Election Myths #1 – Non-partisan Politics

Commentary on the annual Gainesville Cty Commission elections wouldn’t be complete without the woeful lament, “City elections are non-partisan. That means political parties should stay out of them. The candidates should stand for what’s best for the community, not what  their political party believes.  And the media shouldn’t be devoting so much attention to telling us about the candidates’ party affiliations; people should vote for the best person, not simply vote a straight party ticket.  Besides, I’ve never seen a Republican or Democratic pothole.”

Well, isn’t that sweet!

Trouble is, that sentiment is woefully uninformed and naive.

First, it’s uninformed because non-partisan elections have a history.  They’re a product of the Reform Movement of the early 1900’s.  Their raison d’etre was to give all the voters in a jurisdiction, usually cities, the opportunity to vote on their local officials. The definition of a non-partisan election is that all voters get to vote in the election, without regard to the political pary in which they’re registered, and candidates on the ballot are not identified as to their political party. That’s it.  That’s all “non-partisan election” means.

Secondly, the notion that it’s possible to take partisanship out of politics is exceedingly naive.  You might as well imagine that it’s possible to take politics itself out of politics.  Non-partisan politicians are about as rare as unicorns.

Yes, it’s possible for a candidate not to have a strong preference for either major party’s positions on major issues, or to agree with one party on some issues and the other party on other issues.  That could even be an advantage in a small town, where voters know personally the candidates who are running.  But in a locale where a successful campaign requires more than handshakes, such a candidate isn’t going to fire up the necessary groundswell of supporters and fundraising.  Experienced campaign workers come from a background of involvement in numerous issues. They’re not going to get excited over someone they view as wishy-washy.

In addition, political parties care deeply about who wins a non-partisan election.  Even if the winner isn’t a party activist, winning still enhances the prestige of, and thus strengthens, the party they belong to.  More importantly, that non-partisan office is frequently the stepping stone to a higher elected office, one which will be decided in a partisan election and is very much a partisan affair.

Finally, party affiliation matters because Tip O’Neill has apparently turned over in his grave.  His axiom, “All politics is local,” has been stood on its head!  Today, even candidates for local offices are grilled on their positions on a wide range of national issues — taxes, abortion, gay rights, Obamacare, gun control, and on and on — before their positions on truly local concerns are considered, for the very reason that this may be the launching pad for their political career.

Since Tip O’Neill retired from politics, the two major parties have seen their ranks polarized and purified to the point that today all politics is national. (Do you trust someone who doesn’t agree with you on the big issues to decide the small issues? Probably not.)

Today, more than any time since the Hoover administration, party affiliation is the single best predictor of the political philosophy someone is going to apply once elected.  Anyone who’s unaware of that hasn’t been paying attention; they’re apt to fall into one of those non-partisan potholes.

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