Partisan is a dirty word in local government

In the present acrid climate of partisan politics, it is remarkable that several legislators would even propose partisan elections for North Dakota local governments.

Sponsors of the measure have had very limited hands-on experience in local government and since their rise came the political route they have concluded this is the only way to elect qualified officials. It smacks of self-aggrandizement.

The arguments offered by the sponsors in favor of partisan local elections were specious and vague. They were also vague and specious.

One sponsor argued that the voting public needed to know a candidate’s partisanship before one could determine the qualifications of the candidate. He thought that any entity that tax property ought to be partisan. Apparently, there are partisan ways to tax property.

Because most state legislatures were corrupt in the latter part of the 1800s, the Progressive movement (1890-1920) was born to clean up government by eliminating politics and politicians from the scene.

North Dakota had its brush with corruption in the 1890s when the Louisiana lottery bought state legislators to get their gambling scheme adopted. The plot was discovered by the governor and the plan was aborted.

While North Dakota kept its partisan legislature, Minnesota made its state legislature nonpartisan, which it was until 1973. However, we did adopt nonpartisanship for local government. In my last count, only three states elect their local officials on the nonpartisan ballot.

Sponsors of House Bill 1375 claim that voters would make more informed decisions on the lesser known offices. This is contrary to one of the best arguments for nonpartisanship, a system in which you vote for the person instead of the party.

It doesn’t seem fair that the proponents of partisan elections should be stuck with such anemic arguments. So in the name of justice, I feel compelled to offer them some better ones.

Some voters do need the crutch of party ID to help them make choices. Parties would recruit candidates to fill the tickets. Parties would help finance local races, thereby encouraging competition for all seats. (Right now, many county and city offices are filled without competition.)

(There may be competition in the first election when everyone would learn the party strength, after which cities and counties would become one-party electorates.)

While there are several arguing points in favor of partisan elections, they are not persuasive when measured against the benefits of the nonpartisan system.

Most importantly, nonpartisan elections avoid the recrimination that now permeates American politics. If we elected candidates on the party ballot, this recrimination would be channeled through local governments right into local communities, resulting in political hostility in every city and courthouse. Polarization would spread.

Nonpartisan elections give voters the opportunity to “vote for the man/woman” without regard to politics. Nonpartisan election opens the field for any and all persons in counties or cities interested in public service.

Partisan elections in local governments would result in more lost time since political rivalries and courthouse in-fighting would divert time that should be spent serving the public. Lost time must be financed with local tax money.

Partisan local government elections would attract a different kind of candidate, one who was more interested in using local offices as a stepping stone in his/her political careers. We would get politicians instead of public servants.

Partisanship would drive many good public servants out of government.

While many civic observers think that North Dakota is as political as most other states, that is not true. We joined the Progressive nonpartisan movement in the early 1900s. Our local officials are nonpartisan; our judges are nonpartisan,

Culturally we are so nonpartisan that we can predict that this proposal will be slain by a large margin in the Legislature.

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