This post is contributed by LWVJ member Pat Watt.

Our Assembly and School Board members are elected on a nonpartisan basis. Why is that – and does it matter?

State statutes require Alaska’s local governments to adopt rules for conducting local elections – but allow them plenty of flexibility about how they conduct those elections. Juneau’s Municipal Charter, adopted in 1970, provides that all local elections shall be non-partisan. Most municipalities in the state have chosen the same method.

An estimated two thirds of municipalities across the country have chosen to use nonpartisan elections for local offices. In 2010, California voters passed Proposition 14, which requires nonpartisan elections not only for local but also for state and federal offices. Louisiana and Nebraska similarly use nonpartisan elections for their state legislatures.

Recent surveys have shown that voters currently tend to hold local elected officials in higher regard than those at state or federal level. Some academics ascribe the difference, in part, to the fact that so many local elections are nonpartisan.

So what’s the difference between partisan and non-partisan elections? And are there advantages to having nonpartisan local elections?

The immediate differences for voters are:

  • In nonpartisan elections, no party affiliation is listed beside candidate names on the ballot;
  • In partisan elections, names on the ballot give party affiliation;
  • In partisan elections, only names of those candidates picked in each party’s selection process are on the ballot.

A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that partisanship tends to go hand in hand with political animosity. “While the current partisan environment does not for the most part appear to be turning neighbor against neighbor, it may be making for some difficult conversations about politics.”  In partisan elections, discussions about public policies and how to solve community problems may not only be more difficult but may get lost in the crossfire of personal exchanges or character attacks. And the acrimony from such campaign rhetoric then impedes the ability to find common ground once candidates are elected.

Some advantages of a nonpartisan election have been identified as:

  • Politicians who have been elected without party labels or support find it easier to cooperate and/or compromise to find solutions to community problems.
  • It is easier for independent and unaffiliated candidates to get on the ballot in nonpartisan elections and they may have a better chance of getting elected.
  • Candidates are more free to state their true beliefs, rather than being pressured to stick to a party line.
  • Those holding more extreme views, appealing only to a narrow portion of the electorate, are less likely to make their way on to the ballot.
  • Nonpartisan elections avoid the animosity that often leaks into partisan campaigns, especially in the current environment.
  • It eliminates blind, straight-ticket voting where uninformed voters simply vote their party preference regardless of the merits of the individual candidates.

Some advantages to a partisan elections have been identified as:

  • Political parties can help less financially able candidates by providing resources and volunteers to compete against wealthier candidates.
  • Voters may be less likely to bother to vote if they are required to learn about the background of candidates and their platforms.
  • In the absence of a party ballot, uninformed voters may turn to whatever cue is available, including simple name recognition or even the nature of a candidate’s name.
  • Voting on a party basis can be easier and more convenient for voters who can simply adhere to a broad, philosophical agenda and support their party’s candidates.

Democracy is a fragile plant.  Its citizens are best served with an electoral system that promotes civility in the public arena and focuses discussion on how to resolve community problems, allowing differing ideas to be considered and explored with respect.

The League of Women Voters (LWV) promotes open governmental systems that are representative, accountable and responsive and facilitates citizen participation in government decision-making. It has taken no stance on the virtues or failings of nonpartisan elections compared to those held on a partisan basis.