Last week, Jodie Barram waltzed through the primary as the Democratic nominee for Deschutes County Commissioner Position One with 98 percent of the vote, while her Republican counterpart, Tony DeBone, raked in 81 percent of the vote for his party's nomination—numbers usually reserved for the Prime Minister of North Korea or Vladimir Putin.
Which isn't to say that we are not excited about either of those candidate's victories—we endorsed each of them—but it is to say is that the results expose a flaw in the local and regional elections; that is, we should be electing candidates, not party affiliations. Yet increasingly politics in America are becoming more embedded in party politics, from the gridlock at the federal level to the simplifying of local and county-level elections to R versus D.
This isn't necessary. Quite simply, the insistence that County Commissioners, and other local candidates run on a party ticket imports unnecessary baggage from assumptions about the political parties, and clutters the most direct vantage point on the candidates.
We'd like to modestly propose the idea of nonpartisan elections for local and county elections. This is hardly a radical idea. Three out of four major U.S. cities run their mayoral races in this manner, and the results from a survey by the National League of Cities about the effects of this voting mechanism are very telling; perhaps most interesting is that candidates elected in nonpartisan voting tend to cooperate more and better with other elected officials. Moreover, those not familiar with the candidates in nonpartisan races simply did not vote on those candidates, while those not familiar with candidates in partisan races simply vote with the political party they most favored. Such information-blind voting does not elect the best candidate, but just entrenches party politics in a region.
For the County Commissioner race, for example, these are not jobs that should be linked to political parties, and the traditional differences that those represent. By and large, county commissioners are called on to orchestrate administrative and business decisions, like land use and transportation matters, not social issues. These decisions should not be aligned between Republican and Democrat differences, but should be based on the sound business sense that a candidate like Barram can bring to the County. Yet Barram, for example, is essentially forced to run on a ticket that places her as a Democrat, and where voters unfairly could import their feelings about Obama. We are not the first to coin the adage that "there is not a Republican or Democratic way to fill a pot-hole."
In his wonderfully insightful book, What's the Matter With Kansas, Frank Rich explained how constituents in the midwestern farming state of Kansas have voted for increasingly conservative candidates, politicians who actually tend to carry legislation against the economic interests of small-family farmers in favor of large corporate interests, which have created high unemployment rates in the state. The reason for the paradox is that those very candidates, however, represent many Kansas voters' moral values, like anti-abortion—and the candidates run on that Republican moral platform to attract Republican voters instead of attracting voters by doing what is right for their constituents. It is an important cautionary tale.
In last week's election, though, there was one fine example about how well nonpartisan campaigns can function. The District Attorney race between Patrick Flaherty and John Hummel was a nonpartisan race and, as such, the race focused on the dramatic differences between the two men's philosophies about the function of the office and their personalities.
We agree that ultimately, elections should not be about parties, but about ideas and policies—and the DA's race seems to prove that removing party politics from the campaign allowed voters to select the candidate best suited for the job.