Paul Helmke, former Fort Wayne mayor, past president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and currently a professor with the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs, tweeted this recently: “I have long argued that we should move to nonpartisan elections — no party label on ballot. Many mayors (outside of IN) are elected this way.”
To which Dan Canon replied: “Yeah, some judicial races are like that, too. Problem is that people just vote for whoever is at the top of the ticket.”
To which Helmke replied: “With no party label, there is no 'ticket' — voters may skip races lower on ballot but that may be better than voting just because of 'party.'”
It was an interesting exchange, which could spur needed debate about the current state of our politics.
Would it indeed be better for our democracy if voters who vote “only for the party” just skipped those races?
Our Founders, who eyed the idea of political parties with suspicion, might have said so. “However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends,” George Washington said, “they are likely in the course of time and things ... by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
But the clash of ideas quickly coalesced into two opposing visions right from the start, and we've had political parties ever since. Even if we thought it wise to discard them now, could we?
Helmke is right that sometimes nonpartisanship makes more sense, especially at the local level. As has often been said, there is no Republican way or Democratic way to fill a pothole. A lot of local elections (including many school board races in this area) and at least a couple of state legislatures have gone the nonpartisan route.
But even without the party labels, we suspect opposing factions would form and make themselves known. There are conservative and liberal ways to spend money, even on such things as potholes, and voters would soon discover who was on which side. And when it comes to national politics, what would fill the void if parties went away? For all their faults, parties give a voice to voters who might otherwise go unheard without a filter to process their complaints. Let's not be too eager to jettison something we might find irreplaceable.