and quality public education for all – because Democrats believe in a positive role for government and care about the public good. On the other hand, I would expect a Republican running for city council or school board to give priority to cutting taxes and privatizing government functions with lesser priority to providing quality services – this because their party hates taxes and has a general disdain for government at all levels.

Finally, if candidates are asking for support from Democratic activists, I personally tend to favor those who have a solid history of supporting the party and other Democratic candidates. It’s very basic human behavior – the group is more likely to support you if you have supported it.