Last week, a good friend of mine told me that he recently became a registered Republican. Not long ago, this same friend was a registered Democrat, and enthusiastically supported Amy Klobuchar for President in the Democratic Caucuses. He has long admired Harry Reid, has had no use for the Tea Party, and voted for Joe Biden without hesitation because he believes Donald Trump was – and continues to be – a threat to American society. His media diet is primarily made up of Bill Maher and Rachel Maddow. None of those views have changed. In his heart, he still holds mainstream, moderately liberal views on most issues.
As such, I was surprised to hear him change his political affiliation. If his views had not fundamentally changed, why would he want to switch sides? Especially after voting for Joe Biden, no less.
It is very simple, he told me, his own political aspirations, and the reality of modern politics. He wants to be elected to local office. None of his views on local issues are controversial, and most are shared by the voters in his county.
In his mind, all his political appeal will be overlooked by voters if he runs as a Democrat. The county he lives in gave Donald Trump 69% of the vote in the last election. In the 2018 midterms, the Democrats didn’t run a single candidate for office in his county and no statewide Democrat received more than 31% of the vote for any other office – even as Democrats swept all but one statewide office and unseated an incumbent United States Senator.
His rural county isn’t alone. In my state of Nevada, there are exactly five registered Democrats who hold elected office in any of its 14 rural, largely-Republicans counties.
I understand where my friend is coming from. Personally, I have worked in politics most more of my life – first as a political operative in campaigns across the country, and more recently as an unsuccessful candidate for local office. There is no shame in wanting your platform to be heard and not outright discounted due to some arbitrary label like “Democrat” or “Republican.” Still, I feel upset that this is his reality. In my mind, there’s no good reason for local offices to be partisan. There should be no “Republican” or “Democratic” way to be a County Clerk, a County Recorder, a County Assessor, or a District Attorney. None of these positions sets policy, other than a District Attorney’s decision on whether to prosecute or not prosecute certain kinds of crimes.
Even then, partisanship is a poor proxy. I have known both Democrats and Republicans who are tough, fearless prosecutors. Conversely, I have also known people from both sides who are weak and malleable and who refuse to prosecute anything but the most clear-cut, egregious violations of the law. In rural counties in my state, for example, I have seen fearless, experienced Democratic candidates lose to weaker Republicans because of stereotypes and clichéd talking points. I am sure the same can be said for some Republican candidates in Democratic strongholds.
There might be a “Republican” or “Democratic” way to be a County Commissioner, but most local issues are so granular that they have little relation to policy issues at the national level. A local official’s choice to approve a new subdivision, increase the county road tax, or manage the county budget has no relationship with any party platform on the national level.
In many respects, we saw this reality play out during the 2020 Presidential Election. In the aftermath of the election, the Trump campaign and the conservative media establishments set their sights on local election officials in swing states. In Pennsylvania, Al Schmidt, a Republican City Commissioner, became a vocal defender of the integrity of the election process in Philadelphia. The same could be said for Gabriel Sterling, an election official in Georgia. There are many more stories like this across the country – local officials who are branded as partisans for simply doing their jobs.
Traditional political wisdom says that voters tend to look for “someone like me” and vote accordingly. Today, the level of political self-sorting has increased to the point that political affiliations are valued more by voters than experience.
Throughout my career, I have witnessed instances where the Deputy County Clerk or Treasurer, who has faithfully served their office for years, has sought a promotion but lost to an outsider who knew nothing about the position because the outsider was a member of the “right” political party and the Deputy was a member of the “wrong” one.
The bottom line is that under the current system, good people who would make great public servants cannot get elected because of the letter after their names.
The good news is that there are ways to fix this reality. Firstly, people should not be expected to announce their political preferences when they register to vote. While the issue of “closed” versus “open” primaries deserves more attention than this essay can give it, if people could simply register to vote without stating their political affiliation, they would not be disqualified from serving in a local office where national affiliations have little relevance. This is important in this context because voter registration information is public – and you can be sure that both parties will do their best to ensure that “their own” are elected, even for non-partisan offices.
Second, local “minor” offices should be non-partisan. Whether you support Joe Biden or Donald Trump has nothing to do with whether you can (or should) be the County Assessor or Clerk or whether you have the knowledge and skillset to do those jobs. What should matter are your own platform, knowledge, and experience.
So, what are the arguments against my proposal? I can think of two; neither are persuasive.
The first argument is that minor offices serve as the “farm team.” Political parties want their officeholders to “work their way up” and a minor office might be a form of patronage. Joe Biden started as a member of the New Castle County Council. Mitch McConnell won his first election as Jefferson County Judge/Executive. Retiring Missouri Senator Roy Blunt was the Greene County Clerk early in his career. However, our current system is “self-selecting” in that most choose their office and party rather than the party choosing them. Many ambitious politicians start at the bottom hoping to work their way to the top.
Non-partisan local elections wouldn’t change this. Nothing would prevent ambitious non-partisan office holders from being politically active in the party of their choice and looking for higher offices to open either through vacancy or a weak incumbent. Nothing would prevent them from using a local political party for the resources necessary to campaign for office. However, I personally believe that an exception should be made for judges and other judicial positions, who have an ethical duty to refrain from partisan politics.
Another argument against non-partisan local elections is that the parties should have a say for minor offices just as they do for major ones. However, many minor offices are already non-partisan in most states, including school boards and city councils. Additionally, nothing in my proposal prevents political parties from vetting and endorsing candidates if they choose to do so, even for non-partisan offices.
We should want the best possible officeholders at all levels, regardless of their political affiliations. We shouldn’t have obstacles that prevent highly qualified candidates from winning elections they otherwise should win. Likewise, we shouldn’t have a system that causes people, like my friend, to publicly claim a political affiliation with a party repugnant to their political philosophy and values.