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Should all N.C. elections be partisan?
As more municipal races change status, it's worth a serious discussion
North Carolina’s standard political conversations are all about the power struggles between Republicans and Democrats. But the majority of our state’s elections aren’t partisan at all. Municipal races — those bottom-of-the-ballot contests that elect your town council, mayor and school board — are largely nonpartisan across the state.
This is slowly changing, and it’s worth a closer look. Over time, more and more municipal races are adding party labels. Again this year, legislators have filed a slate of local bills to change another handful of school board and town council races into partisan ones.
Typically, these decisions are viewed through a partisan lens: How will these changes affect who's more likely to win? While this concern is valid, there’s also a strong argument to be made that partisan elections benefit voters.
The arguments typically come down like this. Defenders of nonpartisan elections typically say that they help take political squabbling out of civic positions. People who prefer partisan elections argue that they give voters more information and clearer choices in what are typically low-budget races.
Both sides have merit. But can North Carolina actually have this conversation in good faith?
How we got here
Nonpartisan races first became commonplace in North Carolina during the "Progressive Era" — the first three decades of the 20th century — as governments at all levels sought political reforms based on scientific inquiry and business efficiency. Think management consulting as it first emerged. Making local elections nonpartisan was viewed as a "best practice" that would take politics out of places where it didn't need to be.
Of course, partisanship wasn't much of a concern in North Carolina in those days. We were a one-party state dominated by Democrats, though there were certainly varying factions within that label.
Under state law, local governments — from town councils and mayorships to school boards — were given the ability to choose whether they'd like to be elected in partisan or nonpartisan elections. Most chose the latter, and today, North Carolina has a vast patchwork of election laws governing the hundreds of municipalities across the state.
Some 75% of town councils in North Carolina are currently chosen in a nonpartisan election, according to academic research. The majority of school board races are nonpartisan, as well — though this is changing. Two decades ago, only 14 school boards featured partisan elections. Today, the number is closer to 40.
However, there are significant exceptions. Sheriff races have long been overwhelmingly partisan. Judicial races have gone back and forth. All of our state’s county commissions are elected on a partisan basis. And many of our state's biggest cities use partisan methods to elect their governing bodies. For example, the Charlotte City Council features a partisan election.
While the General Assembly has largely allowed local governments to decide these matters for themselves, the legislature still has supreme authority over all municipalities.
So the General Assembly has tweaked these laws over the years. Most notably, the legislature changed most judicial races partisan in 2016 in the waning days of the McCrory administration and in 2017, over the veto of Gov. Roy Cooper.
The General Assembly has also filed and passed a handful of "local bills" to change the method of election on behalf of a local government or school board. Sometimes these bills are run with the elected officials' approval, sometimes not. Several have been filed this session.
Also this year, Rep. Erin Pare of suburban Wake County filed a bill that would change the Wake County commission from partisan to nonpartisan, and divide the county into electoral districts instead of having all commissioners elected countywide. The North Carolina Democratic Party called it an “extreme NC GOP partisan tactic to suppress votes.”
A later compromise would keep the elections partisan, but preserve the new districts. The Charlotte City Council has also recently discussed whether it makes sense to move to a nonpartisan election format, though it hasn't gotten much support.
Next, we'll go deeper into the advantages each side brings.
Advantages of partisan elections
More data for low-information races. When you're voting on a District Court judge or school board seat, there's a decent chance you know next to nothing about the candidates on the ballot. Perhaps they've had the money to send you a mailer or two, or you may have come across a Facebook ad. But perhaps not. Party labels can be useful in this case to give you a frame of reference for how a candidate views the political landscape.
Clearer choices. Similarly, a party label can help give you a quick read on how they'll view the job and present a more clear choice. In a judge race, a Republican candidate is more likely to favor a strict constitutionalist approach to the bench. For school board, a Democrat is more likely to advocate for additional funding and prioritize traditional public schools over charter schools.
Parties have good candidate vetting processes. Nonpartisan primaries can get weird. But both Republicans and Democrats have long-standing traditions of vetting candidates for office. A GOP candidate will make the circuit at local Republican women's club meetings, for example. This process doesn't always work, but it can often efficiently weed out non-serious candidates and give an edge to people who represent their party's views.
Easier to raise money. Parties may also have built up fundraising operations that support their candidates once they've made it through the primary. Candidates can more easily tap into these operations in partisan races.
Less expensive. When you're running without a party label, it costs more to get your name recognition up and message out. You're starting with zero frame of reference for potential voters, and you'll need to spend a lot more money to educate the electorate.
Increases voter turnout. Parties are also generally good at get-out-the-vote efforts, and these are more effective in partisan races. Higher voter turnout should generally be considered a good thing.
Makes incumbency less powerful. Research has shown that incumbents are more likely to be re-elected in nonpartisan races. This makes sense — in an extremely low-information race, the only thing you may know about the two candidates is that one has already been doing the job. All else being equal, voters will prefer the status quo.
Filling vacancies is cleaner. In many partisan positions, the law stipulates that vacancies be filled by a new member of the same party registration. In nonpartisan bodies, the local government itself generally gets to pick anybody to fill a vacancy, leading to imbalances that disadvantage the will of the people.
Most voters are partisan. While unaffiliated voters are a large and fast-growing group, most of these people have strong preferences for one party or the other.
Advantages of nonpartisan elections
Partisan primaries can push more ideological candidates. You likely already know this story. To win a primary, candidates often have to stake out positions farther to the left or right. This means general elections can be dominated by more ideological candidates, when a general electorate may prefer more moderate options. This doesn’t always happen — primaries picking the more “electable” candidate is a thing — it is certainly a risk.
Easier for unaffiliated candidates. In partisan contests, there’s no easy way to the ballot for an unaffiliated candidate. They generally need to amass a long list of signatures, an extra hurdle that a party member does not need to overcome. This is not an issue in nonpartisan contests, where unaffiliated voters have the same path to the ballot as anyone else.
Harder for one party to dominate. North Carolina’s largest cities are dominated by Democrats. In a nonpartisan election, a Republican may have an easier time breaking through and getting elected without the “R” next to his or her name on the ballot. This one is more theory than reality — liberal candidates still tend to dominate nonpartisan races in heavily blue areas.
Politics can overshadow good governance. In partisan elections, it’s a lot easier for national politics to be inserted in municipal elections where national issues largely do not apply. You see this, for example, in Charlotte City Council races, where candidates like Democrat Dimple Ajmera insert Donald Trump into local government discussions. "There's not a Republican or a Democrat way to fill a pothole," as the old adage goes.
What comes next
On balance, it seems to me like partisan elections are generally more useful, though this is not a strongly held belief. People can and should continue to have a good-faith argument about the issue.
Nonpartisan elections can certainly feel virtuous, putting ideas over party labels. But when you're choosing between two candidates you know little about, party identification can provide an instant window into their outlook on governance. Overall, it leads to smarter decisions.
In some areas, this advantages Republicans. In others, it advantages Democrats. But in all parts of North Carolina, it seems to advantage voters.
I support General Assembly members who file local bills to change municipal contests in their areas from nonpartisan to partisan. But I believe it’s worth having a real conversation about changing local government election law across the board.
Former Sen. Ron Rabin (R-Harnett) filed a bill in 2017 that would make essentially all of North Carolina's political races partisan. It never got even a committee hearing. The issue came up again in 2019, but suffered the same fate.
This session, let’s have a committee hearing on the issue and see what happens.
5 things of note
Cooper allows anti-rioting, hotel eviction bills to become law without veto
What's happening: Two years after vetoing bills that would crack down on violent riots and make it easier for hotels to evict guests for nonpayment, Gov. Roy Cooper will now allow similar bills to become law. Cooper said Friday that he would not veto House Bill 40, legislation spearheaded by House Speaker Tim Moore that increases the legal penalties for engaging in riots that injure people or cause significant property damage. Nor will he veto Senate Bill 53, which specifies that hotel guests aren’t entitled to tenant protections until they’ve lived there for 90 days. Both passed with bipartisan majorities in the General Assembly.
Why it matters: These decisions are the first signs of Cooper’s slipping hold on power. Over the past two-plus years, Cooper had vetoed nearly four dozen bills and managed to sustain every single one of them. The power imbalance reached the point where the General Assembly largely stopped trying to pass legislation the governor opposed.
But in this new legislative session, Republicans gained seats in both chambers of the General Assembly, earning a supermajority in the Senate and coming within a single vote in the House.
The decision to allow these bills to become law without his signature is a reflection that Republicans may have the “working supermajority” they’ve foreshadowed, at least on some issues.
What comes next: These bills are relatively noncontroversial and don’t strike to Cooper’s core issues. The first real test of Cooper’s veto power will likely come through Senate Bill 41, a significant gun-rights bill ratified this week with another bipartisan majority. Most notably, the bill repeals North Carolina’s archaic county-level pistol purchase permit system and allows churchgoers to carry on Sundays when their services are held in school buildings. It’s much more likely that Cooper will test his veto power with this one.
The bill was sent to the governor’s desk on March 16, so he has until March 26 (Sunday) to make a decision.
Robinson, Stein still within margin of error in new poll
What's happening: A poll released Monday by left-leaning Carolina Forward shows Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson with a narrow advantage (44-42) over Attorney General Josh Stein in a presumptive matchup in the North Carolina governor's race.
Interestingly, Robinson does better among Democrats (7%) than Stein does among Republicans (4%).
Why it matters: Peeling off rural Democrats and African-American voters will be key to Robinson's path to victory. Carolina Forward does not break down results by race, but the party splits give a potential insight into the state of things here.
Of course, a lot can happen between now and November 2024. The polling is fairly similar to the matchup between then-LG Dan Forest and Gov. Roy Cooper. Then COVID happened, and the entire political landscape was upended.
What comes next: For now, the key impact polling has is on fundraising. Both Robinson and Stein can use the results to push for more and higher-dollar donations early in the campaign.
Executive order de-emphasizes college degree requirements in state jobs
What's happening: Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order on Monday directing state agencies to include language in job postings that says experience can be a substitute for a degree.
Why this matters: There's a growing movement across the country - led by both Republicans and Democrats - for state jobs to drop or de-emphasize college degrees in hiring, especially when they're not particularly vital. Cooper is the latest to follow suit.
This is an excellent step forward for North Carolina. For too long, workplaces have overemphasized four-year university degrees, using them as a blunt sorting mechanism that overlooks equally talented people who can do these jobs.
What comes next: North Carolina still needs to invest more in non-traditional education outside of the four-year university degree, including apprenticeships and more credentials-based training. Thankfully, most Republican executive branch candidates have identified this as a key focus area.
Rep. Jeff Jackson emerges as one of Congress's top communicators
What's happening: Freshman U.S. Rep. Jeff Jackson (D-Mecklenburg) is quickly gaining a national profile for his method of communicating with constituents. You may recall him bursting on the national scene as a state senator in 2015 with a series of Facebook posts on a snow day at the General Assembly.
That conversational, social-media-driven style remains, but the strategy has gotten more professionalized and much more serious. And much more visible: The Daily Beast reports that each of his latest TikTok videos has racked up more than 1 million views. One key example: In a video posted to his social media accounts Monday, Jackson walks his constituents through the federal government's response to the Silicon Valley Bank collapse in a calm, methodical way.
Why this matters: You may not agree with Jackson's politics, but you have to respect the strategy. A lot of politicians view social media fame as a fad or sideshow. But Jackson treats it as a key part of his job, simply part of communicating with the public. In a podcast interview with Tim Boyum, Jackson briefly describes the methodological approach he takes to these platforms. Just like a media publication, he has set a schedule and plans out posts in advance, taking time to write and revise scripts for maximum effectiveness.
What comes next: Republicans have yet to find someone who can tell the GOP story in a positive, level-headed manner - and it's to their detriment. Jackson may not be a congressman for long, but he's spent the last decade shaping how younger people view politics. In the podcast, Jackson said he hears from social studies teachers around the state who use his videos in their classrooms. Fixing this communication gap should be a key priority at the state party level.
Charlotte rep running for state treasurer
What's happening: N.C. Rep. Wesley Harris, a Charlotte Democrat, has announced a bid for state treasurer in 2024.
Why it matters: Harris flipped a suburban Mecklenburg County seat blue in 2018 and has held on to it since then, so he has a good bit of credibility. His announcement also shows the strategy liberal politicians in his lane could take in 2024. In his intro video, Harris touts himself as the only Ph.D. economist in the General Assembly and casts himself as a "nerd" who will use "government as a force for good" in North Carolina. However, he steers clear of any issues actually pertinent to the role of state treasurer -- things like state employee healthcare, investments or the pension fund.
What comes next: Harris is clearly going to try to take the generic, pro-business Democrat lane in this race, a slot that's not super likely to get him through a primary and certainly won't give him an advantage in the general election.
1 good idea from another state
Arkansas bill would allow families to claim unborn children as dependents on tax returns
A bill filed in the Arkansas state senate would give stronger legal status to unborn children, allowing their parents to claim them as a dependent on state income taxes. Parents would need to document the pregnancy using medical records. This bill reflects a pro-life philosophy. States should consider updating child support requirements, as well.
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