In a discussion this past week about Wichita’s recent mayoral election, a state legislator commented that Wichita’s municipal elections are supposed to be non-partisan. Indeed, they are. Candidates for municipal offices in Wichita, and in many other cities across the country, do not run under a party label.
Despite this, there is the question of whether or not non-partisan elections really are non-partisan.
Marvin “Mike” Harder, a late political scientist at the University of Wichita, published a case study, titled “A Nonpartisan Election: A Political Illusion,” that challenged the concept of a non-partisan election. In such an election, slate-making can still occur, and candidates often receive campaign support from party activists and organizations.
So how did non-partisan elections come about? In the early 20th century, progressives pushed for non-partisan elections because of the lack of political competition at the time. But substantial literature shows non-partisan elections have resulted in less competition, not more.
Voter turnout is far lower than in partisan elections, too. One reason is that candidates in elections without party labels do not engage in any substantive policy competition. Such elections tend to produce elected officials who are more representative of the upper socioeconomic strata than of the general population. Thus, there is class bias in voter turnout. In a true non-partisan election, there are no organizations of local party workers to bring working class and poorer citizens to the polls on Election Day. Studies also show that where parties are not strong, interest groups are quite active.
I would suggest that partisan elections for municipal offices would enhance democracy with greater turnout and heightened political interest, and a greater focus on different policy proposals. There really may be a better way to fix a pothole.