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Our Views: Skipping the party

Idea to make local elections nonpartisan may have merit, worth further study

POSTED: December 18, 2011 1:00 a.m.

As we brush the dust off one election and prepare to dive into the next, one Georgia lawmaker has a plan worth considering to streamline our election process.

State Rep. Allen Peake of Macon is proposing legislation that would allow local governments to make countywide offices around Georgia nonpartisan in elections. This would include commissioners, sheriff, district attorney, solicitor-general, superior court clerk, tax commissioner, coroner and surveyor. Doing so would be an option, not a mandate. The plan has earned the endorsement of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, a group that advises local governments.

With this bill, Peake seems to be asking what many of us have wondered: Why do local offices need to be branded with the same political parties that hold sway in Washington and Atlanta? Governing at the local level is a whole different ballgame. City offices in Gainesville already are nonpartisan, so putting county leaders in line with that notion makes sense.

Those who follow politics know what it means to be a Republican or a Democrat in the state and U.S. capitols. For the most part, Democrats tend to favor more expansive use of government to solve problems while Republicans favor private sector solutions. Candidates more moderate in their policies tend to choose the party that gives them the best chance to win. Many, in fact, have changed parties — including Nathan Deal, Sonny Perdue, Carl Rogers and Ashley Bell — either because the parties changed or they decided to ride the current voting wave in their districts.

Yet those labels don't always fit issues that arise at the local level. Are funding of parks and libraries considered liberal or conservative? How about public safety? Code enforcement? Annexation? Trash pickup? Is sending out two tax bills instead of one each year a Ronald Reagan-esque concept or more Bill Clinton-like?

Most of the decisions made by county and city leaders don't fit the "big spender, small spender" model. By declaring themselves Democrats or Republicans, all local candidates tell us is who they favor in state and national elections. That might give voters some idea of what they believe, but it doesn't apply to the specific tasks they must perform once in office.

Should voters choose a candidate they agree with on national issues even if that person is less qualified for the office sought? Doing so does not seem the best way to hire the most competent officials.

An example: For much the year, there were two separate factions on the Hall County Board of Commissioners, at odds over staffing, budget priorities and taxes. Yet all five members are Republicans. Does that make one faction "RINOs" (Republican In Name Only) and the rest die-hard right-wingers? When issues do not fit the usual political labels, party affiliation is meaningless, especially when everyone has the same letter beside their names.

Same goes with other elected offices. Why, for instance, does the sheriff have to declare a political party? We elect a sheriff to enforce the law and manage the county jail. What possible effect can party affiliation have on that specific task?

The same is true for positions in the justice system, including district attorney, solicitor and court clerk. Their jobs are to manage the courts, try cases and prosecute accused lawbreakers. None of that has anything to do with the elephant or the donkey. Other judicial offices in the state are nonpartisan, so why not these?

Even more ridiculous is to force the county coroner to declare a party. Is there a Republican or Democratic method for determining cause of death? If so, we'd love to hear it.

As it is now, the primary system gives local party leaders power to choose or reject candidates based on litmus tests and other criteria. Is it right for those relatively few people to have so much influence? Candidates should seek and earn office based on their own abilities, not just on who they know and how much backing they have from the local establishment.

Perhaps this is why party leaders aren't thrilled with the idea of nonpartisan elections. One Hall GOP leader said, "We need to know who is conservative and who is not." One would think a candidate's stated ideas on the issues would get that notion across just fine without the party's blessing.

Removing local races from the state primary, which is held merely to select party nominees, would allow voters to select candidates of their choice in a wider slate of races. Many races now are decided in the primaries, particularly where one party produces most of the candidates. By November, most of those contests are settled, leaving voters who don't vote along party lines with fewer choices on Election Day.

Peake's plan could conceivably eliminate unneeded trips to the polls. Last year's special elections and runoffs opened the polls in Hall County six times, expensive for local government and inconvenient for voters. Making local elections nonpartisan would send those races straight to the November ballot and bypass the primary. In areas where local elections are held in off years without state or national races, voters could skip that round altogether.

There may well be downsides to such a move, so it needs to be studied further. If other special interests replace the parties in selecting and vetting candidates, nothing will be gained. In an ideal world, candidates should run on their own merits and qualifications for office, fueled by their own ideas, in a transparent process that allows voters to make informed choices.

Nonpartisan races are worth considering once the positive and negative effects are fully weighed. Any system that can save voters some aggravation and taxpayers some expenses is an idea we can support.



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